In search of the perfect kawa yakitori


Perusing the specials list; what looks good??

How do you prefer your chicken skin? That could easily be the question one ponders while exploring the collection of shops collectively known as “yakitori alley” under (and near) the shinkansen train tracks in Tokyo. Of course, the answer is grilled because that’s how everything is served here, but even beyond that there is variety in how the “kawa” is prepared across the different shops. And during our recent trip we set out to find our favorite as we hopped amongst the shops, exploring the options.

Sitting down for a quick bite, squeezed in under the arched ceiling of the trains overhead
Sitting down for a quick bite, squeezed in under the arched ceiling of the trains overhead
I probably ordered too much to start but it was all delicious
I probably ordered too much to start but it was all delicious
End of round 1...off to find more!
End of round 1…off to find more!
Full house inside the tiny shop
Full house inside the tiny shop

There are two shops actually under the train tracks. They sit in small stalls “carved out” of the arch supporting the rail line overhead. And they are, in my experience, always full. That’s not to say you cannot get a seat, because we did, but it took a few minutes of waiting before we settled in and were handed an English menu for our perusal. At the first of three stops we chose a mix of chicken, beef, veggies, squid and the chicken skin. It was probably too much food to start given our plans to try several shops, but it was all delicious and washed down nicely with a beer.

Great little shop...my favorite of the three we tried
Great little shop…my favorite of the three we tried
No idea what's down this alley but it looks pretty cool
No idea what’s down this alley but it looks pretty cool

From there we began our roaming in the more open side street which hosts many more of the shops. It is hard to know which to choose, particularly with almost no local language skills, so we mostly relied on what we could see snooping around on others’ plates as we walked by and glancing at menus. Not to mention the shops’ barkers doing their best to draw us in. Location number two for the night had a fun vibe and a broader menu, assuming you could read it, but let us down a bit on the food. The chicken skin wasn’t quite as crispy and the prices were higher.

Super-hot charcoal is the key to a successful yakitori.
Super-hot charcoal is the key to a successful yakitori.
Perusing the specials list; what looks good??
Perusing the specials list; what looks good??

Shop number three we found a bit by accident. It is neither in the main alley nor under the tracks, but off on in a smaller alley from the main side street. But like moths we were drawn to the lights out front where we found a table outside and settled in. We were mostly full at this point so ordering a lot of variety was not a viable option, and yet we did so anyways. There were shisito peppers served with a spicy dipping sauce and the kawa was the best of the three, with just a bit more tangy flavor in the sauce and the skin perfectly crisped on the tiny grill.

Shisito peppers perfectly grilled
Shisito peppers perfectly grilled

Plus the ambiance of the place was just a bit better with a “proper” restaurant going on inside (including a bathroom, which is important after a few beers) and a somewhat more responsible feel to the lively scene which I attribute to the slightly out of the way location. Yes, there was still laughter and revelry but it was not people loud and drunk just for the sake of being that way at the end of the day. It made a difference.

Just a bit of kawa (chicken skin) yakitori. Crispy & juicy & delicious!
Just a bit of kawa (chicken skin) yakitori. Crispy & juicy & delicious!

The shops at yakitori alley are all universally tiny with generally low tables (set on  beer crates) and tight spaces. The mix of smoke from the grill and most likely your neighbors’ cigarettes mixes and hangs over you throughout the meal; that scent lasts at least through the walk back to the subway, if not longer. And there is no doubt that the experience is just a bit kitsch, just like it was four years ago when I last had the experience. But it was delicious and a fun way to immerse in the Tokyo culture for a bit.

Table for two in Tokyo's yakitori alley
Table for two in Tokyo’s yakitori alley

And did I mention it was delicious??

More posts from the Japan 2015 Vacation

Logistics: 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.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

3 Comments

  1. I’ve been to the first shop you were at under the tracks. They were much more friendly to a bunch of us Stupid Americans than the place on the other side, where they actually refused to serve us.

    –Tony

    1. I’ve been to both of the under track restaurants, albeit on different visits. Some differences but mostly similar experiences overall. My favorite is still the small one off to the side. It felt more authentic and “local” to me.

  2. I appreciate everyone of your posts from your travels in Japan. Headed to Japan with two teenage boys and have been trying to figure out how to keep them fed with out to much complaining. Your blog has given me some great ideas. Will also be headed to a baseball game based on your post as well . Thanks so much.

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