Yokochos, a Perfect Third Place
issue 03 - my notes from emergent tokyo: designing the spontaneous city
Hi everyone! Quick life update :)
I spent this summer thinking a lot about what exactly about urbanism interests me. As you can tell from my first Substack piece published in February, my reasoning was pretty abstract (“I want to fix urban sprawl” or “Software moves so fast but the improvement of our physical spaces is so slow”).
My plan for 2022 summer was to figure out what topics were really compelling. I ended up doing two things to figure this out:
June-August 2022: Interning at Culdesac exposed me to a lot of subtopics for the first time, like open space, walkability, public transportation, real estate.
These questions really interest me (and will be the main topics of Milky Cities from now!)
How do we cultivate community intimacy through space?
Can a certain design for streets, parks, or greenscapes push people closer together?
What makes a great third place?
How can tactical urbanism (flexible, short-term city projects) help test these hypotheses?
To answer them, I’ve been reading Emergent Tokyo: Designing the Spontaneous City (strongly rec reading through even if you’re not into urbanism). The book explains the magic that is Japan—one of the few places that’s been able to uphold strong neighborhood life in a bustling metropolitan city.
Today’s piece will be a dive into Yokochos, or Japan’s alleyways tucked away and hidden from main streets. They’re a phenomenon amongst urban planners because they’re considered the “dark” or “deep” side of Tokyo—a pedestrian oasis.
They’re the backbone of neighborhood life–a third place filled with snack shops, restaurants, and bars for locals (old and young) to enjoy, spend time with friends, and gather.
How have these run-down, tiny buildings survived Japan’s ruthless real estate market?
Surprisingly, Yokochos started as black market booths that popped up accidentally after Japan’s wartime defeat. Merchants took whatever space available to sell illegal (often foreign) goods in tiny, makeshift booths. After Japan recovered economically, relocation regulations led to these black market trades evolving into snack and drink spots.
When you walk through a yokocho, you’ll see neighbors speaking casually with business owners over the morning paper. Customers relax in tiny wooden stools, catching up with old friends. The cozy atmosphere has a thick aroma of ramen broth cooking or yakitori grilling 😋
Perhaps one of the most defining characteristics is their intense compactness. Each floor can often only fit 5-6 people that customers sit shoulder to shoulder.
⛩️ Shinjuku’s Golden Gai
This spot offers over 200(!!) themed bars (rock&blues, 80s era, film, gothic, disco, etc.). Wooden structures line 6 narrow alleyways (some wide enough for 1 person at a time). It’s an iconic nightspot that comes alive at 8 pm.
⛩️ Shibuya’s Nombei Yokocho
This alleyway popped around Shibuya station, a prime transportation station. It started as unregulated street stalls in the early 1900s. However, after the 1949 push for stall removal, these merchants moved into formalized buildings, called maaketto (‘markets’).
Amazingly, the remaining 38 bars were able to survive decades of intense re-development pressure from corporations. It’s one of the few yokochos that still possesses the same nostalgic charm from 50 years ago, with only small utility changes.
What can we learn from yokochos?
Compactness fosters community
Most shifts are staffed by a single person (often the owner). While the owner prepared meals or drinks, they exchange jokes and news with regulars who sit right across. Customers also make new friends and meet old ones.
This solidifies yokochos as the perfect third place—a spot where there was a willingness across all parties to engage in spontaneous conversation.
Low business risk enables experimentation
Small storefront allows lower rental fees than usual for a prime location. This allows each chef to build their own business and experiment with unique (or risky) themes.
Low risk = yokocho are able to last! Young, but enthusiastic chefs can now test their idea on a microscale, keeping these vital parts of Japan alive.
Organization of yokochos encourages sharing and outsourcing of infrastructure that further minimizes upfront investment for each individual.
Collective land ownership → shared responsibility
Some yokochos implement multiple land ownership. Instead of having one real estate agency manage and control all building operations, small business owners have shared responsibility in their space! They also have more decision-making power in the alleyway overall.
System gives more freedom to owners and managers to customize the decor of their business … which encourages them to invest in spaces as a long term project.
Thought this was especially interesting because it fosters a unique bottom up approach to good space curation. Each business owner has a great personal attachment to the space they have.
Some yokochos are under redevelopment threats, like the Yanagi Koji
Stores are under the control of 1 real estate agency. This decreases resistance efforts against displacement, whereas individual store owners would be more incentivized.
A micro-ecosystem of stores creates the most unique experiences
Technically, yokocho bars do “compete” for customers. But the culture is centered around bar hopping (because so many bars are packed in the tight spatial configuration), which somewhat encourages cooperation amongst bar owners. Diverse offerings include:
Decorations centered around themes
International cuisine offerings
I love the way the author puts it: “a third place full of third places”
Embrace characteristics—not standards
Each alleyway has its own style and quirks, which is very unlike the homogenization of American shopping malls. If we took 2 malls, one in Michigan vs one in California, you probably can’t tell which was which. More on that here
Some owners even allow regulars to bring their own vinyls, film, posters, and figurines to decorate the shelves and walls.
When we decrease standardization, we get beauty in the seemingly ordinary.
That’s about it for this post. Thanks for reading 🥺 I’ll probably publish more pieces on topics from the book!
If you want a quick primer on the problem with US cities, I also wrote this:
subscribe if you want!
If you want to leave any thoughts, feel free to leave a reply or shoot a DM (@chloewchia on twitter). Opinions and critiques welcome :)