Oji, Kita ward (Tokyo)
Here is an izakaya which is particularly cheerful and easy going, a very popular venue in its neighborhood, frequented by working-class people and maybe retirees. You feel like being among a big family here and by the way, it's run by a real family with several generations,
including the grandma who must be well over her 80s and who' still runs to the tables to bring the sake and other drinks.
My friend in Tokyo
learnt about the place through someone whose cousin was one of the middle-aged guys running the place, and he had the intuition that this was the sort of place I was looking for. On target, man, this was a perfect pick, exactly the type of non-pretentious place full of life that I like and want to share. Forget the Michelin awards and bring the booze...
Don't pay attention to these awful neons that are indeed a poor way to light a place, I gave up long time ago taking into account my instinctive philosophy regarding lighting in appartments and businesses in this country, and these lighting fixtures which would make me upset in France don't even bother me here, I focus on other things that I find pleasant and more important.
The street where the izakaya sits is not even gloomy, it's a perfectly anonymous and bland street, I wouldn't have bet a 100-Yen coin that anything interesting could be located there if I hadn't been tipped about the place.
The izakaya is located in the north-east section of central Tokyo named the kita ward, just north of the Yamanote circle (the equivalent of the middle of nowhere for someone like me who barely begins to explore beyond the Yamanote ring). You can reach the Oji station with the Keihin Tohoku line from Tabata staion, or with the Namboku line through Komagome.
This photo story is about one of the most intriguing place in Tokyo, a place where you will find a cluster of eateries (50 or 60) where salarymen gather do drink after work. It's called piss alley or Shonben Yokocho in Japanese. The name of this narrow street (plus a couple of side alleys) speaks length about its nature, it was nicknamed so in a time when you didn't have toilets to relieve yourself, the middle of the alley being probably where all this urine excess would flow a few dozen years ago. The smell reputation of this alley made probably the area a no-go zone for the respectable people of the 1940s'.
The odd thing is that this old-time street has managed to survive in what is the most modern and active neighborhood in Tokyo : Shinjuku. Shinjuku, for starters, is a hot spot of Tokyo's evening life (partly red-light district), a shopping area and one of the major train/metro hubs of the world, and Japan's first : just think that it handles 3,6 million commuters per day... Not really a forgotten stretch of shitamachi like in the vicinity of Minowa or Ueno where it would be less surprising to find remnants of the old ways.
This is yet a a couple metro stations outside the Yamanote district, but on the other side of Tokyo : here is a low-buildings neighborhood with lively narrow streets and few cars, the area is residential, thickly inhabited and with its own gentle character. I discovered the place years ago and even though I didn't visit it often, it's one of my favorite spots in this town.
I had called Terumi who lives in the area so that we could go out for a drink and find another casual bar, we had taken a few addresses including a few ones provided by John W. who has a good experience with these, but we actually decided to try this one which was very close to the
train station, it was cold and this would leave us with more time with Terumi. She is initially a friend of B. and one of the first friends she made in this country when she settled for a few years in Japan, and I know Terumi is a perfect companion to go to places, she enjoys going out for sure...
The Japanese people are pragmatic and mix tradition with modernity without bothering too much with esthetics, and these PVC strip plastic were protecting so much better from the cold than the traditional Noren shop curtains. They were scratched and worn enough to keep a bit of privacy for the patrons and were doing a good job to keep us warm.
Shimokitazawa is really a gem of a neighborhood, low key with its small street and mostly devoid of tall buildings, the kind of area you wish to live in (mabe at some distance of the most frequented alleys). But some people in the city or region administration have had bright projects for Shimokita and would like to cut through the thickly-built area to open a few large roads, not really something people who love this neighborhood dream of. Some residents, native or not, have grouped together to fight off the threat on their town, and even though the remodeling project has been around for years, no real decision has been firmly taken yet.
Vimeo video on the left was found on likeafishinwater.com (I think you can have a glimpse at Techan at min 6:52)
A couple more stories on relaxed venues where ordinary Tokyoites go out for a glass before heading home (Tokyo's unexplored wonders).
