Checking Out the Sankaku Chitai

Would you walk down this alley?

What do you imagine when you think of walking down an urban alley? I know back in the U.S. I often associate them with crime, dirt, and bad smells. There’s only a very slim chance I’d ever enter one.

The Sankaku Chitai, day and night

Near Sangenjaya station though is an area of narrow alleys filled with small taverns, izekaya, small restaurants, and even shops. Known as the Sankaku Chitai, these tight little lanes are what are known in Japan as yokocho. In Japanese the word literally means “alleys off the main street,” but it also refers to the small eateries and bars that sit close together on these narrow lanes. Brett and I have walked past these Sangenjaya alleys more times than I can count, but the other day we decided to step off the main street and wander through the area to find out what was there. What we discovered was a safe and clean area loaded with old-school flavor, a place that made us feel like we were stepping back into an older, simpler Tokyo, the one that existed before the onslaught of complex stations, big highrises, shopping centers, and huge apartment complexes. 

Looking back to one end of the Shikaku Chitai’s entrance. The names of various businesses are advertised on the lanterns. There’s another set at the other end of the alley.

The most famous yokocho in Tokyo is probably the Golden Gai in Shinjuku, containing over 270 drinking establishments in seven narrow lanes. However, Sangenjaya’s much smaller Shikaku Chitai, a triangle of alleys that form almost a maze, is also well known, especially for its welcoming atmosphere. Open from early evening until the wee hours of the morning, it has resisted the onslaught of redevelopment in the area, and forms an integral part of the neighborhood.

14 thoughts on “Checking Out the Sankaku Chitai

  1. Those aren’t exactly what I think of when I think of an alley. 😁 They look interesting, and as you said, less frantic than the main streets. So I would definitely consider wandering through. Your adventures are always interesting!

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    1. When we initially passed by them (last year) we weren’t sure what was going on – there were lanterns, signs, etc. but even then it still looked like nothing more than backdoors to other establishments. But we did wander through from time to time, but still having no idea of what was really going on or how well the area was known. Now we’d like to go eat there! Apparently it’s one of the hippest places in Tokyo to hang out.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! You discovered hidden gems many of us may not have chosen to investigate. Did you get the sense those alley stores and restaurants were more of a local treasure than for tourists/visitors? Could you tell if prices were less or more than main areas?
    Thank you for sharing so now we know too!
    Sonja

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    1. We had no idea how well-known this area was. Even when I finally read about it and checked the map, I was sure this area wasn’t the Sankaku Chitai. It is very well known in Tokyo though, and currently one of the hippest places to hang out.

      I have no idea what prices are like there, but supposedly they are very reasonable. The okonomiyaki place we want to try sits on the edge of the area and their prices looked reasonable.

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  3. So interesting! These are the kind of places I love to explore. You really never know what to expect and it is fun to find new things. We found an alley in San Francisco where a small basketball court was hidden behind the main streets. The buildings were built up all around and you would never know it was there. There were a ton of people on the court and others ducking in and out of the shops surrounding it. A very different setting than most of the basketball courts in my neighborhood which are surrounded by parks and trees.

    Also, you should look into the podcast episode by 99% Invisible called “Mini Stories – Volume 6” It is all about the New York alley (yes, that is singular).

    M’Shell

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    1. We really didn’t know what to expect, and had no idea these alleys were the famous Sankaku Chitai! We had passed down them from time to time as a shortcut but usually use an “nicer” alley that’s been covered over and tiled – lots of small shops and restaurants but no longer part of the Sankaku Chitai.

      Brett and I would love to walk through the Golden Gai, but are trying to avoid crowds/tourists these days so that probably won’t happen.

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  4. I’d definitely walk down those alleys. The banners. The lateens. All looks so inviting. My son worked in the ski fields in Japan last winter. He loved visiting the tiny tiny bars in alleyways in Tokyo. He said businessmen would come in and shout all the young western travellers a drink and then leave. So friendly, welcoming and generous.

    Love the photos.

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    1. The alleys are especially inviting in the evening when the lanterns are lit and the lights are on. During the days they’re safe and clean, but still sort of seedy looking (which I guess is part of their charm, old Tokyo and all). We’ve used them as shortcuts before but never had any idea of their cultural or historical significance. We’d love to go there one evening for a meal (and drink), but I’m not sure we’re hip enough.

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  5. Thank you so much for your adventurous travels and thank you for giving us, your readers, a glimpse into the great culture of Japan. I will probably never travel to Japan but through your blog we are all given an opportunity to experience an interesting culture. Thank you!

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    1. Thank you! After several visits here this time we’re concentrating on smaller or less well-known spots in Tokyo that highlight Japanese culture just as well as the more famous places. The day-to-day neighborhood stuff here is still interesting to us and fascinating to observe. I’ve been a Japanophile for 50 years and still feel like I barely understand anything about this place – besides family it’s what keeps me coming back.

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    1. I think every city has its alleys, some more benign than others (we saw some alleys in Rome I would NOT go into, for example). I was so glad to learn more about yokocho from this experience, and why places like this have been allowed to remain in always-changing, modern Tokyo.

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  6. Thank you thank you for another glimpse into Tokyo’s landscape! It’s the variety that fascinates me. Although I can’t read Japanese I notice that there are different restaurants, small convenience store, bars.etc For some reason I thought there would be a lot of flower shops in Tokyo as they are famous for their ikebana. Have you notice any of those?

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    1. There are a lot of flower shops in Tokyo! Most of the businesses in the yokocho though are dedicated to eating and drinking.

      When I first came to Japan as a teenager, I was amazed by the number of flower shops and was told that Japanese see flowers/plants/etc. as a necessity rather than a luxury. There are ALWAYS people shopping at the flower shops in our neighborhood – right now branches with cherry blossom or plum buds are quite popular.

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