A Working Class Pub on the Chuo Line
People tend to think of the drinking spots of Tokyo’s Nishiogi neighborhood as hangouts for intellectuals, artists, or perhaps young white-collar women. It generally is not seen as a working-class neighborhood, though, in reality, it is quite mixed. Offering inexpensive, hearty food, strong drinks, and a family atmosphere, one such Nishiogi watering hole is Choro, favored by craftsmen, their spouses, and even their children. And, as might only be possible in food-media saturated Tokyo, Choro has become quite famous as a “hidden spot,” even described as a real-life version of the TV series “Midnight Diner.”
Choro occupies a tiny storefront in the venerable postwar barrack house, or nagaya, on the small drinking street directly to the right of the South Exit of Nishi-Ogikubo JR Station. This is the alleyway bellowing savory smoke from the popular Yakitori Ebisu and the other open-air restaurants. Choro is one of the veteran eateries on this now thriving street.
The owner Hirata Hitoshi opened Choro there fifteen years ago. He had been looking for a place for months, and received an ad for the shop space in a fax from a realtor. The rent was cheap, it was on the JR Chuo Line, and close to the station, so he decided to take it. When he moved in, he said, there weren’t many other businesses in the alleyway aside from a video shop, the “pink salon” Peach, the Taiwanese restaurant Chinmitei, a soba shop and a few other places. Ebisu was there but had not yet expanded to multiple locations on the alleyway. Willow Alley on the other side of the nagaya still in its post-bubble doldrums. When asked how he decided on such a risky location he replied, “It was simply intuition.”
It was also perhaps a lack of better choices. Hitoshi had been working in the food and beverage industry for some time. The company he worked for though was struggling, so he decided to strike out on his own. “Fifteen years ago, I was already over fifty. It would not have been easy to find another job at that age.”
Hitoshi’s story bears traces of a sentimental attachment to his old job. The name Choro came from his former boss who planned to open a small restaurant with that name in Roppongi. After the boss ultimately concluded that the kanji were unlucky, he opened it under a different name. “Still, since I had worked with him for a long time, I decided to name this place Choro,” Hitoshi said.
Hitoshi, born in Ehime in Shikoku, has much experience working as a cook. “I worked since I was twenty, all over the country.”
Hitoshi does all the cooking, while his wife Mamiko prepares the beverages. Before Choro opened she was a full-time housewife. Now they manage the business together. “This is izakaya food,” he said. “We really do not have a signature dish. It just depends on the day. The menu changes every day. That’s because the same people come every day—most customers, about eighty percent of them, are regulars. So that’s why [we change the menu].”
While Hitoshi was explaining, one of the regulars, a man accompanied with his wife, interrupted: “When I come, the menu is always new and that’s fun. It’s like being a kid and asking, ‘Hey Mom, what’s for dinner tonight?!’ It’s that kind of feeling.”
He said this while happily drinking a glass of shochu and eating some snacks. His wife, a non-drinker, said that since the food is good and the menu changes, it doesn’t matter if you don’t drink.
“Most of the regulars are men,” Hitoshi continued. “There aren’t many women, though there are a few. For a young woman, just to walk in here would take some courage. At first you are going to feel uneasy. Everyone else is a regular.”
One regular, who had been sitting beside us earlier that evening, comes about three times a week, Hitoshi said. His partner also comes with their child, Otaro, whom we met on that previous visit, as he scurried among the tables. “Oh, Otaru,” Hitoshi explained, “he has been coming here since he was one and a half years old. We are like grandparents to him,” he said with a laugh. “This place is like family to him. He has been coming here since he was in diapers.”
“The couple used to come in together,” Hitoshi said. “But because the father is a craftsman [actually, a house painter], he works late. Sometimes he comes back at night. Sometimes he works early into the morning. Because he is not around, she comes here, and we watch after the little one.”
When the child was little, he used to go up in the storeroom of the shop to play. All the old shops in this postwar nagaya have an upstairs loft that dates back to the days when shopkeepers would live above their businesses, and some women would entertain their customers on the second-floor tatami mats. Now at Choro it is just a storeroom, because the narrow stairway is too dangerous for drunken customers. But the boy liked playing up there when he was small. “When he was around three he would come every day,” Hitoshi said, “When it got late he would even sleep up there. Now he is going to start elementary school next year, so he has his own ideas about what he wants to do. But back then, until he was about four, he would just head straight up there.”
When Choro first opened up, the customers who frequented it were mostly craftsmen, or tradesmen. “Well, like it was a group of house painters, or a group of carpenters. These people just happened to gather here, house painters and such. The people from back then don’t come much anymore. Now it is about half salarymen and half craftsmen. Like the father of Otaru, he came all the time. They were painters and floorers. Everyone had a different line of work. They met and got to know each other here.”
