Just around the corner from Tokyo's Ebisu station hundreds of young Japanese crowd into a tiny alleyway with red lanterns raining from the ceiling, punctuated by strip lighting and beer signs. The crowd sits on pre-school-sized wooden stools or plastic beer crates huddled around tables eating and drinking; the noise hits us as soon as we enter the narrow walkway that connects 20-plus eateries and bars and the air is smoky, from the various hibachi grills and Japan's lax smoking laws. By day Ebisu is high-end shopping but by night it lets its hair down in this neon-lit yokocho (alleyway dining spot).
We squeeze into a corner and manage to score a table and a round of cold beers arrives soon after; before long some live music start up in the corner. Yokochos are a cheap, lively alternative to traditional dining where you can grab yakitori, hot pots and okonomiyaki with a predominantly local crowd; and beer, plenty of beer. They are casual places where you can avoid the high costs of restaurants and you can graze at the many stalls on offer sitting where you like. A little like a hawker market, yokochos seem more convivial, more bar then restaurant.
But they are small and that means that you need to check your personal space at the door. Luckily for us we have been knocking knees at a variety of tiny tables before arriving in Ebisu – and before the night is over we will be arm-in-arm belting out Chasing Cars together in front of a live band. When in Tokyo ...
The night starts off with a bespoke food tour having been specially curated for us by InsideJapan Tours to uncover some small-seater diners. The company has a range of tailored tours from whisky tasting to exploring the flavours of Kobe beef but we are touring venues around Ginza starting with Chaochao Gyoza right next to the train line with what can only be called The Big Gyoza on the outside of the building in case you don't read Japanese. Inside the dark and steamy interior, our small group gets the first taste of how Japan's big appetite is often sated at a very small table and we squish in and allow our guide to order. The gyoza come to the table in a block of eight, super crisp with perfect pork filling and we learn to separate the parcels – which look at bit like pork ribs – with the back end of our chopsticks and eat them with the front end; it's important to have good manners when you are dining this intimately. The plates come thick and fast with shrimp gyoza in an avocado sauce and a boiled version of our crisp classics. We unfold ourselves from our table and head back into the night.
Walking around Ginza at night, the restaurants come in all shapes and sizes: arch- shaped barbecue stalls under rail bridges, bento-box-shaped gyoza joints and collections of tables spilling out on the street under a sky of neon. A few streets later and we are in what is colloquially known as "yakitori alley" a collection of barbecue specialists in around the railway tracks that draws the salarymen after work for cheap beers and snacks on a stick. We pull up some mini-stools outside Kinryo Yakitori, a stall-like diner hung with yellow lamps and decorated in black calligraphy on wood. We order a mixed platter with specialties like chicken skin, liver and gizzard that are perfectly charred and moreish with a few glasses of beer, plus a vegetable platter of green chilli, leeks and mushroom all simply skewered and thrown onto hot coals.
The alley fills with smoke and steam as if we were in a huge oven and the smells are enough to get you to order another plate. But we are full and head off to Ebisu for a nightcap and to work up some Dutch courage for the sing-along. Like Japan's other petite invention, capsule hotels, limited space means some restaurant spaces come tiny in Tokyo, but the flavours, and the impact they leave, are larger than life.
For small group tours all over the country or some self-guided advice check out InsideJapan Tours; insidejapantours.com
Chaochao gyoza, 1 Chome-2-9 Yurakucho, Chiyoda City; Kinryo, 2-1-20 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku. Ebiso Yokocho, 1 Chome-7-4 Ebisu, Shibuya City.
FIVE MUST-TRY JAPANESE DISHES
The Tsukiji Market may have relocated late last year, but for now the area that used to surround the old market is full of great sushi and sashimi joints. Rumours suggest that this high-priced real estate will soon be turned over to housing and the vendors will follow the market out to Toyosu but, for now, order bowls of raw prawns, roe, urchin and fish the colour of the rainbow while you can and head out to Toyosu for the famous early-morning auctions.
You can grab it all over the country but the best ramen is said to be in Osaka and the locals head to Makotoya, a local haunt where the No.1 – beef bone soup ramen topped with a boiled egg – is the recommend option. The dark-wood interior uses all space and you might find yourself on a wooden bar facing the busy kitchen shared with a stranger.
Ajinoya restaurant in Osaka is the go-to for this gloriously gooey savoury pancake, otherwise known as Osaka soul food. In a tiny, purple-fronted shop grab a mixed okonomiyaki with pork, squid and shrimp that comes to the table in a skillet with dried bonito flakes doing their little Mexican wave on top. There are other outlets around the city but this alleyway original is best.
If you fancy trying this potentially challenging local delicacy best to go to the top end of town. KASA restaurant at the Pullman Tokyo Tamachi offers this dish plus a barista counter for takeaway drinks and meals, a dessert counter and a cool teppanyaki ice cream station, where the frozen treats are blended and shaped to order.
These volcanically hot octopus balls are an Osakan staple. You can get them all over town but try Tako Tako King topped with a 3-D cartoon octopus or get them at Wanaka Takoyaki at the Kuromon food market; goes amazingly with a grapefruit sour chu-hi (sochu highball) to cut through the rich flavour.
Paul Chai was a guest of Accor Hotels and Travel Associates.