The Tokyo suburb of Kichi-joji boasts a subculture scene that attracts many visitors during the day. However, this area is also a huge magnet for office workers at night. This crowd heads straight to the narrow alleys just outside the east exit of Kichi-joji station… to Harmonica Yokocho alley. The mini-maze like lanes are packed with more than 100 shops including bars and restaurants. This neighborhood is increasingly popular with tourists too. To find out more, we visited and asked people who actually work there to recommend their favorite places to eat and drink. We found plenty of culinary delights just by word of mouth.
- All prices are dated as of August 2019, when this article was written.
Harmonica Alley's lively nightscape
Harmonica Alley: a quintessential stop in Kichijoji
Harmonica Alley is about a 30-second walk from Kichi-joji Station. The alley has more than 100 small bars and restaurants that are arranged in a way that resembles is namesake instrument.
Harmonica Alley is one of Kichi-joji’s popular bar streets with many izakaya taverns. Many office workers gather here on weekday nights, while tourists flood the streets on weekends.
Although nighttime may seem like the best time to visit, many shops do open during the day and serve lunch.
Harmonica Alley was originally a post-war black market
Harmonica Alley started out as one of the many black markets that flourished across Japan immediately after the Second World War.
As these markets were illegal, they were hidden away in narrow back streets. The markets eventually disappeared, but the back alleys stayed and became home to what is today's Harmonica Alley .
Charming red lanterns
Harmonica Alley consists of five alleyways lined with mostly bars and restaurants.
We were ready to seek out the best ones. We visited Kichi-joji and asked people working in Harmonica Alley to recommend their favorite food places. Let’s take a look at the four shops we visited.
Harmonica Alley's best places to eat according to local waiters
We visited on a weekday at 8PM, arriving at Kichi-joji Station on a train packed with commuters. We spotted Harmonica Alley’s bright signboard just outside the station’s east exit. We were anxious to step inside to explore the maze of shops.
Signboard at the entrance of Harmonica Alley"
I had the perfect company to share a few drinks while covering this area. One of my colleagues had been here many times.
We walked through the entire area before deciding on where to visit first. Despite being a Tuesday, we noticed many shops had their shutters rolled down.
Not many people were around either.
I wanted to eat meat and we went looking for our first place. As we reached the center alleyway, we spotted a restaurant with a cowboy western feel.
Jolly-Pad has an American feel
They accepted our request for an interview for this article. And this is how we landed in our first restaurant called Jolly-pad, which serves international cuisine.
Tuck into hearty meat dishes at Jolly-pad
Once inside the restaurant, we noticed the décor was similar to bars featured in old US western movies. We soon learned that the restaurant imitates a US-bar like atmosphere.
A diner with a 1960s feel of the US
As soon as we sat at a table in the back of the room, we immediately ordered food and drinks. Based on recommendations by the restaurant owner, we ordered a kebab platter and a tortilla-based pizza.
"Kampai!" cheers with beer and oolong tea
As we had our first drinks of the night, we noticed more customers trickling in. The restaurant was getting noisy. Apparently, we had arrived a little early in Harmonic Yokocho Alley. The night here starts only after 8PM.
Right after we made a toast, the waiter brought us the restaurant’s signature dish.
Each of the three gigantic kebabs of beef, pork and chicken were 30 centimeters long. The pork and chicken were seasoned with salt, while the beef skewer was coated with a special BBQ-sauce. Both flavors were delicious.
Jolly-pad has a Wild West feel, so we chose to eat wildly too... directly from the skewers.
Platter of BBQ skewers cooked over charcoal （1,300 yen）
Our next dish arrived shortly after. The tortilla-based pizza was a tiny pizza that was slightly larger than my palm. It was topped with anchovies, tuna, olives, and oregano.
It was a light pizza, despite the tuna and anchovies hidden under a generous serving of cheese. We loved the extra thin and crispy tortilla crust.
The tiny pizza was the perfect size to pair with drinks.
tiny tortilla-pizza （550 yen）
After savoring American-inspired food, we decided to make a move to our next stop.
The underlying rule for the night was to visit food places recommended by local restaurant staffers. The people at Jolly-pad suggested we try yakitori grilled chicken served down the road. And this is how we landed at Kushi.com.
kushi.com at Asahi dori lane
More reasons to make a toast: mega-sized drinks and yakitori chicken at kushi.com
Kushi.com is all about yakitori grilled chicken. Kushi is Japanese for skewers, on which the yakitori is cooked. At the door, we told them that Jolly-Pad had referred us here. Kushi.com accepted our request to cover them in this article.
This place had tables upstairs and was larger than we expected. It was already packed inside. We were seated at a table in front of the entrance and ordered drinks.
counter seats are perfect for solo-drinkers
The drinks menu included a gigantic whiskey and soda, which was almost twice the size of a normal beer jug. The 700-milliliter size highball is a delightful choice for heavy drinkers like myself. As for food, we ordered what we came for; yakitori chicken. We ordered a platter that consisted of five different pieces. We also asked the staff for recommendations and decided on having chicken skin with ponzu, or tangy citrus flavored sauce.
I also spotted one of my favorite dishes on the menu. Motsuni is stewed giblets. We ended up ordering three dishes.
Shortly after placing our order, the motsuni hotpot arrived.
motsuni stew (580 yen）
The hotpot had been slow cooked for hours in sweet miso-soybean paste and the intestines have a texture that melts in one’s mouth. It had a surprisingly mild and appetizing taste. We later found that the restaurant also had a rice bowl topped with motsuni stew. My colleague with me that day said it was the best thing to finish off drinking alcohol. Motsuni stew is a satisfying dish to enjoy during or after drinking.
