Two wine bars and a great izakaya
When you look for wine bars in Tokyo you don't think first to a Shitamachi area, these remants of the old working-class Tokyo with its poorly-lit, narrow alleys and low buildings, and I don't even dare to think about a natural-wine bar, your first guess for these would be neighboroods like Shibuya, Roppongi, Ebisu, in short, trendy places for modern Tokyoites. Shitamachi is for the simple people, you go there to find mom & pop's izakayas squeezed into cramped venues where you'll slurp noisily your ramen along with an overflowing glass of cheap sake, bathing happily in the steam coming from the behind-the-counter-kitchen... That's what I'm looking for at least in Tokyo, and not only because these places are damn cheap but because they're real and no fuss.
This story began oddly with my interest in a national figure named Tora-san, a fictional character that is known to most Japanese because of the TV series Otoko wa tsurai yo (means "it's hard to be a man") which ran from 1969 to 1995 (making it the longest-running movie series starring a single actor), featuring a bachelor and itinerant salesman, some sort of looser with a big heart. In the series, the hero's home roots in Tokyo were in a Shitamachi area, Shibamata in the north-east edge of Tokyo, and my initial query was to go there and find some cheap drinking spot favored by ordinary Japanese locals. I didn't find anything there, at least my Japanese intel sources Terumi and Tadashi didn't find anything interesting in that field, although the neighborhood had a lovely provincial touch with the nice Taishakuten buddhist temple and some sort of small Asakusa-like alley lined with shops (video of temple & alley -- not a single gaijin in view when I went there !). You'll find souvenirs (the first thing you see when you step out of the station is Torasan's statue...) and traditional sweets like in Asakusa, plus many souvenirs featuring Tora-san, portraits with his iconic brown suitcase, and also a museum fully devoted to the TV-series character, I strongly encourage foreign visitors to visit the museum (closed for renovation alas when I went there recently) as well as watch at least a Tora-san movie because it helps understand Japan I'm sure (on min 6:42 begins a scene that takes place in the Shibamata alley).
I was a bit disappointed that Shibamata hadn't a local izakaya or tachinomi that could fit my taste for athentic watering hole and that's when I asked John W., an experienced Tokyoite who knows better than many locals about the immense resources of the city and who recently moved back to Australia for his kids' studies, he was back in Tokyo for a month of [Australia's] summer vacation and he told me there was another shitamachi area not far from there, in Tateishi, where he knew both an authentic local drinking spot and TWO natural-wine venues.... Each time you come back to a city you should discover some place out of the beaten path and this was it, thank you John !
So here is how I landed in Tateishi with John, looking for natural-wine bars in the oddest place in Tokyo...
Again I can't but repeat that november and december are a great time of the year to be in Tokyo, the weather is clear, the air is light and the temperature is very enjoyable, all these food & drink visits would have been a misery in summer with the hot and damp conditions.
The way to Tateishi from central or rather mainstream Tokyo isn't simple and direct. If you're used to using mostly the ring train (Yamanote JR line) you'll have to make an exception : step down from the Yamanote line at Nippori and buy a ¥ 260 ticket on the Kesei line to the Aoto station and change there for the Keisei-Oshiage line for just one stop (included in the ¥ 260) to the Tateishi station. When you walk out of the train station, look for the couple of covered passages on the southern side of the tracks (see here the satellite view, on the Google-map page it's the green building with the framed roof windows along the alleys).
These covered passages are the typical old-style shopping arcades of Tokyo where you can shop and stroll even when it rains, this one is very modest and working class, and there's an authentic neighbohoody feel here. The first place we actually visited in this arcade was an old-style izakaya named Uchida, it's a must visit place for people who know a bit of Japanese (I'd strongly advise not to go there if you're a group of non-Japanese-speakers) and you can read at the lower end of this page my short story about Uchida (mostly without pictures because it is said they don't want any pictures shot inside).
Behind the yellow plastic curtain that kinds of keep Maruchu Kamabokoten's small terrace warm and isolated from the alley, you find a small room with some sort of U-shaped counter around which patrons can sit tight against each other. The interesting thing in this venue
is that it has both real sake (nihonshu) and natural wines,
all being poured in the popular Japanese way, with small dishes to eat with.
John told me that the bar was managed by two guys years ago but that the other moved close from here to open another, larger one with the same philosophy.
The manager came to us and took our orders, the good thing here being that John is fluent in Japannese (although I'm sure you can make it with a few words of English). The room was almost full when we came in, with easy-going people of different age, several women too (they're always some around in Japan when when there's natural wine...).
