Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Blast from the past

The other weekend, my good friend Dave showed me a delightful little izakaya in Shibuya. I have no idea what the name is, but it probably translates into either "Welcome honourable visitor to our humble and smoky place of drinking. While it is not much, we hope you enjoy your food and bring many hungry friends back to our small and poorly decorated basement" or "EAT CHEAP FOOD GOOD, YES?" I don't know... I always mix up those two characters. It's tough to find, but well worth the time and the effort. For now, let's call it The Downstairs Smack Room, being indeed the place where I acquired said carbonated double entendre.

This little place has a strange but altogether enjoyable vibe. Equal parts bar, small town diner and izakaya, stepping in is like stepping thirty or forty years back in time. Well... back to my stereotypical impression of that time, that is.

Japanese izakayas are fun and interesting places, but many of them are large chains that do away with the local character, unique dishes and perceived lack of hygiene that make the little places so much fun to visit. As soon as you step in, you'll realize that the air is swimming with a mixture of tobacco and roasting meat hanging in the air. Yes indeed, this is a smell that lets you know that now is the time and the place for indulgence.

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Other than the amount of styling gel bracing most male patrons' hair, one would never know that it was 2006. The lights are dim, the walls are lined with old posters, and classic tins of food sit along the bar. The posters were the most interesting, as they seemed to be a mixture of circus burlesque and post-WWII propaganda.

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Contrary to my earlier assertion of health-dismissal, you'll start your meal/drinkfest off with a large plate of cabbage.
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I told Dave that cabbage helps keep you virile.*

After that, you can stock up on lots of reasonably priced yakitori (the meat skewers that perfume the air so nicely), fried plates, pizzas and just about any other cheap, hearty izakaya food that you might want. All of the prices are decidedly less than you would expect to pay. 50 yen for asparagus/bacon skewers or hard boiled egg skewers. Various cuts of chicken, Shitake mushrooms, pork and beef are all on the yakitori menu, and they certainly have a deep fryer if you want to make up for the appetizer.

I also noticed a few things going for just TEN yen. I didn't know what they hell they were at first, but we ordered five on principle.

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This is what came. Sembe, as Dave had explained after ordering, are a kind of crispy snack. Our cheerful waitress plopped these in front of us a speedy fifteen minutes after we ordered (I wouldn't hustle at those prices either).

Perhaps the most amusing price on the menu was actually for Cigarettes. While Japan is known for having cheap smokes (270 yen = $2.70 per pack, anyone?), this place takes the bar to a whole new low. They offer a can of Cigarettes for 800 yen. This presumably comes in a nice tin with a whole bunch of smokes.

But... you can also get cigarettes for the low low price of 'free'.

Yep, that's right. Free.

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Seemingly, if you want a cigarette here, according to the menu, you can just ask for one. Though I kicked my social smoking habit in the most unlikely of nations, I still appreciate this move as a nice gesture.

Mostly, though, I suspect this measure was put in place to cut down on flirting by cheap people. Since the bar is so bloody inexpensive, I suppose the staff had problems with some customers assuming that the other patrons were equally cheap. So, the staff went ahead and made sure that no one would have an excuse to ask for a cigarette. That way, people are forced to invest several hundred yen in a beverage, to show that they are really willing to make an effort.

With these limitations, you need to plan your strategy well ahead if you want to have a good time here. I have two main suggestions:

1) Bringing and being prepared to spend at least three or four of those 500 yen coins (yes, the big ones). You could also buy drinks with your 10 yen coins, but don't ask the waitress for her number after.

2) Bringing your own company and enjoying the fun atmosphere, incredibly well priced food and interesting posters.

3) Same as number 2, but have a lot of Smack.

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Smack, seen here in it's original habitat. You generally aren't allowed to take these out of the restaurant. Fortunately, I always carry both a healthy amount of charm and the severed head of the last waitress that wouldn't let me cart away some sweet comedic gold.


Finding it:

As I said, to find the place, you'll probably need a guide. If you want to take your chances, though, it's located at the bottom of a set of stairs out in the back of Shibuya Station (near where the Hobgoblin is). From the Hobgoblin, head away from the station down to the end of the street until you see a large mall with a bridge over the road. Turn left, and look for that shady looking kung fu guy with noodles. It's around the corner from there.

* I might not actually have told him that at the time, but he knows now. Right Dave?

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