These two cheerful girls look
small holding this bottle of sake but the trick is that this is a traditional 1,8-liter bottle, the type you always get your sake from in the popular Japanese venues like the izakayas and tachinomis (standing bars).
This entry is
again about one of these Japanese bars in Tokyo conveniently located near the myriad of train or metro stations so that salarymen and other male employees can have a few glasses with colleagues before heading home in the suburbs. Typically this one is located in a non-descript street where you'd have pain to think it's worth a detour when you get around it on day time (see Google's street view of the place). Tokyo is in many ways the opposite of Paris, no exciting history thoughts in the observation of streets and buildings but behind the walls you find age-old ways that survived modernization. And like often in Asia where architecture and buildings rarely go beyond the functional requirements, a bland street lined with aging concrete facades turns into a more lively place at dark where your attention goes to the red lanterns and smoky rooms behind the glass doors.
This standing bar is located right under the railroad tracks of the Kinshicho station on the Sobu line. To find the station on this Tokyo metro map, you must first locate Akihabara station on the Yamanote line (the black-and-white one on the map), you can catch the Sobu line there and Kinshicho is only 3 stations eastward. Kinshicho is one of these entertainment/red-light districts that remain under the radar for foreigners.
I was led to the venue by an experienced Tokyoite but if you're on your own in this big city, you can train your eye to spot the sort of sign like the one on the right, the two people standing and holding a glass mean you have here a tachinomi, or standing bar. You don't need to be in the most famous Tokyo neighborhoods like Shinjuku or Ueno to find these places, large stations and railway junctions outside the yamanote in the suburb also have plenty of them.
Shinkame owner Yoshimasa Ogawahara in the cooling room
Hasuda, Saitama prefecture (Japan)
The Shinkame sake brewery looks like any other family sake brewery in Japan, but it stands apart because it is the one that started the revival of authentic sake making several decades ago. From a Western perspective we often look at sake without distinguishing the deep differences in the sake-making types, considering that apart from various degrees in the polishing or milling of the rice kernel, sake is anyway always made of fermented rice, mold/yeast and water. But in the recent history a few decades ago, sake ceased to be
junmai (just water and rice) as breweries discovered shortcuts using additions. This phenomenon reached a point where not long ago back in the 1960s' there was actually not a single sake brewery making any pure sake.
We often take for granted that sake (called nihonshu in Japan) is made with just rice, water and yeasts/molds, with a long fermentation process taking place and yielding the famous Japanese beverage. But during World War II, because of an acute shortage of rice, the sake-making process was changed so that it could use much less rice, the trick was to add alcohol and other additions like sweeteners ans flavoring substances to, say, a base of one third of real sake. This way the struggling Japanese could sustain the war effort and keep having their booze, which even if somehow less rewarding in terms of taste and drinkability was welcome in those dire years of destruction. France also had its Ersatz products in those years (this German word which remains in use in France means replacement product) like for coffee for example, but the real products came back immediately after the end of the war even if chicorée and rutabaga survived as a niche market. But in japan, the altered sake remained the norm until much later.
Speaking of the sake found today on the market, you can know which type you're having by reading a sake label, here is a sake classification page to get it straight.
Taisuke Iketani (VinsCoeur) pouring to Eishi Okamoto (Beau Paysage)
Wine craze in Tokyo
Tokyo was pretty cold and even rainy on this first sunday of march, and happily rain in this city means good shots of crowds with umbrellas; I know it's been made thousands of times but I can't resist it, and Omotesando was a good change from the compulsory Hachiko-crossing umbrellas at Shibuya. But I needed something extra, exciting enough to get over the damp, cold weather. And Festivin, the wine event which took place in Omotesando, was really the best thing to warm up that day, but it was also an awakening experience to feel how real and vibrant the natural-wine
crowd is in Tokyo.
For years along my meeting and discussing with
French artisan winemakers I learnt that Japan was the first to respond massively when the first natural wines were produced in the 1990s' and the French market (even in Paris) was still unaware. Many of these early wine farms of the so-called natural-wine movement stayed afloat in these difficult years because Japan was buying all their wine, so there is really a lot of gratitude in France for the consumers and importers of this faraway country who connected immediately to these uncorrected wines.
