Yokocho - Eating and Drinking in Japan’s Vibrant Side Streets and Back Alleys
Have you ever visited a yokocho in Japan? For decades, the yokocho and its myriad of tiny bars and eateries was the stomping ground of the middle-aged Japanese man. However, in recent years, these lantern-lit, atmospheric side streets have become increasingly popular amongst the younger crowd as well as international tourists. In this article, we go over exactly what a yokocho is, why they're a place you ought to visit, some tips for when you do go to a yokocho, and some particularly interesting yokocho in the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo.
Jul 21 2022
What Is a Yokocho?
The word yokocho (横丁) literally means "side street" in Japanese. Though you can call any street branching off of a main street a "yokocho," in practice, it is the name used for side streets and back alleys with a high density of bars and restaurants.
The concept dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1867). During this era, it was forbidden to light fire in buildings lining the town’s main streets, making it impossible for restaurants to establish business there. As a result, eateries and bars sprung up in the side streets where no such regulations existed. These side streets eventually became the "yokocho" of today.
Over time, the word grew to encompass back alleys and other similar narrow passageways full of eateries and bars, even though they're technically not side streets.
In the past, yokocho were mostly the habitat of middle-aged Japanese men. They would come to drink late into the night and engage in sometimes rowdy discussions with newfound drinking mates. This gave yokocho an air that often wasn't particularly open or appealing to women or young people.
In recent years, however, efforts have been made to attract other types of customers and as a result, the image of yokocho is slowly changing. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see small groups of women going out for an evening of drinking and relaxed conversation at yokocho. Some places are also trying to become more accessible and attractive to international travelers.
During the last decade, a new concept called “neo yokocho” has sprung up and is becoming very popular, especially with the younger crowd. The neo yokocho aims to maintain the charming retro vibe and casual atmosphere of yokocho, but in slightly more stylish surroundings. They are usually located inside a big building rather than along a street out in the open.
Why Are Yokocho So Popular?
Most places lining classic yokocho seat only 5-10 people in a very cramped space. While this does result in a bit of waiting, the upside is that customers get very close to both the staff and each other which promotes interaction.
In places with a few chaise lounges or couches, people who come alone may even be asked to sit with complete strangers, making it easy to meet and talk to new people. In this sense, yokocho are a haven for solo drinkers. You will never feel out of place coming and going from a yokocho establishment by yourself.
Being able to clearly see the interior of an establishment from the outside is another unique feature of yokocho. Many don't have doors or partitions separating them from the street, creating a very open atmosphere that invites passersby to peek in.
This open atmosphere extends to how the eateries and bars interact with each other. Sat down at one of the yakitori restaurants on the street, but craving that special yuzu sour from the place across? No problem, just tell the staff and they will bring that yuzu sour to you from the other shop! This is something that you rarely see in any other dining setting in Japan.
Speaking of the menu, most eateries and bars at yokocho serve a variety of small, local dishes and drinks at very reasonable prices. Combined with the sheer amount of establishments all in one narrow street, this makes yokocho the perfect place for bar hopping. You can easily try many different things within a small area and without breaking the bank!
The last perk of yokocho is that many of them have maintained their old-school retro vibe with lanterns and neon signs, making them the perfect place for that nostalgic photo backdrop.
Tips for Your Yokocho Visit
Since the bars and restaurants at yokocho are so tiny, it’s recommended to visit in small groups of 2-3 people. Visiting in big groups should be avoided as it will be incredibly difficult to find a place that fits all of you and will only cause stress to everyone.
It’s also important to remember that a yokocho is not a fine dining experience, so don’t expect high-end cuisine. The dishes are simple and local, and their purpose is mainly to accompany the drinks, not to be filling like a proper meal. Since the size is usually small, it’s easy to try many different things, so it’s customary to order a variety.
Furthermore, though the drinks and food are usually quite cheap, most places have a "cover charge" or "table charge" which is a fixed amount charged per person just for sitting down. Sometimes they'll serve up an appetizer instead that you have to pay for. And very occasionally, you'll find places that do both!
As a tourist with limited Japanese skills, it can be difficult to understand if a cover charge or mandatory appetizer is applicable or not, so just expect having to pay it so that you don't get upset when it shows up on your bill.
Speaking of Japanese language abilities, you shouldn’t expect menus to be in English or staff to be able to speak English, especially if you're going to a yokocho in an area that doesn't get a lot of tourists.
It’s also important to note that some places will turn foreigners away without explanation. There are various reasons for this, the main one being the staff worrying about not being able to communicate properly due to the language barrier and hence ruining the atmosphere for other guests. Some establishments also simply don't allow anyone to drop by unless they're a regular customer or have been invited by a patron.
If this happens to you, just move on to the next place. If possible, we recommend visiting with a local - your chance of getting in will increase and they can help explain all the different items on the menu!
Classic Yokocho in Tokyo
Yokocho can be found in cities all across Japan, but in this article we are covering one place that nearly all travelers to Japan will visit at some point during their trip to Japan: Tokyo. This bustling and densely populated metropolis has a huge drinking culture, and it’s not uncommon for some people to go out drinking several times a week, either with co-workers or friends. There are far too many yokocho in Tokyo alone to cover in this article, so we'll cover a few popular ones as well as places that are a bit more niche.
