Shinjuku Yokocho is a little warren of two or three alleys under and behind the tracks of Shinjuku station. It’s reputed to have great atmosphere where you can sit on a beer crate, try some “cheap” Japanese snacks (known as yakimono) and generally have a leisurely and inexpensive evening out with friends.
The above statement is unfortunately completely untrue. Conceptually, based on the atmosphere of the place–buildings that practically lean in on one another, drunk business men stumbling every which way, and groups of people headed off to sing karaoke now that they have finished happy hour–would lead one to believe it’s a fun place to hang out. Sadly, our experience was horrible. I’ve been here before, about eight years ago, and had an incredible time. But times have changed, and the old fashioned experience of drinking and eating without knowing the price of anything has gone from the guy behind the bar undercutting himself to an exercise in exorbitant pricing.
Place #1 had two young foreign women working the stall. When we gave them our order, they turned on their grill…wait, did I say turned on? Yes, that’s right, instead of the famous charcoal that gives yakitori its phenomenal flavor, they had an electric grill that just cooks stuff. Why not put your food in a George Foreman?! So anyway, we get to the end of our very simple meal, a fairly moderate amount of food- we had our Otoshi (a dish that you are automatically served whether you want it or not)–in this case raw (possibly pickled) chicken skin and a little salt. Not the best Otoshi I’ve ever had. In addition to that we shared one bottle of beer and we had two skewers each of tsukune, shishitou, white meat yakitori, and one with chicken and negi. One skewer of each type: shio (salted) and tare (dipped in sauce). The total bill was around 3,200 yen.
That actually seemed kind of fair, but we were a little disappointed with the overall quality and flavor, so with some beer and food in our veins, we went seeking more authentic fare. It would seem that most of the little vendors that churned out good old yakitori have disappeared over the years to be replaced with places that have various specialties and interests. We decided to try a place that looked about as old-fashioned as you could get…biggest mistake ever.
Our barman, an elderly Japanese gent, looked petrified when we walked in and had no idea how to begin communicating with us. The cook on the other hand, started asking, in Japanese, if anyone spoke English. After asserting our knowledge of the language, he shouted at the old guy to take our drink order. The old fella found it in him to ask what we might want, and we got another bottle of beer. I noticed at this point that the place smelled pretty horrible but we were determined we would stay as long as it took us to finish the beer.
It was time to order. No menu, just a conglomeration of various items sitting on the counter top or held in jars full of fluid (an embalmed snake included) behind the counter. I have to admit that this place was beginning to scare me. It didn’t help that the cook was talking about how hot his girlfriend was to the two young guys sitting next to us and occasionally testing us by saying how weird we were. Of course when I saw him pull two freshly grilled newts off his grill (which I believe was also an electric model–what the heck is wrong with these people?) I started to understand why he couldn’t understand what we were doing there.
I ordered hotate (a full scallop roasted on the grill in all it’s liquid–here’s a great photo so you can visualize) and some mushrooms and asparagus for safety’s sake. We told ourselves we could sterilize our stomachs with beer. That’s pretty much what we did. When we asked for the total, it was another 3,000 yen. What?!? For a handful of mushrooms, three spears of asparagus and a single scallop that I could have bought in the local grocery store for about $2 plus a beer? Oh, did I mention that our otoshi here was far worse than the last one? Something the general size and shape of a piece of daikon but, well, soft and creamy, like curdled milk. It wasn’t very tasty and the texture (combined with the overwhelming smell of the place) started to make me feel sick. Rather than argue or deal with him I just left the money on the counter and we were out of there ASAP. I know I may not have left a good impression for foreigners everywhere, but it didn’t really matter to me too much at that point. Goal #1 was to get away from the horrible smell. Did I mention the smell yet? I think I may have.
So the moral of the story is that there are no street vendors worth their salt left in the Yokocho and all we found was disappointment. Maybe we went through the wrong doors and just got unlucky, but ultimately, it comes down to the fact that the stall just outside of Inokashira Koen is probably still the best place to get charcoal grilled yakitori that we know of. (Stay tuned for that post.)
Please note: because we were worried that we would end up chopped into pieces and embalmed like the snake, no photographic evidence is available for “restaurant” #2.
Also note: There are a surprisingly small number of photos of Yokocho on the internet. Click here for a nice shot and map of the area.