Is there a gaijin who doesn't feel the urge to walk inside one of these smoky venues where few foreigners venture ?
I love strolling along the narrow streets of shitamachi in the evening. These popular, working-class districts have very vibrant streets at that time, the crowd stopping there probably on its way to the metro/train stations, in the matter the Yamonote stations of Ueno and Okachimachi. You can't imagine how different these streets look like in daytime and in the evening.
Here is a tachinomi (standing bar) which is the 3rd such venue opened by its owners, the 1st being the one we visited last year (when you like a neighborhood, stick to it !). It is, like the original one, located near Okachimachi and Ueno in a maze of narrow streets along the Yamanote line. The area is busy on day time with shops and other activity, but it gets even more vibrant once the evening comes. This business is very local and the 3 Takioka venues are very close from each other, like if the owners were really at ease in their neighborhood. My friend T. knows them all and he says that the original Takioka is the best but I was happy to experience this one too and said, let's go try this one too (I'll never balk at going to these standing bars for a few glasses of sake and for the smoky ambiance).
First, I learned something again this time : I sort of thought that the tachinomi concept (standing bar) was a type of venue with a long history in Japan, but actually the original tachinomi was taking place in a corner of the sakayas (the sake shops) where there was always a narrow standing counter where men could stop and drink sake on the spot before buying some. At one point, the tachinomis began to be a separate venue from the sake shops, and we had these standing bars dealing only with the bar side of the trade, selling small plates of food in the way.
I learned recently by the way that there was an unexplained-yet Japanese smoking paradox regarding lung cancer and smoking prevalence in Japan. We're so used in the West of condidering smoking as a deadly scourge that it is strange to learn that despite continuing high rates of smokers, Japan has much lower rates of lung cancer than in Europe. Read Eryk Salvaggio's very interesting piece on the issue of smoking in Japan and this smoking paradox. Eryk is an American who lives in Tokyo and his blog is a very good read to better understand this culture and this country. There are a few leads like the type of filters used in Japan, the way people inhale here, a diet which is very rich with antioxydants and fish, and drinking lots of unsweetened green tea.
To allow more people to stand, a few standing barrels have been placed around the room, allowing also small groups of friends or colleagues to enjoy their drink together.
While we were there, the large TV screen was showing a figure skating championship, and at one point the Japanese held the 2nd and the 3rd rank, which added to the interest of the patrons to this already-enjoyable entertainment. Alas at the end, a Korean contender made a beautiful score and landed first, pushing back the two Japanese at the 3rd and 4th place...
At mid-level of my sake glass, I was already feeling well in this popular and noisy venue, the first tachinomi of this trip. You could gauge by the pulse of the conversations at the other tables that a few glasses had already broken the ice there, the mood was potitively upbeat. That was a sunday if I remember, and it is always a wonder to see a sunday evening with so much people going outside for a drink (it is quite dead everywhere in Europe).
Like in many of these popular tachinomi and izakayas, there's no flyer menu, you just make your choice from the big signs on the wall (pic on left), you have everything there, the food plates and the drinks. You might object that as you can't read these signs, you can't go in these places, but actually it's very simple, the lowest prices are the dishes and the highest are the booze, so feel free to dare the unknown...
Spraking of the menu on the wall, here is what the upper line offers from left to right : Macaroni salad (150 Y), potatoe salad (150 Y : 1,24 € - 1,59 USD), cutllefish marinated in wasabi (150 Y), octopus marinated in wasabi, Boiled vegetables like spinach with a sauce (150 Y), fermented radish __or cabbage or cucumber__ (150 Y), tofu (150 Y). Then comes the sake, 5 of them : Sake Hoju, junmaishu. The waiters don't tell much, we should have looked on the bottle as that's the one we got (350 Y), Sake Taruzake, means from the cask, which is a word meaning it's very fresh, like beer on tap (350 Y), Nigori sake, the unfiltered turbid, milky type of sake (300 Y). Then, bottom line from right to left : Sake Kikusui, a common brand of sake (350 Y), red wine __no name or country of origin but we didn't ask__ (290 Y), shochu "high ball", which is shochu mixed with sparkling water, a very popular drink in Japan (350 Y), Lemon high, a shochu high ball with lemon ( 350 Y), Ume sawa, same shochu, but with ume juice instead of lemon (not real juice but aromats) (350 Y), Apple sawa, samely, high-chu with apple juice (350 Y), shochu from wheat mixed with hot water (not sparkling) 350 Y, shochu made from Imo (sweet potatoe) samely mixed with hot water (350 Y), nihonshu, the cheapest sake, no brand (230 Y).
Here is the rest of the menu which is posted on the other side of the room : there are 6 types of yakitori, priced at 200 Y for 2 of them, liver, pork head, tripe, tongue, chicken skin, chicken thigh, cartilage, pork belly, chicken with leeks, all these twin yakitori being at 200 Y. Follows a few lore dishes : Porc belly with garlic (250 Y), chicken thigh with garlic ( 250 Y), Nikomi Gyu soup with vegetables and tripe (300 Y), Nikomi soup and Tofu (300 Y), grilled tripe (250 Y), tuna sashimi (200 Y), cuttlefish sashimi (180 Y), Nikomi soup simpler type of soup ( 150 Y), Nikujaga, traditional dish of meat and potatoe cooked in sauce (150 Y), Kobukuro sahi, with tripe (150 Y), Gatsu sahi, also tripe but different sort (180 Y). As you can see, you can eat for little money in Tokyo.
I didn't see what thee guys were having but there's a good chance it was a shochu high ball, this is a very popular drink these days in Japan. For some reason, I'm not very open to these new drinks but I'll try them next time.
This small, cheap standing bar has still 3 staff on the front and 3 cooks in the kitchen, Japan is amazing...
As we had walked out and were strolling along the street looking for another drinking spot, we began to chat with a nice couple and ended up going to the Daitoryo izakaya nearby, a place where we had been already last year and which is a valeur sûre, plus you can sit, it's more of a mixed-gender venue and it closes much later. Chikako, the woman, works in the cinema business and she travels to France regularly. We ordered diffent drinks, and I stuck to sake, also because it's quality is good at Daitoryo. An interesting part of our multi-theme conversation was when Chikako said what type of wines she loved the most. Guess what type of wines ? I think I can skip the answer, you know that already...
It's a bit strange, because every time we go to this Daitoryo izakaya we meet interesting people, this was obvious last year. This place must have a Feng Shui of some sort to make this happen... What I like with these tachinomi and izakaya, it's that they're cheap enough so that you can visit several venues in the same evening.