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A Mountain Survival Hut in Tokyo’s Urban Jungle

更新日:4月26日



In the bustling heart of Nishiogi’s crowded drinking street is a hole-in-the-wall bar with a smart wood-trimmed interior and a rotating menu of comforting hot dishes. Named Hütte for the mountain survival huts that can be found all over Japan’s Alpine slopes, the shop’s name evokes the improvised comradery of hikers gathering for warmth on a rugged mountainside. However, this hut in a grungy corner of Tokyo’s urban jungle is devoted as much to the spirit of drinking as to the spirit of mountaineering. The shop manager Makuta Misato and her partner, the “shop representative” Osanai Kenji, genuinely love hiking and other outdoor activities, interests they also share with their loyal customers. In addition to being a community water hole, Hütte also an authentic culinary hotspot, with a focus on the art of the hot grilled sandwich. Makuta-san has even created two cookbooks celebrating her specialty “hot sando.” 

 

Creation of the Bar as Hut Concept

The couple started the bar with the concept of a mountain hut not just because of their love for hiking, but also because they have special memories of the social connections that naturally form in that environment, and they wanted to bring that to the urban cityscape. As is increasingly the case in popular Nishiogi, they were able to open in this location because they had connections to the previous tenants.

 

Osanai Kenji (hereafter referred to as Osanai): “I used to frequent the eatery that was here before this bar was established (a yakitori place), and they offered to let me run a shop together in a slightly different style, and that’s how it all began. As for the concept, there are various restaurants around here, right? One thing was that I wanted to do something a little different from them, and at that time, I don’t think outdoor activities were as popular as they are now. However, I've always loved doing things outdoors since then, like mountain climbing, which was the starting point. When I thought about creating a shop, I wanted to make something where you could feel nature and the seasons through food and drinks, such as using cooking utensils for outdoor use. That’s why I chose the theme of 'mountain hut' for the shop. The word ‘Hütte’ also means ‘refuge hut,’ and I imagined a kind of ‘mountain hut in the city where various people come to take refuge.’”


Misato Makuta (hereafter referred to as Makuta): “What was interesting when I stayed at a mountain hut before was that many of the guests who stayed there drank alcohol quite a bit. On that day, strangers who had just met for the first time were drinking together, and conversations naturally arose about ‘Which route are you walking tomorrow?’ I want to create that kind of atmosphere. I thought, why not have a 'mountain hut' in the city, where people can gather like that, not just in the mountains”

Osanai: “I once went to a mountain hut during a typhoon, and we couldn't climb to the summit. There were many cancellations, and there were only about ten people, including the staff, at the mountain hut. Then, despite the storm, various people came, and the rescue team even brought a one-liter bottle of sake (laughs). With only about ten people and nowhere else to go but to drink in the common area... it turned into a huge banquet around the wood stove. That experience was really interesting. It was at 'Oren Hut' in the Yatsugatake Mountains. I haven't been there since COVID, but I used to go quite often before COVID.”


It’s a unique concept, but Osanai-san and Makuta-san say they don’t feel their bar stands out as having a particularly unique atmosphere among the diverse variety of restaurants in Nishi-Ogikubo.

Osanai: “I think our dishes are a bit different from others.”

Makuta: “There are so many different types of restaurants in Nishi-Ogikubo. on the back alley of Yanagi-Koji, there are Thai restaurants, Bangladeshi places, Korean spots, and plenty of multinational shops. It’s quite a collection of unique places (laughs). Amongst all that, I don’t feel like we’re particularly different or unique in any way.”

 

Nishiogi Hütte is now in its eighth year of operation, currently running as a bar only in the evenings. However, there was a time when it also operated as a specialty sandwich place during the daytime.

Makuta: “(It used to be only open at night), but about two years after opening, I started serving lunch here with hot sandwiches, which lasted for about a year or so. In March of the year when COVID started, we stopped serving lunch and focused solely on evenings.”

 

When asked if they have plans to resume daytime operations, Makuta responds with a laugh, “If there are more people working (laughs).”

 

Makuta: “For me, from morning until late at night is impossible. There’s no time for preparation. Back then, I used to do the daytime shift, and then switch with the evening manager. At that time, I did all the preparation at home. I had this huge backpack meant for hunting, and I would pack everything I made into that and bring it from home. I used to open the place around 10:30 am, do lunch service, go home around 3:00pm, take a little break, go grocery shopping, prep for the evening, and then bring it all in the next morning. Luckily, my home kitchen was still quite spacious, so it worked out. But if it had been a kitchen for a single person living alone, it would have been impossible (laughs).”



Celebrating the Art of the Hot Sandwich

The most famous dish at Hütte is without doubt the hot sandwich made by Makuta. Hot sandwiches gained attention during the COVID pandemic as a simple way to enjoy an outdoor atmosphere at home. Makuta’s repertoire of original sandwiches extends to 300, and she has published two books so far. Currently, the menu consists of two items: a “Weekly Special” hot sandwich and the irresistible “Red Bean Paste and Mascarpone Hot Sandwich,” known for its sweet and salty flavor with a hint of butter.”


