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Japan & More

Japanese-style Pubs and Drinking Spots

Just as the friendly Japanese drinking and eating places called izakaya play a role in Japanese nightlife, they have found a place in my novels. In Japantown, Jim Brodie and company hunker down in one when they have some serious thinking to do. It's a hole-in-the-wall they use as a hideaway. In the second book, izakaya lend atmosphere and sense of place. The wonderful thing about these establishments is that there are so many different types I have no problem finding one to fit my needs if I decide to go in that direction in my writing.

The Japanese take their food and drink seriously. Especially the food. Izakaya are one of the upshots of their attention to good eating. It is no exaggeration to say that Tokyo is home to thousands of these charming establishments. Increasingly, big chains are stepping in at the low end, but they too have their time and place. There is plenty of room and customers for the distinctive independent shop to co-exist with the larger, more commercial venture. Further, a successful master of one place is likely to open a second offering. Sometimes the sister stores replicate the menu of their older sibling; at other times they are wildly different.

Below are a few of my favorite shops. I've started modestly, but over time I'll most likely add to the list. These are by no means the end-all on the subject. More like starting points if you happen to be in the neighborhood. The best izakaya are cozy little homes-away-from-home, regardless of their size. So for the armchair traveler and those on the road, let's start.


SAKANAYA

I stumbled on this izakaya while doing field research for an English book on Japanese saké. Over a period of four or five very sloshy days, I traversed Tokyo with future saké author and master brewer, Philip Harper. We had a two-pronged approach: check out a list from saké aficionados, and wander some of Tokyo's popular drinking areas blind in search of hidden treasures. Sakanaya came about from our wanderings—and passed our test, which very few places did.

This izakaya offers great food, great saké well tended, and a wonderful atmosphere, with a pair of wooden counters and a number of wooden tables, with foot wells. And a few surprises I won't spoil. Check out the salads and the daily fish specials on the board (sakana does, after all, mean "fish"; ya is "shop"; the eatery playfully uses the Japanese characters for "saké" and "vegetables" to make a homonym for "sakana."). One of my favorites is the seafood you grill yourself over a mini charcoal brazier they bring to your table. You select the fish to be grilled. This place received the stamp of approval from all of my very particular Japanese friends. Fills up quickly.

CLOSEST STATION: Ikebukuro
DIRECTIONS: Go out the West Exit of Ikebukuro (the Tobu Department Store side), turn right and walk along the front of Tobu, with the roundabout on your left. Walking generally in the same direction (there's a slight shift), cross two small streets until you come to the so-called Kita-guchi area, a cluster of streets meant for pedestrians that contain restaurants, izakaya, pubs, and more. Sakanaya is located on the second block on the left. Take the steps to the second floor, then figure out how to get in.

Sakanaya 酒菜屋
1-35-8 Nishi-Ikebukuro, 2nd floor
Tokushima-ku, Tokyo
03-3590-9560


NETCHUYA

This is a recent find, but I've been back several times since. At street level, the entrance is an open stairway leading down. The restaurant itself is spread out over two floors on the first and second basement levels. Décor is black and casual, with wooden tables. The lowest level has counter seats as well as tables. The menu features a large deep-dish skillet of gyoza (a Chinese-style dumpling) that is a perennial favorite, but the crowning piece is the fresh fish, in the tanks at the bottom of the steps, brought in from Kyushu. When available, the fish is as good as it gets, and reasonably priced.

CLOSEST STATION: Shinjuku 3-chome (or Shinjuku)
DIRECTIONS: Come out the C3 exit of the Shinjuku 3-chome exit, turn left onto the first small street you come to, and it's a short way down on the right.

Netchuya 熱中屋
3-7-4 Shinjuku, 1st and 2nd basement
Shinjuku, Tokyo
03-5379-5230


UOSHIN

This izakaya leans toward upscale, with a decided focus on fish, from sashimi to grilled, and always fresh. If you like sashimi, they offer a seasonal selection on the menu, handwritten in Japanese, or you could go with the sashimi moriawase, an assortment selected by the house. Prices are per person, and portions are not large. But they are high quality. Seasonal cooked fish is also recommended, prepared in various ways depending on the fish. Select from the Japanese menu, or point to what you want when they come around with the day's catch on ice. Consider trying the Kurose brand of shochu (Japanese spirits) in oyuwari form (hot water) on a cool or chilly evening. Smooth, tasty, warming. This is a popular shop, with sister branches around town in Ginza, Shinjuku, Ebisu, Kichijoji, Nogizaka, and elsewhere.

CLOSEST STATION: Shibuya
DIRECTIONS: The Shibuya branch is a short walk down a side street to the left of the headquarters of the Tokyu Department Store (when facing the store), on the right in a white building. Tokyu is about five minutes from Shibuya Station, on the same block as Bunkamura.

Uoshin 魚真 (うおしん)
2-25-5 Dogenzaka
Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
03-3464-3000


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