Omoide Yokocho
Photo: Watcharapong Thawornwichian/DreamstimeAn undated stock photo of Omoide Yokocho in Shinjuku

Where to eat at Omoide Yokocho in Shinjuku

A historic alleyway, Omoide Yokocho is a foodie destination with old-world charm, serving up sushi, ramen, yakitori and more

Emma Steen
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Emma Steen
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The beauty of Omoide Yokocho, a cluster of tight alleyways in Shinjuku brightly lit with paper lanterns and crammed with small eateries, lies in the unglamorous nature of its dripping pipes, smokey air and remnants of bygone days.

This immensely photogenic yokocho, often referred to as ‘Memory Lane’ – the word ‘omoide’ loosely translates to ‘nostalgia’– dates back to the post-war period when many of these shops made money as entertainment bars or by selling black market goods at a time when commodities were heavily controlled by the government. Yakitori and motsu (innards) shops were common because animal entrails were among the produce that were unregulated by the authorities.

While you’ll no longer come across any cabarets in these parts, you can still pull up a stool to a counter and savour the same popular delicacies that generations have enjoyed over good conversation and plenty of booze. 

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One thing and one thing only goes on the grill at Kabuto, and while freshwater eel might not appeal to less adventurous eaters, it’s impossible not to be intrigued by what this no-frills street stall has to offer when you see salarymen hunched over the counter with their small blue plates of unagi on skewers. You can order skewers consisting of your chosen eel part, or go straight for theset which will give you a taste of just about every part of eel anatomy, head, bones and all. You can order beer to accompany your snack, or get a glass of nihonshu (Japanese sake) and sweeten it to your liking with the flask of plum syrup on the counter. 

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It’s hard for first-timers to the yokocho to distinguish Tachan from its busy neighbours. With its charcoal grill and homely décor, Tachan blends in with theother skewer spots on the street, but the food it serves puts it head and shoulders above the rest. A sister shop of Sushitatsu (see above right), Tachan specialises in seafood dishes such as marinated tuna as well as grilled vegetables and skewered meat that are barbecued over charcoal.

An abundance of fresh produce, including locally sourced vegetables and the catch of the day, is displayed at the countertop. In summer, ceramic bowls are filled with fat clams and deliciously crisp sweet corn boasting the best flavours of the season. The signature tsukune, chicken meatballs with minced nira onion served with an egg yolk in a sweet-savoury sauce, is without question the best in Tokyo. As an izakaya, Tachan charges an otoshi (table charge; ¥300) which includes a complimentary appetiser. 

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With its spacious and polished interior, Yasubee’s main store by the train tracks on the outer side of the yokocho doesn’t seem as though its been there for long, but the restaurant has been running in Omoide Yokocho since 1951. Apart from providing the most elbow room in the vicinity, Yasubee’s list of nihonshu is the most extensive on the scene, making it a heavy hitter when it comes to the art of pairing food with sake. Here, you’ll find rice wine from sake breweries all over Japan, each with unique aromas and flavour profiles. 

Just like the sake list, the food menu offers a variety of dishes for every kind of palate. You’ll see standard izakaya items like delicate saikyo yaki (grilled white fish marinated in miso) as well as more unusual offerings such as skin of fugu (pufferfish), seasoned with citrus vinegar and topped with spring onions. An old-time favourite is the motsu nikomi, a collagen-packed stew of beef shank, tendon and tripe. The broth has been boiled for hours, drawing out the fat from the meat, and its richness goes brilliantly with a glass of bright rice wine. 

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The only sushi restaurant in Omoide Yokocho, Sushitatsu is one of the longest standing businesses in the area and the place is as old-school as they come.Every customer that comes through the sliding wooden frame of the entrance already seems to know someone sitting at the counter, exchanging boisterous remarks as they edge their way to an open seat. There are no menus here, just a line of wooden planks behind the counter listing the available fish for the day in kanji and two omakase options.

Owner and sushi master Kenji Murakami, who has had the business for 70 years, still watches over the shop every day in chef whites, sitting and chatting with regulars as his seasoned mentee forms stunning pieces of Edo-style nigiri, brushing them lightly with sauce before serving them. While there’s a rustic charm to the uninhibited way in which regulars casually interact, pouring beers and flicking cigarettes whilst reminiscing the past, Sushitatsu upholds all the traditional elements of an authentic sushi restaurant. Those planning to hop to adjacent establishments for more food might opt for sashimi, but you’ll do well to order the sushi course, which includes dashimaki tamago (omelette), fragrant clam miso soup and maki rolls wrapped with minced fatty tuna, fresh shiso and pickled daikon.

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The Japanese kissaten is an interesting mixof east and west, where quaint European-style tea cups are warped with the traditional coffeehouse’s vintage Showa-era (1926-1989) interior. While some kissaten can seem worn down and outdated, Tajimaya stands out with its impeccable attention to detail and a dedication to providing the most genuine experience. 

 Six times a week, the staff sift through green coffee beans by hand, throwing out any that may compromise the flavour of the brew before the beans are roasted in-house. There’s a wide range of beans from different countries to choose from, and once you’ve made your choice, your coffee is hand-dripped through a cloth filter and served in a cup that is deemed best suited to your style. The menu also includes a selection of cakes and sandwiches to pair with your coffee, or opt to indulge in nostalgic kissaten favourites like coffee jelly with heavy cream or buttered toast with sweet azuki (red bean) paste.

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To close a long night of drinking with a quick bowl of ramen is almost a ritual and Gifuya never fails to deliver when it comes to providing fast and cheap sustenance for those looking to fill their stomachs before making the last train. While it may not be one of those famed joints that people are willing to queue for hours to eat at, the portions are generous and the carb-heavy menu draws in a large number of people every night who wish to replenish themselves with an honest bowl of noodles in solitude. Beyond ramen, you can also chow down on pan-fried gyoza or a vegetable stir-fry for some budget-friendly nourishment. 

Nighttime in Tokyo

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