Tony Alexander samples locally-made sake in Matsumoto, Nagano.
Finding pretty good pubs and sake bars in Japan isn’t that difficult. However, finding one with a strict code, where you are asked upon entering, “Do you love sake?” by a knowledgeable bar master is rare.
The customers who frequent this establishment claim that the sake is their main reason for coming here, as the food menu is quite modest. The bar master is a traditionalist and maintains an austere atmosphere in his izakaya, which, to me, only adds to the allure and charm. No raucous, smoke-filled main street pub, this quiet place is located down a dimly lit street and people come here to drink the rare pricey stuff, not chatter about nonsense. It’s straight-laced and I love it that way. Kuriya Jube is at the top of a short list of places which specialize in the sake drinking experience.
The wooded interior and soft lighting make this sake pub really attractive. The whole bar counter, where I recommend sitting, is made of cedar. I love the quaint, traditional feel of the wood counters and zabuton. Even the sake cups are made of cedar, matching the bar counter and the whole mood of the place.
The key here is jizake! That’s right, the locally-brewed stuff that’s hard to get your hands on. Oftentimes, when people step into an izakaya, they get carried away with all the national sake brands they see on display and in the refrigerator. To each his own, but I measure a sake pub by how many locally-brewed sakes they have available: Stuff that you only can get there, or through a friend of a friend.
The menus here, with a long list of local and national sakes to choose from, are handwritten. On my last visit, the drinks included: Metobano Izumi and Sasa no Homare from Matsumoto and Suiro from Suwa City, as well as Yoakemae, Tatsunocho, and Shinanotsuru Tokubetsu Junmai.
The fare that evening went perfectly with our sake. There was hobo fish, which was superb and fresh, like it was just caught; deep-fried breast of chicken, lightly seasoned; fried tofu on a stick; duck – really simple, yet delicious; battered, deep-fried pork with hot sesame sauce: absolutely none of which overpowered the sake. And then there was the ichijiku goma cream made from cheese, yoghurt, and sake, which was a complete hit with the ladies.
Price range: 3,000-10,000 for two people.
No English menu available
Conveniently located about a 10 minute walk from Matsumoto Castle
Hours: 18:00 ~ 24:00
Garrett DeOrio reviews Chris Bunting’s Drinking Japan
I tend to approach tomes of this genre with a fair dose of skepticism as they often fall into one of two categories, even when they’re not bad: a. strong on one drink or area, weak on the others, or b. written by authors who don’t know the turf and focus on spots tourists would find anyway.
Thankfully, my skepticism was dispelled within moments of cracking the cover on Chris Bunting’s attractive new release. He included a few places I know and love (which shows he has good taste!) and listed many more I either didn’t know or hadn’t tried. What better way to give a drink or travel book a fair shake than to road test it?
Bunting’s motivating premise, as he sets forth in his introduction is, simply, that “Japan. . . [is] the best place to drink alcohol in the world.”
He allows that the denizens and partisans of other capitals might be irritated by his proposition and grants them their due. He’s being too nice – those who put forth other locales, especially other cities against Tokyo (where the majority of the bars Bunting includes are located), simply don’t get it, which is why his book is so welcome.
Drinking Japan reads like a travel book – not a touring handbook, mind you, but a travel book, replete with anecdotes and impressions, which not only gives the reader a better idea of what they might be getting into, but also allows Bunting to establish a voice. And that voice is one that will make most readers feel like having a beer, or a whisky, or a glass of wine, or shochu, or awamori, or sake, or even makkori, with the man.
After a brief introduction to Japan’s drinking culture, complete with both a few warnings for the neophyte (or for those who just haven’t yet learned their lessons) and some history, Drinking Japan is divided up into chapters based on the sort of drink each of the 112 establishments he includes specializes in or is most-worth going for. These being: Sake, Shochu, Awamori, Beer, Whisky, Wine, and then others. Each of the seven drink-centered chapters is preceded by an introduction to the drink and its history and place in Japan’s tippling milieu.
The drink chapters are followed by a chapter on liquor stores and other retail establishments and a brief appendix on “Bar Japanese”.
Drinking Japan is focused on the good stuff and written for people who are interested in drinking, as opposed to people who just drink. While not every place he includes is pricey, this is far from a guide for the budget traveler. If you believe that you get what you pay for or don’t mind paying more for better drinks and good atmosphere, Bunting has something you’ll like, if not 112 things. On the other hand, if a cheap happoshu nomi-hodai is all you want out of your drinking life or don’t care how knowledgeable the bartender is or how friendly the clientele might be, you probably won’t get much from his work.
As with any effort of this breadth, Drinking Japan has a handful of minor shortcomings. First and foremost is geography: Of the 112 establishments included, 75 are in central Tokyo and a further nine are lumped together in “West Tokyo”. Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city, rates only two entries – both beer bars. The entire Tohoku and Chubu regions merit just one each: Sendai’s Isshin and Takayama’s Pub Red Hill, which means Japan’s fourth-largest city, Nagoya, is overlooked entirely. Likewise, the entire island of Kyushu is represented only by two shochu bars in Kagoshima – nada for the Fukuoka metropolis – and lovely Shikoku is passed by.
Being centered on the drinks themselves, the book also omits a number of neighborhoods known for their charm more than their pure liquid gourmet appeal, although he does include the venerable Lion Ginza 7-chome (the old one) solely for its mosaic and its place in history. Similarly, the inclusion of the cheap izakaya Kaasan – a chain shop for the cheap gourmand and notable for its ability to host sizable parties seems odd. Nothing wrong with the place, and its branches tend to have a more relaxed atmosphere and fewer screaming kids than other chains, but it does raise a question: Why Kaasan and not any of the numerous more worthy entries of the same sort?
That said, I still eagerly took a number of Bunting’s recommendations and largely agreed with him. He doesn’t mind spending a bit at times, but he knows whereof he speaks, gets the details right, and won’t steer you wrong.
If you’re unfamiliar with Japan, especially Tokyo (and that seems to be the target audience), Drinking Japan is a great place to start. If you live here, you’ll still find some new gems.
If you pick it up and decide to try it out, let us know. If you have a beloved haunt Bunting missed, let us know about that, too. Heck, invite us to try it out with you sometime. (We bark a lot, but we rarely bite. Except for that one time, and Pellegrini is really sorry about that.)
by Chris Bunting
Tuttle, US$24.95/2,130 yen (may vary), 272 pgs.
While Tokyo’s urbanization works its way West and the chain shops of the suburbs work their way into the center of town, variety and smallness go the way of Tora-san films and doing research in libraries – things people over a certain age remember and talk about, but things that just aren’t really around much anymore.
Thankfully, there are some pockets of interest left around the city and one of those is the area North of Nakano Station east of Nakano-dori and south of Waseda-dori, centered on the narrow, pedestrians-only Fureai Road.
Go one block East of Fureai Road (make a right, then a left if you’re walking from Nakano Station), and two blocks South of Waseda-dori, on a corner on your left-hand side, facing you, you’ll see a green door and an unassuming green shingle reading: Tara no Oka. The Hill of Tara. Read more