In the heart of large Japanese cities we often find nomiya yokocho, narrow alleys lined with many small bars and restaurants each with only about 2 meters of frontage. Most of these neighborhoods arose in the post-World War II recovery period and still retain much of the rowdier atmosphere of those days. Although redevelopment, aging wooden buildings, and issues of sanitation have contributed to the disappearance of many sites, some still do brisk business and even attract foreign tourists.

The present paper seeks to clarify the factors in the appeal of nomiya yokocho. This question might be approached in terms of three aspects: environmental, behavioral, and sociocultural. Environmental features include the physical design of the buildings and other elements, as well as the sounds and smells to be found inside the alley. The behavioral category has to do with activities such as walking about the alley or striking up conversations with strangers at a drinking establishment. Finally, the sociocultural aspect covers such considerations as the image attached to drinking alleys and the tacit rules governing patron behavior. While all three aspects are closely integrated, our study focuses mainly on the second (behavioral) and its relationship to the others.

Our survey site was Omoide Yokocho (“memory alley”) near Shinjuku station in Tokyo, which we chose because the interiors of most of its drinking establishments could be viewed from the alley, albeit to differing degrees. We interviewed people and observed their activities in three surveys at three different locations: 1) the streets around the alley, 2) in the alley, and 3) inside drinking establishments. To begin we compared pedestrian traffic density in the alley and the surrounding streets. Pedestrian traffic was relatively high in the alley, despite its narrow 2-meter width. Interviews at the alley exit revealed that more than half the people who walk through have no particular purpose except to take in the atmosphere of the old days. For the second survey, we observed pedestrian behavior in the alley by extracting footage from three video cameras for the first 10 minutes of every hour from 5 pm to 12 am, resulting in a total of 3 x 80 minutes’ worth of data. We focused on one specific behavior, namely the action of looking around while walking; analysis showed that facade design, in particular the degree of visibility from the alley, influenced pedestrians’ eye direction. In the third survey, we observed customer activity inside drinking venues. One interesting characteristic that emerged was the frequency of conversation among customers who did not know each other, something that is rare in other bars and restaurants in Japan. Further investigation suggested this interaction among strangers to be a consequence of the limited space: for instance, one often needs to ask fellow customers to give way while weaving through to one’s own seat. Besides this physical factor, sociocultural considerations such as the attitudes of shop managers and the presence of local rules were found to affect levels of customer interaction.