TOKYO – When looking for affordable places to dine in Japan’s capital, it helps to have tunnel vision. That’s because many of Tokyo’s cheapest and best “neighbourhood” restaurants can be found tucked away in the tunnelled archways beneath the elevated portions of the city’s main rail line, the one on which the super-fast Shinkansen (bullet train) I’m aboard is travelling.
“My favourite restaurant (Midori Sushi) in all Tokyo is actually under us right now,” my seatmate and Tokyo native Nori tells me as our train from Kyoto speeds past an area known as Hibiya near the world-famous Ginza.
“Midori Sushi has the freshest fish (purchased daily at Tokyo’s legendary Tsukiji fish market) in Yakitori Alley (the street where the ‘tunnel’ restaurants are grouped) and the prices there are very reasonable.
“Just look for the longest lineup in Yakitori Alley and that’s the entrance to Midori Sushi,” says the delightful Nori before disappearing into the commuter throng at Tokyo Station.
Because retail space is at such a premium in Tokyo, local restaurateurs long ago claimed unused portions of the elevated rail line as their own. Now, Yakitori Alley has become one of the city’s most treasured attractions and one of the best bargains for cash-challenged tourists.
Above: The restaurants of Yakitori Alley are tucked under archways and down dark alleys.
That evening, I set out to find Yakitori Alley on Tokyo’s easy-to-use Metro. I get off at Hibiya Station, leave through the A2 exit (it’s important to find the right exit for Yakitori Alley before leaving the station), cross the street in the direction of the Big Echo karaoke shop, and follow hordes of office workers along a narrow street that runs parallel to the elevated rail line.
“Yes, this is Yakitori Alley,” says the local man who I ask for directions. “Midori Sushi is right around the corner from the International (shopping) Arcade over there.”
Soon I’m standing behind a dozen or so people — mostly locals — waiting to enter the popular sushi restaurant which opens its doors daily at 4 p.m. and fills up quickly.
The line outside Midori moves slowly — most people suffer the long wait for a chance to sit at the counter, where an army of chefs expertly prepares a variety of sushi and sashimi delicacies.
Finally, it’s my turn to be seated and as I enter the front door, the chefs yell out a traditional welcome — the boisterous greeting usually frightens first-time visitors to Japan.
The first thing that impresses here are the prices: a la carte items range between $3 and $7, a true bargain for food this fresh.
I order morsels of shrimp, sea urchin, extra fatty tuna, abalone and a fish called striped jack and within minutes a platter is placed in front of me. I quickly devour all the items and the server suggests my next course be chawanmushi — a hot egg custard dish that’s filled with fish and topped with a crab claw. It’s delicious.
When I leave Midori Sushi, I see lots of Tokyo businessmen heading into a restaurant called Izakaya down the street. I can’t resist and soon I’m studying a menu featuring barbecued chicken, pork, beef — and horse. The couple sitting at the next table orders the horse, but I decide to sample some fried chicken.
Above: Securing a table at Midori Sushi is never easy but it's well worth the long wait.
I watch in awe as the nifty Izakaya servers expertly slalom around steel girders holding up the rail tracks above with heavy plates and no one reacts when the trains rumble overhead.
The food is excellent and the businessmen seem to be settling in for a long stay. Everyone is having a good time.
On the way back to the Metro station, the smell of meat cooking on a hibachi (a traditional Japanese barbecue) draws me into one of the arched streets running off Yakitori Alley.
The wonderful aroma is coming from a dingy restaurant called Yakitori Bar Tonton, which occupies a tiny space on one side of the arch. The chef manning the barbecue invites me inside and soon I’m sitting at a table, my head and shoulder bent awkwardly into the arch, trying to decide which organ meat — this restaurant specializes in gizzard, heart, liver, tongue, cartilage and intestines — to order.
The men sitting at the next table take pity on the stranger and tell me in broken English that “they also sell skewers of lamb and chicken.”
I order one skewer of each, wash them down with an ice-cold Asahi beer, and call it a night.
Yakitori Alley also features lots of Western-style restaurants and pubs, but it’s the Japanese eateries that keep locals and tourists coming back.
Tokyo is not always easy to digest on a budget, but Yakitori Alley makes it a lot more palatable.