An Anglo-Irish Pub on the Chuo Line
There are many British and Irish pubs in Tokyo, ranging from cozy independent spots to McDonaldized chain pubs. What all these places have in common is the slightly comical but generally felicitous coming-together of English-speaking foreigners and English-practicing Japanese. Before Tinder, these were the only sure-fire places in Tokyo to seek that intercultural love match or an impromptu language-exchange partner, or simply to sip a cold Guinness, snack on chips, and imagine one was far away in Dublin (or Boston, or Lagos, or Bangkok, or any other place with an identical pub décor and piped in Gaelic folk tunes).
When British pub The Hole in the Wall appeared in Nishiogi in April 2019, we were fearing more of the same Irish knick-knacks, fried nibbles, and folksy melodies. Happily, we were wrong. Opened by a British-Japanese couple David and Maki Carmichael, The Hole in the Wall is more of a neighborhood gastropub than a generic expat watering hole. Maki, who does all the cooking, produces each dish based on her interpretation of British home-cooking classics. Someone who flew in from Heathrow and landed here would think that had arrived at a smaller, neater, and probably tastier version of home.
David, who arrived in Japan in 1984 and recently retired from teaching at universities around the city, manages the front of the house, where he holds court with the regulars. He grew up between Ireland and England and studied social science at Tokyo’s International Christian University. When prompted, he exhumes bits of his postgraduate Chinese language study for his barman’s banter. David is the sociable face of the pub, and many of the English-speaking regulars are his old connections. David also chooses the music playlist, one that a younger customer will definitely recognize as Dad music (or just good classic rock).
Maki runs the show, as David readily admits, and our interview concentrated on her story. Maki fell into the bar life at a very young age, and if her bar career were a Netflix series, The Hole in the Wall would be Season Four. "At first, when I was a college student, an American friend started a bar in Asagaya,” she said. “I went over for a drink, and I began helping out because they needed someone. When I was in the third or fourth year of college, I got a job there, but only about twice a week. It was an American bar because there was an American guy running it."
This first bar was called Gecko Lounge, a popular foreigner hangout in the late 1990s on the Southside of Asagaya Station. After graduation, she worked for five years as an “office lady,” a white-collar worker in a company. “It wasn’t my thing,” she said. “So, I kept working at the bar part-time.”
Several years later, the American owner was planning to close up Gecko Lounge. Another regular suggested to Maki that they start a bar together. This was Sam Mitsuya, who had lived for decades in the United States and speaks fluent English with a Southern lilt (I frequented his liquor store in Asagaya before moving to Nishiogi). He had moved back to Japan and took over the family shop which happened to be very near the Gecko Lounge. “'Why don’t we do it together, Maki?’ he asked, and we ended up running a bar together in Asagaya for about eight years,” Maki said.
This was Arrows, a small place near the Gecko, also close to Sam’s family shop. “After that he [Sam] got married,” Maki said, “and his lifestyle changed, so we decided to close the bar and go our own ways.”
Maki’s third bar, which she ran alone, was the ultra-compact Asagaya Cave. A friend introduced her to the location. “There was a very small and completely empty spot near Asagaya Station. And someone told me about it. So, I started from scratch. The space was really a skeleton, so I got together with my friends and we built it together. That lasted about five years too. During that time, we got married and moved to Nishiogi. It became more and more and more difficult for me to make the commute, so I decided to close that down and open a place here with him [pointing to David].”
After she got to know David, they often went out in Nishiogi, so they decided to look for a spot there to open a bar. "The neighborhood is a bit special, even among those on the Chuo Line. Somehow, it's different from Asagaya, it's different from Koenji, and so on ... Every station has its own town that the local people love. However, here in Nishiogi, there are many people who are well-bred. There are yakitori restaurants but also people with high incomes will stop for a drink. Especially when you look at the people running shops, I saw there are people from Bangladesh, or from other places, people who grew up in the Middle East, and so on. Their backgrounds were interesting. But I wouldn’t have met them had I not been running a bar."