Makuta: “You can really stuff a lot of ingredients into a hot sandwich maker using direct heat. But with the electric ones, you can’t really fit in that much, they might spill out or not cook evenly. So, first, I spread some butter on a maker, then sandwich two slices of bread with the fillings, and cook it over direct heat. If there’s thick meat, I lower the heat and cook it for a bit longer, making sure it warms all the way through. Lower heat is better. I prepare the fillings in advance by cooking them through. Then I sandwich them between the bread slices, cooking until both sides of the bread are a nice color, ensuring the filling is heated through. We generally use low heat, but the cooking time varies depending on the ingredients.”

 

It seems that making hot sandwiches doesn’t require much skill and anyone can easily do it.

Osanai: “If you do it over low heat, it's not that difficult, not really a ‘technique’ per se. I’d recommend spreading some butter on a hot sandwich maker because it gives a nice aroma. It’s a bit disappointing that many people don’t do that.”

Makuta: “Also, I use fermented butter, so the color and aroma of the surface should be even better.”


We also asked about the circumstances leading to the publication of the books on the hot sandwich.

Makuta: “Regarding the first book, at the time when I was running our hot sandwich lunch business called ‘HOT SAND BRUNCH’ which had lunch service with three different sandwiches rotating weekly, offering a mix of Japanese, Western, and Ethnic varieties. We changed the menu every week, and after running the place for about a year, we had probably done close to 200 variations. The recipes had been expanding at a steady pace. Then, someone from a publishing company, who probably knew the place through Instagram or social media, approached me and asked if I would like to publish a book.”

 

The recipes featured in the first book were mostly those we had on the menu at the time. For the publication of the second book, Osanai, who is currently a lecturer at Musashino Art University, was also involved in directing, designing, and organizing the book to give it a stronger and more attractive design.


The Regular Customers and Community of Nishiogi Hütte

It is a common sight here in Nishiogi to see lively exchanges among regular customers at drinking establishments, and Nishiogi Hütte is no exception. However, the backgrounds of the regulars, and the way they connect, each have their own unique characteristics depending on the individual establishment. At Nishiogi Hütte, in line with its outdoor concept, the sharing of hobbies such as camping and sports is actively pursued among customers and between them and the staff, leading to the formation of deep relationships.


Osanai: “As for the customer base, I’d say about seventy percent are regulars. The rest, the first-timers or those who've been here a couple of times, make up around thirty percent. In terms of age, the regulars are mostly in their late forties to fifties. Well, there are also people in their twenties and thirties. But those who drink here regularly, they tend to be in that age range. As for the first-timers, well, their ages vary, and we do get younger people too.”

Makuta: “If anything, we have more middle-aged men among the regulars (laughs). There are plenty of female regulars too, but the majority are men. Women who come here alone are mostly regulars. They come alone, but since they all know each other, it looks like they’re in a group, but each of them actually is here on their own.”

Osanai: “The most frequent visitors come about four times a week, just for drinks (laughs).”

Makuta: “After work, regulars stop by for a drink on their way home; that's overwhelmingly the case. We tend to be the first stop for many. Probably because of our opening hours. A lot of our regulars have about five or six common bars they go to. We open earlier and close earlier than those other places, so we’re their first stop. Then they might go to the one that opens later for their second, and even later for their third or fourth... There are quite a few people who do that, go to four or five places (laughs).”

Osanai: “Maybe they just like talking to people. If they go to another place, they can talk to different people, so that's probably why they rotate, I think.”


We asked about the conversations that arise in the place.

Osanai: “With COVID and everything, there has been an increase in people going outdoors, especially since around the time of the pandemic. Customers have been going camping together and such. We often talk about upcoming plans, daily life, food, and so on. There might be quite a few conversations about food, actually (laughs). Sometimes we also go to a ramen shop together with customers in our cars. And sauna talk is pretty common too (laughs). We have a lot of sauna enthusiasts among our customers. There’s this customer who even makes a solo sauna program, he’s really into it. We hear about various trips customers have taken together.”


Through their shared outdoor hobbies, the community at Nishiogi Hütte has become more convivial.

Makuta: “Our customers are really close. We're together most weekends (laughs). We even have a baseball team. They’re quite multi-faceted, everyone. Some love mountain climbing in the outdoors, others love fishing, golf, baseball, futsal, saunas, you name it. Regardless of gender.”

Osanai: “We go camping together, both men and women. Because we have the shop, we can’t go together on Saturdays or Sundays, but we have been able to join them a few times.”

Makuta: “Customers go camping together, to rivers, have BBQs. Before I start my shift at night, there were times when I’d stay overnight at a mountain lodge and climb mountains with customers.”

Osanai: “In spring and fall, we had events like picnics at Zenpukuji Park, with about a hundred people coming and going. Not just us, but other restaurants or bars that are getting close to each other too, in collaboration.”

