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Relive a night of post-war Japan at these Shinjuku bars
Hidden in the cracks of metropolitan Shinjuku, Piss Alley -- oops, 'Memory Lane' -- is the place for black yakitori smoke, cheap drinks and a descent into a Japan all but forgotten
The collection of small Shinjuku bars evocatively called Piss Alley ('Shonben Yokocho') -- or Memory Lane ('Omoide Yokocho'), as the authorities would rather you call it -- is a sliver of post-war Japanese culture a few minutes walk from Shinjuku station. The cramped alley of restaurant and bar stalls offers a 'nostalgic' experience, which means something like visiting a decrepit shantytown.
The truth, however, is that the run-down, old-timey atmosphere of the Alley is as carefully cultivated as any of the city's famed theme bars. The theme here just happens to be 'post-war poverty.'
A black market drinking quarter in the 1940s, Piss Alley earned its name from its lack of toilet facilities, which compelled patrons to relieve themselves against nearby train tracks. The ramshackle post-war infrastructure lasted until 1999, when a fire destroyed most of the buildings and the Alley had to be rebuilt.
Along with the renovation came actual restrooms and a new marketing campaign -- at least officially, the Shinjuku bars of Piss Alley became Memory Lane. Though none of the current structures are more than a decade old, you'd hardly know it from the grease and grime covering nearly every surface.
Although positioned as the 'ultimate old-style Japanese drinking experience,' the bars of Memory Lane are mostly staffed by young women from various Asian countries. Between the broken Japanese and hard-drinking patrons, many of them tourists, the area remains a little seedy -- just in a new way.
Nevertheless, this is still the place to eat Japan's original fast foods: yakitori (chicken skewers), motsu-nabe (offal stew) and hormone-yaki (grilled organ meats). Most items on the menus are made from the rejected body parts of livestock.
Foreign television crews love izakaya Asadachi (Shinjuku 1-2-14, no phone) for delicacies such as pig testicles, grilled salamanders, frog sashimi and other foods. Even for adventurous Japanese eaters, most of the menu is considered off-the-wall. There's a reason Asadachi has maintained its near city-wide monopoly on serving horse penis.
For the less experimental, standard yakitori joints abound, though truth be told, many of these Shinjuku bars survive as much on location as quality. Finding the best yakitori is often a hit or miss affair. The best strategy is to follow the crowds -- or better, go with a knowledgeable friend. A general rule of thumb: the less crowded an establishment, the less you can trust its cooking.
Kabuto (Shinjuku 1-2-11, tel +03 3342 7671), a traditional yakitori joint located in a prime corner spot, is extremely popular with the local salaryman crowd. For a cafeteria-style meal, try Tsurukame (Shinjuku 1-2-7, tel +03 3343 4078), famous for soi-don (beans and ground beef on a bowl of rice). The single 'upscale' option in the area is Bar Albatross (Shinjuku 1-2-11, tel +03 3342 5758).
Beverage menus are pretty much limited to guy drinks -- draft beer, shochu, oolong-hai and sake. Umeshu is the only real chick drink in line with the Piss Alley ethos. But really, these Shinjuku bars are places to get your gruff, hard-luck chic on -- when in doubt, order a shochu with an umeboshi plopped inside and complain about how things aren't as good as they were in the old days.
Piss Alley/Memory Lane: http://www.shinjuku-omoide.com/
A five-minute walk from the West Exit of Shinjuku Station