It’s a long way from Tokyo to the balmy, subtropical Ryukyu Islands — approximately 1,500 kilometers as the crow (or plane) flies. But Japan’s southernmost prefecture feels a whole lot closer when you’re out in the residential suburbs of Suginami Ward. At least it does when you’re sitting in Tinsagu nu Hana, at the heart of the bars enclave known as Little Okinawa.
Less than 15 minutes from the bustling bright lights of Shinjuku, this cluster of restaurants and bars was only created some 10 years ago. Now a growing number of people are making their way to these narrow alleys near Daitabashi Station in search of the distinctive cuisine of the southern isles.
Tinsagu nu Hana — named after a popular folk song — is the main reason they are there. Like most Okinawan restaurants in Tokyo, it is an izakaya, a tavern where the emphasis is as much on drinking and chilling with friends as actually eating. All the tried and true staples of Okinawa’s distinctive cuisine are present and correct, from rich, soft cubes of melting rafuti (pork belly) and crunchy mimiga (pig’s ear) to the classic noodle bowl of the islands, sōki soba.
Where to start? Perhaps a nice cooling tofu salad topped with strands of crunchy, dark green umibudō (“sea grape”) seaweed. Or the tempura of urizun-mame green beans. There’s always a good sashimi selection. And you can’t go wrong with an order of the home-made jimami-dōfu, a silky-smooth white block resembling tofu but actually made from creamed peanuts. This is served two ways: as it is, with a savory sauce; or dusted and deep-fried in karaage style. Both are great.
Scan the daily menu of specials: if you’re in luck, it will list minudaru, a pork dish once served to the Ryukyu nobility. Slices of moromi-buta pork, a breed from Ishigaki Island, are marinated in a sweet-savory sesame paste and then steamed until delectably soft.
What to drink with it? There’s fizzy Orion lager, of course, and sours made with island fruit such as pineapple or shikuwasa, the tiny local limes. And there’s a large range of awamori, the Okinawan “national” firewater. The mild, summery Suito is perfect with its gentle flavor and relatively low alcohol content (just 19 percent).
But the really good stuff is the aged awamori, known in the vernacular as kūsū. Most are aged five years, but if you ask, the manager may pull out rarer bottles, such as the 40-plus-year-old Shurei, a kūsū with the depth and character of a fine grappa.
Whether you’re sitting at a table downstairs or under the rafters on the second floor — be warned, it’s a hard floor and the zabuton cushions are thin — there is always a cheerful crowd at Tinsagu nu Hana. A couple of times a week there are also live performances on sanshin, the Okinawan three-string banjo.
Okinawa Town Market, Daito Ichiba, 1-3-15 Izumi, Suginami-ku, Tokyo; 03-3321-2139. Open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-midnight (Sat., Sun. and hols. noon till midnight); closed Tue.; nearest station: Daitabashi; lunch from ¥1,000, dinner around ¥3,000 plus drinks; major credit cards; smoking not permitted; Japanese menu, English not spoken. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.