The waiter brought the chicken skin with ponzu sauce.
chicken skin with ponzu sauce (500 yen）
This dish is made of thinly sliced strips of chicken skin marinated in a housemade tangy ponzu sauce. This dish usually uses deep fried chicken skin. But the one we ordered was boiled skin. It had a lighter taste and pleasantly matched with the ponzu-sauce. It was very delicious and we could not stop eating.
Both appetizers paired well with our drinks and we were anxious to try the yakitori chicken. On this day, the platter included tan (tongue), sunagimo(gizzards), tsunune (meatballs), momo(thigh), and bonjiri (tail).
The grilled surface was coated with a slightly rich and salty sauce, making them the perfect side dish for drinks. We enjoyed them the authentic way – munching directly off the skewer!
Platter of five yakitori skewers（780 yen）
We were beginning to feel full from the delicious food and drinks. By then, we had spent about 7,000 yen in total, which seemed quite reasonable. We were ready to move on and explore other places.
The staff recommended a nearby izakaya tavern for its cozy ambience. When we arrived there, they declined to be interviewed. Sadly, the tables were already full too. Seems we were out of luck.
The night was still young so we decided to go look for places on our own. There were still many options around to continue bar hopping.
We randomly picked one shop to ask its staff for recommendations. However, all the suggested places were closed on that day. Was it time to call it a day?
Pucker up for Japanese pickles at Tsukemono Bar 4328 (Shimizuya)
We decided to leave Harmonica Alley’s mini-maze and instead look around the main road. We spotted an enchanting building with a retro-looking signboard. Tsukemono Bar 4328 (Shimizuya) is an old favorite among locals for Japanese pickles. It also doubles as a bar.
A staff came down the stairs as we were admiring the signboard. We asked for an interview and we were warmly welcomed. We were offered us a charming table facing the road. Our Harmonica Alley bar-crawl was on again.
Charming old wooden signboard
First floor with tatami and counter seating. Second floor is standing only
The menu is focused on homemade pickles. We ordered the Shimizuya set, which includes three types of pickles and kimchi quail eggs, which is a popular item.
It was sheer bliss to feel the night breeze while enjoying pickles and drinks.
The Shimizuya set that day consisted of purple shibazuke pickles, Chinese zasai pickles, and nukazuke pickles which are fermented in salted rice bran. I was amazed at how different pickling methods resulted in different tastes and textures of the vegetables.
My favorite was the nukazuke. They had just the right balance of savory and sourness. These pickles had an almost addictive taste.
Shimizuya set（500 yen）and kimchi quail eggs（400 yen）
The kimchi quail eggs are the most popular item on the menu. The eggs are marinated in a special kimchi sauce. Instead of the usual red colored sauce, these eggs are dipped in a clear sauce. The eggs are said to absorb more flavor this way.
This produces a perfect balance of sweet quail eggs and spicy kimchi sauce.
Our stomachs were already full but we still managed to find room for the pickles. This was already our third restaurant of the night, yet we kept finding great food and drinks.
Before we left, we asked the Shimizuya proprietor to recommend us another restaurant. We returned to the narrow alleys in search for RON-RON 2, a Kyushu food place.
Sample Kyushu specialties and shochu at RON-RON 2:
It was past 11PM by the time we arrived at RON-RON 2. However, it was quite busy there. The counter had many guests standing, some of whom were socializing with the bar owner. There were also many solo drinkers. It seemed like a great bar to visit with or without company. As soon as we secured a table, we raised our glasses for the last time.
RON-RON is located in the eastern area of Harmonica Alley
Many standing drinkers
Most of the alcohol is from Kyushu. This part of Japan is famous for shochu spirits made from sweet potatoes or barley. The bar also serves rare shochu varieties of brown sugar, chestnuts, and shiso herb leaves. We had the sweet potato shochu, which is always a safe but delicious choice.
We paired our drinks with the bar’s popular chicken wings stuffed with gyoza filling. We also ordered a local specialty of Nagasaki – salt-cured mullet roe with daikon radish, and deep-fried potatoes.
It was a steaming hot day in August so we did not order any hot dishes. But the menu had delicious items such as oden hot pot. We hope to come back to try this during cooler weather.
We waited a while for our food to arrive.
chicken wings stuffed with gyoza filling （600 yen), salt-cured mullet roe with daikon radish (400 yen) and deep fried potatoes（500 yen）
Salt-cured and dried mullet roe, or Karasumi, is a local specialty of Nagasaki, southwestern Japan. It is not exactly everyone’s taste. However, it was very delicious with daikon radish and will surely please all palates. It had the distinctive saltiness of Karasumi roe without any fishlike smell. It perfectly complimented the juicy and sweet daikon radish, and had a refreshing taste.
The potatoes we had ordered were actually mashed potatoes that were rolled into balls and deep-fried. They were bite-sized, and easy to eat.
The teba-gyoza chicken wings were packed with gyoza-filling. They were served with a sauce similar to tangy ponzu sauce. The juicy pork filling spread in the mouth with each bite.
By the time we finished our three dishes and shochu from Kyushu, it was time to catch the last train. It was the end of our culinary and drinks quest in Harmonica Alley.
We sampled fantastic food in Harmonica Alley, thanks to many restaurant staffers. We owe a lot to them for a great night out.