In Tokyo's 'Drunkard's Alley', Francis Cook makes some cheerful new friends.

Tucked away near the madness of Tokyo's Shibuya Station under a dark bridge, is a dim alley where the lights never go out. It's a hard-to-find spot, tucked away between tall buildings. Two rows of little houses make up the area called Nonbei Yokocho.

Nonbei Yokocho translates to Drunkard's Alley, which is a fitting title as it's near impossible to leave sober. The alley is composed almost exclusively of tiny bars, some of which can only seat four or five patrons.

People familiar with the similar but larger Golden Gai will know what to expect, but down here it's quieter and more intimate.

My friend and I had been wandering around Shibuya for hours: we'd eaten, we'd shopped, and we'd seen the sights. We were tired, sore and ready for a drink.


There are thousands of great bars in Tokyo, but it can be hard to find one.

We ducked into a subterranean hip-hop club called Gaspanic, because I thought the name was enticing. It was loud and, well, panic-inducing. Steel grating covering almost every surface and exclusively red lighting, made it a little intense for a couple of sober gaijin.

They did play Hotline Bling though.

Looking for a hiding place to smoke (it's banned on many streets in Tokyo) we ended up under a bridge where we spotted the seedy-looking alley we fell in love with.

Grumpy and thirsty, I picked a bar at random - it had seemingly no name and, being the size of a large wardrobe there was no space for signs. When we went in, a couple in the corner began laughing and talking in Japanese. I instantly assumed they were laughing at us. The bartender, arms crossed and leaning back, wasn't reassuring either.

I asked for two beers. Before we went to drink, the guy in the couple (sitting right next to me) raised his glass and said "cheers". After that we chatted all night. The bartender took a while to warm up but ended up being a great translator and all-round funny guy.

I realised that the laughter and talking as we entered was their attempt to greet us, which we had rudely ignored.

As other people came and went from the bar it was hard not to believe everyone knew each other. The level of friendliness and familiarity was incredible. The language barrier dissolved as a system of translation, body language and recognition naturally developed. The beer on tap was a delicious local craft beer that was smooth and silky. I tried a spritzer because the couple were so devoutly drinking them, and I hadn't had wine since I got to Japan. Yeah. Don't drink wine in Japan.

The sake started to follow later in the evening, with Johnny, our bartender, generously letting us try four types for the cost of two.

All together it came to 6000 yen, roughly $70.

I was talking to my friend the other day about how I was going to write this and he said he wished he could go back.

Me too, buddy.



Air New Zealand flies daily direct from Auckland to Tokyo, with one-way Economy Class fares starting from $769.