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The Best Yokocho in Tokyo!

Hidden among Tokyo high-rises and neon lights, you can find yourself back in the 70s of Japan, in the so called Yokocho alleys, which are welcoming corners for anyone looking for a bite and experience the deeper understanding of the localness of Tokyo, with yakitori shops, izakaya and small bars.
What defines those alleys is the size of the bars and eateries with only enough room inside for 4 or 5 barstools.
Entering those miniature hole along the alley for the first time can be disconcerting, especially if you don’t speak Japanese. Fortunately, some places in the bigger ones have English and Chinese menus.

Here is short list of some of the best Yokocho in Tokyo:

Omoide (memory lane), also called Gokiburi Yokocho (cockroach alley) or Shomben Yokocho (piss alley) with a selection of Japanese cuisine available at the 60 restaurants within the 4 lanes located on the western side of Shinjuku Station. map

Nonbei (drunkard alley), 2 small hidden lanes not far from Shibuya Station, with food like oden or snack food that goes easily with the drink, very similar to the old yatai style. map

Ebisu opened in 1998 in a decaying 1970s apartment block in Ebisu, is now a lively izakaya arcade, with plenty to offer, like western-style wine bars, sushi shops, oden or grills. map

You can also join us with our Gourmet and Tastes of Japan for other rare hidden Yokocho.

Sushi: The Japanese fast food

It has a chic, upscale image, but sushi has always been fast food. 100 of years ago, sushi was served in large pieces (3 times bigger than now) in shops catering to travelers. It was fresh and intended to be eaten quickly; customers would eat with their hands and wipe them on the store’s noren curtain. Perspicacious travelers were then looking for the store with the dirtiest noren, knowing that it was probably serving the best sushi.
In the 19th-century Tokyo, called Edo at the time, street vendors started to serve sushi as we know it today, small chunk of rice with fish on the top. The people loved the fast food, tasty snack, and soon sushi carts expanded to other cities. That’s how Edomae sushi was born. Edomae- “edo”, the name for Tokyo, and “mae”, meaning front, referring to the fish caught in Tokyo Bay.
Dirty noren are no longer a mark of good sushi, but, fresh, local fish served for quick consumption still remain.

Stinky, sticky beans…the Natto

Among all the soybean found in Japanese cuisine, natto, the sticky, fermented soybeans generally served over rice is probably the hardest to get visitors to eat. Even some Japanese people ponder about it.
Even those who don’t like natto confess it is very good for you, that it reduces blood clots and that it’s good for circulation. It’s with no preservatives, high in protein, with a lot of dietary fiber and “trendily” gluten free.
So why does it stink?
The bad image of its smells comes from the industrial, mass-manufactured foods. Fresh natto is different in texture and smell. Equal to beef in protein, it’s also 9 times richer than beef in vitamin and 3 times richer in vitamin B2. It helps improve the immune system.
So please give it a try when in Japan. At My Japan Guide we have a rule which is to make you discover this Japanese “delicacy” and it’s our gift to everyone touring with us.

What is Kaiseki? The Japanese haute cuisine

Pronounced “kaiseki“, it can written in two ways, with different kanji (Chinese characters) and two different meanings. One (懐石) has the same kanji as chakaiseki (茶懐石), which is the formal tea (cha) ceremony, with kaiseki a modest meal with strict rules, served as a preliminary to enjoying matcha. In fact, kaiseki means “stones in the bosom” which refers to the stones (seki, or 石) that ascetic Zen monks were placing in their robes (kai, or 懐), on their stomachs, to fight hunger.

Today, kaiseki (会席) is known as a social meeting (kai, or 会), with seating (seki, or 席), that pays respect to sake as much as tea. Relaxed in its rules, this form of kaiseki has become luxurious and elaborate compared to its humble roots and is now the Japanese version of Haute Cuisine, the ultimate in Japanese fine dining.

Kaiseki features small seasonal plates served in succession, that balances the taste, texture, appearance, and colors of food, pushing rice to the end not to conflict with the sake. There can be 6 to 15 different kinds of food such as:

  • “shiizakana” (appetizers served with Japanese sake)
  • “mukouzuke” (sashimi – slices of raw fish)
  • “kuchitori” (a small side dish)
  • “suimono” (a soup)
  • “nimono” (simmered vegetables)
  • “aemono” (food dressed with sauce)
  • “kounomono” (Japanese pickles)
  • “hassun” (food from the mountains and the sea)
  • “sunomono” (food marinated in vinegar)
  • “yakimono” (grilled fish)
  • “mushimono” (steamed food)
  • “nabemono” (Japanese hot pot)
  • rice
  • miso soup
  • dessert

Kaiseki menu changes throughout the year, beginning in November when the year’s first tea is ready for grinding. The year is divided into season or kisetsu, and both the food and the tableware reflect the changing months and seasons.

