Bringing the Asian Night Market to a Former Tokyo Black Market District
Willow Alley (Yanagi koji) is a drinking street directly southwest of Nishi-Ogikubo station, constructed around a single historic tenement-style long house (nagaya), in a former black-market area dating from the immediate postwar era. The name “Willow Alley” has already featured in several reports in this series, though it might not register with many residents of Nishi-Ogikubo. However, if you mentioned the Thai izakaya “Handsome Shokukdo” to them, most would nod in recognition. More than any other business, Handsome created Willow Alley’s image as a drinking street that combines an atmosphere of a post-war black market with the sounds, smells and aesthetics of South East Asian night market.
For this story, we interviewed one of Handsome’s owners, Mishina Keisuke. Handsome opened in 2001. When we asked about the name, the owner demurred, “It’s just a name that came up. No special meaning.” That being said, the restaurant was opened by four good-looking young men, who clearly challenged the image of Willow Alley as a place where male salarymen gathered to drink with aging bar hostesses in snack bars along the alley. They began to attract young people of both sexes. Although they didn’t have a deep relationship to Thailand, they marketed Handsome as a Thai izakaya. “We tried all sorts of things, before settling on Thai food,” Mishina said. In the end, they brought not only exotic flavors to the area, but gave Willow Lane its current image as a Tokyo drinking street with a youthful cosmopolitan flare.
The original idea had been to open a place in Kichijoji, where they had been working before. But rents were too high, so they had to look at neighboring Nishiogi. The business environment they found in “Willow Alley” at the time was dire. “Most of the places were looking for tenants. It was all empty shops, and the place was completely dark at night. There were only a few places in businesses. There were just a few old ‘snack bars’ where elderly staff waited on elderly customers. Pretty much just ‘Beni’ over there was the only place in business.”
As a former “blue-line district” (informal red-light district), the reputation of Willow Alley had always been very negative among Nishiogi residents. “For people born in Nishiogi, when they were kids, their parents would tell them, ‘don’t go down that street!’ Especially for girls, it was a street that they shouldn’t walk down.”
Even over the past fifteen years the types of customers have changed. There are middle-aged customers and more local families. “In the early days, there were more people who would get off the train for a drink on their way home. Now there are more people who come earlier in the evening, starting at six pm when we open. In the old days, rather than coming in early [for dinner], we would be their second or third stop [for drinking]. That was the image of this place. But in recent years we are doing more business with the people living here. And, the neighborhood has become more and more lively. Also, the antique shops were talked up in the media, and there are more people from outside Nishiogi who make a point of coming here on the weekend as a destination. There is more about Nishiogi on television and in magazines. This is a clear difference from ten years ago.”
The image of Willow Alley as purely a drinking street has also changed a bit. “You can see this from the changing balance of food and alcohol sales. In the past, it was almost all alcohol. Now that is changing, bit by bit. More and more people are coming here to eat…. And recently it has been in the news that young people are no longer drinking. In this trade, we can sense this trend is real. We sell less alcohol. From a business perspective, we obviously must admit that alcohol sales are much easier. This would be true with most all retail businesses. But with the alcohol business you have to be open until the early morning, so it is hard to say which is really better.”
Now, the restaurant has expanded to three street front locations along the alley, all narrow spaces with the exposed wooden features of the postwar “long house” combined with decorative elements from Thailand. More customers are coming to eat, rather than just to drink. There are ten people in the kitchen preparing the food, all Japanese. The cooking is divided among three kitchens in the three locations, and staff rush with dishes to and from the shops along the narrow, crowded alley. "Although the main kitchen is here (the second shop), there are kitchens doing different things in each store. The frying kitchen is separate, for example. Fried things are done in the smallest shop. Here we do the things that sell the most, like the Thai-style winter hot pot. The preparations for that pot are done in the kitchen right here. Even though it is inefficient, for customers it makes an interesting spectacle."
With the spicy fragrance of Thai cooking, scurrying staff, the colorful design elements, and open store-front design, Handsome injects the atmosphere of Thai street food into Willow Alley. This effect was deliberate. “I was really conscious of the night markets,” Mishina said. “It is no longer really complete now but I bought a whole Thai street stall and brought it over and installed the kitchen in it [parts are still visible]. This is how we have conceived the image of the business.”
The most popular dish is Thai charcoal grilled chicken, or gai yang, and they also serve grilled pork and beef. And there are various daily specials. "It's not a very complicated cuisine, but it's an interesting cuisine,” Mishina said. “Rather than spices, it uses herbs, a lot of raw herbs, not a lot of dry spices like Indian cuisine. "
From the beginning, staff members went to Thailand twice a year and studied by eating their way around. "Even now we are all going to Thailand every year. Half of the shop will go for training at the end of this month."
By now the focus of the owners is on creative, rather than simply traditional, Thai cuisine. "Now with daily dishes ... I am making potato salad. But, of course, I also like to put in coconut milk. And recently we also have izakaya style dishes that are not pure Thai cuisine. I heard that this kind of thing is also becoming popular in Thailand. When we go there, we find that the food in Thailand is also changing more and more. It’s not the same as in the old days, and fusion is becoming popular. I go to such places, as well, and l try to reproduce as much as possible what I really enjoyed eating, not completely inventing new things here. "
The owners of Handsome retain some of their social connections with older shops on the street. "When we started up here, there were many elderly owners in Willow Alley, but there were also a few people who came into our shop from that time. For example, the carpenter who worked on fixing up this place, after he retired, he still occasionally comes by our shop... There is also the lady Kaoru who was operating a snack bar across the street. Even after she closed her place down, she will still come here drinking every day, maybe today as well. … I think we were really taken care of by the people here when we came in, and were able to build a good relationship with them. When we came here, we were really the new people, young and inexperienced.... But, slowly, over time we developed deep relationships. "
There is a transnational and historical aspect of Willow Alley. Over its fifteen years, Handsome has brought youthful energy to Willow Alley while playing up its nostalgic atmosphere. It also has created a unique fusion street food culture based in a postwar Tokyo black market district but simultaneously associated this with the night markets of continental Asia. (James Farrer, April 24, 2017)