Couples-Night Mondays: Another Form of Japanese Drinking Culture
Despite the masculine image of Japanese drinking culture, you can find many local urban hideaways that serve as a "third space" between home and work for couples and families, not just for men.
The image of after-work drinking in Japan is a row of “salarymen” lined up in dark suits at a bar or mixed group of co-workers leaning into a table at a noisy izakaya. The Tokyo bar is a “third space” between the responsibilities of work and home, an escape mostly for middle-aged men. In our neighborhood hangout, however, a different pattern of after-work drinking can be found.
Upim is a hole-in-the wall Italian dining bar that could maximally serve a dozen people, with eight seated at the bar and four others sharing a small table in an alcove. Chalkboard menus listing the specials and cooking utensils are the only décor. Mr. Kato, the master, does all the cooking, producing a style of Italian country food that he mastered during ten years as the chef at Strings, a cozy bar in Kichijoji with live music every night. Three years ago Kato decided to open his own place, choosing a relatively underserved section of Shinmei Road, where rents are much cheaper than in Kichijoji. On weekend nights his girlfriend helps him, but on Mondays he manages alone.
For me, Monday is often father-daughter night at Upim, sometimes with Mom along, including our wedding anniversary dinner in spring 2015. Over the past few visits we have discovered our frequent drinking companions are a rotating collection of married couples, siding up to the bar, all turning a blue Monday into a breezy respite, with glass after glass of red wine in the winter, and chilled whites as the spring air gets warmer.
Two of the Monday regulars are a sushi master and his wife. Monday is his regular day off at his traditional sushiya in Ogikubo. Other regulars are a young professional Chinese chess player and his wife, who is an editor. Another couple are a school teacher and a principal whose daughter is already a university student. One couple often brings their eleven year-old son with them. My daughter, who is also eleven, loves the crispy pizzas, savory baked vegetables and umami-laden Italian cold cuts.
Even on a Monday, the regulars rarely stop at a glass or two. Drinking in Japan is a social leveler and disinhibitor. We share information and stories about family, school activities, and the community, and, in Japanese style, repeat the same gag jokes that we shared on the last meeting. Monday nights at Upim represent a different form of Japanese drinking culture, one in which regulars do indeed escape from work and from home, but not from family.
[As of late 2016 Upim is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, but is as comfortable and tasty as ever.]
(Farrer, July 5, 2015, edited March 15, 2017)