Although the tourism marketing folks would rather it be known as Omoide Yokocho (Memory Lane), this narrow alley, tucked in by the railway tracks near Shinjuku station in Tokyo, is more commonly and crudely known as Shomben Yokocho aka Piss Alley. This, and a second alley running parallel, are said to be a throwback to pre-war Japan, though given that the area was gutted by a fire in 1999, what you see now is a rebuild of what existed before.
That said, what is key (to both names) is the feel of the place – cheap, cramped and slightly seedy (though not with the undercurrent of danger a similar corner might have in the UK). With its tangle of overhead pipes, vending machines squeezed where space hardly exists and the ramshackle open frontages of bars, grills and snack dives, it’s quite an assault on the senses.
Immediately, I was transported into one of my very favourite films, Bladerunner. Indeed, only on Googling for the correct spelling of this tiny neighbourhood did I discover that this is widely held to be one of Ridley Scott’s inspirations for the set design, along with nearby Golden Gai.
Along the main alley, we peered into many of the tiny establishments. Some were completely empty, but the scowling faces of the staff as they spotted us put us off entering. In one, four or five salarymen sat at the counter, pointing and laughing at us on each of the three occasions we walked past, trying to choose where to try. I’m not easily intimidated, but on this occasion I was and we nearly left the area to find dinner somewhere else.
But just as we exited the alley, we found this little ramen shop at the corner.
The staff member by the door smiled as we approached to read the menu outside and that was enough, we went in and ordered via the vending machine.
Once again, we chose by pictures. The set was available in two sizes – we went for the smaller size – and included a bowl of pork ramen, a bowl of rice topped with roast pork and a marinated boiled egg. A side of fried gyoza completed our order.
Taking our seats along the counter, we watched the two-man kitchen team slice and prepare the pork belly, fry and steam the gyoza, ladle pork broth from an enormous pot, portion noodles into bowls and top ramen and rice with slices of meat. Efficient in a small space, their movements were streamlined by long repetition.
At the time we visited, we didn’t know either the name of the little restaurant, nor of the dishes. Now, I can tell you that this small store is called Kitakata Ramen, part of a chain that originates in Kitakata City, in Fukushima prefecture.
There are many variations of ramen enjoyed in Japan. In Kitakata, noodles are made curly, springy and slightly chewy. Our amber-coloured pork broth was light yet meaty and the noodles reassuringly robust. The pork belly slices on top were meltingly soft, with a nice balance of meat and fat. Tasty!
Alongside it, we enjoyed nitamago (flavoured boiled eggs). From the glossy orange colour and texture of the yolk, I could see why these are also known as lava eggs.
Donburi (rice bowl) was topped with the same soft and tender pork coated in a rich sticky sweet tare sauce. This was absolutely delicious.
Gyoza! Such a simple item and one we enjoy regularly at home. These were thinly wrapped, stuffed with a delicious chicken filling and cooked perfectly so they were soft and crunchy, both.
In this restaurant, iced tea was provided in jugs on the table rather than water; this was the only place we saw this.
One of the things I’d been worried about before our trip was how easy it would be to eat well without spending a fortune. “Japan is very expensive”, was a common refrain when people heard about our trip. Our total bill was just 990 Yen (£8.25). For that we had filled up on simple and delicious food. We’d be very hard pressed indeed to do that in London.