Archive for the ‘izakaya’ Category

Nihon Saisei Sakuba: offal, offal, lovely offal

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010

Nihon Saisei Sakuba is Tokyo at its low-down liveliest. This standing-room-only tachinomiya eatery, in the center of one of Shinjuku’s busiest entertainment districts, sells the highest quality pork motsu offal, carefully grilled on bamboo skewers over binchotan charcoals.

The extensive menu, pasted onto two thick pieces of cardboard, lists delicacies such as larynx, spleen, birth canal, tongue, choice uterus, brain, rectum, diaphragm, and cartilage—all at rock bottom prices.

The restaurant is supplied with the best quality offal from its parent butcher shop in Chofu, a nearby suburb. Don’t let any preconceptions deter you. These grilled innards are surprisingly delicious. Try the mixed plate of five sticks with a dab of fiery mustard.

Grilled vegetables such as shiitake, long onions, and shishito-togarashi sweet green peppers, are excellent too. And don’t miss the grilled “bread rolls” made with rice flour.

College students stand next to middle-aged salarymen, who stand elbow to elbow with laborers, as they quaff down mugs of draft beer or tumblers of shochu. The name saisei sakuba means re-energize yourself. And that’s exactly what this place does for you.

The joint fills up quickly, but that makes it even more fun.

3-7-3 Shinjuku. Tel: 03-3354-4829. Open daily from 3pm to midnight. Nearest subway station: Shinjuku san-chome, Exit C3. Marunouchi Line.

Northside Asagaya: Star Road

Monday, July 20th, 2009

Northside Asagaya Buchi

Northside Asagaya is a hip, bohemian enclave of easily a hundred bars, pubs, restaurants, wine bars, snack pubs, coffee shops, and assorted spots for entertainment.

Northside Asagaya ItalianSpots like Buchi Yakiniku (above), or what must be Tokyo’s narrowest Italian restaurant, the newly-opened Don Tsucchi, barely wider that its double door entrance.

Lovely little shops like the art gallery/milk bar, Inelle, (below) are crowded up against raucous-sounding bars like Jamb Jamb and bars overgrown with potted plants and lost umbrellas hanging from door jambs.Northside Asagaya Inelle

Left out of the station and left again takes you into the delta area called Star Road, the main branch of which runs parallel to the tracks. But like any great river, Star Road is fed by many smaller alleys, lanes, and passageways, all of which also seem to be named Star Road.

Northside Asagaya spare umbrellasNorthside Asagaya jazz n' booozThe bars, shops, pubs and eateries are crowded shoulder to shoulder, like passengers on a rush hour train. There are coffee shops open for breakfast and joints that open only after 10 pm, places for Japanese saké and places for “Jazz ‘N Boozz.”

Most of the places are slowly deteriorating into rust and sun-rotted wood. But the owners, both young and old, have spunk and grit: new wire will hold up a sagging sign, a poster thumb-tacked to a door will serve as remodeling, and a fresh coat of paint on the door will hopefully attract enough customers to pay the bills.

North Asagaya Star road wiresAnywhere along your way down Star Road, look up and you’ll see a Tokyo trademark—the skein of power lines and telephone wires, connecting each place to every other place in a web of electric energy.Northside Asagaya Kankara

Reserve an evening for wandering about North- and Southside Asagaya. Then, on another night, do the same for other equally worthwhile “boozz”  and nightlife destinations along the Chuo Line: Kichijoji, Ogikubo, Nishi-Ogikubo, Koenji, and Nakano.

The Minstrels of Golden Gai

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009


Marenkov, Tokyo’s oldest nagashi, sits in the corner of Bar Shino, under a light bulb shaded by a plastic bag—the glass shade broke years ago—and strums crisp soft chords on his battered Yamaha guitar. Marenkov is a sprightly 79 years old. “Or maybe I’m eighty,” he says raising bushy eyebrows and grinning widely. His career spans 57 years so far.

 Bar Shino is in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai, Marenkov’s haunt for almost 40 years. Sometimes called the Montmartre of Tokyo, this warren of some 200 bars is a haven for mavericks, radicals, bohemians, artists, writers, and other free-spirits. It’s a fitting locale for a nagashi. The profession has its roots in the anti-establishment songs sung by young men in the Meiji Period. Its heyday, says Marenkov, was the Taisho period over 80 years ago. Work has been declining ever since.

 Unlike a karaoke machine, a nagashi provides musical encouragement and a tailor-made accompaniment for the eager barstool singer. Marenkov is expert at matching the pace and pitch of a melody to each individual. With a soft “hai!” and a nod he signals when you should start singing a verse.

 shinos-barThe owner of the bar, Shino-san, a lively, engaging woman of a certain age, is happy not to have a karaoke machine in her establishment. Person to person communication is most important, she stresses, gesturing with an ever-present cigarette. Karaoke would overpower the conversational intimacy of such tiny bars. Marenkov’s guitar, on the other hand, is an acoustic pleasure that adds to the mood.

