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Shinsuke: A sip of sake in shitamachi

by Robbie Swinnerton

Slowly but surely word is getting out to the rest of the world: Japanese restaurants don’t have to be formal, exquisite and jaw-droppingly pricey. Quite the opposite, in fact: Eating out in Tokyo can be casual, friendly, affordable and fun.

At least it certainly is once you discover the plebeian pleasures of the neighborhood izakaya. Literally “a place to linger with sake,” the word izakaya is a catchall term that can cover a multitude of styles, from brash and boisterous taverns to simple single-counter holes-in-the-wall.

The common denominator is that they’re all places where you go to relax. The food and the drink serve as lubricants, whether for booze-fueled socializing or just a quiet winding-down at the end of the day.

Shinsuke, in Yushima, close to the southwest corner of the Ueno pond, belongs firmly in the latter category. One of Tokyo’s heavyweight izakaya, it’s as revered for its long existence and gravitas as for its excellent food. It has stood in the same spot below Yushima Tenjin Shrine since 1924. Four generations of the family have run the establishment, and before that there were seven generations of sake retailers.

Though the welcome is warm and the clientele totally respectable, Shinsuke can seem daunting for a first-time visitor, whether from another country or just from across town. The exterior is inscrutable, the windows masked by wooden slats, the door marked by a sugidama (the sake brewers’ totem, a ball of cryptomeria needles) and a simple noren curtain fashioned from strings of coarse rush-fiber.

One person who feels no such hesitation is author Mark Robinson, whose recent book “Izakaya: the Japanese Pub Cookbook” (see below) includes a whole chapter on Shinsuke. He’s been an izakaya aficionado for two decades. Last week we installed ourselves at Shinsuke’s counter, a massive chunk of timber that runs almost the length of the premises, for a leisurely evening spent sipping sake and exploring the considerable food menu — all the while swapping stories about our favorite drinking holes.

Over the course of his research for the book, Robinson got to know the people running each of the izakaya he features. He says the Yabe family who own Shinsuke exemplify the dedication and modesty of Tokyo’s shitamachi (literally, “low-city”) artisans. They are self-effacing to a fault but take great pride in their work and their family business.

Until a few years back, Toshio Yabe was the master of the house. Even now that he has handed over the day-to-day running to his son, Naoharu, he still takes his place behind the counter, dressed in his happi coat and sake- brewer’s apron and with a hachimaki cloth tightly wound around his brow.

His primary duty is to dispense drinks. Shinsuke is not one of those places that stocks scores of premium brews from around the country. Your only choice is between hot, lukewarm or chilled sake — either sweet (amakuchi), dry (karakuchi) — or decanted from the casks behind the counter with its powerful fragrance of cedar resin (ask for taruzake). It all comes from the humble Ryozeki brewery in far-north Akita Prefecture, which has been supplying Shinsuke since before World War II.

Unlike the sake list, the food menu has evolved over the years, blending basic izakaya staples with numerous touches of creative flair. The simple things are done perfectly — like our sashimi of saba mackerel; the maguro nuta (cubes of sashimi-grade tuna mixed with blanched negi leeks and a dressing of sweet white miso) or the superb yuba-uni (creamy layers of soft soymilk skin topped with a dab of sea urchin).

A longtime specialty of the house is the deep-fried sardine “rocks” (iwashi no ganseki), fist-size chunky rissoles of finely ground fish formed into patties and deep-fried to a crisp golden-brown. A more recent innovation is the kitsune rakuretto — pouches of deep-fried tofu stuffed not with gooey natto beans but with Swiss raclette cheese. We loved them.

Less is vastly more in all domains of Japanese cooking. At Shinsuke you’re not so busy drinking and getting jolly that the quality of the food gets obscured. The vegetables are sourced from organic farms when possible; the seafood is brilliantly fresh, most of it caught from the wild, rather than fish-farmed (as is the case at many chain izakaya). Our braised yari-ika squid was beautifully moist and unchewy. And the madai kabuto-ni (simmered head of sea bream) came from a massive 3-kg specimen landed the previous day and shipped straight from Ehime Prefecture.

After we had drunk our fill, we ordered ochazuke, a bowl of rice with savory dashi stock poured over it. The final flourish was a serving of sakura ice cream, flavored — as the name suggests — with flecks of salt-preserved cherry blossom. This seasonal accent was a reminder that Shinsuke is just a short stroll away from Tokyo’s most popular blossom-viewing spot, Ueno Park.

This is slow-food eating in its original Japanese manifestation. The pace is unhurried, the air filled with a buzz of chatter that never gets strident. It’s easy to imagine this is the way Shinsuke has always been — and the way that Tokyo has always gone about the business of eating and drinking. Thanks to books like Robinson’s, the izakaya ethos is becoming more accessible to outsiders. But as he points out, there must be a reason why it’s taken such a long time for the rest of the world to catch on.

Mainly it’s because izakaya are part of popular working-class culture, so they have never been considered worthy of mention, let alone exporting. But maybe it’s also due to a reluctance by Japanese people to let on to the wider world just how much enjoyment they are having at their local hostelries.