Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho – smoke, culture and yakitori
I can’t see a thing.
There’s clouds of smoke billowing in every direction. People rushing by me with growling bellies or expensive cameras; and everywhere I turn I smell the essence of Japan.
It’s night time in Omoide Yokocho, and the place is starting to fill. Every shop is open, wafting a different delicious smell from their open BBQ’s down the narrow and crowded alley that’s usually filled with locals and tourists from every country.
It’s chaos. And I love it.
Literally translated into “Memory Lane”, Omoide Yokocho is one of the few places I return to every time I come back to Tokyo.
There’s just something about it; from the old looking Showa-era decor, the crazy amount of smoke coming from the open flames, the shoulder-to-shoulder people sitting on tiny chairs in tiny restaurants, the lights, the sounds, the smells. Oh god, the smells.
This maze-like connection of alleys is a Yakitori haven, you see. But not only that. Think ramen, think Yakiniku, think Izakaya – all crammed into a few small alleyways no wider than the shoulders of two people.
It makes for a great experience. Pull up an empty chair in any of the restaurants and you’ll instantly be greeted by a cheerful Japanese person more than happy to supply you with a hearty meal and a tall drink.
Once you’ve bathed in the experience for awhile, pull out your camera and start documenting the experience.
The lights, the lanterns, the colours – Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho is a cultural visual assault on the senses that’s nothing like how the rest of Tokyo looks like today.
It’s appearance is purposeful too. While the entire place actually burnt down in 1999 and was remade in to the Memory Lane of today, all the decor and the general vibe was deliberately made to feel authentic to the post-war era.
As a nice added touch, if you come here at different times of the year, they change the flowers that hang through the middle of the alley. Around Sakura season, the alleys are adorned with cherry blossoms. Other times of the year, maybe something you’ve not yet seen.
The attention to detail and the sheer visual difference of these alleys, contrasted with the rest of the city is something worth going back to, because you’ll get something different every time you go back.
…the food will always be good there, though.
How to get to Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho
It’s super easy.
They call Shinjuku train station the world’s busiest train station. All trains eventually lead back to Shinjuku.
The easiest way is to exit through the Shinjuku West Exit and within a short 5 minute walk north, you’re there.
What to eat at Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho
Having personally tried almost every single restaurant there, I’d highly recommend Kameya for some great Soba noodle action, 越後屋 for an authentic, quiet Yakitori meal, or Kitakata Ramen Bannai for some classic Tokyo-style Ramen. But all of the food there is great – you can’t go wrong.
If you’re not feeling that adventurous, there’s always a CoCo Ichibanya there for some fast food-style Japanese curry too (it might be ‘fast food’, but it’s actually super delicious).
How to capture Omoide Yokocho
It’s a different vibe at all different times of the day.
In the morning, it’s a ghost town. The shops are shut and it’s quiet. Peaceful, even – if you can really get ‘peaceful’ in the heart of Tokyo.
Early mid-day, the shops start their prep, and the smoke begins. The light is hard and depending on what time you go, hits right in the middle of the alley. Harsh shadows and great light. A very dynamic scene.
As the afternoon comes on, the light gets softer and the smoke gets denser. People start to fill the alley and the vibe begins. Between 3-6 is a nice time, not too many people, but the shops are mostly open or preparing.
At night, the crazy colours and atmosphere start to come out. It’s very hectic and difficult to shoot if you don’t want a crowd – but if that’s what you’re capturing, you’ll get plenty of it.
Rock whatever focal length you want – you can get plenty of shots with most focal lengths here. My favourite is 16-35 or 85.
Enjoy it and remember to experience the actual place! It’s pretty special. Eat, support the locals, be happy.