Tradition rules at this time of year, and few parts of Tokyo are more traditional than the grid of narrow streets to the south of Ueno’s Shinobazu Pond. Although many of the buildings in this former geisha district have seen much better days, there are still gems to be found — and Misogura Tamayura is one of the best.
Even in daylight, the sight of this beautifully preserved little store is likely to bring your feet to a halt. But after evening falls and with the old-fashioned lamps illuminating the interior, you may find it hard to resist sliding back the glass doors and venturing inside for a closer look.
Once a tradesman’s store, this two-story timber-frame house has had new life breathed into it, reincarnated as an izakaya tavern. Unlike its neighbors, many of which offer boisterous carousing and entertainments of a rather more dubious nature, Tamayura is quiet, wholesome and entirely welcoming.
And, notwithstanding the array of sake bottles that greet you, Tamayura has a much stronger emphasis on the food it serves. You can tell that from the amount of space devoted to the open kitchen, filling so much of the ground floor that there is only room for a narrow counter of hard black amalgam running along two sides.
If you enjoy watching your food being prepared, this is the place to sit. Your focus will be the hearth, where cuts of meat and chicken are slowly grilled over the glowing charcoals. You can also inspect the wide obanzai-style platters of fish and vegetables, or view your sashimi being deftly sliced to order.
But there is much more to Tamayura than initially meets the eye. Slip off your shoes and step up into the main part of the house; at the top of a steep flight of wooden stairs is the main dining area. Although most of the tables here are on tatami mats, a section of the floor has been removed so you can look right down onto the kitchen, while the warmth and aromas from the grill waft up to the rafters above.
What to order first? The best suggestion comes from the first half of Tamayura’s full name. Miso is the seasoning of choice here, and it features in most of the dishes. Start with an order of organic vegetables, served raw with a selection of miso dips.
At this time of year the choice is likely to be from cucumber, white kabu turnips, purple-tinged daikon radish, kabocha pumpkins and the like. The dips are not simply miso. Instead they are blended in-house, flavored with walnut, yuzu, umeboshi (pickled plum), garlic and so on. This makes a good nibble to go with your first drink and while waiting for more substantial dishes to arrive.
Other good tidbits include yaki-miso: A thick paste of sweetened miso mixed with ground chicken meat applied to a bamboo serving spoon and grilled until the surface is almost caramelized. Or try the misozuke starters: slivers of cod, slices of fish roe in their sac, and even cubes of cream cheese — all have been placed in a vat of miso and left to “pickle” for a week or so, until they have absorbed a light saltiness and gentle umami savor from the fermentation.
As an intriguing alternative to sashimi, the kitchen will rustle up a serving of namero. The flesh of the fish, usually aji (horse mackerel), is chopped up coarsely, then blended with miso and fine-sliced negi scallions. No further dip required.
However, at this time of year it is the charcoal grill that demands most attention. Start perhaps with satsuma-age, a patty of pounded fish meat broiled to a delectable golden-brown. Or opt for the fish served in saikyo-yaki style; that is, grilled with a coating of sweet white miso.
All these take time to prepare, so get your order in early — and most especially for the meat cuts. The menu this winter has included a selection of waterfowl and wild game, such as aegamo duck, ezojika venison and inoshishi boar. This will not be the finest gibiers (wild meats) around — the slow grilling process tends to dry the meat too much — but they certainly go well with sake.
And that, of course, is the other reason for being at Tamayura. There are 30 or more varieties of sake on the menu, many of them premium brands, as well as several special bottles that are unlisted. About a dozen of them can be ordered warm — just ask for “okan” — and you can pick out your choice from the magnums lined up along the counter.
You are likely to leave Tamayura well warmed — whether it is from the food, the sake, the heat from the grill, or just the pleasure of having spent an hour or two in such a simple classic setting.
From Yushima subway station, turn left as you emerge from Exit 2, walk four short blocks, then turn left again in the direction of Shinobazu Pond. You will see Misogura Tamayura on your right just after the second alley. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.