I met Alessandro Bioletti in Omoide Yokocho, a tiny space in Shinjuku tucked away by the west exit of Shinjuku Station. It’s a block of old buildings perhaps 100 by 40 meters in total. But in these buildings, and down the smoky, cramped alleyways that link them to the streets outside, are some 80 different restaurants and bars, perhaps no bigger than a single room each, squeezed in shoulder to shoulder. It’s a place where seats spill out into the street along with laughter, shouting, talking, and revelry.
Omoide Yokocho is a microcosm of Japanese food culture—soba, yakitori, tempura, ramen, sushi, kushiyaki, yakiniku, gyouza, izakayas, coffeeshops—and a portal into a world that feels altogether different to the labyrinth of Shinjuku Station. Different to the neon lights of nearby Kabukicho. This is a place for people to cut loose, have a drink, and eat.
Alessandro and I stood in a quiet corner, watching strangers share counter space while passersby jostled against each other to get by. But this cramped, communal atmosphere, said Alessandro, was his favorite thing about the place.
“What’s interesting,” he said, “is that a variety of people, and not just Japanese but foreigners too, can eat and drink together.”
When I mentioned that you couldn’t avoid sitting with strangers even if you wanted to, Alessandro smiled. He said that even if you don’t know each other, you can drink and become friends.
The location seemed to fit with Alessandro’s style of illustration—pictures of people and their everyday lives, with a playful sense of eccentricity and the absurd. He said Omoide Yokocho was full of interesting things to draw and to express, and he hoped to capture the spirit of communication that ran through the heart of it.
“Sometimes just going to the toilet, you might bump into people or tumble, and that becomes a point for communication. There are all sorts of places you can draw to make people laugh, and are funny.”
He said these sorts of places made the most sense to him—places that held in them the heart of the downtown district. Places that brought people together through food and drink.
Places where people lost themselves to flowing beer, local food, and constant chatter.
And I wondered if maybe that was the whole point—to forget about the world outside by creating a new one apart from it. It seemed an apt description for the sights, sounds, smell, and feel of Omoide Yokocho.