text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Many people are surprised to hear that Tokyo has more three-star restaurants in the Michelin guides than Paris. But it isn’t that strange; although it isn’t the first thing that will cross the mind of someone who isn’t related to Japan, the country has a very broad and very deep food culture which, combined with the hysterical Japanese obsession for the perfect customer service, can certainly result in restaurants that any gastronomy capital would envy.
Passing to the other end of the spectrum though, you find shops that even though they aren’t in Michelin guides (they aren’t even in the last pages of local newspapers) are the ones that the majority of the Japanese prefer both for their food and their atmosphere. Noisy until late in the evening (or what passes for late in the evening in Japanese cities), invariably family businesses belonging to a middle-aged or elderly couple and with an ambiance that takes you back to the films of Ozu and Kurosawa (not those, the other ones), the izakaya are something between a Greek ouzeri, a British pub and an American greasy spoon; the difference is that here alcohol is the protagonist.
The first thing the izakaya waiter asks is what drink you’ll have; in the mind of both the owner and the clients (who are usually regulars and almost always men) you are there mainly to drink, usually with friends from work. There, while beers, whisky highballs, sake or shochu alternate endlessly with small portions of gastronomic treasures, the secrets of which are closely guarded by the owner, the ties and the belts are loosened and the problems that the sararimen (the employees of the various companies) keep suppressed in the ten hours of the Japanese workday get aired and resolved. And when those leave stumbling to catch the last train, there will always be a last neighbor to stay until closing time, commenting with drunken dignity how the area changed these last years.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.