A Guide to Tokyo’s Yokocho and Tiny Bars
Japan is known for making the absolute most out of the limited amount of space available. Whether it’s their tiny houses and apartments or compact cars, the Japanese have a general lack of claustrophobia. Down-sizing is so ingrained in the cities that the tiny treatment has also extended to its bars!
Tokyo has the highest concentration of bars in the world, most of which are hidden down dark alleyways known as yokocho. Along these dimly lit streets are stacks of miniature watering holes and eateries that service a handful of customers at a time.
For many, these establishments highlight a more authentic taste of Tokyo and provide a deeper sense of community as you cosy up elbow to elbow with people from across the world. So, in that case, let me show you everything you need to know about Tokyo’s tiny bars!
What Is a Yokocho?
Literally translated as “alleyways off the side of the main street“, yokocho has become the term used for the narrow streets that house a myriad of small bars and restaurants. Marked with red lanterns or a cloth draped across their entrance, the true defining feature of these establishments is their tiny size! These places may only have room for about 10 people at a time, and often, much less!
Amongst the countless bars, yokocho also have a high number of izakayas – places that serve simple dishes alongside your booze! Needless to say, these aren’t Michelin star experiences, rather they’re casual places for the working man to enjoy a few drinks and a bite to eat after a long day at work.
What Do They Serve in Yokocho?
Forget your elaborate vodka martinis and decorative umbrellas, these are bare basic establishments that provide a cold hard drink! Your choices are usually limited to Japanese staples, such as draught beer (if they even have a tap!) sake, shochu (distilled from either sweet potatoes, barley, or rice) and any bottled liquor they have.
Izakayas on the other hand serve small dishes that tickle the palate rather than fill you up, kind of like a basic Asian tapas! They typically include dishes of sashimi, grilled meats, fish and the occasional seasonal vegetables.
A Brief History
To understand how such dark ramshackle alleyways have managed to survive Tokyo’s unrelenting growth, it’s worth looking at their history.
Following a monumental earthquake in 1923 and further destruction during the air raids of WWII, most of Tokyo was brought to ruins. In their wake, impromptu marketplaces were established as a place of trade and somewhere where the black market would ultimately thrive. These would later become the yokocho.
These backhanded trades and sordid activities continued in the decades to come as the alleyways became rife with prostitution. Many of the current day bars and izakayas were actually brothels at one point! Much like they are used today, Japanese businessmen would visit the yokocho after a long day at work to…um…”release the tension“…
Following Japan’s economic boom in the 60s, most of the city modernized extremely quickly, though the yokocho remained.
A Young Revival
Despite their dodgy whoreish pasts, the yokocho have gone through a recent revolution. The streets might still host plenty of working men looking to unwind, though they have also been joined by the younger generation who come in search of cheap eats and even cheaper drinks!
On top of that, locals also yearn for a more personal communal environment, something that’s often lost in the metropolis of Tokyo. These places provide an opportunity to socialise with strangers, people from around the world and even the staff themselves! And of course, these streets have also become a must-see attraction for every tourist in Japan!
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Tourist Bars vs Non-Tourist Bars
Though yokocho are a huge tourist hotspot these days, unfortunately, tourists aren’t always welcome. Some establishments strictly allow “no foreigners” and “no tourists”, with signs clearly pointing that out.
Don’t take it personally! Some customers just want a quiet drink in their local bar without having a bunch of loud tourists popping in and out just for the novelty. Other places want to keep seats open for their regulars rather than for bar-hopping outsiders.
They usually have signs which show whether you’re welcome or not, while some others keep their entrances hidden and discrete. An easy rule of thumb; if you spot any English, then you’re welcome to enter.
On that note, which are you; tourist or traveller? Find out by reading Tourist vs. Traveller: What’s the Difference?
Remember the Cover Charge
Bad news for bargain-hunters, though many establishments are free to enter, many require you to pay a cover charge. The purpose is to dissuade tourists from bar-hopping after a single drink and to keep them around for the long haul.
Cover charges can range from ¥500 to ¥1000, so you better be committed!
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Spend as little as £15 a day!
Where Are Tokyo’s Yokocho?