 Nevertheless, karaoke machines have ended most nagashi careers. “Only a few nagashi are still around,” says Marenkov, his voice a hoarse whisper. “There are four in Shinjuku, two in Shibuya, two in Asakusa, maybe two or three in Ikebukuro and a few other places.”marenkov-2

 Marenkov’s family name is Kato, and that’s as much as he’ll allow. He started work as a postman, but delivering mail didn’t pay well. “So I took some guitar lessons from a nagashi association,” he explains. “I thought I had no talent and wanted to give up,” he adds, “but I liked the drinking.” Early on someone remarked that he resembled Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s successor. The name stuck.

 Marenkov first performed around Shinjuku station, an area which after the war was teeming with cafes. “When I entered a cafe with my guitar,” he says, “five or six girls would always flock around me.”

 But paying customers are now scarce. The zashiki, old-style Japanese restaurants, once a sure venue, have almost completely disappeared, and the few remaining can’t afford to pay a nagashi. The going rate is 1000 yen for two songs. “When I started out, I would get 100 yen for three songs, and I had to split that with two other guys, an accordionist and violin player,” Marenkov recalls.

 He hesitates to say how much he makes in a week, but he’s been able to support a wife and son. There are weeks, however, when he doesn’t earn much at all. But he’s content just having his guitar and enough money for a meal. “I’ve always managed to eat somehow,” he says with laugh.

 A customer at the counter offers Marenkov a beer, but he refuses. He stopped drinking some years ago. “It’s a nagashi’s duty to drink while working,” he says, “but I would get into arguments and have been punched out many times. I’ve fallen asleep drunk outside in the rain, had my glasses, cap, wallet, guitar, jacket and shoes stolen by homeless people. I was lucky I wasn’t killed.”

 Another customer chimes in that Marenkov once had his own guitar smashed over his head, but Marenkov waves that accusation aside.

 Marenkov still works most evenings except when it rains or when his legs ache. “As long as my fingers move and my legs work, I’ll keep on doing what I do.” He plays a few bars from the St. Louis Blues and smiles.

 About 50 meters away, but a world apart, is Kabukicho, Shinjuku’s red-light entertainment extravaganza. Bar Freude, a quiet friendly spot tended for 50 years by two generations of the Hoshino family, is a regular stop for another nagashi, Suzuki Isamu, who performs under the name, Yuji. He’s been at it for only 35 years.

 yujiYuji, 56, is built like a bouncer—stocky with short-cropped hair, thick strong arms, shoulders and neck. His gestures are quick and energetic. With his black shirt, black leather vest and snow-white jacket, he cuts a dashing figure. When he sings, he closes his eyes and his husky voice is soulful and expressive. Sometimes he adds a Latin flourish to the melody line on his nylon-stringed guitar.

 “I’m lucky to still be alive,” he admits over a glass of beer. “I’ve had a glass ashtray hit me in the face, beer bottles broken over my head, and once even a thick Pepsi bottle smashed on my head,” he laughs. “My head must be tough.”

 Yuji is to the point about why he likes his profession—jiyu, freedom, he says, but quickly adds, “And I like drinking.”

 Being a nagashi is “aruku no shobai,” he explains, walking work. Yuji usually starts his rounds around 8pm. and will work until midnight or 1am. “But sometimes I go home early. Sometimes I work all night. It depends on my mood.”

 A good singer doesn’t equal a good nagashi, he explains. “It’s not just singing,” he says reaching for his beer, “you’ve got to listen to people’s problems and complaints. Otherwise you won’t do any business.”

He pauses for a moment searching for the right words. “Some people want to release their bad feelings by drinking” he continues, “and they don’t dislike fighting.” Sometimes when entering a new bar, Yuji has been beaten up by irritated customers. Luckily, he says, there are many cops in Shinjuku and they always come quickly.

 Work is scarce in Kabukicho too. Most people who like to sing now go to a karaoke club, he explains. A bar with paying customers one night will have none the next. He shrugs, “Taihen da.” It’s tough. “But this is my chosen path. I like it,” he says with feeling. “I like it a lot.”

 Yuji has no intention of retiring anytime soon. “I don’t want people one day to realize all the nagashi are gone,’” he says finishing his beer. “Marenkov is now 80 years old, so I’ll have to keep working at least as long as that!”

 From the cluttered corner bookcase in Bar Shino, Marenkov takes down a thick, tattered yellowing songbook, the size of a New York City phonebook, and hands it to a customer telling him to turn to song 285. Marenkov starts to play “Akogare no Hawaii Koro”—Dreaming Hawaii Always, a nostalgic tune about taking a slow boat to the tropical paradise, a hit from 1948. One by one the customers along the counter join in until the whole bar is singing together.

Bar Shino 03.3200.8044, 1-1-9 Kabukicho, Shinjuku Ward. Closed Sundays.

Bar Freude 03.3209.6589, 1-8-3 Kabukicho, Shinjuku Ward. Closed Sundays.

Under the tracks at Daimatsu

Friday, February 6th, 2009


Over the last 15 years, Tokyo has been giving herself a makeover with showpiece projects like Ebisu Garden Place, Roppongi Hills, Shiodome, Midtown, and the facelifts in Ginza, Marunouchi, Shinagawa, and southern Shinjuku. Glossy designer boutiques have muscled out coffee shops, bookstores, bento shops, and mahjong parlors, and entire neighborhoods have been swept clean of untidy city life.