This scene above was also another surprise for me : imagine, here is Taisuke Iketani of VinsCoeur (one of the Japanese importers of French natural wines) pouring wines from La Bohême (Auvergne, Loire) to Eishi Okamoto, the young winemaker behind Beau Paysage, a small natural-wine farm from Japan whose cult wines are virtually sold out as soon as they're produced. Okamoto-san's obvious interest for Patrick Bouju's wines was for me a symbol of the brotherhood and common passion that fuels these demanding winemakers who live, literally, worlds apart. That's another side of the story : the Japanese are beginning to have now quite a few domestic artisan wineries following the organic/non-interventionist philosophy, and the best of them take part to the yearly natural-wine fair in Tokyo. Fine restaurants in Tokyo (check for example the wine list of Tsu-Shi-Mi) now serve routinely the best Japanese wines as their quality pair with what Europe and other wine regions can offer, and a good number of these fit into what we could call the natural wine category.
Ogawa, Saitama (Japan)
This is probably the smallest beer brewery in Japan and it was founded by a man, Baba-san (pictured above left), who has been very inventive and audacious in the pursuit of beer making using crops he mostly grows himself. I found out the existence of this artisanal brewery thanks to Romain whom I visited a year ago in the Coco Farm Winery in the Toshigi Prefecture north of Tokyo. He had told me then that there was a small
brewery making possibly the best craft beer of Japan using only organic products it grew in the vicinity. Back in
Tokyo for a short stay, I saw that the Zakkoku brewery was one hour by train from Tokyo and I thought a visit would be nice.
Craft beer is said to be expanding in Japan, with about 200 artisanal breweries operating today, from a subjective point of view it's still very marginal compared to North America where it really took off and where you can notice the weird-labelled bottles in places like Walmart and Safeway. If you read the Japan Beer Times there are a few worries here like the soon-to-be-implemented new 8 % VAT on consumer products this april, a big jump from the current 5 % (would they aim to reach the French 20 % VAT one day ?); plus the Yen has been diving steadily these last months, which is pretty good news for foreign visitors in Japan but a hard one for brewers who import most of the ingredients used for craft beer. Whatever, things move in that field and given the big success of natural wine in this country I wouldn't be surprised that artisanal beer follows suit at whatever end price.
The small brewery is located in the small town of Ogawa (Saitama prefecture), an hour or so from Ikebukuro (Tokyo) on the Tobu Tojo line, a swift trip across the endless suburbs of Tokyo ending on the foothills of the Saitama region. The weather was colder than usual in early march in Japan and there were still patches of snow here and there in the fields around Ogawamachi.
The leçons de chose were some sort of simplified scientific teachings given in the past to the first classes in the French school system. These courses on sciences naturelles (nature sciences)
have been part of the curriculum in the elementary
school for decades, and they were also the opportunity for children to study the outside world using basic subjects like a plant, a leaf or an egg.
The concept was devised in 1867 by Marie Pape-Carpantier who was overlooking the écoles maternelles (nursery schools) of that time and who thoroughly renovated the instruction for the early childhood [source - Pdf in French]. She was some sort of radical who wanted to turn the early school into something more plesant where you could learn in contact with real things. Among the real-life objects proposed to the children's attention was the farm, an important thing in the late 19th century, the farm being also an economic structure where both nature and science played a role. You guess it, children were offered along these leçons de choses to take a closer look at viticulture and winemaking. We need to be reminded that virtually every farm would make wine then, the beverage was really mainstream in the nation's daily diet and it would have been unthinkable to shun this economic and cultural sector from the young children's view.
I found this old school book in a street flea market in the Loire. the 126-page book was printed in 1953. Its 62 lessons are divided into 4 seasons, autumn, winter, spring and summer. The leçon de choses dealing with wine is the 9th (page 16) but somehow it proved important enough to appear symbolically on the cover page under the form of a bunch of grapes with leaves, which would be an anathema for school authorities today. The school system was probably more austere than today, with a curriculum more focused on writing skills and simple learnings based on everyday life than on shaping their political views. Children had also less opportunitiess in terms of education in these years without the huge possibilities brought by certain TV programs or the Internet.
