“Otsukare-sama! Thanks for your hard work!”
Imagine kicking off your shoes and sitting down on a tatami mat, raising a glass of beer or sake with good friends to celebrate the end of a long workday, as the smoky smell of yakitori wafts over from the kitchens. This image, so tempting in its cheerfulness, was the reason why when I first moved to Japan, I wanted sorely to try dining at an izakaya.
Izakaya are Japanese pubs. They often set the scene in popular media and are depicted to serve mostly businesspeople looking for repose after a hard day’s work; small dishes of food fill the tables, while patrons chatter to amicable servers. It seemed to me a rite of passage of sorts to be able to frequent one if you’re a working adult in Japan.
While you can find plenty of izakaya near station hubs, today we are at Noraku-Road in Morishita, Koto City. Here, Toricho is a veteran izakaya that has occupied the same place for 50-some years.
“We specialize in unagi (Japanese eel), chicken, and fish” Mr. Ishida, the current owner told me jovially.
The interior is a perfect assembly of archetypical izakaya-ness, from the tatami mat flooring and the low tables of four, to the shoji windows and handwritten menu on the walls. It’s easy to imagine the place filled with lively customers come nighttime! A variety of posters advertises everything from standard beer to highballs (whiskey and soda) to a range of sake—for those who feel inclined.
A giant kumade (“bear’s claw”, a good luck symbol in Japan) holds a place of honour in one corner.
“We’re lucky to have generous customers,” Mr. Ishida says, gesturing to the bills stuffed into the kumade’s nooks. “They place the money there to show goodwill!”
What inspires such goodwill in Toricho’s customers? Well, there is the unadulterated nature of the establishment, which has provided customers with a haven for half a decade…
And their wholesome menu! You won’t find any complicated dishes on here, and all the izakaya standards are solidly covered. The fish—served as sashimi, or grilled—are purchased by Mr. Ishida daily from Tsukiji Market.
“We don’t do any fancy “du jour” menus,” Mr. Ishida said, “but we do have plenty of variety even with just the staples. And of course there are seasonal dishes. Spring is a great season for bonito—the first catch of the year! It’s too bad we can’t translate the entire wall menu into English.”
He did, however, have a portion of the menu—his recommendations—translated into English, Korean and Chinese for the benefit of foreign customers.
Listed on that menu is a plate of assorted yakitori (skewered and grilled chicken)—Toricho’s specialty. Juicy thigh meat, chicken balls (tsukune) with plenty of chives, as well as skewers with seasonal vegetables are available to help you start your night right.
(“Sorry it’s raw, but the grill hasn’t been lit up yet,” laughed Mr. Ishida during my visit. Well, we can always imagine the finished product!)
A must at any izakaya is dashi-maki tamago—rolled up omelettes seasoned with stock and cooked to firm plumpness. I’ve always thought that you could tell the quality of an izakaya by their eggs, and Toricho’s was simply great! The seasoning is just the right balance of sweet and salty, and the eggs are surprisingly filling. You can eat it with the ground radish for a cleaner taste, or add soy sauce to your liking, too.
Another must-have is the stewed dishes. This one is stewed chicken, with plenty of chicken skin left in. Chicken skin is full of collagen—that substance responsible for keeping skin nourished, firm and perky—and Japanese women swear by them. Consequently, this dish is always in high demand!
Perfect! This is exactly the kind of spread I used to envision when I thought of Japanese izakaya. Now if only I had a glass of sake to go with it… (I’ll have to come back at night for that.)
Mr. Ishida is a friendly character, who is quick to offer a chat with both customers and staff. “We usually have eight or so people on the floor per night,” he says of his team. “There’s a range of us, from teens to grandpas. I keep a close eye on the younger ones, to make sure they’re offering their best customer service.”
When asked about his twelve years running Toricho, Mr. Ishida joked that he wasn’t sure if the job was fun, but that he did not tire of it.
“And if you’re going to do it, you might as well have a good time doing it!”
Toricho will no doubt be filled with customers again tonight, welcoming the tired and hungry with good, hearty foods and plenty of drinks. To the people of Morishita, it’s an indispensable restaurant, with plenty of reasons to back up its popularity. If you’ve ever wanted experience a Japanese izakaya, give Toricho a try. For me at least, it fulfilled all the requirements a good izakaya should!
Story and Photos by Xianru Shen（Koto City Office Coordinator for International Relations）