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Friday, Dec. 9, 2005
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Standing firm for tradition
Special to The Japan Times
Akitaya is no gourmet dining destination. The food is basic, the sake cheap. Clouds of oily smoke billow out from a blackened, grease-encrusted charcoal grill onto the sidewalk, where customers huddle around tables fashioned from upturned beer crates.
This battered izakaya, which has stood on the main drag in Hamamatsucho for half a century, is the antithesis of all things hip and fashionable. But nowhere in Tokyo better symbolizes the enduring popularity of tachi-nomi -- literally "drinking while standing" -- and the remarkable resurgence of this tradition over the past few years.
Some of the local customers at Akitaya have been drinking there almost as long as it's been open, standing outside winter or summer, rain or shine. Asked why, one spry gentleman who gave his age as 70, just says, "The beer goes down more easily when you're standing chatting."
The idea of drinking on your feet seems unremarkable to anyone familiar with Irish pubs or Spanish tapas counters. But until recently, tachi-nomi bars were often viewed as an embarrassing holdover from the hardscrabble days of postwar reconstruction. Favored by low-ranking Shinbashi salarymen, shitamachi diehards and manual laborers on the periphery of the brave new Japan, they were haunts of predominantly blue-collar clientele. After all, why stand if you could afford to sit down?
In the last few years, though, that question has been stood on its head: Why pay more when it's just as much fun to stand? Suddenly, izakaya like Akitaya are being embraced for their honest old-school charm. At the same time, new tachi-nomi bars of all descriptions have been springing up, not in the seedy parts of town but even in our swankiest neighborhoods.
Call it austerity chic. Many of the new bars are unadorned holes in the wall with little more than a counter, a sound system emitting reggae much of the time, and a row of awamori bottles. Others prefer the retro theme, playing the nostalgia card to the hilt.
In the backstreets of Shinjuku-Sanchome, the crowds are spilling onto the street outside Nippon Saisei Sakaba (literally the "Japan Reborn Tavern") Ishii. The look -- shichirin charcoal burners, lanterns over the door, 1950s-era graphics et al -- conjures up the Showa boom years, and so does the provender. The specialties of the house are motsu-yaki (charcoal-grilled organ meats) and tonsuji-nikomi (simmered pork), to be washed down with rough shochu.
"We like the atmosphere here," a young couple confide as they tuck into their pork tendons. "And because it's tachi-nomi, it feels easier to pay up and go as soon as we've had enough." Bottom line, it's cheerful, casual and cheap -- and proving so popular that a second branch has recently opened in that shitamachi stronghold, Monzen-Nakacho.
However, the real revolution in tachi-nomi is that it's no longer an exclusive male preserve. The new wave of bars is not merely women-friendly, but many are actually owned or run by women. For that reason, many are shunning sake and shochu in favor of wine. And, distancing themselves from all stigma of salaryman low-life, they call themselves (in Japanese) "stand bars."
One of the pioneers of this new wave was Whoopee, a friendly little wine bar tucked away inside the warren-like corridors of Ebisu Store, close by the JR station of that name. It's decorated with shoestring chic -- wooden panels barely covering raw concrete; a marble-look counter; a mirror ball; and the wine selections of the day chalked on the wall behind the bar.
It's hard to know which has made it more popular: the fact that it's run entirely by a crew of young women; or the admirable policy of offering everything for 500 yen per glass (and most of the snacks too), and a standard 2,000 yen per bottle. At those prices, even wine-novices feel confident trying out unfamiliar names.
Although many customers are regulars, others are first-timers who have never dared enter a tachi-nomi bar in their lives. "The great thing [about tachi-nomi]," says manager Yukie Watanabe, "is that the distance between customers and staff -- and between customers and their neighbors -- is exactly right."
Perhaps the finest example of this new-generation tachi-nomi is Buchi. It's a sleek, chic, contemporary place on the outer rim of Shibuya's Shinsen-cho district with a plate-glass front, decor of steel and wood, and walls of midnight blue. Big enough to hold 30 or so at time, it manages to combine the casual ambience of a European cafe with the attention to detail you expect at a quality Tokyo restaurant.
Buchi's dynamic young owner-manager, Hisae Iwakura, says her only goal was to create the kind of place she herself would like.
"There are so many career women now, and they want somewhere to hang out in the evening," she points out. "Unlike many other places, I'm not jumping on any bandwagon. I want to create a place that will last. So that's why creating a nice interior was so important. And that's why all the counter staff are women."
It's all men in the kitchen, though. For Iwakura, the quality of the food was critical, so she brought in chefs she'd worked with before.
Their menu is outstanding. There can surely be no other tachi-nomi joint where you can dine on oysters (raw or butter-fried), vegetable terrine, wiener schnitzel, sauteed uni (urchin) with arugula, and papardelle with a wild boar ragu.
Iwakura is not only a trained sommelier, she has the equivalent qualification in sake tasting. That is why she has put equal emphasis on wine (18 bottles on the go), sake (30 varieties, all fine jizake packed in the kind of small 180-ml jars usually associated with rotgut one-cup sake) and hard liquor (70 shochu plus 200 whiskeys and other kinds of spirits).
Looking out over Yamate-dori, it is not the most obvious of locations. Iwakura says it took about six months before the word got out properly, but these days Buchi stays packed till the wee hours.
Back in Hamamatsucho, the regulars say they're expecting extra sake to be knocked back this evening, as today (Dec. 9) is the final day in business for this unlikely landmark before this prime site gets redeveloped.
It's the end of an era, but only for this present incarnation of Akitaya. When the new office building is finished next summer, Akitaya will occupy the same location on the same corner, with the same indomitable staff no doubt serving up the same robust food and drink.
In one form or another, the tachi-nomi tradition will continue. For too many people, regulars and occasional visitors alike, it's too important to lose.
Akitaya, 2-1-2, Hamamatsucho, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3432-0020; open 3:30-9 p.m.; Akitaya will be closed until next summer. Nihon Saisei Sakaba Ishii, Marunaka Bldg. 1F, 3-7-3 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; tel: (03) 3354-4829; open daily 3 p.m.- midnight. Whoopee, Ebisu Store, 1-8-14 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3444-5351; Open 5:30-11:30 p.m.; closed Sunday. Buchi, 9-7 Shinsen-cho, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5728-2085; open 5 p.m.-2:30 a.m.