A Matsuri for Adults
Low-rise and low-key, Nishiogi has always lived in the shadow of its bigger and brasher neighbor, Kichijoji. In general, Nishiogi has a reputation for small, hidden eateries with regulars glued to their barstools, while Kichijoji’s famed izakayas and open-air bars attract swarms of students and weekend tourists. So, what happens when a Kichijoji izakaya veteran arrives in Nishiogi with a winning concept? We get an inviting, open space enlivened with noisy hospitality and some cheeky showmanship; in other words, we get Suppin Bakawarai. This new venue is a boisterous tavern filled with the expected laughter and conversation of Nishiogi but also a bit of the commercial vibe of Kichijoji.
Suppin Bakawarai’s style of hospitality is not subtle. Unlike most restaurants in the drinking streets on Nishiogi’s South Exit, the owner and staff yell out to potential customers on the street, rushing out to greet those who pause to take a look. Upon entering, Jun Kobayashi dramatically shouts out, “Irashai! (Welcome).” Kobayashi is 40 years old and the owner of Suppin Bakawarai. He also owns a teppanyaki restaurant, Jyunsui, in his home neighborhood of Kichijoji. His favorite drink is the highball. He also loves matsuri, the Japanese temple festival. He introduced himself with a big smile that seemed incongruously friendly compared to the usual understated style of the area. Nishiogi’s independent restaurants tend to rely on word-of-mouth to attract clients; whereas, in Kichijoji, many pull in customers from the busy streets. Suppin Bakawarai brings a little of the aggressive business culture of Kichijoji to Nishiogi.
Despite his youthful energy, Kobayashi has had a long and varied work history. “I was working as a plumber in the construction industry from 18 years old until 27. When I was 27, I started my seven-year training at an izakaya. Since then, I have been in this industry.”
Perhaps because of his many career changes, Kobayashi believes more in the value of diving into new tasks rather than the traditional Japanese virtues of a slow patient apprenticeship. While he was talking to us, he was neatly slicing up a full-sized skipjack tuna, a fish known to have a very tough skin. Kobayashi was not trained by a professional on the proper way to slice fish. Instead, he taught himself at the izakaya he worked at. “At the izakaya where I used to work, they told us to try and challenge ourselves on everything. Try it, if you have the motivation. In traditional Japanese training, you spend the first three years just cleaning the fish. But these days we do not do training that way. We have to put them to work immediately. We tell them to try and work on many things. If they do not challenge themselves, they won’t learn anything.”
Kobayashi came to Nishiogikubo two years ago. Before Suppin Bakawarai, there was a different izakaya called Saikai in that spot for more than twenty years. However, the owner of the tavern became ill and had to close his business. As with many small businesses in Japan, there was no successor. After Saikai closed, Kobayashi took over the location. “When the owner got sick and could no longer look after his tavern, he did not want a chain store to take over his location. He asked, ‘Is there anyone with some energy who wants to open an independent place?’ That was when I got asked to take over this venue. They came to me and asked, ‘Hey Jun, do you want to start a business at this location’. Since this is Nishiogi, the owner would rather have a guy with some energy rather than a big franchise taking over the place. I thought, ‘well, this location is good,’ so I responded to the offer by saying ‘Yes, I want to open my place here.’”
As the landlord hoped for, the spot was taken by a lively independent restaurant business. After Suppin Bakawarai opened, the word spread quickly that “some energized dude opened a new place,” Kobayashi bragged. To be sure, all the staff serve the customers with verve and volume. The music in the restaurant can be hardly heard over the cries of the staff. When a new customer sits down, a staff member jokingly asks, “Do you want to get warmed up by my heart, or by the fire from the brazier?”
Kobayashi said that he wants to create a fun and exciting atmosphere, similar to a matsuri, the traditional Japanese fair. “I love matsuri. I love the exciting and surreal atmosphere. I prefer that drinking taverns are fun and energetic. The concept for both of my locations is a social space for adults. I wish to create an atmosphere that makes one feel as if they are in a real matsuri.”
Despite its youthful feel, this izakaya is not aimed at young people in their twenties, the kind of customers who are more likely to go to a chain izakaya. “Many of the customers already are in their thirties,” Kobayashi said. “I am not targeting younger people. To be honest, I prefer a restaurant where adults come. If young people came, the atmosphere of the restaurant would shift drastically. I would rather create an atmosphere where young people might give it a try but also think, ‘I wonder if we are allowed to come here.’ This place is predominantly a social space for adults so I do not want to create an atmosphere where young people can enter easily.”
