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At old-style drinking places, the quest for Showa-era nostalgia clashes with reality

24 Comments

Japan is said to be currently undergoing a boom in "taishu sakaba." The term literally means a drinking place for the masses.

Offering a nostalgic atmosphere evocative of the bygone Showa Era (1925-1989), these blue-collar drinking spots supposedly allow patrons an inexpensive chance to travel back to simpler times, when people could relax, shrug off pretensions and allow their "ninjo" (feelings of empathy) to show.

Jitsuwa Bunka Taboo (August) reports that "taishu sakaba" boom received a shot in the arm when it was featured on NHK's evening news feature program, "Close-up Gendai" last Feb 12. Part of the program was shot on location in Tateishi, in Tokyo's blue-collar Katsushika Ward where a local shop -- considered the mecca of such establishments -- said its business has doubled over the past decade. On a good day, over 150 patrons would drop in, with some traveling all the way from Osaka just to partake.

A 67-year-old writer named Rui Yoshida, featured in a program titled "A record of Rui Yoshida's sakaba wanderings," broadcast on TBS TV on Mondays, is credited with helping to ignite the boom, which has also spawned several guidebooks in the form of "mooks" (books printed in glossy A4 magazine format) from such publishers as Takarajima and Pia.

The media subtly suggests that by patronizing branches of restaurant chains that offer similar fare, one is missing out on the real thing -- the personal touch that only a small-scale owner-operator can provide.

The alleged "boom," however, is not borne out by statistical data. In 2014, Japan had 129,662 beer halls and "sakaba" in operation. The figure showed a decline of just over 20,000 businesses from a decade earlier, 150,719. For various reasons, fewer Japanese males are engaging in consumption of alcohol. Compared to 10.1% in 2005, who said they were in the habit of regularly indulging, the percentage had dropped by half, to 5.2%, by 2012 (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare figures).

Curious to see if there was any substance to the renewed popularity, Jitsuwa Bunka Taboo's writer decided to follow up on Rui Yoshida's recommendations. He journeyed to the aforementioned "mecca" in Tateishi, Katsushika -- a "taishu sakaba" named "Motsuyaki Uchida." ("Motsuyaki" translates as roast giblets, not surprising as such establishments tend to specialize in organ meats.)

En route, it occurred to him to ask, was a one-hour train ride from central Tokyo really worth the experience?

"Inside, customers were packed together like canned sardines," the reviewer relates. "The surface of the table where I was seated felt sticky to the touch. It was the worst kind of environment in which to partake. There was no menu to be seen anywhere in the shop, nor did I hear anyone speak the word 'irrashai' (welcome) to greet arriving customers."

Most of the staff wore scowls on their faces. And the reviewer was rudely informed, "We'll can't bring the next item you've ordered unless you order something else after you finish what you've got on the table." His efforts to develop a rapport with drinkers at a neighboring table also fell flat. The overall impression was one of rapt disappointment.

Visits to other "taishu sakaba" in Asakusa, Taito Ward and Morishita, Koto Ward met with somewhat better results, but were still disappointing. Another well-known spot, Tachinomi Ikoi in Akabane, Kita Ward, opens from morning and even before noon every seat was filled. While its prices were almost suspiciously low (130 yen for a plate of raw tuna), the writer was turned off by the "sour" expressions on the faces of the staff. He was also perplexed by signs posted around the shop notifying customers that "Use of mobile phones, including sending mails, is expressly prohibited."

"I can see them wanting to discourage people from annoying other customers by talking on their phones, but what's the point of telling them they can't send mails?" he asks.

While the patrons of such greasy-spoon establishments may fantasise, as they gnaw on roast chicken giblets and swill sake, that they are strolling down memory lane, Showa-style, they're more likely to be overcharged for third-rate food, in less than sanitary conditions, in an atmosphere can be described as noisy, crowded and smokey. The writer's conclusion seemed to defy the guidebook sentiment that extolls speciality shops. "In every way that matters," he wrote, "such places were sub-par compared to what's offered by the chain restaurants."

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

24 Comments
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What is the point here?

5 ( +7 / -2 )

Here are some photos of Motsuyaki Uchida (もつ焼き宇ち多゛) to go along with the story: https://goo.gl/t2CgFt

Here are photos of "taishu sakaba" (大衆酒場) style pubs: https://goo.gl/QKehhH

3 ( +5 / -2 )

These places are fun, but beware of the need for a heart-lung transplant after spending an hour there due to all the smoking you will do.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

Here is a link to the Close-up Gendai special feature on "taishu sakaba" style pubs, titled "The new relationship between sakaba (pubs) and Japanese people" (酒場と日本人の新たな関係), 26:43, starts from the 30 second mark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zCxu1qC1srs

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Once or twice for the experience was enough to satisfy my curiosity, but now I get claustrophobia. There's a whole street of such places off to the side of the Sensoji temple in Asakusa.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Never witnessed a happy or smiling smoker (while getting their nicotine fix). Showa era joints only if smoke-free, thank you. Looks like the joints are full of old smokers, the most pathetic lot imaginable.

-1 ( +5 / -5 )

I don't like smoking at all. But remember, the cigarette company used to be owned by the government, and in Showa, smoking was patriotic because it provided funds for the government. That was Showa thinking.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

In my bachelor days I lived 1minute from tateishi stn, was great for getting to work in about 30min door to door & all the little drinking joints & places to but food was great!

