Staying soba in Omoide Yokocho

At night Shinjuku is a landscape of neon canyons where huge screens turn the streets into a giant living room while crowds fill the streets below. It is as a futuristic place as you will find anywhere on this planet. It is home to some of Tokyo’s tallest buildings and largest department stores, sleazy noisy pachinko parlours and expensive luxury goods.

Somehow, nestled besides the tracks to the west of Shinjuku Station, is somewhere that seems to have escaped the wrecker’s ball, a collection of tiny alleys and bars called Omoide Yokocho, or Memory Lane.

Omoide Yokocho from above

We discovered Omoide Yokocho on the first night of our first trip to Tokyo. Hungry, we entered the narrow alleyway filled with the smoke from the charcoal grills of the many yakitori joints to each side mixed in with the cigarette vapours from their patrons. We were ushered inside one place, up scarily steep and narrow stairs, to a room with a single long and low table where one group of young locals was already busy drinking, eating and chatting. A small television was displaying a baseball match.

Yakitori, or skewers of grilled chicken, is beer food, eaten in accompaniment with plentiful drink. But we are non-drinkers and no fans of cigarette smoke either, so it was not the most pleasant introduction to Japanese cuisine.

New as we were to Japan, we sometimes struggled to find appropriate places to eat. So we found ourselves revisiting Omoide Yokocho one night, at a tiny corner soba and udon stall called Kameya. The owner seemed delighted to have a couple of foreigners patronising his stall, insisted on taking photos of us and being photographed in turn, adding more of the buckwheat noodles, egg and kakiage, the deep fried battered vegetables to the broth, until at last we could eat no more.

The proprietor of Kameya in September 2003

Over the next decade we returned to Kameya a couple of times, introducing a new member of the family to the joys of Japanese noodles. Kameya was always busy, but we were no longer uniquely foreign. I guess that the shop found itself in a guidebook, for each time there we guests from abroad.

Kameya, March 2009

No more excited chef with his camera phone, though he was still generous with his servings. Most importantly, the bowls of soba and udon are still as delicious as any I have tried, a testament to the longevity of this humble store. Omoide Yokocho is a place where memories are made and refreshed.

A bowl of soba, kakiage and egg.

Omoide Yokocho website

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