Of all the long-established nightlife neighborhoods in downtown Tokyo, Kanda is the one that has done the best job of retaining its no-nonsense shitamachi credentials. Of course a certain gentrification is inevitable — indeed, the station could almost be called salubrious these days — but wander into the warren of streets to the east of the tracks, and you will find the pleasures of the evening remain reassuringly cheap, earthy and uncomplicated.
Humble oden and yakitori joints stand cheek by jowl with stand-up drinking holes and sleazy establishments that advertise their attractions with winking lights and lurid neon. This is not an area that will ever feature in JNTO tourist brochures.
However, that only makes it more of a pleasure to arrive outside Shinpachi’s friendly, rustic facade. With its dwarf maple tree and handspun hempen noren, it exudes a sense of style that contrasts greatly with its shabby neighbors. Not surprisingly, it attracts a quite different clientele.
The demographic is surprising well-dressed and well-behaved, and includes after-work salarymen, couples well past the initial stages of dating, professors from nearby Todai with small clusters of graduate students, and expensively coiffured women of a certain age. It is not the local color that draws them. They are there because Shinpachi’s reputation for its food and drink extends well beyond the limits of the “low city.”
Besides its repertoire of izakaya standards, Shinpachi has established a name on the strength of its seafood, much of which is trucked in from ports in Toyama Prefecture on the Sea of Japan. On any given day, there are likely to be dozen different fish listed on the menu, plus a number of seasonal specials that the young wait staff will recite for you.
In winter, the chief delicacies are premium torafugu (puffer fish), sent up from Shimonoseki and anko (angler fish) hauled from the ocean depths off Ibaraki. In summer, there is suppon (snapping turtle). And all year round you can sample basashi — raw horse meat served sashimi style — shipped direct from Kumamoto in Kyushu.
This is not a place for washoku neophytes, nor for the faint of heart or stomach. Our otoshi starters comprised a saucer of lightly vinegared, fine-sliced mekabu seaweed, green and oozy, and a couple of large boiled sea snails served cold, which we extricated from their shells with toothpicks.
Along with our first bottle of Yebisu, we nibbled on Kagoshima sora-mame (broad beans), still slightly bitter in this early season, and slices of an-kimo, the creamy, smooth-as-foie-gras liver of the angler fish. But as soon as our sashimi platter arrived — a first-rate tataki of hatsu-gatsuo (spring bonito), we delved into the sake menu.
And here is the other reason why this izakaya is so popular. It boasts more than 50 varieties of jizake, of which at least 18 derive from a single sake brewer, Shinkame, a small but very worthy kura whose delectable output should be better known than it is. (This is probably due to snobbery, merely because Saitama is not a prefecture traditionally associated with fine sake.) Because of Shinpachi’s close relationship with Shinkame — they even commission a special house-brand junmai ginjo — the sake offerings are always exceptionally fresh, and often include limited-edition brews rarely found elsewhere in town.
We continued with some grilled nodoguro, a white-meat fish from the Sea of Japan, and fugu-chili, a nabe hotpot, cooked at the table, featuring coarse-cut chunks of puffer fish on the bone — what’s left after the sashimi has been carved off — plus vegetables and tofu. The meat itself is virtually flavorless but, by the time we had finished, the stock had cooked down to a rich, lip-smacking gravy (or could that tingle be the effect of some residual blowfish toxins?)
We closed with a steaming bowl of chazuke and an elegant glass of 5-year-old koshu (aged sake), which had a deep golden color and an aroma strongly reminiscent of oloroso sherry.
By no stretch of the imagination can you call Shinpachi a gourmet destination. It serves Edokko comfort food, but prepared with assurance and skill — and with touches of refinement that are well above the norm for this most unsophisticated of neighborhoods.