Yokocho can be found in many of Japan’s major cities including Kyoto and Osaka. However, the true culture is found amongst the hectic districts of Tokyo.
The city’s best yokocho are found deep in the heart of Tokyo’s busiest districts, making them a convenient place for salarymen to head straight there after work! Plenty can be found in the likes of central Shinjuku and Shibuya, Ebisu to the south, and Shimbashi to the east.
For a more detailed guide to Tokyo, check out The Ultimate Travel Guide: Tokyo
Golden Gai, Shinjuku
For many, this is not only the quintessential example of Shinjuku life but of the entire yokocho culture!
The Golden Gai is a series of 7 interconnected alleyways made up of more than 270 independent bars and izakayas, which unsurprisingly makes it the biggest yokocho in Japan! The place is a true architectural and sensory marvel. Half the experience is just wandering amongst the many streets and taking a sneak peek at the places you pass.
From hip, dynamic watering holes to dark, dingy dive bars, the Golden Gai has a bit of everything. If there’s one yokocho you have to visit, it’s this one!
Nonbei Yokocho aka “Drunkards’ Alley”, Shibuya
Despite standing only a stone’s throw away from the infamous Shibuya Crossing, Nonbei Yokocho has remained an oasis of peace and alcohol for decades! Though it may be well known, it’s so beautifully hidden away from the eyes of the public that you’re almost guaranteed to miss it the first time around!
Though much smaller than the Golden Gai with only 50 bars, what it loses in diversity it gains with personality and a sense of community. For a more communal and close-knit environment, check out this spot!
Speaking of Shibuya Crossing, find out the best places to see it by checking out The 7 Best Places to See Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing
Omoide Yokocho, Shinjuku
Though overlooked by most tourists, Omoide Yokocho is the more “foody” option in Shinjuku. Though it once earned the nickname “piss alley” due to locals’ habit of relieving themselves along the streets, these days it’s been given a new lease on life when the local government rebuilt the area following a devastating fire in 1999.
Translated directly as “memory lane”, it’s a more authentic look at the role these yokocho once played in the city and the characters they would attract. With only 60 bars and izakayas, it manages to avoid the worst of the tourist horde who are usually enticed to the Golden Gai.
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Harmonica Yokocho, Kichijoji
Named for the beautiful criss-cross architecture of the streets, Harmonica Yokocho is yet another symbol of post-war Japan. The area became iconic for its flea market and has since gathered a collection of restaurants, shops and bars.
Harmonica Yokocho is unique in that it’s equally as alive during the day! Once the sun rises, the streets are filled with bustling independent clothing stores and loud-mouthed fishmongers, while at night it becomes yet another venue for the over-worked salaryman looking for a drink.
The Rules and Common Etiquette
Despite the laid back attitudes amongst the yokocho, this is still Japan, and thus there’s some etiquette to follow.
As these bars are close quarters, you have no choice but to interact with the other patrons. Basically, you should avoid being an asshole! As soft-spoken as many Japanese are, they won’t hesitate to throw you out if you make others uncomfortable!
If you’re the type to lay your head down after a few too many drinks, then be warned, there’s a price to pay! Some bars will charge you ¥5,000 for falling asleep at the bar! These seats are hot commodities, and they can’t afford to lose one just for you to have a nap!
The streets themselves also have a few rules. Annoyingly for tourists, taking photos is technically banned (as they’re considered private property), but really you should just be discreet about it and you’ll be fine. The important thing is NOT to take photos of individuals as some locals may not want to be seen there!
You should also avoid being loud in the alleyways themselves. Yet as the night wears on, this becomes a little harder to control.
Top Tips for Visiting a Yokocho
- These places don’t kick off or even open their doors until the sun goes down! Make sure you come after 8 pm to see the streets at their finest!
- Try to avoid travelling in large groups, because they might not have room for you all!
- Remember the cover charges! Budget at least another ¥500 for your night!
- Don’t expect to be full at izakayas, just to nibble!
- Don’t be a dick!
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Those back alleyways are certainly worth visiting, they often remind me of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ as you pass, via some unseen portal, from a bustling city district to an entirely different world ! Certainly not a Michelin experience but a valuable experience nonetheless.