With their “Kampai!“-bellowing salarymen, bible-sized menus and endless rounds of cheap beers, izakaya have long been an integral part of Japan’s nightlife.
But unfortunately for parents with small kids, there seems to be an unwritten law dictating that for all their entertaining qualities, izakaya must also be loud, smoky and resolutely baby-unfriendly. And so it is perhaps little surprise that for many new parents, rowdy weekend izakaya sessions with friends quickly become a blurred memory of the past.
But one izakaya chain that allows pre- and post-baby worlds to happily collide is Monteroza. With restaurants spanning the Japanese archipelago (it has more than 2,000 at last count, with a variety of names including Uotami, Sennen no Utage, Shirokiya and Yamauchi Nojo), the company took the innovative step five years ago of introducing specially-designed “kids’ spaces.” Today, there are kids’ spaces in more than 350 branches across the country, each uniquely designed to be child and baby friendly — enabling the whole family to enjoy a relaxed izakaya experience.
Curious as to how on Earth such a space could work in a boozy izakaya — and, more to the point, whether it could possibly satisfy our constantly on-the-move 1-year-old daughter — we decided to put it to the test.
One recent snowy Sunday we made our way to meet friends (plus their own energetic 1-year-old) at the kids’ room in the Jiyugaoka branch of Yamauchi Nojo for an early 5 p.m. dinner date. The izakaya is housed in an anonymous black building not far from the station, with the lift doors opening on the fifth floor to reveal its brightly lit but worn classic izakaya wooden genkan (entrance way).
Against a soundtrack of dated rock music, a chorus of greetings rings out from staff with tenugui wrapped around their heads as we slip off our shoes and place them in wooden lockers.
So far, so izakaya. Aside from the fact that we are already chasing around the two over-excited toddlers in a bid to extract their shoes and stop them from pulling out all the locker keys. Fortunately, the staff don’t bat an eyelid and instead patiently help us to fold buggies and place them in the corner, before leading us (no doubt with an inner sigh of relief) to the confines of the kids’ room.
Following the little footprint stickers on the floor, we wander past the “grown up” areas — rows and cubicles of wooden tables in a windowless space — before we arrive at our destination. Here, as the door slides open, the children’s eyes immediately widen, for along the entire left-hand side of the large private room is a play space in colorful rainbow-bright padding, complete with baskets of toys, bricks and plastic food models.
The main wall is covered with a vast image of yellow ducks, while another side is lined with an assortment of TV screens (which after a lot of fiddling eventually reveal a mix of free-to-use karaoke and children’s programs). And the icing on the cake (for my daughter at least)? A mini Anpanman slide.
The adults, meanwhile, happily settle in the right-hand side of the room, which is decidedly more familiar: a long table with sunken chairs, a vast menu, a button for summoning staff and a complicated-looking tablet for orders.
And so the fun begins. The next few hours pass in a happy blur, with the toddlers playing contentedly with the piles of toys and shouting “Weeee” on the slide, stopping only briefly for snatches of food from the children’s menu, which includes curries and lots of fried things.
The adults, meanwhile, order jockeys of beer plus countless dishes to share — mostly involving chicken, a specialty at this branch, along with other izakaya staples such as cucumber and miso dip — and actually manage to finish most of the conversations we start (a rarity in early parenthood).
Best of all? Aside from the fact that it is still quite early and excepting a brief interlude when the “Anpanman” theme tune is played very loudly on a loop while overexcited toddlers bang microphones on the padded walls, it is pretty close to any other pre-baby night out at an izakaya.
Kids’ spaces must generally be reserved in advance. Some branches have a time limit and/or a table charge for adults (ours was ¥400). For more information and to search for nearby locations, visit www.monteroza.co.jp.