Translated as “Drunkards Alley” or “Alley Of The Drunkards,” Nonbei Yokocho is two parallel alleys in Shibuya, Tokyo full of miniature bars. Altogether there a grand total of around 50 mini bars here, although sometimes it has mistakenly been cited as having a hundred or more. Sure, the bars are small, but there is no way that there are that many bars here…just dozens 😉
What do I mean by mini bar? Well, each one measures at most ten feet by ten feet, hardly enough room for more than a small bar with bartender and 4 or 5 bar stools. Most feature a narrow staircase and an upstairs as well, which will hold a couple tiny tables to fit a few additional (albeit skinny) people.
Nonbei Yokocho History + Charm
Located just north of the bustling Shibuya station and lined against the eastern side of the train tracks to Harajuku, this neighborhood was built over 50 years ago but quickly became a prostitution hotspot. Businessmen would take the edge off with a drink or two in the lower level before making their way upstairs to the “tatami room,” where their lady of the night was waiting. Nowadays the area has long since done away with the working girls but the bars not only remain, they have even developed their own one-of-a-kind charm and an almost cult-like following.
Despite the proximity to the rest of the action in Shibuya, this area has been overlooked by many a Tokyo resident. Interestingly enough, it is fairly common for a visiting foreigner to be the one taking their Japanese friends to Nonbei Yokocho for the first time, rather than vice versa. How come? When I first wrote about Nonbei Yokocho in 2008 while living in Tokyo, there was virtually no information online about it. But travel blogging grew and other people began writing about it. Within a few years legend of this unique and hallowed nighttime location had permeated the world wide web.
Nowadays any traveler who does even cursory research on Shibuya nightlife will undoubtedly stumble across the Alley Of The Drunkards. After all, this is the type of place which you never stop telling others about once you’ve experienced it for yourself 😉
Our favorite little bar was the lazily-named ‘Non’
After trying a couple dozen of the bars, a few charging “seat fees” and others decidedly anti-gaijin, my unquestionable favorite in all of Nonbeiyokocho was the aptly — and lazily — named Non. Without a doubt this cozy little establishment takes the gold medal all around, not just for atmosphere but also because we consistently met the absolute best people here. And trust me, we did a lot of exploring and experimenting with every new place we saw. That is one of the best things about this city: there is just so much of everything, you can constantly keeping trying new bars and clubs and restaurants and never have to repeat anything. It’s simultaneously both fantastic and even a little overwhelming for some. Only the places which truly impressed would be deemed worthy of repeat visits, such as Club Atom and ShibuyaNUTS.
Countless Nights Spent At Nonbei Yokocho
Yes, this little bar indeed earned a large place in my heart. We would stop by usually three to four times a week, believe it or not. Most often our visit would only last an hour or two tops before moving on, but a few nights were spent entirely up and down Drunkards Alley. It was the best starter spot, without a doubt. Ridiculously close to my flat too 😉
It was not that this one bar was more fancy or offered anything that its’ neighbors did not — I mean just look at the photos below…it is so small! Much of the conversation actually happens in the alley itself and not the bar. However the one thing that this particular bar was never in short supply of was the hands-down best patrons.
All of the interesting people I met and became friends with while living in Tokyo were initially encountered here. Everyone. There was Austin, the 20-year-old half-Japanese half-French local we became good friends with; Suzuki, the guy who owned his own jewelry design business and shop (which he had recently expanded to Hong Kong and New York); Isao, a local actor; Mayu and Yuka, two of my first female friends in the big city; the Swedish fashion designers; the Canadian video game creators; several local businessmen and Yakuza guys we partied with; the list goes on and on. Nonbei Yokocho is amazing!
Non was an impressive and unmatched hot-bed of friendly, out-going, and fun-loving people.
Even the bartender, Yoshi, was laid-back and unbelievably talkative. He made you feel appreciated and as such it was always very difficult to leave. That is probably a good part of the reason he always Tokyo friends, including the ones mentioned above, our first encounters with each all happened on different individual nights — wild, huh? Amazing that such a little place could pack such a big punch.
Finally, no article on Nonbei Yokocho would be complete without discussing the restrooms. Due to the fact that the bars are so small they do not have any individual bathrooms, there simply is not any space. Instead both customer and yes bartender alike must exit the bar and head to the most northern part of Nonbei Yokocho, where the two main parallel alleys are connected by a small perpendicular side street, similar to an upside-down U. It is on this narrow connecting street that you will find a male restroom, three side-by-side urinals behind a pair of swinging doors a la American-Western style, as well as two locking female restrooms, of which each bar has a copy of the keys to.
Oh and a heads-up note for the ladies: it is best to familiarize yourself with squat toilets before visiting Nonbei Yokocho, lest you have a drunken learning experience you won’t soon forget 😉
And yes, the bartender does abandon his post and leave the customers alone if he must use the restroom. However as Japanese society is very polite and honest I never once saw anyone abuse this momentary lapse of freedom to snag a free drink. However if you really want to experience the more extreme end of all that Tokyo nightlife offers, the Shibuya clubs a few hundred metres away are the place to go!
Shibuya Nightlife & Bar Hopping
Because I lived in Shibuya for six months, I had plenty of time to learn all the local bars and clubs one by one. If that is not an option for you, the best way to fully enjoy Shibuya is to have a local guide. I recommend Magical Trip’s Shibuya Bar Hopping Tour — you’ll go on a pub crawl with a friendly local guide who speaks great English. This not only gives you the chance to experience Japanese nightlife but also to learn the subtleties and rules of drinking in Japanese culture. You’ll visit 3 bars through this tour, having some unique Japanese food like Wagyu (Japanese beef) sushi, Japanese style fried chicken, beef sushi rolls…etc with some delicious Japanese beer, sake and/or other unique drinks.
What’s so unique about this tour is the following things. First, this is the small tour normally up to 7 people including a guide, which makes it much easier to get close to the others. You are guaranteed to make some new friends over drinks. Second, the guides from Magical Trip are amazing, just like me 😉 They all are super friendly and bright so that you’ll definitely feel welcomed like being with a close friend. In addition, they are very knowledgeable as well as they are trained a lot to be a guide of Magical Trip, so this tour will be a great chance for you to get a deeper insight into Japanese culture.
Enjoy tasty Japanese food and drink with a great guide and some new friends, what else do you need? Kanpai, Drink, Smile, you’ll end up with a full of satisfaction!