Golden Gai (Shinjuku)
Located just east of Shinjuku Station, the infamous Golden Gai district is one of Tokyo's best known yokocho. Its ramshackled buildings are only two stories high, and many of its dimly lit side streets are only wide enough for one person to pass at a time.
Decades ago, Golden Gai was the main hangout for writers, actors, and other creative souls. Today, it is mainly a place for drinking. Many of the bars here have a specific theme: some are plastered with leopard-print wallpaper or fake grass, others showcase retro movie posters from the 80’s, and there are even places that play only flamenco music or cater specifically to those interested in horse racing!
Omoide Yokocho (Shinjuku)
Another Shinjuku favorite, Omoide Yokocho is a narrow alleyway that's densely packed with bars and places to eat yakitori. As you enter this popular street, you will be met by low-hanging lanterns casting a soft glow on the crowds making their way to the next watering hole. Wafts of smoke spill out from the many tiny stalls serving up juicy grilled meat, and in spring, the nostalgic street is adorned with beautiful pink cherry blossom decorations.
Hoppy Street (Asakusa)
Within the traditional neighborhood of Asakusa lies Hoppy Street, a popular side street flush with restaurants and bars on both sides. Most of these establishments only have outdoor seating which they shield with plastic tents to protect customers from the rain, wind, and sun. The street is usually busy throughout the day and evening, with laughter and lively conversation spilling out from the tents.
The yokocho's name derives from "hoppy," a beer substitute invented in Japan back when beer was too expensive to regularly order. It remains popular to this day, with nearly all the places in Hoppy Street having it on the menu. The eateries here also specialize in simmered dishes, stews, and grilled offal. Prices here tend to be a bit cheaper than the fare you'll find in Shinjuku, though of course that ultimately depends on the individual establishment.
Nonbei Yokocho (Shibuya)
Nonbei Yokocho is conveniently located mere minutes from the bustling Shibuya Crossing and the popular Hachiko Statue meeting spot. The street is virtually deserted during the day, but comes to life after the sun sets. Upon entering the alley, you will be greeted by a huge “Nonbei Yokocho” neon sign, followed by red paper lanterns and even more retro signs that will bring around nostalgic memories of 60's and 70's Japan. To the many regulars, these are genuine memories - many of the establishments here have been running since the 1950s!
Sanchoku Inshokugai (Yurakucho)
This yokocho can be a little difficult to find at first since it is located under a bridge not far from Tokyo's fancy Ginza district. The concept here is a little different as each establishment specializes in either a specific type of ingredient such as pork or chicken, or cuisine from a specific region of Japan like Hokkaido. The prices at Sanchoku Inshokugai are a little higher than the average yokocho, but the atmosphere is great and very local since a lot of business people enjoy coming here for drinks and snacks before heading home after work.
Sankaku Chitai (Sangenjaya)
If you're looking for a truly local dive, make your way to Sangenjaya. Not far from the station is a bustling area packed with bars and restaurants known as "Sankaku Chitai." Rather than a single street, this yokocho is a maze-like network of narrow lanes and alleyways with colorful lanterns advertising the names of its many eateries. The food and drinks on offer here are far more varied than the average yokocho, with options ranging from the standard izakaya grub to experimental takes on gyoza, foreign fare like Brazilian steaks, and even Japanese game meat.
Neo Yokocho in Tokyo
Ebisu Yokocho (Ebisu)
Built on the remains of an old shopping center close to Ebisu Station, this specific yokocho happens to be the pioneer of the neo yokocho. Marking the entrance is a rainbow-colored signboard showing the names of its bars and eateries with a corresponding map next to it. Each place specializes in a different kind of food, with some rather interesting examples being a restaurant that focuses on mushroom cuisine and another dedicated to all kinds of meat sushi.
Come early if you want to be able to sit down immediately. While the yokocho is open until 5 in the morning, it is so popular that you may need to wait a bit even if you come super late at night.
Niku Yokocho (Shibuya)
Niku Yokocho is, to put it simply, a meat lover's paradise. All the restaurants here specialize in meat dishes, so you can try meat cooked in all kinds of ways, from classics like yakitori to beef sashimi. The atmosphere is lively and high-spirited, so don't be surprised if the people sitting next to you lean over for a toast and some smalltalk. It's a great place to get to meet new people and have a grand time drinking and eating.
However, it might be a little difficult actually getting here. Despite being conveniently located just a few minutes from JR Shibuya Station, many people have trouble finding it, perhaps because Niku Yokocho is situated high up within the Chitose Kaikan building. For this reason, you won't see many tourists around even though there is some English signage. But if you do manage to find it, rejoice and enjoy stuffing your face with meat!
Explore the Side Streets of Japan!
We hope we’ve inspired you to visit one or more of Japan's delightful "yokocho" side streets which brim with charm and retro nostalgia.
However, if you’re feeling a little intimidated or overwhelmed by the sheer choice of food as well as the ever-existing language barrier, we recommend joining a tour where a knowledgeable local guide will make sure you have the best possible yokocho experience. We particularly recommend this Shibuya bar hopping night tour that'll let you dive deep into Niku Yokocho.
Thumbnail credit: Yulia Grigoryeva / Shutterstock.com
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.