It seemed like a good idea at the time. And, like all good idea at the time moments, this one was funded by the Whiskey Council – an organization near and dear to my heart.
I’d just slammed my shot glass down empty, and I was feeling like I could karate chop something. Or tap dance. This was most certainly the whiskey talking. I can neither tap dance nor yell “hai-yah!” with any sincerity. I can always eat, though.
“I’ll have one skewer of grilled womb please.”
“Hai!” She nodded abruptly and turned to go and get the requested sex organ.
She stopped. Looked back. Chris mumbled “Thank God. That was a horrible idea,” thinking I’d changed my mind on eating womb.
“What animal is the womb from?”
I’m not sure why this mattered. For some reason, it felt significantly important.
“Pig. You still want?”
Eating a skewer of grilled pork womb is not as terrible as one might imagine. The anticipation of the womb is worse than eating it. There’s a four-second-window … as it comes towards your mouth … where your brain is partially telling your hand to bring it closer, while also arguing to hurl it into the cat-filled alley, where it belongs. That is really the worst part.
For the sake of this blog post, I wish there were expletives to toss out about the flavor, lamentations or pleads for reader sympathy. I won’t lie when it comes to the donated reproductive organs of a pig, though, because that’s not fair to the pig.
Grilled womb of swine is just kind of spongy. It’s not as tough as T.G.I. Friday’s calamari, but it’s not melting in your mouth either. You’re going to have to put some molar muscle into it.
Grilled pig womb tastes of iron and organ. It’s offal … but it’s not awful. I didn’t eat the rest of the skewer. That was mainly because the girl who served it was prepping raw liver while I ate the first piece, and she kept wiping blood from the pan all over her white t-shirt. It was getting a bit Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the izakaya.
I’m not suggesting you go to Tokyo, get off the plane and run to eat a pig’s uterus. However, if you go to Tokyo, you absolutely need to visit the street where I ate a pig’s uterus – Omoide.
Omoide is a “warm yokocho” (an alley serving mainly hot skewers of meat) inside the Shinjuku neighbhorhood. The first stalls opened here in 1946 at the end of the Second World War. Shinjuku is now a nightlife destination, full toy arcades, blinking neon, strip bars, great restaurants and general merriment after sundown. Back in 1946, it was a place of intense transition. The war had ravaged the city. Displaced, homeless families had to wait in the streets of Shinjuku in order to be relocated to new housing.
With these crowds came the demand for quick food. Stall owners began procuring cast-off bits of chicken and pork from allied forces. Not enough to make a full entree, they were skewered and laid over open fires.
The alley blossomed in reputation as a meeting spot. People began referring to it as “Omoide” or “Memory Corner.” A few bars came in, and the tiny place persisted long after the war’s effects had waned.
There are dozens of yokocho alleys in the area, which comprises what’s known as The Shinjuku West Gate. This one is my favorite street in Tokyo now – possibly the world – because although the vibe has changed, these little enclaves operate in the same manner they did 70 years ago.
Omoide is hard to find, but once there, you’ll understand the effort. This tiny, 400-meter, congested lane is flanked by food stalls, separated by paper walls, bamboo curtains or even strung sections of thick cardboard. Most have open windows to the neighboring stall. Workers share ice, meat and broth through the holes.
Each seats no more than 12 people (sometimes as few as five), and a walk down Memory Lane provides wonderfully dreamy vignettes. It’s a Japanese version of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks … without the glass to separate you from the moment.
Mr. Miyagi’s doppelgänger leans over sputtering flames in one stall, handing chopsticks to laughing, drunken Japanese millennials. Noodles are stretched in the back of another stall over a giant bowl, and up front, they are stretched again from bowls to mouths. The slurping is audible, as is the Suntory whiskey splashing over thin ice. Perfumed smoke snakes off of a 50-year-old hibachi grill facing the alley and disperses in the soft, orange glow from red paper lanterns.
Omoide is so wonderfully nostalgic, it almost feels like a living caricature of the post-war capital.
Everyone searches for the authentic in travel in our age of Internet and instant gratification. We all want that timeless, tucked-away cornerstone that epitomizes a town’s soul.
Omoide is one of those places.
And I’d happily eat grilled womb again if it meant one more walk down Memory Lane.