They were not immediately sure what kind of bar they wanted to open. “When we were first thinking of opening a place, it was hard to decide,” she said. “I was thinking about a Spanish pub. We like to drink and eat out, so we went to various places and we realized there already were Spanish pubs everywhere, and we're not Spanish. Thinking about it, Dave knows British food. I think his mom made it a long time ago. He wanted to eat it, so I made it all the time. He’s actually Irish, but there aren't many places like that. There are a lot of corporate pubs, but they serve the kind of chain-pub food. We wanted to create a real English pub that serves the kind of dishes an English mom would make."
The Hole in the Wall can accommodate about 30 customers max. It’s cozy, but not small by Nishiogi standards. Amidst the random photos of old Ireland are actual photos of David’s grandparents above a faux fireplace.
In one corner of the bar, there is a separate nook where larger groups can meet. “Some people get together there to play cards,” Maki said. “Another group meets to do readings of their work. They are translators and writers. One of them first came here by herself and asked if was okay to use the space for that purpose. By coincidence one of the members was someone who used to live in the same apartment building as I did.”
Maki and David designed the pub together. “We wanted to make into a kind of an ordinary pub, recreate the atmosphere of a country pub,” Maki said. “The structure we are is of course really different, but we tried to create that kind of feeling. Not a pub in London, but a country pub. David is an English country guy, an old Irish uncle.”
Because of Maki’s cooking, The Hole in the Wall has become known as more of a place to eat than just a pub for drinking. “There are some bar snacks,” she said, “but somehow more people come here to eat than I thought. I always wanted to make real British food.”
Everyone imagines fish-and-chips, she said, but they don’t serve that. “There is much more to British cuisine than fish-and-chips, and that is not home cooking. It is takeout.”
“The main thing is pies,” she said. “And then there is my slightly unusual curry. They think of it as English food over there. And depending on the day, there is chicken tikka. It’s called Indian curry, but it’s a bit different. I also like to make Mulligatawny. It contains chicken, vegetables, and apples, and is thickened with rice or wheat. The basic soup is like a vegetable stew. It is rice-like, and it also contains apples.”
Maki has never lived in England, and she has learned all of this from books and online resources. “When I opened up the pub, I got more and more interested in the old recipes,” she said. “English people want to eat the kind of food their mothers’ made but they are too busy, and they just eat readymade stuff or pub food. But there are many old recipe books. And there are lots of things you can find on the internet. I have so many books, like books about baking for an English mother. If I can buy one, I will buy it. There are also things on the internet. The internet is amazing. I have also been to England twice.”
Creating these dishes in Japan still requires resourcefulness, especially with regard to ingredients. “You can’t easily get here the things you can get over there,” she said. “Like chutney. Unlike Indian chutney, British chutney is a little sweeter. When you go to England it’s on the supermarket shelf alongside the jam. But it’s not here. So, I’m also happy to make this one myself because it’s extremely expensive here... One thing I can’t at all in Japan, or only at great expense, is what they in England call Golden Syrup. It’s like sugar honey in Japan. It’s included in the recipes for golden syrup cake. You can buy it anywhere in the UK in a can, but in Japan it’s expensive. We bring it back from England.”
Maki’s reading has inspired some of her food. “I liked books when I was a kid,” she said. “When I read the novel, I found dishes in the book Anne of Green Gables. A lot of the dishes that came up in the book, I could only imagine. Now I can make them. So now I make some things I have never seen before. It’s quite interesting. Things haven’t changed that much. And if you use the ingredients carefully, you can get it right, and it has a nostalgic taste. Dave is the taster. He has to give his okay.”
David and Maki took a lowkey approach to marketing the pub. “At first we didn’t advertise much,” she said. “I wanted to start slowly. People we know from a long time ago, people who taught at his former university, his old English friends. At lunchtime, we would sell pies, and they would come in to buy them out of nostalgia. They were really happy that we opened up. Until then they could only get this when they went back home. People we knew from foreign countries would come, but I didn’t advertise it so much to my acquaintances because I didn’t want to get too flustered, and just started out slow. After a while, we got more and more local people coming in. I am just happy we have customers coming in every day.”
