It was dark, around 9.30pm, and we were looking for a way in. The set of alleyways we were looking for were a stone’s throw away from Shibuya Crossing. In an innocuous and inconspicuous passage that seemed to go nowhere.
When we finally found the entrance it looked like we had stepped back in time. The big, bustling and ultramodern Shibuya stayed behind. We were in postwar Tokyo; dimly lit alleys, no bigger than two meters wide, boasting rows of paper lanterns signalling small bars and izakaya. The establishments were only big enough to sit six people at a time. We had found the infamous Nonbei Yokocho.
Nonbei Yokocho, or Drunkard’s Alley, dates back to the early 1950’s when yakitori eateries and bars set up shop under the train tracks of Shibuya; this atmosphere of a bygone era is still very much present today. After wandering around the two parallel alleys and peeking into every wooden shack, the way to choose a place became clear. Where you could squeeze in is where you would stay and from there you hoped for the best.
We ended up in an izakaya with three more customers and the owner. The layout was the same for most places; an L-shaped counter where patrons sit and behind it a place for the owner to prepare and cook food. With the menu in Japanese and little idea what to order, we decided to play it by ear; a mix of sign language, basic Japanese dishes and Google provided us with a lovely meal. With satisfied bellies, we set out to find a watering hole.
Tight lived up to its name. If empty when we first arrived the bar quickly filled up. And when the real estate is the size of a broomstick closet, there’s little you can do to avoid a conversation with the stranger next to you.
Curiosity will always make for a good conversation starter. By being the only gaijin around, our host was prompted to ask us more than our preferred choice of drink. Between tips and suggestions for the rest of the trip, a couple more people came in. Amongst them, an Icelandic guy working in TV production. An European affinity kicked in and we became grossly involved in a conversation, ranging from the cost of life to work ethic in Japan.
The Shochu liquor kept pouring and as more drinkers entered everyone shuffled around to make space. The crowd consisted of several Japanese, three Europeans and an American newlywed couple; tourists would share their travel plans and locals would suggest places off the beaten path. The atmosphere was vibrant.
The night would have easily continued until the early hours if not for Tokyo Metro. With the last trains departing around midnight and not wanting to face a, potentially, complicated call with an Uber driver, we said our goodbyes. The shuffling and squeezing that followed to allow us passage proved beyond any doubt how tiny and packed the bar was; the nightmare of any western bouncer.
As we walked way, I couldn’t help to feel grateful and blessed for having found this amazing time bubble. The alleys encapsulate Tokyo and all its impossible contradictions. A truly magical place that’s worth a visit.