Though Hitoshi insisted that it’s a bit awkward for a stranger to enter the shop, it is a friendly place. We could see that some regulars have a deep relationship with the master. “In the spring, I will go with the customers to the cherry-blossom viewing party,” Hitoshi said. “I am getting old so I don’t do the end-of-the-year party any more, but we used to. We used to always do it in Shinjuku, at a sushi shop owned by a friend of mine. He quit working at the shop, and so then I also quit going. I would really drink hard with the customers. We stopped three years ago.”
These parties are not for the faint of heart. “At the spring cherry-blossom viewing party, I got really drunk,” Hitoshi said with a laugh. “I fell over! Last year we went to Hakone, and I got so drunk I couldn’t make it home. If I start drinking in the day, I get drunk.”
Still Hitoshi drinks every night at his shop. “I always drink. Beer and shochu. Every day, every day! Every day a bottle [of shochu].” Replying to our assertion that he was a strong drinker, Hitoshi said with a wry chuckle. “No, I’m not a strong drinker! It’s just an addiction!”
Although it really is a dingy hole-in-the-wall, one that seems like a place only regulars would know of, in fact, Choro has been introduced in many popular consumer magazines, including Pen and Sanpo no Tatsujin. “The first one who came was Mr. Otake [Otake Satoshi] for the book Hoppy Marathon. Once we appeared in that guy’s book, they [the writers] kept coming. He decided, ‘let’s do Choro.’ He said that to the actual editor and that person came.”
We asked how Otake decided on writing about this place, and Hitoshi replied, “intuition.” Maybe that would be the same intuition that helped Hitoshi decide on opening this place himself.
After the book came out, Otake discussed Choro on the radio, and through this coverage, other media including weekly magazines and women’s magazines wrote about the bar. It seems that the Japanese food media are drawn to the image of a simple working man’s bar.
In the beginning the menu was just yakitori and oden, he said, and it would have been too much work to expand it. “Even just making the skewers, you have ten grilled chicken, ten gizzards, ten livers, the chicken skin…. It’s a real hassle. Boiling daikon, peeling the boiled eggs, I can’t stand it. If it were all konyaku [devil’s tounge] and tofu that would be easy, but with boiled daikon and boiled eggs, you have to peel them. And with all that stuff, the manager here [pointing to Mamiko-san] doesn’t help out,” he said with a laugh.
“I guess we did oden and yakitori for three or four years.” Pointing to a beat-up old stainless steel pot, he said. “For the oden, I used this pot here. It would be good for about a five-person serving. During that time, we would get the meat for the yakitori from the butcher. All of it was tendons and innards. In the winter, we would make stewed beef tendons, or stewed innards. After we started that we decided we didn’t need the oden any more. This way it takes more time, but it is actually easier. With oden you have to keep a constant eye on it.”
The current menu is thus a result of the confluence of the tastes of the customers and the type of service that the aging owners are able and willing to provide. We asked Hitoshi how he decides on the daily menu.
“In the morning when I wake up, I decide,” he said. “I ask myself, ‘do I have meat or tofu? Or will I have something with miso today? I had miso yesterday, but today I want to spread it on the eggplant.’ Like that. After that I go shopping. I do it myself. Yeah, yeah. So, sure, it takes a lot of time. I choose it myself.”
So, basically, every day he relies on his experience and intuition to decide on the menu and buy his supplies. This “intuition,” as he likes to describe it, is the result of years of working as a restaurant owner and cook.
Hitoshi doesn’t romanticize the daily grind of running an izakaya. Even though they do not have a late-night license, the working hours are long. “From the very beginning, we closed at midnight. You get tired. But still the service will drag on until 2 am. I won’t let in anyone else, but someone will be still here. There is always someone who comes in just before midnight. People who are on their way home from work stop by for a drink. If you come in at midnight, it will be 12:30 or 1 a.m. before you go, right? Not many people are eating at that time. They are drinking.”
The couple has spent fifteen years on the same routine. "When I get home, I go straight to bed. I get up in the morning, and leave. I only go between the shop and the house, never anywhere else,” he said with a laugh.
The Hiratas have experienced the hard ups and downs of the post-bubble Japanese economy, and they started up in a tough business late in life. Relying on “intuition” and life experience, they have done well. They are a hard-working couple serving a hard-working and hard-drinking clientele, many of whom, like the Hiratas themselves, are among the tradespeople and craftsmen who keep the city running (James Farrer, Fumiko Kimura, Nov. 23, 2017).
(English text by James Farrer; interview by James Farrer and Kimura Fumiko; Japanese transcription and editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation by James Farrer; copyright James Farrer 2017)