A Greek Village Tavern on a Tokyo Drinking Street
7:30 pm, Thursday night. Exiting south from Nishiogi Station, we slip into in the warren of bars and restaurants built upon the architectural skeleton of the old black market that sprang up south of the station after the war. Even on a weekday the area teams with people drinking and enjoying their evening. The narrowest of these alleys is called Willow Alley, a well-known fusion of post-war black market architecture and cosmopolitan culinary offerings, including Thai, Bangladeshi, and Korean.
This winter, a new spot popped up. Even the restaurant’s name, Greece Komachi Sanchome, represents an amalgam of a Mediterranean village with the Tokyo koji (alleyway). Upon our arrival, the husband and wife team, Chris and Saya greeted us warmly and guided us up to the second floor. Climbing up the narrow, whitewashed staircase, nocturnal wanderers in Nishiogikubo feel as if they are entering a miniature Greek village tavern.
Chris, the 27-year-old proprietor, is from Greece, where he had worked as a waiter, barista, cook, and bartender. While travelling in Japan, he met his wife Saya, who had long operated several restaurants and bars along the Chuo Line with a childhood friend, Udagawa-san, as her partner. Saya and Udagawa-san first opened an organic dining bar in Shinjuku. After three years, they moved to Asagaya, where they ran another organic bar for seven years, moving later to a bigger location in Mitaka. When Chris arrived on the scene, he naturally teamed up with both of them.
Chris, Saya and Udagawa-san opened their first Greek restaurant in Mitakadai in 2015; however, they decided to relocate to Nishiogi in 2017. “Mitakadai is like a place for older generation people,” Chris explained, speaking English. “It is not so interesting of a place for me. I wanted to be nearer to the station so my friends will have easier access to my shop. And for me, I have to do shopping and other business so next to the station was much better. People can come easier. If you have to take the bus to go to a restaurant, it is mendokusai (bothersome). So, we decided to relocate and open a Greek restaurant because there are not many Greek restaurants in Tokyo.”
The restaurant stands out in Willow Alley with its blue and white exterior and a big Greek flag greeting Nishiogikubo bar-hoppers. The first floor is a cozy space with white walls and a blue bar. Chris himself painted Bougainvilleas, a flower common in the Greek islands, on the white wall. When going up the stairs, the wall greets the customers with scenes from a Greek village street. The room is decorated with small details such as replicas of lemon grass and grapes.
“I wanted a Greek atmosphere and the first thing that came to my mind was make something like Greek island style. Like blue and white. And I put up decorations like lemon trees and grapes. This painting is like steps. Greece usually has white and gray stones.”
Before Chris opened his restaurant, the place housed a Japanese snack bar. Like other bars on the street, the space is cramped. It is impossible for a big group to come here because there are only a few seats. The staircase is so narrow and steep that customers have to climb it like a ladder. They have to be careful not to hit their heads on the air conditioner on the wall. Even though the space is miniscule, Chris uses the paintings on the wall to evoke a village space. Additionally, the intimate space enables customers to interact with Chris, Saya, and Udagawa-san.
Greek cuisine is not well-represented in Tokyo, Chris said. “Many customers come here to express their nostalgia for Greece or because they are interested and never saw a Greek restaurant. There are very few Greek restaurants in Tokyo. They are surprised and want to learn about Greece.”
Chris can empathize with his customers’ curiosity. When living in Greece, Chris became interested in distant Japan, and decided to visit. “Everything was fascinating,” he said. “The first time I came here, it was a cultural shock because everything was different from Europe. I came here for the first time in 2013. I was a tourist for three weeks. It was amazing. Best experience I ever had. I stayed only in Tokyo and went to places people usually recommend because I did not have any structured plan to follow. I was like ‘Hey, where should I go next,’ and people would recommend places like Asakusa, Shibuya, and Roppongi.”
He was surprised by differences in behavior between Greek and Japanese people. “In the metro, you see, Japanese people’s habit is to be polite. Everybody follows the rules and is quiet. It is relaxing, not stressful for outsiders. Maybe Japanese people are stressed from their jobs. But everybody is acting calm, so I feel calm and relaxed too. I can enjoy, think, and observe. In Greece, this will never happen. Here, you can ride a bus, sit in your seat, look outside the window, and just go to your destination. In Greece, three people are going to approach you and start a political conversation. People are going to be loud. It is like if you are having a huge adventure. Greek people like confrontation. They are not like Japanese people. I have never felt depressed in Japan. Greek people are more depressed. They have a heavy psychology they bring everywhere. Japanese look mechanical, like when they are stuck in their job with their heavy schedule. But mostly, I see Japanese people enjoying their day off. There are so many places to spend time in Tokyo.”
