Tucked away under the tracks of Japan‘s famed Shinkansen bullet trains in central Tokyo is a dining experience that is hard to beat: Yakitori Alley. The area has become rather developed lately, with “real” restaurants filling in a number of the old shop areas and changing the feel a bit. Still, show up any evening and slide on to a stool and you’ll likely be left with some of the same thoughts I was.
They serve what?!?!
Everything, apparently. Given the translation mistakes that happen from time to time between Japanese and English part of me wants to think that these weren’t really options on the menu. But I know that is not true. They really are serving up gizzards, liver, heart, intestine, bowels and uterus, among other things. Turns out I’m not all that adventurous an eater, especially when the minimum order is two skewers and I’m on my own at the table and want to try more than one stall. Still, I did venture out to such “crazy” options as chicken meatballs and leeks.
One other minor bit on the ordering options: each shop seems to only offer one type of beer. So if you’re looking for Asahi and you’re in a Sapporo stall you’ll be out of luck. I figured out eventually that the ones out on the street advertise their beer choice in the bins that make up the tables. I also learned long ago that I don’t really care that much about the beer amongst those choices so I just drank whatever was available.
I regret that I have but one stomach to give for my travels
In addition to all the choices of animal parts (and some veggies, too!) there are a number of stalls to choose from. Two sit in what appears to be the original area, literally in a passage under the train tracks. The others line an adjacent block, setting up their stools and tables out into the street to accommodate the large number of customers and to keep the social outdoor scene alive.
That’s a dozen or so restaurants, all vying for customers and all of which I wanted to try. The food is cheap enough (JPY160-200; $2-2.50 for most skewers) and the beer not too unreasonably priced (JPY550-600;$6-7.50 for a pint) that one can certainly try a number of the shops without breaking the bank. But there was no way I was only ordering one skewer at each stall. I’m sure the owners wouldn’t appreciate it and it is a horribly way to get a feel for the quality of a restaurant. But I really, really, really wanted to try more of them.
Damn, that was good
So I couldn’t eat at all the stalls or really even a lot of them. In the end I only made it through two before exhaustion, budget and beer consumption issues finally conspired against me. And they were damn good. The shop under the tracks (I ended up at the one with the pig in front) was better than the one outside, but it is also much smaller and harder to get a seat a if you aren’t there early. And neither was bad.
They grill the meat to order, which is to say that they put it on the grill when you order it and serve it when it is ready; you’re not going to ask for the intestines to be served medium rare. But the food is served up fresh and the beer is cold. Plus the food is actually really, really good, assuming you like grilled meats. Somewhat surprisingly to me the chicken was better than the pork (a bit rubbery on the latter in both places I tried it). Not surprisingly I preferred the regular chicken over the chicken meatballs (though I felt compelled to try both given some of the reviews I had read about the meatballs).
For better or for worse my visit was on a Saturday and that meant fewer locals enjoying the food and beer. It also meant that I could actually get a seat and eat and not feel like I was taking up space from folks who knew what they were doing there. Such is life, I suppose. Much like having not yet experienced the Tokyo subway at rush hour I think I’m willing to forgive missing that experience for the sake of my sanity.
Also, finding Yakitori Alley can be a bit of a challenge. The closest subway exit is A2 at the Hibiya station. Turn right at the top of the stairs and walk along side the railroad until you see the passage way with the glowing lights and the grill smoke rising from it. Exit C1 from the Ginza station offers more subway line connections and isn’t too much farther away. From here you’re closer to the “uncovered” yakitori stalls rather than the original ones under the tracks. You pretty much want to aim for the “o” in Yurakucho in the middle of this map.
- Checking in: My pod at the Hotel Nihonbashi Villa
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- Did I really just downgrade myself on a long haul flight?!?
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