The izakaya or wine/sake bar (it's something in between) offers several organic/quality nihonshus (sake) and also some natural wines, there were a few of them by the glass when I visited, not all being specified on the blackboard, there were two made by the Rhône vintner Hirotake Ooka, who is a friend of the owner. The bottles are on the counter, including ones that are not written on the menu, so the easiest way to order is point to whatever bottle suits you best, and this can be sake, as they're as well chosen as natural wine can be, compared to mainstream wines.
My spontaneous choice here would have been to choose a nihonshu (sake) over a wine, but the price by the glass was pretty cheap for a natural wine when you consider the distance and added costs, import fees etc, it was a mere ¥ 750 (about 5,7 € or 6,2 USD), can you imagine that ? So I ordered one of them, the Vin Nouveau of Hirotake Ooka, a pleasant unfiltered Rhône labelled as table wine and imported here by Vortex. I don't remember if I was told more about this wine, wether it is made with purchased grapes or with the young Syrah he planted in 2010 on the steep slopes of Cornas. Whatever, this moment was a proof you could sip natural wine in Tokyo for very little money indeed, even in Paris there are few wine bars where you could get such a wine for just over 5 €... There were 2 wines from Hirotake, the other being the Nouveau white, possibly from his Saint-Péray vineyards.
The other natural wines on the counter were Bianco Toscano from Poderi Sanguineto I & II, a Japanese red 2012 by Coco Farm & Winery and Romotineau 2012, a Loire white made by Frantz Saumon, which is a blend of Romorantin and Menu Pineau as its name hints (the cuvée seems to be only available in Japan, which is one more proof this market has privileged access to natural wines). Of course the choice is much wider for orders by the bottle, and you come with a few friends it sounds interesting to look for what he has in store.
But I could stop there and along with John decided to get a glass of nihonshu (sake), like for example one of these large bottles with a dragonfly on the label (the labels of the 1,8-liter sake bottles were often very different from the norm, with more fantasy and poetry. As said, all the sake/nihonshu selected here is of the Nature quality, to use the French word picked by the Japanese themselves for uncorrected, organic products. I haven't any notes but that was good, especially with the great assortment of raw fish, a treat and surprising follow-up to the natural-wine introduction. Here they didn't put the glass in a masu, this square box made of wood or laquer which in turn is filled with the overflowing sake. It's not only for the traditional side of the masu that I love having them used but it turns out you have lots more sake with this system, an overflowing masu can hold almost the volume of a glass in some cases, and for thirsty gaijins like me it counts...
I didn't pay attention to the preparation of the small dishes but I think it's all done there at the end of the counter, another staff taking care of it. It's delicious and if you can read Japanese there is certainly the price and description on the blackboard or on the tabelog page of the restaurant. And if you browse the many comments with pictures you'll see through the pics that the wines and the sake turn, plus many people order beer or shochu.
When it gets crowded you can sit on the couple of tiny tables on the terrace with the yellow-green curtain protecting you from the drafts of the covered arcade (not from the crowds, at least in the end of the afternoon as the area gets quiet and the shops close). From what I see on the picture you can order very different thinks including boiled vegetables (I'll ask B. to help me put a Japanese names on these). The place is also famous for its oden.
Incidently you can see in the far end of the side alley another venue with a strong following (that's where some people sit along some sort of counter), I tried to go there a few days later but the queue was long and the room was full, it may be another reason to come again in this little-known arcade as it has more than the normal share of good eateries, especially considering the non-trendy neighborhood.
I don't remember how we spent each that evening at Maruchu Kamabokoten but I think it's something around ¥ 2500 or ¥ 3000 (19 to 23 €) which is very reasonable for the treat. The tabelog website seems to say that the average spend is between ¥ 1000 & ¥ 2000, but we tried several things. When you look at the design of the labels on the sides you can't but guess these sakes are special, meaning natural or organic, and if you don't come to Tokyo for French or European natural wine, these nihonshus are a good reason to venture in this outdated arcade.
More info about Maruchu Kamabokoten on this page.
Another wine/nihonshu venue at Tateishi
Here is the 2nd natural-wine venue, also named Nimousaku, it is located at a short distance from there along the railroad tracks of the Keisei-Oshiage line. As said before, two guys started Nimōsaku (the first one, profiled above) and then after a while one of the associates left to open his own separate venue with a larger room, probably because the business was too quiet for two managers in the old shopping arcade, and he set up this other wine/nihonshu bar a short distance from there, about 5-minute walk along the tracks on the same side of the arcades, you can't miss it. When I went there it was full.
