Long time no see Cozy followers! Apologies for my recent and abrupt absence this month. While I’ve been busy juggling a real life with Cozy life, I never like to disappoint. Which is why, during an international business trip to my favorite city, I went out of my way each night after work to uncover cozy experiences, just for you! I can easily say I have returned with an absurd amount of cozy material (and at least five pounds heavier) and I am beyond excited to share my stories with you.
Here’s the gist…Japan and I have a bit of a history. Japan is the only country I where I have multiple entry stamps on my passport for. Entries are sweet, departures are bitter, and my time here tastes of all the sensational flavors in between. My relationship with this city goes back to my days as an exchange student at a university in Tokyo. Those days were nostalgic and blissfully surreal as I embodied a culture and accepted it with open arms.
But on my most recent visit, I’ve discovered a side of Tokyo I thought I’d never be able to see – tense, rigid, and uptight. It’s transformed into an environment I have to wrestle with to understand it’s rigidity and seemingly unnecessary tensions. Now more than ever it has become drastically apparent to me, that finding cozy in Tokyo is key to surviving life in a vast metropolis…where you are but one soul floating among millions 0f others.
So here’s my take on how to find cozy in Tokyo…
For those of you unfamiliar with the Japanese culture, from the outside there may seem like a lot of rules in place – you have to sit this way, hold your chopsticks that way, bow at this angle, stand on this side of the escalator, walk on that side, and so and so forth. As if the language barrier wasn’t enough for most, if you’re not accustomed to the etiquette and having to maintain politeness, it can be physically taxing and emotionally draining even.
On top of that, Tokyo is a mega city. People enjoy the glam, the bright banners of light, brand names, quality goods, and status. “Down to earth”, “low key”, and “homey” are words hard to come by in this city, but they do exist. But pursue your cozy spots with caution, once you find the most secret spot in Tokyo, you’ll have to work an immense amount of overtime to keep it that way. This is where fads go to claim their fame. In a city of people obsessed and fueled by the latest trend, the coziness of a dining experience and sincerity of a diner vanishes before you can say, “itadakimasu.”
Lucky for you I’m a terrible millennial, quite positive I was born a few decades after my time. My method of choice for finding cozy is to always go old school. Finding warmth in traditional, old fashioned ways, infused with colorful stories, overflowing with legends, and steeped in captivating history.
I stick to the simple foods – uncomplicated, unpretentious, and unornamented.
I stick to the messy settings where the salary men go to let their hair down (if they have any) and have a drink.
Where the tencho (store owner) doesn’t just pour your drinks but exchanges stories and provides wise sage-like advice.
Where the people eating next to you become your best friends for the evening and for future evenings to come.
This is where I cozy.
Since the postwar days, smoke billows night and day from these rickety wooden yakitori stalls lining the tracks near the busiest train station in the world. Known as Omoide Yokocho or Memory Lane in Shinjuku, this alley was at some point a market selling daily necessities, a blackmarket, and an illegal drinking quarter in the postwar era. The narrow side streets naturally became a prime spot for cheap drinks and street food. The area conveniently provided social space for local residents who were otherwise unable to afford luxuries such as meat and alcohol in an impoverished, postwar economy. Not long after, the area developed into dozens of tiny legitimate businesses and restaurants, still offering up the same warm, whole hearted hospitality for the past 50 years.
History played its part and back in the 1940s, this area became known for its trade in animal organs, with liver and intestines being sold, explaining why much of the stalls in Omoide Yokocho serve yakitori, oden, or asadachi. In fact I find that all of the food in Omoide Yokocho has one thing in common…
You see, I have a theory, that delicious grub like yakitori, oden, and asadachi can be considered Japanese Soul Food if you will. They bring people together in raw, unfiltered, and honest settings precisely because these foods must be consumed without inhibition. The only true way to enjoy these tasty morsels is to eat without worrying how much you’re drinking between bites of steamy oden or what you look like biting pasty grilled liver off of a bamboo skewer. Because there’s just something special that happens when you and the neighbor you’re bumping elbows with both dine without inhibition and let your true selves enjoy the food.
So why here? Why come to the grungiest alleyway in Tokyo that once earned the nickname “Piss Alley” with good reason? Because the people provide the warmth. Their openness and genuine intrigue in getting to know a stranger over a bottle of sake is what keeps me warm. What keeps me coming back is the camaraderie of being a regular diner and unexpectedly running into old friends who were once strangers sitting across the bar. Where the seats are so so closely set and the counter space so limited I can’t help but eventually buying a few skewers to share, just because. And the nights where I savor the lively company around the bar and end up having to dash to the last train of the evening…yes, these are the nights I come here for.
Moments like this are what keep me cozy and warm tucked away from the bright city lights and cold drafts between massive concrete towers. It all makes for an experience I quite can’t forget…or in the case of one too many beers, I do forget.
But I always know it’s where I enjoyed to my hearts fullest and truest content.