Why you should care
It’s not as pissy as it once was.
I look up into Tokyo’s haze, half expecting flying cars to whiz by, like a scene straight out of Blade Runner. But instead of a bleak future, I’ve wandered into an alleyway steeped in a rich history — and piss.
Don’t let the name scare you away: Piss Alley is as local as you can get. When the sun goes down, the prattling of tourists fades into the groans of bar stools and drunken white-collar workers in Shinjuku’s grungiest back alley. Just finished a 12-hour shift? This is where the city’s haggard office workers go to eat and drink away their daily woes, Yasushi Aoyama tells me. He worked for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government for 30-plus years. And Piss Alley, in his words, is the “salaryman’s mecca.”
Although he neglected to mention that it’s also an adventurous foodie’s wet dream. At nearby Asadachi, you can nosh on chewy frog sashimi, raw pig testicles and grilled salamander — all well worth the modest price tag of ¥1,700 (around $15) or less. And inside all of Piss Alley’s cupboard-size bars, you can guzzle down super dry Asahi beers, cheap sake and shochu for a fraction of what you’ll pay at most drinking establishments in Japan’s sexy, sleek capital. Beware, though: The floors will rumble as high-speed trains zoom past — the alley is cozily crammed between railroad tracks and major highways.
Boozed-up patrons used to stumble out into the darkness and take a leak wherever they pleased.
A visit makes you feel like you’ve been transported back to postwar Japan, where unlicensed (therefore illegal) bars dotted these same narrow streets and toilets were nowhere to be found. As for the, erm, shitty name — Piss Alley’s boozed-up patrons used to stumble out into the darkness and take a leak wherever they pleased. In fact, the alley was born in the booming black market that emerged from Japan’s post–World War II economic slump nearly 80 years ago, says Sato Yoichi, an urban history professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. It was a kind of wink-wink zone where down-and-out men could escape and get drunk without the government’s finger-wagging. No need to make “polite conversation” with the bar waitress, no need to “obey” any of “society’s norms” at all, adds James McCain, a modern Japanese history professor at Brown University: “The state would permit behavior that normally would be illegal or frowned upon.”
However, if you visit Piss Alley nowadays, you might have to muscle your way through the steady stream of foreigners who are in the know but might not yet appreciate the byway’s robust history. Japan’s number of tourists swelled from 7 million in 2009 to 24 million in 2016, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization. And with them comes development and modernization, a problem that every modern city faces, says Georgetown University’s Japanese history professor Jordan Sand.
Nowadays, Piss Alley is piss-free, and you can find a public bathroom about halfway down the small street.
“Even if it was grungy and smelly, places like [Piss Alley] seemed to represent the world we had lost,” Sand tells me after my visit. Soon, Piss Alley could mirror the same glitzy skyline that overshadows Tokyo’s streets of yesteryear.
GO THERE: PISS ALLEY
- How to Say It in Japanese:しょうべんよこちょう (“Shouben yokochou”)
- Closest Subway Station: Shinjuku Station (West Exit)
- Pro Tip: Go with a local; most bars have little patience for languages other than Japanese. Cash only.