Paris, 18th arrondissement
I happen to have attended two unrelated private tasting events in private appartments recently where Japanese sommeliers were letting amateurs/professionals like me and others taste and experience what Japan had to offer in terms of fermented beverage. The coincidence was interesting and I thought it might make a good story.
France is considered as being a bit chauvinistic in terms of wine choice and selection; I'm not sure it's right to say that after all even though I used to believe this myself,
it could be just that the choice here is such and the price range so wide (especially in the mid- and lower price range)
that people need to be really explorative and daring to look elsewhere, especially when the prices of imported wines are higher. They can't even really handle already the variety of all what's in inside their borders, and their lack of interest for foreign wine is a natural consequence.
On other liquid varieties (so to say), the French can be adventurous, like they've proved in the last few year with the Japanese whisky (Nikka in particular) which has made inroads in Europe largely through the French market (and the initiative of La Maison du Whisky). But for both Japanese wine and sake, this is another matter, think of swimming against the tide or fight an uphill battle, the outcome of which is more difficult to predict.
This nice private tasting took place in the Paris appartment of a young British woman, Emma Bentley, who works for La Maison du Whisky (but will soon start her own job as agent for artisan wineries). It's always great to discover Paris through other appartments, and her views over the roofs or the Sacré coeur was terrific. I was tipped about the event by another whisky geek, Nicholas Sikorski who is Mr Japanese-whisky at this company, otherwise the attendance was very international with also a German wine professional and several Japanese women in addition to the master of ceremonies Mr Kei Miyagawa, a Japanese sommelier who lives in France and helps distribute Japanese drinks in high-end Restaurants.
We're not yet a Knights vs Samourai situation but the Japanese wines are serious stuff, at least that's we experienced again.
Paris, 18th arrondissement
Envrac is another concept of wine shop serving food, this venue also sells wine in bulk, either in bottle or in any larger container that you might bring yourself. I knew about another place in Paris with this sort of service, Le Baron Rouge, they also sell in bulk the old way there, but Envrac is a fairly recent place which opened 15 months ago at the corner of rue l'Olive and rue Riquet, in an area of Paris with both islands of gentrified streets and large stretches of neighborhoods populated by non-european migrants. The owner first opened this venue in the covered market nearby (marché couvert de L'Olive)
in 2011 but resettled to an independent street address a couple
years later. This covered market is worth a visit, you find a large choice of cheese, charcuterie, meat and vegetables, plus a couple or more of traiteurs and restaurants. Rain or shine, this is a market you can enjoy in all seasons.
Envrac, or "en vrac", means in bulk in French. While buying wine in bulk is still very commonplace in many wineries in the French provinces, it has mostly disappeared in the cities, but it was also very easy in Paris from what I know until probably the 1950s' or earl 1960s', and if you are familiar with the work of the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson you may remember this great picture of his featuring a boy coming home proudly with two liter-size bottles of red wine that his father had probably sent him get from the wine shop around the corner. The Vin de table (table wine) was then a simple, light wine (often diluted at 9% or 8% alcohol) which was probably much more drinkable than much of what you find today among those in the lowest price bracket. In the 1970s' and 1980s' bottling became much cheaper and bulk wine as well as returnable bottles (with deposit) vanished : Even everyday table wines were purchased in their own sealed bottles (the quality of what was inside was incindently beginning to change for the worse due to the growing number of winemaking additives on the market, but this is another story...)
The wine shop/bistrot Envrac was created by Thierry Poincin who began his wine adventures by opening a wine shop at the covered market marché des Enfants Rouges in 2000, adding a wine restaurant (L'Estaminet) in this same market. In 2011, he opened an import business in Hong Kong, and in 2011 he opened a first version of Envrac in the covered market of L'Olive (video on the left) a hundred meters away, before moving it to the present location at the corner of rue l'Olive & rue Riquet.