 The area around Kanda station, however, is Tokyo with dirt under her nails, unabashed and unconcerned with what anyone else thinks. The elevated tracks rest on a series of red-brick arches as solid as bridge abutments. Since space in Tokyo is a commodity not to be wasted, the district swarms with enterprise—newsstands, yatai food carts, peddlers, pachinko parlors, bars and even a broom-closet-sized quick print shop run by an elderly typesetter who operates an ancient printing press. Livelihoods are jimmied out of the most unlikely locations.

 nitta-sanA three-minute walk from the west exit of the station is Imagawa koji, an arch passageway too unimportant, it seems, for map-makers to include in their street plans. This permanently shadowed lane is home to a lonely cluster of drinking shops. Once a flourishing village of some 20 tiny nomiya, now just ten shops remain. The proprietors lived upstairs with the constant noise of trains rumbling overhead. Now, after almost forty years, Teruko Nitta is the last remaining resident and the boss of Imagawa koji.

 Every working day at 5:30 pm, Nitta unlocks the wooden sliding door of her nomiya and hangs out the indigo-colored noren declaring Daimatsu open for another evening of drinking. On warm days she leaves the door open and slides a small corrugated piece of fiberglass sheeting across the gap to keep the cats out.

  “The joren will be coming soon“ she says wiping down the pale wooden counter. She sets out a wicker basket of hard-boiled eggs, shells crusted with salt. Customers from other nomiya will drift in around 8 pm. Some of the joren, regular customers, have been coming here for 30 years.

 Nine can sit elbow to elbow on the stools at the Daimatsu counter. Three more can squeeze in around the toy-like table in the wee alcove behind the counter.daimatsu-noren1

 “When I was young, I came to Tokyo and helped my aunt, a geisha in Akihabara. I was around 16,” Nitta pauses and smiles. “If I tell you more, you could guess my age!”

 Asaoka Ruriko, the Nikkatsu film star, first owned Daimatsu. “She ran a mahjong parlor up there,” says Nitta pointing upstairs. “The place was very popular.“

 Nitta, still quite fetching with her bright eyes and quick smile, ministers like a favorite aunt to her customers. Everyone is made welcome.

 “We‘re like a big family,” she says. “My words are rough and I’ve got a bad mouth. But it’s okay” she laughs, “my customers are all nice and they don’t mind at all.”

 “Which dish should I put out first,” she muses. Nitta prepares kisetsu no mono, seasonal foods, and a decent meal can be had in the simple daily dishes she prepares: Tohoku-style green beans with miso and sesame, burdock with carrot and chili pepper, tofu lees with shredded carrot and burdock, shredded chicken with wild chervil and wasabi, sliced beef with boiled potatoes, carrots, and onions—foods Japanese mothers make, foods one never tires of.

 “I learned from my customers how to cook well,” she says setting a few dishes on the counter. “Years ago they used to come into the kitchen and cook with me, telling me how they liked it.”

 She gets her vegetables and other foodstuffs from katsugiya, peddler women, from Chiba. “The katsugiya are disappearing,“ explains Nitta. “But a few still come to Kanda. I wake up at 7 am, and get my potatoes or bamboo shoots or eggs from them. By 10 am they‘ve sold out of everything.”

 Goto-san, a manager at a nearby trading company, slides open the door and takes a seat at the counter. He has been coming here for over 25 years. Lately he stops by twice a week. “My father introduced me to this place,” he says. “And a couple of years ago I introduced my daughter too.”

 Tonight Goto has brought along two friends—newcomers. Several other customers amble in. The counter is full. Collar buttons are unfastened. Neckties are taken off, folded, and tucked neatly into shirt pockets.

 Nitta chats and jokes with everyone as she pours sake, beer, or sudachi shu, the citrus-flavored tipple of choice, into large clear glasses.

 imgawakoji-signDaimatsu and the thousands of drinking shops like it across Tokyo are essential to city life—utterly unpretentious joints with no atmosphere except the sublimity of the everyday—where high and low meet at counter level.

 But the future of Daimatsu is uncertain.

 Nitta has been given an eviction notice by the railroad company. Several years ago a small fire broke out in the shop next door. The company is worried that a larger fire might interrupt train service. Only because Daimatsu is also Nitta’s residence, is it difficult for them to execute the order.

 “Besides,” says Nitta.”I offered to become the manager of Imagawa koji, so now the railroad company comes to talk with me about any problem around here.”

 “Still, I don’t know what will happen,” she says with a shrug.

 Daimatsu is the kind of place we all eventually return to. A coin purse hangs from string tied to a sprinkler pipe above the counter. “I put that up seven years ago,” explains Nitta. “I looked inside once. There’s 2000 yen in small change. Maybe the person will come back someday to claim it.”

1-1-10 Kaji-cho, Chiyoda Ward. 03.3252.6061. Closed Saturdays and Sundays.