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