Word of Mouth: Tokyo Street Food + Drink
From yakitori skewers to palm-sized oysters, food on the go in this vibrant city
by Jennifer Miller
Unlike Southeast Asian countries, Japan isn’t known for its street food. Munching on the sidewalk is generally considered impolite—a fact that is tacitly reinforced by the lack of public trash cans. (Somehow, Japanese cities manage to be spotless, regardless of the fact that it’s almost impossible to throw anything away while on the go.) But if you lack the time and money for traditional three-hour, multi-course meals, you can still find scrumptious outdoor options in this vibrant city, which will fill you up without emptying your wallet.
Tokyo's famous Ginza fish market is best known for its pre-sunrise tuna auction. But you can also arrive at a reasonable hour and still find a variety of delicacies, from giant oysters to pork dumplings. At Tsukiji, you can spend an hour nibbling on free samples of sashimi, which have toothpicks attached and are ready for the taking. The freshest, most supple, flavorful morsels of fish that you’ve ever tasted are simply sitting on outdoor tables. Palm-sized oysters cost a couple of dollars (and are worth it) but, theoretically, you could have all the fish you’d ever want for free.
The actual name of this tiny pedestrian street beside Tokyo's Shinjuku train station is Omoide Yokocho, which translates as “Memory Lane.” What’s being recalled, however, are the days during the World War II, when the alleyway was a hub of black market commerce and petty criminal activity. The street is only about 100 meters long and less than a few meters wide, with café bars squeezed in on either side. Here you'll find people squeezed onto the street or standing around a doorway, with a yakitori skewer in hand. Leeks wrapped in bacon is a specialty, though vegetarians can find grilled tofu and veggies. In true exotic form, here you'll find menus advertising various organs, frog parts and even salamanders.
Also a black market of old, Ameyoko—once known as Ameya-Yokochō, or "candy shop alley"—is now a bustling pedestrian thoroughfare to the southwest of Ueno Park. In the afternoons, the wide side streets are packed with locals buying all manner of items from clothes to groceries and home goods. There are still plenty of candy shops along the street, but if you want a chance to peruse the sweets, you should be prepared to elbow your way through packs of uniformed school children picking up confectionaries on their way home. In addition to great candy, Ameyoko also has stands filled with refreshing fruit sticks—you’ll find melon, pineapple and strawberry stacked onto wooden skewers like shish kebabs. The colors are as bright as the fruit is sweet and, unlike the candy stores, there's a lot more space to ogle the beautiful selection and curious passers-by.
Beer Vending Machines
Japan has a distinct vending machine culture, with street-side contraptions dispensing everything from French fries, to hardboiled eggs to underwear. But especially if you live in a country with strict open container laws, you’ll be most pleased about the abundance of public beer fridges. If you’d like to wash down your takoyaki, yakatori, sashimi, or even your watermelon sticks with an Asahi, Kirin or Sapporo, you can usually find a beer vending machine within a block or two. Unlike so many things in Japan, these refreshments are cheap. A small can will cost you as little as $1.50.
Word of Mouth presents a destination the way we experienced it. Following both trusted tips and our own whims we explore with the goal of finding what's unique to that place. For deeper looks at some of our favorite metropolises, check out our CH City Guides.
Street food images by Jennifer Miller for Cool Hunting, vending machine image courtesy of Creative Commons