Today I want to tell you about yokochos.
Yokocho is the word for a narrow alleyway crammed with tiny food-and-drink establishments. As the sun sets, these raucous back streets come alive all over Japan. Packed with bars and izakayas which are often staffed by a single person and can typically seat no more than six or seven, yokocho are beloved by college kids, after-hours salarymen and visiting travelers alike. Although the small space might make it difficult to hang out as a large group, I would say that this is part of what makes yokocho so charming. On any given night, you might be sharing a table with a fisherman from a faraway port, a cash-strapped backpacker on a cross-country tour or a city hall employee who’s had a few beers too many. In a country where daytime socialization seems characterized by the distance between people, the cluttered little world of the yokocho turns social norms upside-down. Wherever you go in Japan, I think yokocho are a great place to hang out with the locals, try the tastiest local specialties, and maybe even make some real friends.
A little less than two weeks ago, I was in Hachinohe for the Tohoku INBOUND (International Tourism Marketing) Summit with my friend Yuushi-san. After we had concluded the day’s business Yuushi-san wanted to go check out Miroku Yokocho, the most well-known of the eight yokocho scattered around the Hachinohe’s city center. A fishing city with a long history, Hachinohe izakaya culture has catered to fisherman anchored in port for hundreds of years. Yokochos in Hachinohe however, trace their boom back to the postwar years of food shortage, where izakayas served low-cost items like yakitori; prepared with giblets acquired from Allied forces. Miroku Yokocho was so busy on Friday night that we could scarcely find a place with two seats open at the bar!
No-Face is said to visit Miroku Yokocho from time to time. He enters an izakaya at random and starts playing the Tsugaru-jamisen. Nobody knows his identity, and he doesn’t visit on a set schedule, so we were lucky to catch him on our visit to the yokocho.
Visiting Miroku Yokocho at Hachinohe reminded me how much I missed the Kesennuma Recovery Yokocho (Fukkou Yatai Mura) in Kesennuma (The Recovery Yokocho was discontinued in March). The first apartment I lived in here was situated right behind the Recovery Yokocho (about 5 seconds walk from my front door!) During my first couple months in Kesennuma, I had no local friends and had only a very limited grasp of the language. For me, coming to the yokocho was the best way to solve both of those problems. Whenever I found myself without anything to do in the evening after work, I’d go to the yokocho, pop into my favorite bar, and strike up a conversation with whoever happened to be there. When you start to become a regular at the yokocho, the crew that assembles there every weekend starts to become a ragtag sort of family.
When I look back at my first year in Kesennuma, I think the yokocho was an integral part of finding my home here. Yuushi-san is working on bringing the Yokocho back to Kesennuma, so I’m looking forward to the day I can go back.