Thursday, July 5, 2012

Japan times - part 2: Omoide Yokocho and Golden Gai, Shinjuku, Tokyo

I recently spent two-and-a-half weeks in Japan, eating and drinking my way through a destination I've wanted to visit for more than a decade. This is the second of several posts of food, booze and sights in Japan.

Omoide Yokocho, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
When travelling I sometimes make a concerted effort to steer clear of tourist traps: places that offer a sometimes stereotypical view of a destination at a premium price, for tourists that often don't know any better. 

But sometimes they're just irresistable.

An entrance to Omoide Yokocho, Shinjuku
Omoide Yokocho translates as 'Memory Lane' but is also known rather charmingly as 'Piss Alley'. Located at the western exit of Shinjuku Station, it's a network of little laneways filled with tiny, old style, ramshackle yakitori restaurants and bars.

Eateries in Omoide Yokocho, Shinjuku
Around dinnertime the smoky laneways are filled with camera-wielding tourists and not-necessarily sober salarymen in suits.

During the peak times you'll be lucky to find a couple of seats in any of the eateries as most of them seat an average of 10 people or so at the counter, with their backs against a wall with hooks for hanging coats and bags that inevitably become as smoky as the air.

More packed eateries in Omoide Yokocho, Shinjuku
Some eateries also have upstairs seating, ideal for groups larger than four, although this means missing out on the squishy and smoky atmosphere downstairs, ordering directly with the chef and watching the chef in action.

Yakitori, grilled chicken or grilled things on skewers generally, dominates Omoide Yokocho although there are a couple of ramen places thrown into the hodge-podge mix of eateries from yesteryear.

An eatery in Omoide Yokocho, Shinjuku
The first night we managed to snare a couple of seats right in front of the yakitori grill at one place, with our stools lined precariously near the walkway while people nearly brushed our backs as they walked past.

A specials menu of sorts
English menus are not to be found but armed with some basic yakitori terminology, fingers for pointing at other peoples' orders and the occasional word of English on the other side made it easy enough an experience.

Kirin beer and sake (right)
Beer is a near-must for yakitori given the generally high salt and high protein offerings. Locals were also drinking sake and Hoppy, a non-alcoholic beer that's mixed with ice and shochu to become quite the lethal drink as I later discovered.

Cabbage and mince appetiser

Tsukune - chicken meatballs on the grill
My high school Japanese also managed a basic reading level of menus and signs to deliver us some food to start. Tsukune is a Japanese version of a chicken mince meatball, although this one was sized more like a rissole.

Shaped and skewered as we ordered, watching the mince balls brown on the grill directly in front of us was a fragrant and mouthwatering exercise.

Tsukune - chicken meatballs served with raw egg yolk
I've tried a few tsukune back home but this first sample in Tokyo, served with a sweet soy sauce and a raw egg yolk, was the height of minced chicken - should there be such a point - in terms of flavour and spot-on texture.

The egg yolk is broken and stirred into the sauce, with the tsukune dipped into it for an increased creaminess and silkiness.

Grilled shitake mushrooms

Beef steak
From memory there were two beef options: beef tongue or a small piece of steak. The latter was cooked expertly on the yakitori grill to a medium-rare state, then sliced and served with a light ponzu soy sauce of sorts from a small saucepan.

Hata hata fish on the grill
Enquiring about the fish options, our chef returned with two plastic-wrapped frozen specimens he described as hatahata.

They had a quick defrost session in a microwave - the first and certainly not last time we were to see a microwave in overt action - and took their positions skewered on the grill.

Grilled hata hata fish
I wasn't expecting greatness when these little guys were served but the hatahata wasn't overly fishy nor were the bones too fussy to deal with. In all, a great microwave/grilled dish.

Young corn on the grill
Others around the counter started ordering the young corn still in husks as they saw it on the grill and we quickly followed suit.

To be honest, I'm not sure if I've ever seen corn this size - perhaps three or four times the size of the baby corn we get in Australia.

Grilled young corn
The husks protect the corn from drying out while providing a very slight char aroma. Holding the peeled back corn like a microphone, these ears were devoured with salt flakes and a dip into thick mayonnaise.

Beef intestine stew
There was a variety of menu items aside from the grilled items, although without a menu or proper use of the Japanese language, our only option was to peer at our neighbours' food.

All night long as we drank our beers and Hoppy, there was a stew simmering away in front of us that a couple others had ordered. Without a clue as to what it was, another microwave "ding" brought us a deep brown bowl of stew topped with finely sliced leeks and shallots.

We dug into the tender, well flavoured pieces knowing very well it was offal of some sort. It really wasn't bad at all, my first experience eating beef intestines.

