Harmonica Yokocho (Alley) in Kichioji district of Tokyo contrasts nicely with the fancy neighborhood that it resides in. Places like this are called yokocho in Japanese, a set of alleyways where some of the city’s most precious gems are safely sheltered - small shops, modest restaurants, teeming ramshackle pubs. Those who are familiar with Kichioji usually associate it with its links to art, high-end fashion, fine dining, and top izakayas (Japanese pubs). In fact, many popular Japanese personalities such as famous musicians and manga (Japanese anime) creators flock here to hang out and shop for themselves. It’s also very accessible from anywhere in Tokyo; it’s just a 15-minute train ride away from Shinjuku.
You’ll know you’ve found the main entrance to Harmonica Yokocho when you see a large yellow sign with a red Japanese inscription. Below that inscription, you’ll also find the English translation, except it’s spelled “Harmonica Yokyocyo”. If you want to have a true “Tokyo Drinking Experience”, there is nothing quite as authentic to be found in Tokyo as what Harmonica Alley has to offer.
The best time to go is as the sun is setting and the lights are just turning on, when a mysterious vibe begins to fill the air. This area is also known as a drinking town. As night sets in, customers coming home from work stop by for a quick drink and some food, and the mood changes drastically from daytime.
Harmonica Yokocho is not that big, but the first entry may be a bit intimidating. You transition from a hip and radiant district to a claustrophobic warren of dimly lit alleys, especially when you are not familiar with getting around its intersecting pathways. However, that feeling is easily overcome by an air of inclusiveness and anonymity. It’s a welcome breath of fresh air, everyone is a stranger, no one is scrutinized.
Japanese laneway culture makes the Harmonica Yokocho a little bit different from its high-end surroundings. It makes you feel as though you were walking into a time warp once you step into it. The streets are tight, quaint, and resembles the feel of an old-school Asian bazaar – perhaps because it used to be one.
Before it became the dining and drinking hub that it is today, Harmonica Yokocho used to be a flea market that operated after World War II. Now, there are still small cozy stores and snack shops open during the day, but it is at night that you can see Harmonica Yokocho fully come to life, when the small signages and red lanterns flicker softly and the narrow alleys start to be filled with people.
Harmonica Yokocho is not just a place for a round of alcoholic drinks. There are also delicious yet cheap restaurants and snack shops to explore. The bars and restaurants are a mix of tight and stuffy spaces and cozy ones. If you want to mingle with other people, grab a chair at one of the buzzing pubs. If you want a laidback dining, enter an enclosed restaurant. If you’re going, go with the expectation of mixing with locals and sitting (or standing) closely with other diners. The environment is not fancy, but it is surely one of the best places to experience modest local living and tradition so well preserved.
While it’s a decent place to grab some snacks and food during the daytime, nighttime is really when the vibrant energy and gorgeous lanterns give Harmonica Yokocho its buzzing, busy charm. It’s quite a small place to explore, so you won’t get lost, but the maze-like way the tight streets are oriented in such a manner that you must discover it on your own as a part of the experience.