No Name, Near Shinjuku Station, Tokyo.

February, 2015.

This location is in the vicinity of the giant train station which is, I think, one of the biggest in the world if not the biggest. I’m not sure where the name “piss alley” came from except for the obvious, but something about it is completely inconsistent both with what it’s like and what goes on there. I get the feeling that name is perpetuated by American and even more characteristically Australian tourists. I can do without it.

To the northwest of the station we encounter a tangle of strictly pedestrian narrow paved alleys with tiny culinary dives lining both sides. I guess there might be 30-50 of these, 3 to 12 seats each, serving mainly one dish.

I circulated around until I found one that looked crowded, smelled good, and seemed to have a cheerful atmosphere. There was a vacant stool so I nodded to the kid behind the counter and he gestured for me to sit down. His older colleague said something loud and pointed to a sign on the wall behind him that said “eel”. He indicated a price of about ¥1500.

Having already had dinner, I wasn’t up for another meal, so I made a “so-so” sign with my hand, and then indicated “small” with two fingers. I had already attracted the attention of four people to my right (half the clientele of the place) and everybody laughed in what I took to be a friendly way. So I said “sake”, and the young guy immediately poured an overflowing glass out of a hot teakettle. At the same time I was shown apparently a lesser amount for ¥300, and I nodded my head and got another laugh from the fans.

The sake smelled perfectly good as I remember it from hometown restaurants, was very hot, and once I was able to swallow it quite delicious. The snack was five small pieces of barbecued eel on a wooden skewer, and it was succulent and faintly fishy, really quite oily and delicious morsels although barely three mouthfuls. A lady behind the counter was doing the grilling and everybody else in the place was enjoying the same treat. I put a bit of soy sauce on it and ate it with the tiny plate of peppered vegetation also presented, and joined in the general appreciation.

I couldn’t avoid a conversation with a drunk older man on my left in spite of the fact that neither of us spoke a word of the other one’s language. When he left he gave me a friendly nudge with his elbow. $7 for this experience, in a place that must have an overhead comparable to a self-storage unit in Surrey. Well, maybe not. I think this venue is probably pretty touristic. Who knows.

Food 8.4, service 8.0, ambience ambivalent (perfect for what it was…), value 6.6.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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