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Gauntner's Japan Times Stories 2001

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Standing out in the crowd: the joys of tachinomiya



Tachinomiya hold a special position among drinking establishments. There is something about standing while drinking that puts a whole new spin on the sake experience. What such places lack in serenity they more than make up for in value and fun.
Naturally, most tachinomiya (stand-up bars) are low-budget affairs. The whole point is to keep things cheap. Most of them serve low-budget sake as well, and rarely is more than one type available -- much less anything above bottom-shelf.

But there are exceptions. Several, in fact, and Marutoku is one of the most recommendable of these anomalies. Situated just minutes from the West Exit of Shinjuku Station, Marutoku is very local: a steady stream of regulars peppered with a few hapless souls who wander in for the first time.

You're not in the door five seconds before you're asked by the too-busy-to-make-eye-contact guy behind the counter: "Nani shimasu ka" (What'll it be?) Be prepared to answer fast; you have about another five seconds before he bears down on your bad ass and repeats his request/demand, this time with authority. No malice here; he's just busy.

He somehow has the knack of knowing who walked through the door without looking up. I don't know; maybe he can smell 'em. The many regulars may make that easy.

Orders are placed on the way to the two small tables in the back. Sake is poured, names are called. "Here, come and get these, will you? I'll be around for the money in a sec."

You pay for everything up front. Since all sake is 300 yen to 400 yen for a proper ichi-go (180 ml), and the simple food is no more expensive, a round should see you with change from 1,000 yen.

This loose change is dropped with a quick "thank you" into one of the black-and-red lacquered ashtrays stacked all along the seven-person counter. Your first thought is, "Dude, that's the ashtray. Don't put my money there."

But a glance around reveals that this is the style of the place. It is not clear whether they differentiate between ashtrays for money and ashtrays for cigarettes, but they are all clean.

The next thing you realize is that the cool thing to do here is to nonchalantly leave your change there, knowing full well you're going to use it again soon.

The only beer in sight is Asahi Super Dry in 350-ml bottles with twist-off caps. Umm . . . stick with the sake is my advice.

And why not, with a selection and prices like this? They have more than a dozen sake, all fine selections, all dirt cheap. Beyond the usual suspects such as Asahiyama, Kikusui, Tengumai and Umenishiki, there are some rarely seen ones as well. Jozan from Ishikawa is a chunky but crisp brew, rightly enjoying some popularity these days; try it here for 400 yen. Akita Towada, Kasumitzuru from Hyogo, and Suwa Izumi are three lesser-known selections from their rotating stock of great sake.

Forget about a menu. In this place, what you see is what you get. Most of the food sits on dishes wrapped in cellophane. Much of it is cold, but there are a few tofu dishes and such that they will run through the microwave for you. There is also a countertop cooler full of yakitori and other stuff-on-a-stick for your grilling pleasure. Just point and pay.

The place is dead until around 6 p.m., but steadily fills to about a million percent capacity over the next hour. Unlike most tachinomiya, the clientele is not limited to office workers slamming one down before the long trek home. Here, all kinds and ages drop in to whet their whistles, and the atmosphere is boisterous and fun.

One favor please: When you drop by, don't say you read it here. Tell them you heard about them from a friend, or just happened upon it. I don't want them to ding me next time I go; that's a scary prospect.

Marutoku, Dai-ichi Otoku Building 1F, 1-4-17 Nishi Shinjuku, (03) 5325-2139. Web site:

Open 4 p.m.-11 p.m., closed Sunday but open holidays.

Fumotoi (Yamagata Prefecture)
"Honkara" kimoto junmaishu
An interesting mix of citrus and strawberries in the nose leads to a blazing but well-utilized acidity in the full and grainy flavor. Impacting and memorable, but balanced and approachable too.

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The Japan Times: Sept. 2, 2001
(C) All rights reserved

BELOW PHOTO: Fumotoi's "Honkara" kimoto junmaishu


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