Inside the Japanese pub

Unique cookbook gives readers reverent look into izakaya culture

by Angela Jeffs

Mark Robinson, author of “Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook” (Kodansha International, May 2008) is recently back in Tokyo from New York, where he spent three weeks “signing books at stores like Barnes & Noble, meeting people and seeking inspiration.”

Though the word from the publishing world is that cookbooks are in as much of a slump as any other type of publication, Robinson is far from pessimistic: “I don’t see books like ‘Izakaya’ as strictly cookbooks. So I’ve returned with ideas for several more laterally inclined books about Japanese food and food culture, and also visual culture.”

Busy as he is, working as a freelance journalist and editor, Robinson is now actively putting these ideas into proposal form. He has watched with interest as his book has gone into a third printing since the spring, an indication, he believes, of the level of interest in Japanese dining in general, and izakaya in particular.

“Japanese people take izakaya for granted; they don’t really regard them as forming a cultural entity. Non-Japanese see them differently,” he says.

Robinson believes there is no easy translation of the word izakaya. “Most commonly we use the English word pub. I use it even on the cover of the book.

But really it’s hard to define, being nothing like a Western-style pub, or any kind of pub anywhere else in the world. “The izakaya is unique.”

Born in Tokyo but raised in Australia, Robinson stopped off in Japan in 1982 to meet his Japanese mother’s family on his way back from a year in London.

Returning to Tokyo six years later for a working holiday, Japan and its food culture crept up upon him so insidiously — “by stealth,” he laughs — that he woke up one day and found he had been living here 13 years.

“I thought maybe I should go ‘home.’ So [I] went back to Sydney in 2002, but returned here two years ago to do the book. Now I’m more resolved. I am home. It helps that my sister is here also. We both took our lead from our father, who was a journalist.”

It helps also that Robinson speaks fluent Japanese. After studying the language initially at Sydney University, he went on tour with Kabuki as a technical interpreter. “One place we performed was in a casino in Perth!”

He worked on a Fuji TV extravaganza in Sydney Harbour. And with various rock bands. When some of the lighting guys asked him to go to Tokyo and work with them, he thought, why not?

But working on a stage-lighting crew in Japan is incredibly tough work, like militaristic hard labor, with no chance of creativity. So when the opportunity arose, he joined NHK’s Radio Japan and began writing for various newspapers and periodicals.

“At one point I was music editor and later deputy editor on Tokyo Journal. A joyous foodie experience was editing a publication called EAT, with one issue devoted to the pig: We covered adventures with pigs, pigs in China, even living with pigs.”

Living in Australia again made him realize how much he had taken Tokyo for granted. “It’s so easy to get things done here. There are so many good people here!”

There again, you can’t come up with an idea for a book on izakaya, however close to your heart the subject, and just walk into a place and expect instant cooperation. The owners are artisans, craftspeople: they are following their natural inclination, doing what they love to do: cook, feed, comfort, nurture.

Nor did he set out to write a guidebook. “I knew I wanted it to be a new kind of cookbook right from the start. Choosing eight izakaya out of so many was, of course, not easy. In the end I stayed in Tokyo, approached those I knew best and others that I felt provided representation and balance. Not all wanted the publicity; some played hard to get.”

The hardest part of the writing was finding his own voice: “This developed as I progressed, so I had to go back and re-tweak for continuity.” Overall, though he’s happy the way the enterprise has turned out. He’s very happy with the final lineup of izakaya, and they are happy too.

There are thousands upon thousands of such establishments throughout the country, with more than a few so tiny they only accommodate a handful of regular customers. But in each and every one, staff are at the ready to pour a drink, and put you at your ease (often by listening to your woes) while conjuring up wonderful tidbits of food to further ease out the stresses of the day.

One of Robinson’s favorite hangouts is Horoyoi in Tokyo’s Ebisu. Welcoming and cheerful, it had grown on him over the years — “or maybe I had grown into it,” he writes disarmingly — to such an extent that now he believes every neighborhood deserves its own “Laughing Drunk,” as the shop’s name loosely translates.

In this respect — the happy, happy bit — the book took a lot out of him, for a while at least: “I learned a lot about sake,” he grins, with the wisdom of time and distance. He also learned the importance of shoyu (soy sauce) and dashi (fish stock), and — surprisingly — that sashimi is not necessarily best made from fresh fish, but better left a day or so for the flesh to loosen up.

Horoyoi is the first of the izakaya that he introduces, carrying the reader along with him as he sits down, exchanges familiarities with the owner and his or her staff, checks out the seasonal menu and makes choices.

Each izakaya included is different in its ambience and intent. Downtown Shinsuke, run by the Yabe family since 1924, is not an izakaya to carouse in, “but to revere.” Maru is as close to a designer izakaya as you are ever to find, with a smart clientele to match. By contrast, Buchi is a new-style standup izakaya run by a young couple — a repackaged traditional tachi-nomiya, about which Robinson was initially skeptical but quickly found himself won over by.

Quite apart from his snappy, informed and wonderfully evocative commentary, followed by easy-to-follow recipes contributed by the izakaya so that anyone can try them at home, there are marvelous photographs by Masashi Kuma.

These show not only the mouth-watering dishes, but also reflect the atmosphere of each establishment. A shot of a noren — the curtain that indicates an izakaya is open. Another of shoes shed just inside the door. A menu chalked on a board. Pictures of staff at work. A loamy wall and a coat hook. Bits of what Robinson calls “living history.”

Some of the 60 recipes demand ingredients that are not so easy to find outside Japan. But there are enough that can be made just about anywhere — anywhere with access to shoyu and some dashi.

Creamy crab croquettes, for example (courtesy of the izakaya Saiki). Japanese-style German potatoes and foil-baked mushrooms (Horoyoi). Morimoto’s minced chicken patties. Hiro’s traditional radical take on sliced tomatoes. And Yamariki’s garlic herb toast (to accompany motsu beef intestine stew).

Yamariki specializes in all things offal, a no-no to many non-Japanese, but which in this country pays respect to the animal being devoured by eating every part and throwing nothing away.

Amid this wealth of salivation and excitation, there is further illumination. An illustration that shows how Japan’s cramped conditions can lead to an ingenious use of space. A page on the “Mixers and Elixers of Japanese Drinking.” Beautiful photographs of Japanese “Aromatics.” A useful glossary. And advice on “Talking Izakaya” — words and phrases to help make the most of the experience.

The first thing, Robinson warns, is that when you enter an izakaya, someone may yell at you. But no worry, because “Irasshaimase!” simply means “Welcome!”

And while smiling and bowing when you leave will do just fine, staff and clientele alike will appreciate your visit even more if you call out the correct phrase to say thanks for the meal: “Gochiso-sama deshita.’