Tokyo was everything I expected of it; a thriving, super modern mega-city, spectacular skyscrapers, fabulous restaurants, and beautiful architecture both new and old.
But that’s just one of Tokyo’s many identities. In a city with more than 13 million inhabitants, there had to be another side to it that tourists rarely see. Visitors to Shinjuku usually hit the trendy district famous for its neon-fueled nightlife, and I certainly had a look too, but slinking beneath the towering offices blocks and gaudy streets was an area with an altogether different personality. Commonly referred to as Memory Lane, I’ll refer to it as its much less classy pseudonym; Piss Alley.
So where and what is Shinjuku’s Piss Alley in Tokyo? Well, it’s a cramped and grimy alleyway where Tokyo natives go to eat and drink away their daily woes. It’s atmospheric, the dim lighting offered by ubiquitous Japanese lanterns, and the provenance of the ripe smells that emanate from every dingy doorway can only be guessed at.
But don’t let the name deter you. Piss Alley acquired its title decades ago, when only the seedy elements of Tokyo went there to drink. Without a toilet back then, drinkers had no option but to relieve themselves wherever they could. These days though there’s a decent bathroom facility halfway up the alley, so no need to worry.
Today Piss Alley is more well known for its unusual culinary opportunities than its drinking, and some of the choices are not for the light of stomach. But when in Rome, right? You can eat frog sashimi…yes, that’s raw frog…or how about a pig’s testicle? But only if you’ve got the balls. A local favorite is soft-shell turtle, and you can even eat a frog’s heart…while it’s still beating. Only then does a grilled salamander sound somewhat tempting. If any of those delights leave a decidedly awful aftertaste, wash it down with a liquor…of snake. After several months of steeping, venomous snakes are believed to provide many restorative properties, and like sake, can be drunk as a shot. However, for the more culinary challenged, it’s possible to get a less cringe worthy bowl of what is allegedly beef stew. It did NOT taste like beef. To ensure freshness in a place that exudes anything but, a lot of the smaller food is killed before your very eyes. Vegetarians, you might want to rethink your visit.
Despite all the unique food available, drinking is still a big part of the lure of Piss Alley. Although myriad types of sake are on offer, in the crowded and over heated bars, a cold draught beer can still be just the ticket. And perhaps surprisingly, given Tokyo’s expensive reputation, prices weren’t at all bad.
The bars are tiny, with seats for just four or five drinkers, and that’s the charm of Piss Alley. Like John and I, you’ll drink shoulder to shoulder with an eclectic mix of customers; young, trendy locals, swarthy businessmen and grizzled, wizened old veterans.
In Piss Alley, language was a definite barrier, as tourists are uncommon. My friend and I were turned away from our first couple of choices, but we were persistent, and with John’s word or two of Japanese, we were soon welcomed in. If your night goes well, you might not even remember your trip down Piss Alley, curiously referred to as Memory Lane.
Luckily, I have photographic evidence of my few hours with the locals.
All images by the Twenty First Century Nomad, © Steven Moore Photography
While on the Japan theme, last week represented the 7oth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To see my thoughts on what was one of the worst events in human history, click here- Hiroshima: Heartache to Hope