To meet the tastes of older and more mature customers, Kobayashi is very picky about the drinks offered in the tavern. He is especially committed to supplying a selection of fine sakes, all at a reasonable price of 500 yen a cup. “We have a wide variety of Japanese sake. I believe many of the older customers visit us for that reason. Japanese sake is very expensive, where it is common to charge 700 or 800 yen for a cup. I don't really like that so I decided to set the price at 500 yen. Young people do drink it, but there are more adults who enjoy it. People in their sixties do not like drinking beer or highballs all night. They enjoy savoring Japanese sake.”
Suppin Bakawarai’s is predominantly seafood-based cuisine that pairs well with sake. On the tavern’s counter, turban shell, Sakhalin surf clam, and mackerel pike are arrayed on top of shaved ice. “Our fish are sent from Hakodate in Hokkaido. We also get them from Kanagawa and Tsukiji. I have suppliers I trust. I get fresh and good fish every day.” Kobayashi mentioned that the most popular dish in the store is the sashimi plate.
Kobayashi also serves a variety of other items, such as grilled skewers (kushiyaki). Down the counter, past the case displaying the fresh fish, there is a brazier where the skewers are grilled. Kobayashi shared his personal associations with the brazier. “This brazier used to be my grandma’s. I really wanted to use it here. After I decided to open a shop here, I started really thinking of the concept for this location. I decided I really wanted a horizontal and close relationship with the customers. Since my other store is a teppanyaki place, I thought it would be interesting and fun if I put in a brazier here.”
Similar to how he trained himself on fish, he started practicing skewers on his own time. “I especially practiced with fish skewers. At home, I did so many barbeques featuring skewers.” These home parties were also an inspiration for his personal service style, he explained.
Alongside the nostalgic associations with his grandma’s brazier, there are ongoing connections to family members in some of the dishes. For both of Jyunsui and Suppin Bakawarai, he serves stewed eggplant. “This eggplant is prepared and seasoned by my mother every day at her house,” he explained. “Then, my wife brings it to the store for me. I honestly do not how to make this. I have had this dish since I was a kid, it’s my home dish. So, when I opened my own store, I asked my mom to make this for my customers. For seven years, she has been making this every day. Well, she does not make it on the days we get into arguments.”
These stories show us that Kobayashi’s izakaya is also a family business.
Kobayashi works hard to build bonds with regular customers at Suppin Bakawarai. He estimates that about sixty percent of the customers are regulars from the neighborhood. The staff works to remember and then share the information of the regulars’ favorite drinks. As part of their service, the regular customers will receive their favorite drink even before they order. Kobayashi also said that there are customers who become friends with each other through the restaurant. “They visit us wondering if they will find any of the friends they have met here already sitting.”
Customers try to bond with Kobayashi as well. Kobayashi says he is happy to drink with them while he is working. “I am very close with the customers. They tell me, ‘Hey drink!’ and I am like ‘Okay!’ So, every day, I have around fifteen drinks”.
Behind the counter where Kobayashi cuts his fish, there is a big kumade [a good luck rake]. Around the Kumade, there are many 10,000yen bills hanging. Surprisingly, he states that all of those bills are donated by the customers every time he buys a new kumade. “The kumade is known as a god of Japanese business,” Kobayashi explained. “When I buy one, many customers donate 10,000yen bills to the kumade. I am buying a new one in November. According to Japanese tradition, the business will thrive if the kumade continues to get bigger each year. I think this kumade is going to be really big in the future.”
Kobayashi has a strong vision of his business thriving, and he ensures this by pursuing a central tenant in his business. “I believe communication is key in a tavern,” he summarized.
During his break, he likes to visit other independently owned places to touch base with the owners while drinking his favorite highballs. On Suppin Bakawarai’s wall, there are many messages to Kobayashi written by other tavern owners, illustrating the bond independently-owned taverns have with each other. Similar to Saikai’s owner, Kobayashi does not care for the chain stores. “Chain stores are cheaper,” he said, “but I don't really like them. I mostly drink at independently own places. I think they are more fun and exciting”.
In recent years, however, chain stores have been expanding, even into Nishiogi. “Many of the stores on the main streets are chain stores,” Kobayashi lamented. Suppin Bakawarai tries to beat the neighboring chain stores by promoting a lively and personal atmosphere, similar to a matsuri. (James Farrer and Mariya Yoshiyama, April 10, 2019)
(Interview by James Farrer and Mariya Yoshiyama Nov. 13, 2018, text by James Farrer and Mariya Yoshiyama, transcription and translation by Mariya Yoshiyama, Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura, copyediting by Briana Baglini, copyright by James Farrer, all rights reserved)