Chris still enjoys time with Japanese people, but now he enjoys it with the customers of Greece Komachi Sanchome. “We talk to each other with a friendly tone. I know their first names. We have nice bonds and create friendships. We usually talk about Greece or personal stuff. They are interested in why I am here and what I am doing. But they also talk about their own personal stuff and from there, we build friendship.”
Chris believes he has friendly and relaxed connections with Japanese customers because they show a positive attitude towards their encounters. “I feel like Japanese people are sweet and complimenting, like they compliment everything. Greek people complain much more than the Japanese. It is like their hobby. Japanese are more sweet people, I think. Greek people are more straightforward. They have a heavy personality. They talk about their jobs too much and complain too much. They only talk about stuff that only they are interested in. But Japanese people are calm, and they ask you stuff so they can learn. They do not say their opinion. They want to hear other people’s opinion.”
There is a stereotype about Mediterranean life as relaxed and easy-going. However, for Chris, compared to the drudgery of work in Greece, he feels more at ease in Japan. “I am not stressed anymore. I was stressed in Greece but by coming here, I changed my philosophy. No stress anymore. If I don’t enjoy my work, if I am stressed, I should quit and work on something else. But now, I enjoy this job. I enjoy this environment and the friends I make.”
Similar to the curious and heartwarming customers who stop by his restaurant, Chris explains that the neighbors on Willow Alley are also friendly to each other. “There is not so much competition. It’s a friendly environment. Everybody recommends our shop. Other shops recommend us, and we recommend other shops. We enjoy their food. We do not have something bad to say about each other. We are very friendly. When customers come here and ask us where to go, we recommend places around here.”
As part of Willow Alley’s cosmopolitan community, Chris participates in the community’s monthly afternoon market event where each restaurant cooks their food and sells it outside. “Every third Sunday of the month, there is a small festival,” he explained. “It’s like a community and everybody cooks outside and has a BBQ or they bring local food. Since it is like an international street, they have Okinawan, Thai, and Bangladesh. So, everybody cooks outside and buys something from one shop and comes inside and sits in our shop. Every month there is this kind of festival. But I tried to implement also Greek holidays as much as I can. During this period they do not eat meat. The menu is like fish and beans. But I think it is kind of weird, so I change the dishes to make it interesting for the customers. And big holidays like Christmas and Easter—while Japanese do not celebrate Easter, I follow the Greek custom, like barbecuing some lamb.”
Chris’s goal with his restaurant in Nishiogi is to offer authentic Greek dishes made with Greek products. “Authenticity for me means using local products that people from the Greek islands use to cook. We use fava beans and sardines which is a Santorini recipe.”
Greece Komachi Sanchome’s food uses a lot of olive oil, lemon, and cheese. For example, they described their French fries, seasoned with crushed olive with lemon juice, as a “taste of Greece.” Additionally, Greece is famous for fruity wine so Greek Komachi Sanchome has varieties of Greek wine that are rare in Japan.
Although Chris tries his best to recreate Greek tastes, he faces difficulties in Japan. “Greek products are very hard to import here in Japan. Making original recipes and recreating exactly the same is very, very hard. This is because the products are very expensive. It is cheese based and olive oil, spices and herbs and in Japan these are very limited or close to nothing. So we have to import ingredients, or we have to figure something out and adjust our recipes using Japanese products. I would like to create authentic Greek cuisine.”
For example, the stuffed squid must be reconstructed with locally available ingredients. “This is a Greek island recipe but usually Greeks will stuff it with more feta cheese. But here in Japan, it is impossible. So, I use another kind of cheese with vegetables. So, it is semi-original, tastes nearer to the Japanese tastes. For the quantity of stuff I put in my food, I cannot put 100 grams of cheese. In Japan, it is impossible because the price of cheese is so high. I am going to go out of business in a week if I do that.”
In order to provide authentic tastes to Japanese people, Chris wishes he had more support from the Greek community and government. Unlike Turkey, there are no favorable trade agreements, and unlike other European goods there is little promotion of Greek products in Japan. “Promotion is at a baby level,” he said. “Nothing compared to Italian commerce.”
Curiosity about Japan’s culture and people led to Chris becoming a young and ambitious entrepreneur who has added a new variety of cuisine to Nishiogi in the small limited space that was available to him. When customers leave, Chris warmly urges them, “Please come again! Don’t be a stranger. Stop by anytime.” (Mariya Yoshiyama, James Farrer, June 19, 2018)
(English text by James Farrer and Mariya Yoshiyama; interview by Mariya Yoshiyama; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; transcription and Japanese translation by Mariya Yoshiyama; copy editing by Jason Bartashius; copyright James Farrer 2018)