Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved treasure hunts. Theres something singular about following clues to a final, mystery location that gets me every time. Piss Alley in Tokyo, Japan, is pretty much the perfect treasure hunt mystery location. Why? Well, to start, it’s devilishly hard to find. It’s hidden in plain sight. And when you arrive there, you feel like you’ve been transported to another place and another time.
I first visited Piss Alley when I was working at a Tokyo publishing company back in the late 80’s. Over the years, I completely forgot how to find the place, as if it’s protected by a memory cloaking device. 30 years later, on a visit to Tokyo with my nephew, Amir, I decide it’s time to revisit the Alley and share it with the next generation. But how do you find it? It’s not really on any maps. Thankfully, we live in the Google age, and everyone’s favorite search engine recognizes Piss Alley. But being recognized by Google Maps is only half the battle. You see, Piss Alley is under the railroad tracks in one of Tokyo’s biggest stations: Shinjuku — a massive, bewildering train station, with only one, poorly-marked tunnel to transport you from the East exit to the West exit. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I have been lost and turned around in Shinjuku, and it turns out Google doesn’t work well inside stations. On my treasure hunt with Amir, we decide to get out of the station, where phone reception is better, sending us on a loooong, circuitous walk through the narrow, Tokyo backstreets.
“Are we going the right way?”
“I think so.”
After an hour of wrong turns and dead ends, we finally find it: Piss Alley, also known as, also known as Nonbei Yokocho – Drunkard’s Alley – and Omoide Yokocho – Memory Lane. I prefer Piss Alley, though, not because it actually smells bad these days, but because of the history. You see, the alley was originally an illegal drinking quarter in the late-1940s, post-war era. Back then, you could find everything here: cheap drinks, yakitori (chicken skewers), cabaret-style hostess bars and pretty much anything else you wanted. Due to a lack of restroom facilities, however, patrons would find their own, public places along the railway to relieve themselves, hence the name Piss Alley.
Today, the alley – built on a slight hill – is a narrow lane of tiny, wooden drinking establishments and yakitori joints, decorated with atmospheric red lanterns. It’s not the original street, sadly; that burned down in 1999. Thankfully, the local government rebuilt the area exactly as it had been before, so that walking up Piss Alley remains a time machine back to the Showa era. Amir and I pop into one establishment, with room for maybe 4 people, and order beers and chicken skewers, which are cooked on a small, charcoal brazier. Afterwards, we patronize one of those ramen stalls you can only find in Tokyo, where you pay in advance, get a token from a machine, wait in line, and finally arrive at a standing counter. When the soup is placed before you, it’s your job to slurp it all down as quickly as possible, as there are many people waiting behind you.
Piss Alley is a true Tokyo experience, as much for the food/atmosphere as for the treasure hunt finding it. And yes, they have public restrooms now. Alas.
(What’s your “Memory Lane” – that place that you had to work hard to reach? It could be a physical location; it could be a job, or even a relationship. Life is a treasure hunt, full of false turns and trap doors. But when you arrive at a mystery location, savor it—and if possible, share it with family or friends, or even better, the next generation.)