TOKYO—The sounds of sizzling pans and boisterous conversation fill the air, as puffs of cigarette smoke and the aroma of grilled meats waft between the dinner tables. Here, in the yokocho, is where Tokyoites come to let loose.
“People say, ‘Let’s go grab a drink and go to the yokocho,'” said Kennosuke Hachijo, owner of Darumatengu, a restaurant specializing in grilled meats.
Located in the trendy neighborhood of Ebisu, Darumatengu is to be found in one of the city’s many yokocho—alleyways with small eateries nestled against each other, providing comfort food and booze until the wee hours of the morning. They can be open-air or enclosed. And unlike many sit-down restaurants in Tokyo, where eating is a reverent act preferably done in silence, the atmosphere in yokocho is energetic, with a cacophonous buzz that mimics the city’s vibrancy.
At Darumatengu, Hachijo invited a group of his friends who had studied in the United States so they could also help translate our conversation. We talked their time in America, their dining out habits here in Tokyo, and the personalities of the city’s neighborhoods. It turns out that in a city with around 88,000 restaurants, Tokyoites rely on Tablelog, the Japanese equivalent of Yelp, for recommendations.
Hachijo told me the yokocho first arose after World War II, when small shops were set up in the alleys of Tokyo to sell black market goods. As time passed, the need for those shops diminished and they closed down. But locals wanted to keep the yokocho alive and started to open restaurants.
The signature dish at Hachijo’s restaurant is essentially a sizzling hot pot—called nabe in Japanese—filled with meat, offal, tofu, and vegetables seasoned with sake, sugar, soy sauce, mirin, garlic, red pepper, and black pepper. The marinated meat juices flow forth and seep into everything, creating a glorious heap of satisfying flavors.
Each yokocho is known to draw a different crowd. My new friends tell me the Omoide Yokocho in Shinjuku is frequented by more elderly patrons. When you walk into the yokocho, hidden among multistory buildings a few steps away from Shinjuku Station, the smoke hits you first. Every other vendor is peddling yakitori, or chicken skewers, sending the smell of charcoal into the air. Take a seat at one of the small counters, and you’ll get the chance to choose from chicken meatballs to more adventurous parts like chicken heart. Sitting in such tight confines encourages conversation with the diners next to you, so chances are you’ll meet a fellow traveler.
For seafood, the famed Tsukiji Market offers plenty of options in the shops located in the outer market, from sushi to unagi (eel) skewers to boiled crab meat, but most of the shops close in the early afternoon. For a dinner of homey dishes prepared with seafood fresh from the market, head to the nearby area of Shimbashi.
Andy’s Izakaya, one of many restaurants underneath the Shimbashi Station train tracks, serves a huge, meaty slab of grilled marlin lightly seasoned with a mayo sauce on the side. Meanwhile, asari clams are steamed in a sake-based broth, a technique called sakamushi, making a soup that is clean and full of warmth.
In the West, we’ve begun to catch on to the joys of eating fresh ramen, but in Tokyo, where the noodle dish has been beloved for decades, chefs innovate and perfect all aspects of the dish.
Tsuta, which became the world’s first Michelin-starred ramen shop in 2015, makes its noodles from scratch out of three kinds of flour. Its soy sauce-based broth features a blend from three regions in Japan, while the eggs come from a special chicken breed raised in Okinawa.
The intense care shown in selecting the ingredients results in flavors that are subtle yet powerful. The savory broth is not intensely salty like most ramen you’d find in America; it’s so smooth it goes down like water, with an umami tang both addictive and soothing. Its signature black truffle bowl gets added depth from a dollop of truffles puréed in truffle oil. Such cooking mastery is well worth the wait to get a seat at the small counter. (Arrive early to score a ticket, which will assign you a designated time slot to return.)
The variety of ramen available is exhilarating for any ramen aficionado. The neighborhood of Ikebukuro is home to many popular ramen shops, including Kikanbo, serving dangerously spicy, creamy miso broth ramen. You can choose your level of spiciness and your source of pain: sansho peppercorn or chili pepper, the former imparting an extra numbing sensation and herbaceous flavor. But even a mild level will leave you with a runny nose. Between the sounds of chilies getting seared in a wok and a soundtrack of continuous taiko drumming over the speakers, the restaurant’s rhythm prods you to keep slurping despite the heat.
Seafood shines in the shio (salt base) ramen at Hirugao, located at Ramen Street inside Tokyo Station, a corridor with eight different ramen shops next to each other. Hirugao’s seafood tsukemen features a clear broth made with dried sardines and scallops, savory and zesty, with chewy, bite-sized fresh scallops inside. It’s stunning how the ocean brine associated with seafood completely disappears. Because tsukemen is served with the noodles and broth in separate bowls, the broth, used for dipping, is usually rich and dense. This one is refreshingly light.
Department Store Food Hunting
During the day, you can explore more hidden eats at department stores. While they may not usually come to mind when you think places to find good food, department stores in Japan feature food halls on the basement floor—called depachika—that are wonderlands of culinary discovery. You can find everything from those famously expensive, perfectly bred melons and grapes the size of ping pong balls, to endless heaps of prepared food, like salads, Japanese-Chinese buns, Italian pastas—you name it.
The Isetan department store in Shinjuku is the most luxurious of them all, with elegant displays devoted to such disparate items as nori (dried seaweed) in different flavors, pickled vegetables sitting in their fermenting brine, exquisite cakes and pastries by big-name chefs like Pierre Hermé, and candy made in the shape of lip balm.
If you have a sweet tooth, Shinjuku is also home to Takashimaya, where a colorful array of traditional and newfangled sweets awaits. At one counter, you can find a chef making fresh wagashi, traditional treats made with sugar, beans, fruit, and mochi, by hand. Elsewhere, honey-flavored sweets and cooling jelly desserts are enticing. Kit Kat, known to produce a variety of unique flavors for the Japanese market, has a spot here, too.
Tobu in Ikebukuro is Japan’s largest department store. Its food hall features popular shops from around the country, such as one specializing in pork cutlet sandwiches and another versed in deep-frying croquettes stuffed with meat. The seafood section is a sight to behold too: sliced-up pieces of fugu, just-in-season sanma (mackerel pike), and giant octopus tentacles abound. For good measure, check out the Seibu department store on the opposite side, too.
Inevitably, you won’t be able to eat all of the things you fancy. But that just means you’ll have to plan for your next trip.
For more information, visit GoTokyo.org
For the ultimate deal on seafood, head to Nakajima in Shinjuku, where the Michelin-starred restaurant serves a lunch set for 800 to 900 yen (about $8—much, much cheaper than its dinner price tag), featuring sardines. The fish’s humble origins belie the menu’s spectacular execution. Sardines are thrown in a bubbling hot pot with bits of egg, dashi, and soy sauce, which renders them into umami bombs with a touch of sweetness and not a trace of the usual brininess to be found. The restaurant also serves the fish sautéed, grilled, or deep-fried.