Neighborhood Watch: Shinjuku in Tokyo
Micro restaurants offer big experiences in the alleys of this bustling district.
As soon as you step out of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station—the busiest rail stop in the world—the sensory bombardment begins. Beyond the buzzing neon lights, however, the soul of Shinjuku lies in the hundreds of tiny mom-and-pop restaurants that line the alleyways off the city’s main drags.
“The cost of real estate is very high, so operating a large restaurant is prohibitively expensive,” says Kathie Callum, Japan tour coordinator for Access Culinary Trips. “And many chefs prefer a small space because they like to serve a smaller number of covers and produce a higher-quality dish.”
The Golden Gai area is arguably the best representation of the city’s micro bar and restaurant culture. Comprised of six narrow alleys, this intoxicating sector is connected by passageways so small only one person can pass through at a time.
Beyond eateries, Golden Gai is best known for its bars, which vary from traditional izakaya taverns to music-inspired dives. “Some only offer three to four seats,” Callum says. Despite being built small out of necessity, the limited capacity of these bars and restaurants becomes part of their charm.
A 15-minute walk from the Shinjuku Station, Danji Dumplings boasts some of Tokyo’s best gyoza. This hole-in-the-wall restaurant offers a plethora of meat-filled dumplings and a few varieties of ramen. The vibe is authentically Japanese, with cushions on the floor for seating.
Owned and operated by heavy-metal lover Hide-san, this 17-year-old bar is a favorite of both locals and visitors. The light is dim enough to enjoy a bit of anonymity while you sip a cocktail, but just bright enough to be able to make out the hundreds of peeling band posters, skulls and handwritten notes plastered on the walls.
Located in the bustling epicenter of Shinjuku’s Golden Gai, Kuriya transports diners back in time, with a black-and-white awning and dark wooden interiors. The food is impeccably plated, with edible flowers and beautiful greenery adorning the fresh sashimi entrees. The sushi is a favorite, as well as the yakitori and house-made soba noodles. All are served on black or wooden platters.
Boasting flavors from the owner’s home region of Kansai, Rakudaba serves a delicious array of favorites, such as Dutch-oven beef stews with miso, Osaka udon dumplings and meat-filled croquettes. With just one family-style table inside and two small one-seater tables outside, Rakudaba can only fit a handful of diners at a time.
Opened in 2015, Ramen Ouka, which received a halal certification from the Otsuka Mosque, offers a variety of mouthwatering ramen dishes. The comforting broths have an acidic twist (thanks to the addition of tomatoes), and the homemade slurpable noodles are topped with a yuzu foam.