Makuta: “But really, there are people who can organize these things, it’s amazing. The cleanup is super fast, they’re all pros at drinking (laughs). Most of our regulars handle their alcohol well. There are a few exceptions, but overall, everyone's quite mature. There aren’t many troubles. I’ve been living in Nishiogi for twenty years, and there were apparently some wild folks when I was younger. But now, they’re all around fifty, everyone’s grown up and calmed down. There aren’t really any big troubles these days.”


Nishiogi Hütte is located in a narrow alley near the station, nestled in a dining district that retains the nostalgic ambiance of the Showa era. There, the interactions among regular customers are lively on a daily basis. New customers, however, are an interesting part of the mix and are welcomed at the bar. We asked if there are cases where regular customers develop romantic relationships with each other.

Makuta: “(Regarding customers becoming couples) Not really (laughs). But well, there are a few customers who met here and got married before, but not recently (laughs). They’ve just known each other too well now. For example, if a new young lady starts coming here often, there might be some chances there, but the women who are regulars now, some come alone, but they've become just drinking buddies, not really seen as romantic interests. They go camping together, hang out, go out to eat, but they don’t develop into romantic relationships anymore.”

Osanai: “Not so much about romance, but community formation definitely. Surprisingly, there are few new women who come here to drink alone. They need to choose the places they want to come in, but I do wish more women would come in to drink alone. There are overwhelmingly more people who just look and pass by. Even if they're interested, many don’t come in.

It depends on who’s inside the places, but if a regular customer strikes up a conversation with a newcomer, they might end up going to another place together, even if it’s their first time meeting. It's quite amazing (laughs).”



Impact of Corona on alleyway community life

Like other businesses, Nishiogi Hütte suffered the acute and long-term effects of COVID. This is felt in the pace of nightlife activity along the alleyway. Even after COVID, it seems that business hadn’t quite returned to normal by the time of our interview, but the regular customers at Nishiogi Hütte seem to have become more awakened to the outdoors.

Makuta: “There was a time when we had to stop serving alcohol, or close at 8 p.m., so during those times, we also reverted back to a style of “a hot sandwich brunch” for a short while, a daytime format without alcohol service. It was really like a time-limited thing. Back then, the regulations due to COVID changed about every two months, it felt like. Sometimes it was only takeout or no indoor dining.”

 

The effects of COVID are still felt.

Osanai: “Yeah, the number of people has really decreased. There are fewer people walking around the streets, overall.”

Makuta: “I feel like the number of people drinking late into the night has decreased. It feels like it’s come back a bit from before, but this year, the summer was just too hot (the interview was taken place in late September). That might have something to do with it too. There aren’t many people around during the daytime, even on weekends. Now that the weather is getting nicer, hopefully we'll see a bit of an increase.”

Osanai: “The decrease in people drinking is definitely a big change, but other than that... well... Among our customers, there’s been a huge increase in those who are into outdoor activities. Like, they go on camping and go golfing often. Many people who hadn’t done such things before started doing as well.”


On the neighboring Willow Alley, a “Hiruichi” or Day Market is held every third Sunday of the month. This was also impacted by COVID.

Osanai: “Before, almost every business used to participate, but now there are only about a few places open for lunch for the event.”

Makuta: “The number of visitors has decreased too. There used to be so many people that you couldn't even pass through. The stance was like, you could eat and drink anywhere, as long as the shop was open. People would buy food from one shop, drink beer from another, and eat outside at the tables. So, the back street, Willow Alley set up tables set up outside. It used to be so crowded that you couldn't walk through. But recently, it's been quite lonely. It’s changed a lot due to COVID’s impact.”


Despite the impact of COVID, customers at Hütte found other ways of engaging in community activities.

Osanai: “Our bar is part of the shotengai organzation (shotenkai) for this street. What was its name again? (laughs) I don't remember.

We don't have a festival for just this shotenkai. But there’s a customer of ours who’s in charge of organizing the festival. Also, during Fall, when the portable shrine is carried out, some customers from our shop also participate in carrying it, and there are a few who have been participating in the festival for a long time. The same customer also organizes the lion dance in the New Year holidays.”

Nishiogi Hütte is truly a bar that embodies the formation of the local community, often talked about in the drinking culture of Nishiogi. In this town filled with izakayas, the food must be special, but not too expensive. Also, drinking is central, but customers are not necessarily connoisseurs of particular types of alcohol. For the restaurant, the essential element is really the sustenance of a community of regulars who power these places. Walking past these myriad bars in the yokocho south of the station, they even seem interchangeable. But in fact, there are always subtle differences in the personalities of the owners, their styles, and interests that attract a different group of regulars. Each place is – as the name of this one bar indicates -- its own type of little “survival hut” in the urban jungle. (James Farrer and Nagiko Shimooka April 2, 2024).

 

(Interview by James Farrer and Nagiko Shimooka Sept. 26, 2023; transcription and translation by Nagiko Shimooka; Japanese editing by Kimura Fumiko; copyright James Farrer, all rights reserved)

 

 

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