Golden Gai, Shinjuku
As we finished at Omoide Yokocho (hint for the girls: skip the toilets unless desperate) we headed back east towards our hotel, a bit away from the main roads and just hoping to see a familiar crossroad.

Somehow we stumbled upon another collection of laneways filled with little lit signs and yet smaller establishments filled with perhaps six people on average sitting at a crowded counter.

We'd unintentionally found Golden Gai, an area of tiny bars and restaurants that was another point of reference in Japan's modern history.

Bars in the Golden Gai, Shinjuku
We passed a number of bars, peering in each time to see miniscule, smoke-filled places; most with a bar at the front hosting a full counter of drinkers.

Some bars supposedly only allow regular customers which made sense as some places didn't look all that welcoming.

In a bar at Golden Gai, Shinjuku
We ended up at one that had plenty of space at the counter and a friendly, welcoming bartender. This bar (no idea what it was called) also had a back section where a small party was drinking.

The menu was rather simple at this place: one draft beer, two shochu varieties and a small back bar of spirits. I chose a shochu - and after my second and a lot of laughs in between with the bartender and other customers, that was the end of that night and half the next day.

What looks like a DIY yakitori eatery, Omoide Yokocho, Shinjuku

Spinach and sesame appetiser at Omoide Yokocho, Shinjuku
We returned to Omoide Yokocho another night - it must have been a Friday because the laneways were teeming with suited men in various states of drunkeness.

This time we managed to grab seats that were properly indoors, at a wooden, U-shaped counter that seemed to have done its time.

Negima - grilled chicken thigh with leeks
Aside from the momo yakitori of just chicken thigh pieces, the other staple of yakitori would probably be the negima chicken interspersed with leek.

The leeks are grilled to a caramelised point where they barely have any pungency, and are even better with a lick of tare sauce and a sprinkle of shichimi togarashi chilli and spice seasoning which is usually found at the table.

Reba - grilled liver
Liver is still not one of my favourite offal bits but it's always on the menu at yakitori. Done closer to medium than well, this wasn't so bad especially with the sweet tare sauce and what looked and tasted like an egg yolk on the skewer, but could easily have been something a little more sinister.

Sunagimo - grilled chicken gizzards
For the offal averse, I think the best starting point is chicken gizzards, sometimes also called giblets. These pieces don't have a great deal of flavour, unlike liver, and have a very chewy and crunchy muscular texture that I rather like.

This was served shio salt grilled style with a sauce of miso on the side and are a great workout for your jaw and teeth.

Asupara-bacon - asparagus wrapped in bacon
It was impossible to skip a bit of bacon and asparagus action; I mean, look at those neatly wrapped and skewered pieces.

The Japanese style of bacon used here isn't the smoked, pink stuff we're used to. It's probably closer to a very thin and tender slice of pork belly wrapped around asparagus spears; the pork's fat keeping everything moist and tasty.

Ninniku - grilled garlic
I'm not sure if garlic can join the day's vegetable count but that was the idea here. Unfortunately, grilling the huge cloves, while it did remove the pungency, dried out the garlic to a grainy, floury point that even the blob of miso could not save.

Yaki-onigiri - grilled rice ball
For a filling end we opted for yaki onigiri which received a microwave treament before hitting the grill with brushes of soy. Served with a soup, the crunchy golden outers of the rice ball were a highlight to finish the meal and our time in the laneways of Omoide Yokocho.


Tina @ bitemeshowme said...

Your post really makes me want to go to japan..........

john@heneedsfood said...

Now is it dubbed Piss Alley because the gents just couldn't be bothered with finding a loo? It may be touristy but that is a place I'd visit in a heartbeat. It looks fantastic! The photo of the boozed-up business man is classic.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I miss Japan a lot when I read these types of posts. The street action is so exciting and half the fun is pointing at something odd and ordering it. Although I did try heart and wasn't too fond of it :P

Thang@noodlies said...

The little laneways look so intimate and cozy... pics really brought the atmosphere home.

Anonymous said...

oh my i want to be there.. i love the food.

Food is our religion said...

I am going to add this to my list of places to eat in Japan. I LOVE the tiny spaces for people to squeeze into and how it is so packed! Places like this get me so excited!!

Tina said...

Hi Tina - Seems like a lot of people have been recently - must be sale fares ;)

Hi John - I do believe that is the history of the place :)

Hi Lorraine - Yeah, just exploring the city and looking for food is half the fun.

Hi Thang - It is so much fun!

Hi love2dine - I wanna be there again too!

Hi Food is our religion - Then I think you're going to adore Omoide Yokocho...!

hou said...

The little laneways look so intimate and cozy... pics really brought the atmosphere home.
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