Tucked behind Shinjuku station, between the train tracks and the huge Odakyo department store, lies the secretive street known as Shonben Yokocho. Direct translation… Piss Alley. The authorities have tried, and failed, many times to rename the street Memory Lane, and for many gaijin (non-Japanese outsiders) it has become known as Yakitori Street. This tiny strip has the highest concentration of yakitori bars in all of Japan, each of them a far cry from the upmarket izakayas and robata bars of modern Tokyo.
Once a black market drinking quarter in the 1940’s, Piss Alley earned its name due to a lack of toilet facilities and patrons relieving themselves on nearby train tracks. The ramshackle post-war infrastructure lasted until 1999 when a fire, believed to have been started by a drunken grill chef, destroyed most of the buildings and the alley had to be rebuilt. The new buildings are not much of an improvement to the old, the same grime and seediness remain, but at least now the street has proper sanitation.
Despite the recent renovation, the atmosphere hasn’t changed over the years; the air is still thick with smoke and the smell of grilled chicken, interspersed with the intoxicating aroma of simmering offal. The clientele is a hedonistic mix of salarymen, students, pre-work hostesses and experimental foodies.
The bars themselves offer little in the way of comfort; more often than not you will find yourself sitting on an upturned beer crate within inches of glowing bincho coals. Often these run-down shacks are manned single-handedly by weary looking ojisan. Many have no menus, instead relying simply on a half-cut chef telling you what is fresh that day. But one thing is for sure: the food is simply stunning.
Most of the bars base their offerings on the flavours of supremely fresh meat grilled over high-grade charcoal, then finished by each particular restaurant’s famous yakitori sauce, or tare. The sauce recipes differ between restaurants and are top-secret; some tare pots are literally generations old, just getting topped up occasionally with a touch of soy, sugar and sake.
Spying between chefs is common, and rumour has it that the police have been called on many occasions due to “sauce wars”; fights breaking out over bragging rights and who has the best tare.
Whilst yakitori is the mainstay of Piss Alley, other izakayas have become known for more unusual specialties. Izakaya Asadachi, for instance, has become famous for its delicacies such as pig testicles, frog sashimi and even horse penis.
Beverage menus are pretty much limited to draft beer, shochu, oolong-hai and sake. Ume-shu, or plum wine, is the only real altenative for something lighter – this would also explain the nature of the clientele.
Truth be told, yakitori has been lifted to new heights at upmarket establishments such as Birdland and Imaiya in the more affluent areas of Tokyo, but Piss Alley is where it all started. If you ever get the chance to visit, and are interested in stepping out of your comfort zone, do not miss this hidden gem.