An Uzbekistan Wine Shop in Tokyo

Nishi-Ogikubo’s historic drinking street Willow Alley has become a space for multiple experiments in culinary exoticism. Since the opening of Handsome nearly fifteen years ago, Thai, Okinawan, German, Korean, Bangladeshi, and “reggae” themed locales entice customers with playful signage, while downplaying any promise of culinary authenticity. Rather than sampling a particular cuisine, the point is more to sample the other customers in these tiny watering holes, many of which accommodate no more than four or five visitors in the ground-floor bar areas. Indeed, the point of such narrow, uncomfortable spaces seems to be to force customers to talk to each other.  Each bar is an instant, albeit temporary community, and because they generally are friendly to women as well as men, young as well as old, newcomers as well as regulars, they are much more socially mixed and open-ended than the hostess-owned “snack bars” they have largely replaced on the street. Caravan, is one of several such small bars on the street, but in terms of the products it sells, it is unique, dealing primarily in Uzbek and Romanian wine, doubling as both bar and store.

One night we visited, and immediately were ensconced among three regulars. One was a high school teacher who teaches special needs children, likes to travel and share stories of her trips around the world.  Another regular was a woman who happened to have studied in the early 1990s at the same university as I had in China; we reminisced about our experiences. Another regular was a producer of classical music programming for a major radio station. He studied music in Germany and Italy for years and plays the flute, piano and shamisen. Because he was there, the bar was playing symphonic music from the Dresdner Symphony Orchestra.

The owners, Morihige Yasunori and his wife Morihige Midori, opened the small wine shop in September 2015. They see Caravan as a store selling imported wines and not just a bar. "For me the goal is to get you to taste a glass,” Mr. Morihige said in an interview. “If you like it and you are interested in it, you can buy a bottle. Recently, the number of customers taking bottles home has been increasing.”

The inspiration for opening an Uzbek wine shop came when Mr. Morihige went to Uzbekistan on a trip and took to the wine. He became his own purchaser. "I travel directly over there and go to the winery directly and buy it. I have a partner in Uzbekistan and I am served very well by working with him. He prepares the forms in kanji."

It apparently takes time to negotiate exports in Uzbekistan. “It was pretty hard. It has been one year since our first negotiations in Uzbekistan. This shipment arrived in February of this year. I started to sell wine since September of last year, when I went to Uzbekistan, talked with the wineries and bought some. So, I carried in the wine I sold from the opening in September until the contract was settled.”

Now they also deal in Romanian wines along with Uzbek wine. There is also Italian style espresso. Mr. Morihige said, “There are customers who only drink a coffee. They drink near their workplace after work, and then they have an espresso on the way back. They drink it down, have a cookie, and go back home refreshed.”

They also have made themselves into a tobacco shop with a license from Japan Tobacco. “We sell only Japanese cigarettes. The beer we offer is the Russian brand Baltic. It was good when I drank it in Uzbekistan. So, when I got back to Japan I found it.”

Although it is an original idea, it also took some courage to specialize in the wines of Uzbekistan and Romania. “I was worried. First of all, I was worried about whether Japanese people will accept the taste. Because taste is an individual matter. After all, when Japanese people drink wine it is usually from France, Spain, Italy, Argentina, or Australia. I like drinking wine, and I was worried because it was a completely different taste. But once they tried it, everyone told me that it was delicious, tasty.”

 

When asked about the special characteristics of Uzbek and Romanian wine, he focused on their healthy qualities. “The biggest difference from French and Italian wines is that they [Uzbeks] have never exported their wines, these are only drunk inside the country. So, there is no risk of spoilage during transportation, and they do not really use antioxidants.”

The quantity of sulfites they use is less than the limit for what would count as a “bio wine” in Japan, he claimed. He added with a laugh that Japan's limits on sulfites in wine are “very high.”  “Even if [sulfites] are about half of the bottle, it's okay.” In Uzbekistan, he explained, producers use antioxidant additives in the wine making process, not as preservatives.

“They often say that there are no headaches after drinking Uzbek wine,” Morihige said. “Someone who has had headaches up until now because of antioxidants, will not have them now. Somebody might have headaches while drinking, but with this they will be okay. You wake up the next day clear in the head. There is no hangover.”

Whether you wake up with a hangover is probably related to the amount you drink, we decided, but, in any case, we felt the sweet fortified Uzbek wines were quite tasty.

Customers at Caravan include both newcomers and regulars. “There seem to be a lot of people in the cultural industries. There was an NHK person in here today. Before this .... I cannot say exactly, there are also many doctors and magazine editors, etc. There are also many writers and music industry people in Nishiogi, because there are a lot of places hosting small live performances.”

There are also many women customers. “Many women come alone. Many people drink a couple of cups and some become repeat customers. Many buy wine.”

Of course, people who are involved with Uzbekistan will also visit. “There are those who want to go to or who have been to Uzbekistan. There was someone who came as a student from Uzbekistan, then got a job in a company and brought their colleagues over. And there are those who come from the Uzbek embassy.”

Finally, we talked about Willow Alley. In the shop where Caravan is now, there was a woman running a small izakaya for many years. “She had been here for a long time, but physically it became increasingly hard for her. So reluctantly she quit. But for us, this was good timing. In Willow Alley, the second floor of the shop is where most people lived. So, there was a shop on the first floor, and they lived on the second.”

It seems that only very few people live on the upper floors any longer. Like most bars, Caravan now has a bar space on the second floor for small groups or people who want a more private conversation. The Morihige’s daughter also runs a small bar across the alleyway, and customers meander from one to another.

Nishiogi, especially Willow Alley, is known for “ladder drinking,” or bar hopping. “People go around and round and round,” he said with a laugh. “It may sound rude, but it’s like fish farming, like a fish tank, just people circling round and round, looking for something to eat, drinking in circles."

Food may not be the only thing customers are circling for. “Why do customers decide to enter the store? Men come in when a cute girl is drinking alone,” Morihige said with a laugh. “My wife plays such a role as well, I think. She comes in about two days a week. And my daughter’s shop may have many such people [laughing].”

Although it has a peculiar focus on items such as Uzbek and Romanian wines, Caravan is attracting a group of regular customers. Overall, Willow Alley has become an increasingly well-travelled route for circulating drinkers in search of both the exotic and the familiar in a small bar (James Farrer, May 8, 2017).

(copyright James Farrer 2018, all rights reserved)

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Copyright © James Farrer ー All Rights Reserved.