Bon Appetit! Japanese Culture in the Kitchen
Relax at a Japanese Tavern with Seasonal Sake and Food
Written by Otani Hiromi, food journalist Photos by Iida Yasukuni
An izakaya is a good place to go to after work with a colleague who suggests getting a drink and a bite to eat.
There is nothing pretentious about an izakaya (in English it might be called a tavern). Izakaya designed in the traditional style—unfortunately there are now fewer than before—will almost surely have a rope noren half curtain over the entrance, and a red paper lantern by the door, an illuminated “sign” to attract customers. That is why even izakaya without the traditional trappings go by the nicknames nawa noren (“rope half curtain”) and aka chochin (“red lantern”).
In the old days, sake stores used to offer customers different types of sake to taste, and sold it by volume. Then around the end of the 16th century they began serving simple meals as well, and this was the beginning of the izakaya. By the early 1800s there were lots of them. The political capital, Edo (present-day Tokyo), had many more men than women, so taverns serving cheap sake and meals must have been greatly appreciated by all those bachelors.
Let me take you to the Kanae, an izakaya in one of Tokyo’s busiest centers, Shinjuku. The shops and bars in this district keep changing, but the Kanae has operated in the same spot for 36 years, which is close to miraculous for this part of the metropolis.
Pull back the half-curtain noren at the doorway, go inside and order a drink. Many Japanese now tend to favor beer and shochu over sake, but the Kanae, like any izakaya true to its name, specializes in sake. It offers the best brands from throughout the country, and that makes it hard to choose!
“I’d suggest your next cup be a little different—something a little drier, to follow up on what you’re drinking now,” says the manager, Yamamoto Hirofumi. He makes this kind of suggestion when asked, and will tell you what sake might go best with your meal. This back-and-forth chatter with the staff is another enjoyable part of the izakaya scene.