The Burton Blog

Small Bars, Big Personalities: Exploring Tokyo’s Little Alley Bar Scene


Wandering around downtown Tokyo can be overwhelming to a first-timer. As one of the world’s biggest and most densely populated cities, the sheer volume is hard to grasp. Of course, the deeper you go, the closer you get to ground level, and the crowded neon streets reveal a more personal side of local culture. Hidden among the high-rises and bright lights, little alleys, or yokocho, are welcoming alcoves for anyone looking for a bite, or a great place to share a drink with a few close friends. 

Just enough room for a chandelier.
In a city of neon high rises, this alley feels like home.

And we do mean “close” friends. The defining characteristic of all the bars and eateries in the yokocho alleys is their size. Often no bigger than the average walk-in closet, there is only enough room inside for you and three or four friends. So when the drinks start flowing, you have no choice but to get cozy and enjoy. 

Each little bar has its own unique look and feel, not to mention the character serving drinks behind the bar. When our crew arrived for Burton Rail Days this October, the Nonbei Yokocho [aka “Drunkard’s Alley”] was our first stop. We crawled into an unoccupied mini bar for a drink. A charming young bartender greeted us, took one look, and immediately asked, “Snowboarders?” Needless to say, we got along like wax and p-tex.

"You guys snowboarders?"
Two of the bar's six occupants. Max Capacity.

He introduced us to Japanese manners, and three of our new favorite drinks:

Shōchū: This Japanese specialty is typically distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, or brown sugar, and is a versatile drink for all occasions. Stronger than wine, and even some whiskeys, this is guaranteed to spice up a conversation.

Sake: Something about the feeling of these miniature bars, with hardwood interiors and hardcore mood lighting just makes them the perfect place to enjoy a bit of Japan’s signature rice wine. Served hot or cold, Sake has a warming effect on both body and sprit.

Habushu: The most eye-catching bottle at the bar, Habushu is traditionally bottled with a Habu snake (in the Pit Viper family) inside. The idea is that the snake’s venom will seep into the alcohol, which lends to Habushu’s legacy as an aphrodisiac for men. Surprisingly (or not), this is not a hugely popular drink among locals.

The bar's signature bottle of Habushu. Careful, this one's got some bite.

We highly suggest you include Japan in your list of must-see destinations, both for its powder (the North island, Hokkaido is infamous for bottomless tree runs) and its culture. See you there! ∆