This neighborhood is a mystery, it's hard to access to, it's almost off the map and it still has a few great, fully-booked restaurants... And these are certainly not even on the Michelin guide (don't trust the books, go visit the places by yourself or use the word of mouth like I did with John). Tokyo is certainly a mine for bars, eateries and restaurants, and I only have a taste of the tip of the iceberg, much of these places being behind closed doors in upper floors of buildings all over the town.
Noting it was full, I turned around and went to visit the area, trying not to loose my orientation thanks to the railroad tracks, I came back after a while, peeking in from between the curtains, no way, it was still full with no one looking like leaving soon. I dared to ask someone near the door who happened to be the manager and he told me to come back in 20 minutes.
People were sitting on two sides along the counter, facing the kitchen and the cook, with bottles everywhere including empty bottles as a decoration wall along the shop window, there was nihonshu (sake) as well as natural wine, obviously this place had the same philosophy as the first one.
The kitchen side was more elaborate
with also more staff, maybe 4 or 5 people total in the restaurant.
I had told the guy that I just wanted to have a glass, not eat, and 20 minutes later when I came back after a stroll they managed to find me a slot along the counter although it seemed to be as full as the first time. It was very joyous in there and I ordered a glass of wine, asking what they had already opened.
Again, it's almost for "work" purpose that I chose to have a wine, as the nihonshu [sake] selection here is excellent and as close to vin nature as possible. They had 4 reds and 4 whites by the glass, and given the season of the year there was some Nouveau wines like the one of Karim Vionnet. There was cuvée from Jean Foillard in the Beaujolais, named Alizarine which seems to be found only in Japan (it might be made with purchased grapes), there was also a natural sparkling from Les Capriades, I chose the cuvée Zig-Zag from Les Deux Terres, very enjoyable chew after all this distance to reach this counter. I think I paid something like ¥ 900 for this glass, or 6,8 € and you pay a bit extra for the appetizer.
These people were having nihonshu with their dishes, all the sake in this izakaya is of the nature kind and that's certainly the place to go if you want to drink something real and organic. Reading the labels of nihonshu bottles is next to impossible for most of us Westerners and the other option is tasting the thing in a venue like this one and buy a bottle on the spot if you want to bring a sample home. This type of izakaya is the ideal shortcut to get at the fine stuff. You'll not get these sakes in the duty-free at the airport, don't be afraid to buy bottles in town and wrap them in thick newspapers to protect them in your checked luggage, I do it all the time and never got a broken bottle.
Here is a third venue you must absolutely see if you come in the area: Uchida or 宇ち多゛ in Japanese, it's an old-time izakaya (founded in 1946) frequented by locals who queue outside from the time it opens to the closing time. It's the typical mom and pop's restaurant where you sit along tables tightly against your neighbors and eat your dish with nihonshu, beer or shochu, it's a great experience of real Japan for a very cheap price. It seems an extended family works here, with the grandfather, grandmother and son.
Uchida is an institition in the area, I don't think people from the other side of the town really do the travel for it but you as foreigner or Tokyo lover should. In the other hand, don't show up here with a noisy party of gaijins, the better would be to be no more than 2 and know a couple of words in Japanese, at least ask for nihonshu instead of sake and be as discreet as possible. No pictures inside (except a closeup of your plate), John told me it's specified somewhere, that's why I show only the outside and believe me, the inside would be a mine for photography...
It vaguely reminds me of another venue where locals were flocking, also a packed izakaya with very low prices, it was Yamadaya in Oji, but Uchida has more flavor as a place, looks more like a real old izakaya, plus the setting in the arcade is great too.
On this page you have more pics (including blurred pics of the inside) and prices.
If I remember there's not much explaination or blackboard listing the dishes, just point to what your neighbor has if you don't speak Japanese, take everything that comes your way, it's just gorgeous, you won't be disapponted. Make sure you love pork, much of the food is pork, beautifully grilled or cooked. I took a glass of nihonshu with the grilled intestines or stomach. See this page for more pictures about the food, it's written by a Japanese blogger. This was chronologically the first place we visited at Tateishi that evening and it was a wonderful way to get immersed in an authentic Japanese watering hole. I had just arrived via Moscow earlier in the day and I was already in the old shitamachi ambiance I love so much. We got several plates and a couple of drinks and paid very little, it's clearly a bargain and I understand the queue of mostly working-class people : it's a treat at the reach of everybody, the owners could raise their prices and still be full but their ethics aren't profit-centered.
You can theorically access the restaurant from two sides (two alleys) but you have to queue on one side.