TRAVEL: Tokyo's pubs are the people's choice

Posted by queenmadison

TOKYO'S izakaya pubs are treasure troves of cheap eats and social conviviality, but take your phrase book with you.
The izakaya, or Japanese pub, where you drink and share inexpensive small dishes as your evening progresses, reminds me of how the image of Japanese dining has been distorted in the West. One widely held belief – no doubt encouraged by some outside Japan who stand to make a tidy profit from it – is that Japanese cuisine is uniformly finicky. It takes enormous effort to produce, can only be made from the absolute freshest ingredients, is steeped in rules and ritual, and should therefore be exorbitantly priced.
But this is not the sort of dining enjoyed on your average Tokyoite's typical night out. I know countless Japanese who have never set foot in a kaiseki haute cuisine restaurant or eaten so-called top-grade sushi at stratospheric prices. Many of my friends even scoff at such extravagance.
But I know almost no Japanese of drinking age who has not enjoyed an izakaya, and its convivial atmosphere and authentic food and drink. Izakaya menus span sashimi to deep-fried comfort foods, and include hotpots, salads and a huge range in between.
Order as the mood takes you, starting with just a few items. Adventurers may choose something from the list of chinmi (literally, "rare taste"): perhaps some of the pungent shiokara (salted squid or fish guts), that's intended to be nibbled in conjunction with sake or distilled grain shochu.
Other more substantial dishes include yaki onigiri (grilled rice balls), kara-age (crispy fried) tori (chicken) or sakana (fish), or kaisou (mixed seaweed) salad. In most cases prices are surprisingly low, enabling you to eat cheaply and diversely.
As the Western love affair with small-dish dining flourishes, more visitors to Japan are discovering that what's most interesting about izakaya is not the dazzling scope of the food and drink on offer but that these establishments are everywhere (to the point they are taken for granted by locals) yet remain little known to outsiders.
The easy self-confidence with which they serve up seasonal produce and what's fresh on the day, all with the stamp of the particular establishment you are visiting, conveys a reassuring ordinariness about one of the world's most enjoyable dining experiences.
Be aware that not all izakaya accept credit cards, and opening hours may differ from what you expect. If you speak or read little Japanese you will obviously be at some disadvantage (go, if you can, with someone who can get by in the language).
But even the average Japanese may hesitate on their first visit to an unknown izakaya, and it is remarkable how far a show of enthusiasm, sensitivity and respect will take you, even if your vocabulary extends only to a few basic phrases.
Should you wish to arm yourself with more knowledge of the dishes available, one of the thousands of chain izakaya such as Tengu, Tsubohachi, or Gonpachi are cheap and serve a useful purpose, offering in most cases a photographic menu. But with their franchise-store atmosphere and food that feels prefabricated even if it's not, adjust your expectations downward. Here are some izakaya in Tokyo worth exploring.
On a nondescript side street in an old, commercial neighbourhood, Mimasuya, established in 1905, is supposedly Tokyo's longest continuously running izakaya. The claim illustrates the relative newness of the city's topography, with most truly old buildings having been destroyed, if not by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, then by the US firebombings of 1945 or rampant redevelopment since.
Still, in Japan the aged get respect, and the way Mimasuya is loved by its fans shows how the izakaya experience is not all about food. Which is not to say the food here is below par; refined it isn't, but it meshes perfectly with the authentic, rowdy, and somewhat ramshackle surrounds. Try the fugu blowfish in beer batter or miso-ni (simmered fish in miso). A fair range of sake is available, including the fruity yet delicate Hakkasan, and Denshu.
Go there: 2-15-2 Tsukasa-cho, Kanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. Phone +81 3 3294 5433.
This is working-class Tokyo at its most refined. Something about Shinsuke –it could be the beautiful wooden room, the care and simplicity expressed through the food, the reverential yet enthusiastic clientele, or all of these –conveys that elusive trait of contemporary authenticity. Arrive early for a seat at the counter downstairs. You won't go wrong with any fish dish, be it sashimi, ni-tsuke (simmered), shio-yaki (salt-grilled), or kara-age (deep-fried).
Salads such as mizuna with yurine lily bulb, or crab and lettuce with homemade mayonnaise are delicious, as are the deep-fried sardine (iwashi) "rocks" and the maguro nuta tuna, spring onions and other vegetables in a sweet miso-vinegar dressing. A cut above almost every other izakaya (but not especially cheap).
Go there: 3-31-5 Yushima, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo. Phone +81 3 3832 0469.
The best yakitori (skewered, grilled chicken) is a synergy of top ingredients grilled over hardwood charcoal at the perfect temperature and Morimoto nails it. Rather incongruously set in the dizzying schoolkid playground of Shibuya (hardly known for its culinary depth), this establishment is not strictly an izakaya (yakitori being a genre unto itself) but the eating style and atmosphere are similar.
The tsukune minced chicken meatballs are some of the best you will find and I recommend the heart, liver, and the ume-shiso maki or breast rolled with pickled plum and shiso leaf. For something you'd never do with a supermarket chook, try the chicken sashimi. As with most small izakaya, Morimoto depends for its freshness and for covering its bills on a rapid turnover, so you will be discouraged from lingering. In winter, the store serves wild birds including pheasant, sparrow and duck. English menu available.
Go there: Hamanoue Building, Dogenzaka 2-7-4, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. Phone +81 3 3464 5233.
If you were living in Tokyo, you'd no doubt land in a place like Horoyoi and make it your local. This is a basic neighbourhood pub that keeps late hours, boasts an extensive menu, and does everything just right. Some diners may feel it lacks glamour; I find a lot of charm in its honesty and unadorned simplicity. Friends of mine from Sydney still rave about it two years on, and regret they didn't spend more time there.
The lesson? When you find a place you like, go back. You'll be rewarded by an added depth of understanding, familiarity and affection.
Go there: Yama Building B1F, Ebisu-nishi 1-9-2, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. Phone +81 3 3770 6405.
At the top end of the izakaya genre, where the standard of food, decor and service start to cross over into that of the high-grade restaurant, Maru to me is still an izakaya for its menu of dishes made to share and its cheerful, relaxed atmosphere.
Located in the designer belt of Aoyama, it is often packed. Owner-chef Keiji Mori was trained in a kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto but the emphasis is less on fancy presentation than top-class ingredients and natural, un-messed-with flavours. The corn tempura is simple and stunning, as are the salads and the tofu with deep-fried jako baby sardines. The fish is always excellent and if you know anything about rice you'll be dazzled by the glistening, aromatic, donabe claypot version served here (order 40 minutes in advance). A good range of wines and sake, and English menu available.
Go there: Aoyama KT Building B1F, Jingumae 5-50-8, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. Phone +81 3 6418 5572.
This is a contemporary take on the traditional standing bar, one of the precursors of today's izakaya. Seating is available downstairs but Buchi's main attraction is the bar counter, at which it is surprisingly easy to while away the hours despite the absence of anywhere to sit.
In keeping with its modern theme, the payment system is cash on delivery, and the menu ranges thrillingly from Japanese standards to jamon iberico (the char-grilled version should not be missed) and such unforced fusion delights as uni sea urchin sauteed with water cress. The all-female staff are cheerful, spunky and knowledgeable, and the atmosphere can verge on party-like. There is an English menu and full wine list.
Go there: 9-7 Shinsen-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. Phone +81 3 5728 2085