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Gauntner's Japan Times Stories 2001

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Warmth of Tsukushinoko hits close to home



Slipping under the green noren and entering Tsukushinoko is a trip. "How'd they fit this joint in here," you think. Incongruous with its surroundings, Tsukushinoko is a very small sake pub that sits in a large, very new building. But you'd never know it from the inside. Warm and cozy, it feels more akin to someone's home than anything else.

That shouldn't be surprising, since the pub is run by a mother-and-son team. Both of them ran their own shops previously and several years ago consolidated their efforts into this place. They hauled all the trinkets, decorations, tables, chairs and refrigerators to the new building and re-created the old and weathered atmosphere.

Simple tables and chairs seat 25 to 30. Two separate sake refrigerators provide the proprietor, Tetsu Okawa, with something to lean on in the few spare moments he has. Over his shoulder, in a tiny kitchen with a short counter, his mother creates the folksy home cooking that constitutes a major part of the appeal of this place.

Okawa-san is a friendly enthusiastic type, and when not scampering around the shop, is more than willing to chat. Although he says he doesn't drink much himself, he selects his wide range of sake by visiting breweries, and by listening to his customers.

"A lot of sake pubs force a sake on customers, telling them how good it is," he says. "I just can't do that. It causes too many people to just buy big names. I prefer to let the customers pick their own sake."

With his longish, slightly unkempt hair barely kept in check by a loose towel tied about his head, Okawa-san bustles about, remembering who asked for what and in what order. He is obviously at ease with the pace.

"I enjoy this because I am really interested in sake. We are paying the bills, but we aren't getting rich or anything. Plus, the customers are good. They're sake drinkers: Give 'em a glass of sake and they are happy . . . and patient."

His business card says "Simple food and jizake." Where there should be a title, like owner or proprietor, it simply says, "I help with the housework." You can't get any less pretentious than that.

Ah, but the true appeal of Tsukushinoko is, of course, the sake. You can peruse the lengthy, weather-beaten, dog-eared menu with its explanation of price and flavor profiles. Out-of-stock selections are simply lined out. Or you can just glance around the shop: All of the sake is listed on cards plastered on the walls.

You may notice that each one is written in a different style of calligraphy. Okawa-san has taken the time to reproduce each one in the style originally on the label. "It's just something to do; I like calligraphy anyway," he mutters humbly.

There is a huge range of sake here, and all are very reasonably priced (500 yen to 700 yen a glass). As stated on the back of his card, you get a full ichi-go (180-ml) serving. However, if you are into sampling a lot, you can order half servings as well (thus the white mark halfway up each of the glasses). This is indeed nice, as you can try several and stay in one piece.

Their offerings include a range of well-known and lesser-known names. There are 30 to 40 at any given time, covering all styles and regions. Some of the more interesting selections include Denshu (Aomori), Amanoto (Akita), Maihime (Nagano), Minami (Kochi) and Shosetsu (Shizuoka). Perennial favorites are also there, like Juyondai (Yamagata), Isojiman (Shizuoka), Shinkame (Saitama) and Shigemasu (Fukuoka).

It's sake bliss, really. Takaisami (Tottori), Tedorigawa (Ishikawa), Azuma Ichi (Saga), Kurouchi (Wakayama) and Wataribune (Ibaraki) are a few more standouts worth sipping. Throw in Fukucho (Hiroshima), Tengumai (Ishikawa) and Shidaizumi (Shizuoka) and you have an evening and more. There are also some nigorizake for those who like that, and many other selections as well.

The food changes regularly, with the seasons and with what's available. And most of it is laid out in bowls and plates on a small, high counter in front of the window. The food is listed on streamers hanging above as well. Although it's mostly simple, home-cooked nibbles, portions are large and flavors are rich.

It is indeed a special place, but I have not seen it written up anywhere (and I have looked). Certainly this is due in part to it being so understated and simple. It's hardly oshare, and hardly stylish. It is about as homely as you can get. But Tsukushinoko is always full, and that says more than any guidebook or magazine ever can.

As such, you should either go early or make a reservation. The first floor has most of the ambience, but if you are a small group or want a smidgen (don't hope for more) of privacy, there is a cool zashiki on the second floor (more of a loft, really, than a second floor).

Assuming you can point to what you want to eat, and know what you want to drink, rudimentary Japanese will easily see you through the evening. Busy as they are, Okawa-san is not likely to always be so talkative. But Tsukushinoko is sure to always be warm and friendly. With its unpretentious feel, brilliant sake selection and simple food, Tsukushinoko resides in a unique niche of sake pubs.

To get to Tsukushinoko, take a right out the sole wicket of Ikejiri Ohashi Station on the Denentoshi Line, the first station from Shibuya. At the top of the stairs of the east exit, take a right and another right at the first street, more of a narrow lane. The road will bend to the left, and Tsukushino will be in the building on the left, with the entrance on the ground level. Suppress your doubts, and walk a bit, and you will see a green noren and sugidama hanging conspicuously, along with bottles placed out front, way out of place in the new, stone building. The entire trip will not take you three minutes.

Open 5-11 p.m., closed Sundays and holidays. Sansaara Higashiyama 108, 3-1-11 Higashiyama, Meguro-ku, (03) 3791-5495.
Tsuki no Wa's tokubetsu junmaishu
Tsuki no Wa (Iwate Prefecture)
  Tokubetsu junmaishu
  Nihonshu-do: +4
  Acidity: 2.1
  Seimai-buai: 55 percent

Tsuki no Wa is a tiny kura whose name is worth remembering. Despite its small size, its distribution is not that bad and its sake is not impossible to find. Complex, subtle, layered and deep, Tsuki no Wa sake is wonderful. This tokubetsu junmaishu presents an ever-changing nose with flowers, grass and earth buoyed by a light fruity acidity. The flavor is just as interesting, evolving with each passing moment while centered on a nice, grainy mouth feel and solid rice essence.

The Japan Times: Jan. 11, 2001
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