In a city as big as Tokyo, most restaurants and bars put out advertisement and compete with each other to attract the most customers.
But, there are also those small bars that a select few know about. They don't advertise, and most of us visit the first time by chance, thanks to a generous friend. Many of these places are located in "Yokocho", which are small alleys where tiny bars and restaurants are stacked up side-by-side. This guide features a few of our favorite "secret" spots; the places that make us feel we're in the know.
It is remarkable how many people don't know about the "drunken alley", even though it is located less than two minutes away from the Hachiko statue in Shibuya. About 40 tiny bars, some of which are old-school Japanese while others are futuristic, gothic and everything in between. Some of our favorites:
Bistro Dardre -- The conversation is always animated on the first floor, and the regular crowd is young and upbeat. The third floor is a small attic for two people where you'll feel like a kid in hiding. French liqueurs and French food like pate, foie gras and quiche.
Piano Bar -- The piano bar received national attention when a famous Japanese model did a photo shoot there. The walls are red and there are a lot of chandeliers and deer heads on the walls. Talented customers are welcome to show their skills on the piano, which dubs as a bar. The ice is hand-crafted into a perfect ball. Whisky, champagne, wine and cigars.
Tight bar -- A rendition of the future (maybe?) of nonbei yokocho. The bar is tiny, which makes it really tight on weekends, when regulars crowd the stairs as well. It has a white "iPod" feel.
Torishige -- A Japanese grandmother runs this extremely popular yakitori joint. You'll need to make reservations as it is always crowded.
Red Bar -- Not on Nobei Yokocho proper, but one of Shibuya's coolest bars. It is owned by the same person behind the piano bar, but offers cheaper drinks, no service charge and a cool atmosphere. About three minutes by foot from Nonbei Yokocho.
Right next to the tracks in shinjuku, omoide yokocho used to be known as shomben yokocho (piss alley) because there were no toilets. They have toilets now, and the area retains the charm of the 1950s. There's been frequent talk of it closing down and replaced with yet another commercial building, but a few owners are still resisting and the area lives on. Visit quickly in case it goes down the sayonara route.
Saitama-ya Ni-goten -- One of our staff members has been a regular at this yakitori stall for sometime, and can say nothing but good things about it. The grilled saba (mackerel) is off the hooks. The pineapple and ginger beers are quite interesting and refreshing, but stay away from the shochu infused with konbu or chili.
Albatross -- One of Tokyo's best known "secret" bars, with great atmosphere and good drinks. If you sit on the third floor, the bartender will give you a phone number so you can call and order.
Golden Gai got its beginnings as a red-light district, with hundreds of tiny stores lined up against each other. In time the area turned into a bar district where intellectuals and artists gathered for drunken philosophical discussions with strangers. Golden Gai was infamously known for being unfriendly to foreigners. Things have changed now with a new generation of owners who are more welcoming of new customers.
La Jetee -- If you like film, this is your bar of choice. The owner is a film buff who has seen the likes of Francis Ford Coppola or Wim Wenders grace the bar with their patronage. Regular customers decorate their keep-bottles in artistic ways.
Albatross -- Their Golden Gai location became popular thanks to their low service charge, friendly atmosphere and interesting cocktails.
This is the traditional yakitori (chicken skewers) district, where office workers drink beers and release the stress of a hard day's work. The stalls are located under the train tracks, and the whole area is quite lively. Most places used to be patronized primarily by men, but female customers are on the rise. Some recommendations:
Nenohi -- The grill is right by the entrance, so there's a curtain of smoke as you walk in. The chicken skewers are excellent and definitely try tsukune, which is one of their specialties.
Kinryo -- One of the landmark yakitori stalls in yurakucho. Located in the corner, the place is pure atmosphere and great food. You can sit on the beer trays outside, or stay indoors closer to the grill.
Chacha hana -- Located on the outskirts of Golden Gai, you could walk numerous times in front of it and miss the tiny sign that gives away the entrance. Once inside, you'll find a beautiful old house that has been transformed into an izakaya, with rice paper walls and seating on the floor on cushions.
Uogashi Fukuchan -- There are no prices on the menu, and you can only order once. It's a bit of a gamble to dine at Fukuchan, but the seafood is fresh, the portions are massive, and the prices incredibly reasonable.
Shinobu Tei -- From the outside, all you see are a few fake bamboos. Once inside you will find a flowing stream going under a bridge topped with a gigantic mirror ball. This is a gorgeous izakaya with food prepared with organic ingredients.
Kasoyo -- Unless you're lost, you'll never find this friendly cafe because it is located on a minor road in a residential area. Once inside you will find a kimono company, a cafe and a small Japanese garden in which to relax.
Chatei Hatou -- Who knew you could go back in time in the heart of Shibuya? Outside it might be neon and youth, but at this coffeeshop you might as well be back in the 1950s with porcelain cups and extremely meticulous baristas.
Kitayama -- One of Tokyo's secret coffee spots! All the beans are aged between one to fifteen years, and roasted on site in small batches to ensure freshness. It doesn't get much better than this for coffee!
Ebisu Yokocho -- Ebisu Yokocho opened in 2008 inside a building that was slated for demolition. Because it is still so new, it lacks a bit of the "dirty underground" feeling of the other alleys, and feels more like a commercial venture trying to capitalize on a boom for retro Japan. Having said that, the workers of the area have taken to the yokocho like it has always been there and there's a good vibe.