Nishiogi’s Secret Crayfish Base for Adults
The person standing behind the counter of an izakaya, is more than just a cook and a server, but also a “master” who gently initiates new customers into the “way of the counter” (kauntā-dō) Masa-san, the master at a small neighborhood izakaya in Nishiogi, defines the “way of the counter” as including consideration for the work routine of the master and a sensibility for sharing social space with bar counter sempai, the regulars with seniority. However, according to Masa-san, even on his or her second visit a person can already claim the status of a regular. That’s a relatively low bar to apprenticeship in the “way of the counter.”
Where should the wannabe initiates go? Only a three minute walk southwards from Nishiogi Station, on the corner of Shinmei Street you can see a warm light and a sign that reads Himitsukichi・Zarigani (Secret Base・Crayfish). From a big glass sliding door, you can sense the lively atmosphere of the counter filled with seated customers. The savory smoke of yakitori wafts from the kitchen. When you walk in, Masa-san greets you with a smile that feels simultaneously welcoming and acerbic. Behind the counter on the first floor, Masa-san is preparing yakitori. Knowing where the sake and hoppy bottles are, regular customers can take one from the fridge themselves. On the counter are a selection of manga, and above is a screen that streams anime endlessly into the night. Zarigani is a refuge from workday life, brimming with nostalgia.
While the first floor is a space for drinking, reading manga or chatting with Masa-san, the real “secret base” is upstairs. Going up the narrow stairway, you will find a small tatami room with hundreds of vintage “Famicon” game disks stacked along the wall. These are all games in this console format popular in Japan in 1980s and 1990s. As expected, the consoles are connected to a television. So, when you sit down on the tatami floor, remote controllers in hand, with your friends you are brought back to the “secret base” of your childhood.
According to Masa-san, he decided to install this gaming room “as a joke.” He explained, “I was talking with my customers saying that it would be fun to drink and play games. So, I said that I would prepare a TV and consoles. Then one customer exclaimed ‘I will bring games!’ and we started collecting more and more. It was just like that.”
In the beginning, customers were playing games on the ground floor. Later they decided to move the equipment upstairs. Masa-san worried that if the first floor was packed with game-playing regulars, it would be difficult to attract newcomers. Gradually, this became a special feature of the izakaya as customers donated games while Masa-san sought out others on his own. They also have a big, thick catalog of games with detailed descriptions. Customers should check the extensive catalog before they bring in their own games. Masa-san might already have them.
From the beginning, the izakaya had a retro vibe, while over time it progressively came to encapsulate the customers’ childhoods. These themes are reflected in the establishment’s name. Masa-san said, “I decided to name it ‘Crayfish Secret Base’ because you remember when you caught crayfish and kept them or made a secret base when you were kids, right? I wanted my customers to remember the mindset of a child, and make their own secret base at my store…that was my idea.”
It seems that customers readily understand Masa-san’s unique concept. At the counter, silent and serious looking men enjoy their drinks and the manga as mental appetizers. Many customers are forty-something adults who grew up in the 1980s, and hence this place is where they can revel in a nostalgic retreat.
For actual gastronomic appetizers, diners can savor Masa-san’s yakitori with his original sauce, a hit for ten years, and a Chinese-style “lamb dumpling” which has been improved upon many times, partly with advice from a Chinese customer. Masa-san recommends the “one thousand yen set” that comes with five yaki kushi (small BBQ sticks) and your drink of choice. Compared to most other nearby izakaya, this place is rather cheap. As Masa-san explained, “I want many people to taste my yakitori even if it means lowering the price.”
Fresh chicken pieces seasoned with salt and Masa’s ten-year-old sauce are Masa-san’s treasures. But, please understand, he cautioned, there are no crayfish dishes. “I don’t serve crayfish in my shop,” Masa-san said, as though expecting us to be disappointed.
This master of childhood games and eating cheap, is Masanao Kawasai (Masa-san), a thirty-seven year old from Hokkaido. He came to Tokyo for a job when he was eighteen. After working as a construction worker and then in an apparel company, he began cooking when his friend informed him about a restaurant job opening. Astonishingly, he learned how to cook on the job. He said, “I had never studied cooking. So, in the beginning, nobody told me that my food tasted good.” However, he experimented and taught himself, and now, many customers regularly visit his izakaya for his yakitori. There are many female customers who visit his place alone, which would have been unusual in izakaya in the past. According to Masa, “it is easy to see what is going on inside of the store, so it makes it easy to step in.” The food is also “cheap and delicious.” It also seems that Masa-san’s charming character is the reason why customers return. One customer said, “Masa-san is tsundere” —a manga-inspired term for a character who first appears to be cold but then reveals a warm personality. And the regulars appear to adore him. Every time a customer compliments him, he smiles charmingly. A young female customer said, “You see. He likes to be complimented.” The tsundere master, though, demurred.
At Zarigani, Masa-san’s “free counseling service” is also advertised in a poster on the wall. You may find release from worries simply by talking to Masa-san. “But I will charge if you want to have my advice maybe 300 yen a month” he said jokingly. Actually, talking to Masa-san is always free and he welcomes requests for advice. It seems like there is a mutual affection and trust between Masa-san and his customers which creates a friendly and warm atmosphere.
It is enjoyable to play games and munch on yakitori, but Masa-san’s goal also is to educate customers, especially the younger ones, in “the way of the counter.” Masa-san explains, “the way of the counter refers to the proper deportment at a counter when you come to drink alone. Similar to the tea ceremony or kendo…technique and sprit have to be united…I believe that this is a great cultural tradition from the Showa era [1926 -1989]. We should hand down this drinking culture to the next generation.”
He further explained to us a bit more about the way of the counter. “It means one shouldn’t bother anyone and drink properly and intelligently. It also depends on the situation. A person must show consideration to a store and a master.”
Put somewhat simply, “the way of a counter” is a form of etiquette that aims for smooth communication with the master and among customers.
In short, Zarigani is a space where it is possible to, on the first floor, enjoy manga and anime, and receive free life counseling from the master; while on the second floor customers can indulge in nostalgia by playing video games. Zarigani has become a secret base for the wandering Generation X of Nishiogi (James Farrer, Aomi Takase, Nov. 1, 2017).
(interview by James Farrer and Aomi Takase; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation by Aomi Takase; copyright James Farrer 2017)