The Hole in the Wall’s reputation spread among the scattered English-speaking expats living on the Chuo Line. “Many people are local foreigners who have heard about us, or people who live along the train line,” she said. “English people will come from far away. They want to eat English food. It is not the kind of food they will eat every day, but something they will come in with the families for a meal once every two or three months. And after that, they will stay for drinks. Rather than those who come every day to drink, there are those who occasionally come in to eat and those who just come in for a drink.”
An expat bar on the Western edge of the city is going to attract a different type of customer from the bars in the expatriate centers, such as Roppongi. “At the Gecko Lounge,” Maki said, “it was mostly Americans, people who didn’t feel like hanging out in Roppongi. It was still a foreigner bar. Back then there was still a scent of the bubble era in the air. There were the English conversation teachers, people sent over by their companies, who had money, but fell in love with the scene along the Chuo Line, and felt like drinking at a local bar instead of in Roppongi.”
Nishiogi attracts an older type of expat, Maki explained. “There are quite a few foreigners who come to live a quiet life with family,” she said. “There are people who have been here a long time. In Koenji and Asagaya there are more young people. Here there are more people with families. People who want to live here.”
About 40 percent of The Hole in the Wall’s customers are foreigners, a very high proportion for Nishiogi, a neighborhood with a relatively small foreign population. (The 562,000 population of Suginami District as a whole is only about 2 percent foreign nationality.) Since they are more likely to live nearby, there are more Japanese customers getting takeout during COVID, but there are more regulars from foreign countries. Many of the Japanese regulars also have a connection to life overseas. "I feel that many Japanese people can speak [English] somehow,” Maki said. “Maybe they were stationed as expats or studied abroad in the UK when they were in college. For whatever reason, there are many people who have been abroad for some reason."
A bar can be a place to communicate with close friends, or with strangers. Where people sit often is a sign of what they are looking for."When people sit at the counter, somehow their conversations become connected,” Maki said, “and you remember it again the next time you met. Maybe at the table, but I think people who want to do that usually will sit at the counter. People also sit at the counter, somehow get into the conversation, and try their best to speak a few words to others. There are also foreigners who can speak Japanese. It’s easier for me to remember the names and faces of people who sit at the counter. If you're sitting at a table, you're a couple or something like that.... "
When we asked David the difference between an Irish and English pub, he replied jokingly that “An Irish pub doesn’t have a carpet.” The Hole in the Wall doesn’t have a carpet either, David noted, but he would still consider it more of an English pub. More obviously, the pub sells some Irish whiskeys and, of course, Guinness. They do have a few Irish-inflected dishes, including an Irish stew. “That’s a stew with Guinness in it,” Maki explained. Other than Guinness they also always have either an Irish or Scottish IPA on tap and an English Cider. The desserts also include a fabulous Guinness chocolate cake.
“Many people start with a beer, and then go on to whiskey,” Maki said. “People who come after dinner may start with a whiskey. The kind of food we serve, you can’t eat every day, so some people will come over after dinner and have a drink. The ones who just come in for a drink live nearby. They may just have a quick drink and go.”
Maki and David picked a challenging time to open a bar. Not even a year into their business, COVID hit. They were lucky that their food items are suitable for takeout, especially the pies and cakes. “We really wouldn’t have survived without takeout,” Maki said. They actually started takeout before the lockout began. Customers wanted to take home pies, and they were easy to take home frozen. Most recently, in early 2021 about 30 percent of the business has been takeout.
The Hole in the Wall is a neighborhood bar on the edge of the city, but still close enough to a busy train line to attract nostalgic Brits (and Anglophiles) from quite far afield. The attraction is the cuisine, but the friendly atmosphere keeps many customers coming back. (James Farrer. Feb. 3, 2021)
(Interview by James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura Oct. 28, 2020; Japanese transcription and Japanese language editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation and English writing by James Farrer; copyright by James Farrer, all rights reserved.)