Wherever We May Roam: Piss Alley, Tokyo
Wherever We May Roam
By Steven Moore
Tokyo was everything I expected: a thriving, super modern mega-city, with spectacular skyscrapers, fabulous restaurants, and beautiful architecture both new and old.
But that’s just one of Tokyo’s many identities. In a city with over 13 million inhabitants, there had to be another side that tourists rarely see. Visitors to Shinjuku usually hit the trendy district famous for its neon-fueled nightlife, but slinking beneath the towering office blocks and gaudy streets was an area with an altogether different personality. Commonly referred to as Memory Lane, I’ll refer to it as its much less classy pseudonym: Piss Alley.
So where and what is Shinjuku’s Piss Alley? Well, it’s a cramped and grimy alleyway where Tokyo natives go to eat and drink away their daily woes. It’s atmospheric, the dim lighting offered by ubiquitous Japanese lanterns, and the provenance of the ripe smells that emanate from every dingy doorway can only be guessed.
But don’t let the name deter you. Piss Alley acquired its title decades ago, when only the seedy elements of Tokyo went there to drink. Without a toilet, drinkers had no option but to relieve them wherever they could. These days there’s a decent bathroom facility along the alley, so no need to worry.
Today Piss Alley is better known for its unusual culinary opportunities than its drinking, and some choices aren’t for the light of stomach. You can eat frog sashimi…yes, that’s raw frog…or how about a pig’s testicle? Only if you’ve got the balls, I guess. A local favorite is soft-shell turtle, and you can even eat a still-beating frog’s heart. Only then does a grilled salamander sound tempting. If those delights leave a decidedly awful aftertaste, wash it down with a liquor…of snake. After months of steeping, venomous snakes are believed to provide many restorative properties, and like sake, can be drunk as a shot. However, for the more culinary challenged, it’s possible to get a less cringe-worthy bowl of what is allegedly beef stew. It did NOT taste like beef. To ensure freshness in a place that exudes anything but, a lot of the smaller food is killed before your very eyes. Vegetarians, you might want to rethink your visit.
Despite all the unique food available, drinking is still a big part of Piss Alley culture. Although myriad types of sake are on offer, in the crowded and over heated bars a cold draught beer can still be just the ticket. And perhaps surprisingly, given Tokyo’s expensive reputation, prices weren’t bad.
The bars are tiny, seating just four or five drinkers, and that’s the charm of Piss Alley. You’ll drink shoulder to shoulder with an eclectic mix of customers; young, trendy locals, swarthy businessmen, and grizzled, wizened old veterans.
In Piss Alley, language was a definite barrier, as tourists are uncommon. My friend and I were turned away from our first couple of choices, but we persisted, and with John’s few words of Japanese we were soon welcome. If your night goes well, you might not even remember your trip down Piss Alley, curiously referred to as Memory Lane.
Read more of Steven’s work at twentyfirstcenturynomad.com and Leslie’s work at chicadventures.wordpress.com