Japan Food Theme Parks

Japan is a food paradise  and Japanese food theme parks have spread out  all over the country and they will whet the appetites of the food-curious visitors.

The food theme parks specialize in one type of food and offer various versions of that particular dish and if you are in Japan you might want to check out the following:

At the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum you will learn about the history of ramen, strolling through a dozen ramen shops with regional flavors from different parts of Japan in a 1950s shitamachi (old style downtown) setting. Admission is 310 yen, then tickets for ramen are purchased from vending machine in front of the shops.
Info: http://www.raumen.co.jp/english/

Then the Namja Gyoza Stadium which is located in the very noisy Namja Town game center inside Ikebukuro Sunshine City. Admission to Namja Town is 500 yen, then you can stroll around a dozen famous gyoza shops from around the country. Adjacent to  is “Ice Parlor,” with fifty types of ice cream, some with weird flavors like freshwater eel (unagi) oyster ice cream, Indian curry…
Info: English PDF

In Osaka, known as the Tenka no Daidokoro (the Nation’s Kitchen), famous for its inexpensive and tasty casual foods such as okonomiyaki and takoyaki, you will find the Naniwa Kuishinbo Yokocho, located inside the Tempozan Marketplace shopping mall. It showcases Osaka’s variety of native dishes and specialties, all set in a 1970s street scene. Admission is free.
Info: http://www.kaiyukan.com/language/eng/kuishinbo.html

And finally, the Osaka Takoyaki Museum,  a great place to strengthen your knowledge about what may be Osaka’s most famous contribution to Japan’s rich street-food culture. Located inside City Walk at Universal Studio complex, you will choose among 5-6 Takoyaki outlets from some of Osaka’s most famous makers of  takoyaki.

Yatai, Japanese street food

A Yatai (屋台) is a food stall, that can be found especially during summer, at festivals, shrines, temples and popular parks, on weekends and other special occasions.

Food provided by Yatai will vary according to region, season or occasion. Even if in the street, the food is always colorful, fresh and healthy, but also cheap! Traveling in Japan on a budget, Yatai is a perfect way to try a variety of popular Japanese dishes without spending much money.
Some of the most popular dishes often found at a Yatai include…

Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) Okonomi means “as you like it” and yaki means grill. It consist of a thick pancake like batter with cabbage and sometimes noodles too. Once cooked, the okonomiyaki is topped with sweet savory sauce called okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, katsuoboshi (dried fish flakes) and aonori (dried seaweed).

Takoyaki (たこ焼き) which means grilled octopus and is a popular fried dumpling filled with a few bits of cooked octopus. It is served hot with takoyaki sauce a sweet brown sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, katsuoboshi and aonori.

Yakisoba (焼きそば) or fried noodles is a tasty combination of ramen-style noodles stir fried with cabbage, onion, carrot and often with small bits of pork, beef or chicken. It is seasoned with yakisoba sauce, a rich brown sauce. Before serving, yakisoba is often garnished with aonori, beni-shoga, katsuoboshi and Japanese mayonnaise.

Yakimono (焼き物) means “grill” and mono means “things”. It includes small bits of meat, vegetables or shellfish placed on a stick and grilled. You can have, yakitori, small fish, cuttlefish, steak, corn and much more. The ingredients depend heavily on the region, season, the food stalls specialty and even the event itself.

More can be found, this is just a list of some of the most frequent dishes found at Yatai.

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Tokyo “petto kaffe” or animal cafes

Cat cafes in Tokyo are well known, but few people know that the Japanese capital also houses a veritable menagerie of animals inspired restaurants, with rabbits and owls, even penguins. In Japan many landlords prohibit owning pets, it is now also well known, the positive effect of the presence of pets to fight the stress of city dwellers and another reason may be a bit risky, the lack of affection Japanese could be a significant factor for the boom of those pets cafe. If some are excellent, others have not a soul out there. To avoid searching, we traveled all Tokyo to find the best “petto kaffe”.