I also love going to these little drinking spots, meet all kinds of people from all walks of life.

If I was ever a bachelor again & had to live in Tokyo I would check out Tateishi again!!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

“We’ll can’t bring the next item you’ve ordered unless you order something else after you finish what you’ve got on the table.”

Ignoring the obvious typo, what's this supposed to mean? Someone help.

Yes, Tateishi is a funky little place GW, as are a few of the keisei stations around it. Very real kind of feel.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I think it depends on the place. The shops opened specifically to cater to some Showa "boom" are going to be no better than chain restaurants, but I know a few places in Asakusa where the staff are always friendly and the food is good.

I would also disagree with Yoshida's assessment of the quality of food in chain restaurants. Most chain izakayas serve decent food but it's rarely good and rarely worth the price.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Never witnessed a happy or smiling smoker (while getting their nicotine fix).

Sorry I can't show you my picture here.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

What is the point here?

I had the same question. According to the article all the places the reviewer visited were packed. Presumably the people who patronize these shops like them. To each his own.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

Re: " We can’t bring the next item you’ve ordered unless you order something else after you finish what you’ve got on the table.”

I've run into this on occasion at izakayas as well, particularly when they're busy. I've been with a group that ordered, say, 10 dishes, and only the first 5 or 6 came out. While nibbling on those, we'd ask for the rest of our order and the server would reply (bruskly, in most cases), "You have to finish what's on the table before we bring any more items out."

Yeah, we were perplexed too. After all, we wouldn't have ordered it if we didn't want to eat it. In the end, having to wait invariably compelled us to cash out early on what should have been a two-hour food and alcohol-laden feast. We took the money we would've gladly spent there to other more appreciative establishments.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

As much as I'm fascinated by the Showa era, I couldn't go into one of those places... I value my lungs!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

The writer of the article said the tuna was very cheap, but then concludes at the end that customers are likely to be overcharged at such places. Are they cheap or expensive places to eat? I'm not clear from this article what was meant... Why oh why doesn't the writer mention cigarette smoke? Something ravished during the showa era and distained in modern society...

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I have noticed that compared to say 5 years ago, I see a lot more salarymen standing outside drinking near a conbini these days. Could it possibly be people can't afford to go to a drinking establishment anymore? In the past I was able to manage two Fridays a month out for some beers but not these days. Conbini Mae!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

@rangermiffed

Smokers...the MOST pathetic lot? Now seriously I don't smoke and would prefer to not be engulfed with it, but why so harsh on someone who's done nothing to you? You should be glad they probably aren't judging you as you walk by. Cause if having a cigarette in one's mouth makes him the most pathetic human being then they can probably find a few good reasons to hate on you too.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

"why so harsh on someone who's done nothing to you?"... Because, smokers in bars, restaurants, and on the streets make life rather miserable for everyone with lungs and a brain, that is why. Yes, they HAVE done something to me. I can't go to restaurants, coffee houses, etc. that I would love to patronize because of the smokers. Walking on the crowded streets, I do not want to be have to inhale someone's cancer cloud. Because everywhere I look I see cig. butts from willfully thoughtless smokers. Because my taxes and national health insurance are higher to cover the hospital costs from end of life smokers. Because smokers endanger everyone around. Because smokers come inside and sit next to me in an office, the trains, and classroom and stink the place up with their foul stench of who knows how many carcinogens.

Have I answered your question??? Yubaru, what does your annual lung X-ray tell you to smile about? Give it a rest people. I am right and you know it. Let's help Japan change the laws towards sanity.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

They sound kinda funky. Like my local horomon joint. No squares in there.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Drinking with 150 other people.? No thanks. I drink large combini beers (¥280 each) out in open while admiring the lovely ladies walking by. Sounds much better than those sardine-can joints.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

" the writer was turned off by the “sour” expressions on the faces of the staff. He was also perplexed by signs posted around the shop notifying customers that “Use of mobile phones, including sending mails, is expressly prohibited.” "

From the desciption I take it these are cheap, no-frills isakaya. I can certainly understand that the waiters are busy in places like that and that the shop does not want to have customers spending hours there on their ketais.

What is the point of these complaints? If the reviewer prefers a more expensive place, he should go there.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

For various reasons, fewer Japanese males are engaging in consumption of alcohol. Compared to 10.1% in 2005, who said they were in the habit of regularly indulging, the percentage had dropped by half, to 5.2%, by 2012

WHAT? Only 5% of males are regularly indulging? So who is drinking all the beer and sake that is for sale. Who is filling up the bars and izakayas. I really do not believe the accuracy of that figure at all. I do not know any Japanese, male or female, who do not like a drink.

On the other topic that rears its head whenever bars are mentioned on JT, the reason I like smoking in bars is that it excludes the type of people who won't go into smokey places. I am safe in the knowledge that they are being sanctimonious elsewhere. The fug in these places is a small price to pay.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

I've never had the opportunity to go to one of these places. I do like good yakitori or good oden though, if they are sufficiently "taishu".

In my experience, chain izakaya food is generally not very good.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

A lot of these neighborhood joints are primarily about selling booze and cater to heavy drinkers. The inexpensive food is an afterthought in many cases. The tourists now much more than ever before, drink way less than ever ... so in those cases, they are a clear irrirant to the server/operators but have no idea why.

Now you know.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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