Food & Drink

The standing bars of Osaka: Cheap, cheerful and nostalgic

by Matt Kaufman

Contributing Writer

Across Japan, tucked down quiet alleyways or occupying the corner shops at busy intersections, you’ll see tachinomiya. Often translated a “standing bar,” there are two very distinct types of tachinomiya: licensed restaurants and small, privately owned liquor shops (sakeya no tachinomi).

The origin of the latter tachinomi can be traced to the Edo Period (1603-1868), when sake shops started offering customers a quick tipple from square wooden measuring cups known as masu.

These shops evolved into modern liquor stores during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) when they started selling beer, wine and spirits such as whisky, and installed makeshift counters, often made by balancing a slab of wood on stacks of empty beer crates.

Different regions have their own names for these shops. In Tohoku they are called mokkiri and in eastern Japan they are known as tachikyū. But, in recent years kaku-uchi, the type of tachinomi that originated in Kitakyushu and spread to Tokyo during the industrial revolution, has become the catch-all term used to describe these shops.

Some are well over 100 years old: Matsugawa Saketen in Kyoto has been owned by the same family since the beginning of the Meiji Era; in Osaka, there is an old liquor shop named Shibacho that has been in the same spot for 152 years; and in Tokyo, you can drink at Suzuden, which dates back to 1853.

After World War II, thousands of unlicensed tachinomiya started appearing across the country. In 1949, the government reclassified tachinomiya as restaurants in order to collect taxes. Liquor shops with standing bars were not licensed to cook food on the premises, but canned food and snacks such as dried squid were permitted to be served.

Owners also found loopholes to get around the rules, especially in Osaka. Food is brought in from outside, and nowadays it is easily heated up in the microwave. Chairs are still prohibited, but mismatched stools are kept scattered about just in case an elderly customer with a “bad leg” needs to sit down for a minute.

Kaai Tomi is a blogger, illustrator and columnist from Osaka who has spent over a decade documenting over 1,000 bars and restaurants in Japan. Tomi estimates that she has been to around 100 kaku-uchi since she started her blog in 2006.

“The main thing is the atmosphere,” she says. “A kaku-uchi is an old and simple bar that doesn’t pretend to be anything more. Most of their customers are the same. They enjoy drinking and don’t put on airs. It’s a really peaceful atmosphere.”

Imanaka Saketen

Imanaka Saketen, established in 1928, is the quintessential Osaka kaku-uchi. Located in a shopping arcade on the other side of Shonben Yokocho in Juso, paper lanterns hang from the ceiling near a vintage Nikka Whisky sign.

The crowd is mixed. Younger men and women drink at small tables alongside a man in his early 60s with a pencil moustache wearing a red fedora, gold horn-rimmed glasses and a long-sleeved blue Hawaiian shirt talking to a woman dressed in a leopard-print blouse, purple tights and a red sash belt.

I make my way to the counter and squeeze in between a septuagenarian and a younger man who reminds me of tough-guy actor Bunta Sugawara. Two hours later, I call for the check: a large bottle of beer (¥330), katsuo tataki (skipjack sashimi; ¥300), aji furai (fried horse mackerel; ¥160), a hard-boiled egg (¥70), Tokyo korokke, which turn out to be American-style tater tots (¥80) and a glass of the liquor shōchū (¥210) for my new friend Sugawara. A feast for only ¥1,150.

Kasetaniya

Every day at around 4:30 p.m., with the exception of Sunday and national holidays, Seinosuke Kasetani, 94, and his wife Toshiko, 83, can be seen on the streets of Naniwa Ward in Osaka, preparing to open their liquor shop, Kasetaniya Saketen. It has been in the neighborhood since 1956 on the corner of a quiet street less than 200 meters from JR Namba Station.

A large bottle of beer from the refrigerator is only ¥450. Try some of the homemade dishes that Toshiko has prepared, all ¥120 to ¥300. My favorite is the hamburger, spaghetti, broccoli and tomato combination with exactly one French fry (¥300).

These days Kasetaniya only gets five or six customers a night. Most of the regulars from the shop’s heyday are no longer around and younger people prefer the trendier restaurants and bars found in Dotonbori, the nightlife capital of Osaka.

But the Kasetanis continue to run their shop well into their golden years because it gives them tremendous satisfaction. Seinosuke, who was born in 1924, says working hard keeps him young and fit.

“I plan to keep on working, even when I’m 100 years old,” he says with a smile.

Senbikiya

Senbikiya is a kaku-uchi-style izakaya tavern located near Ebisucho Station specializing in gourmet food at tachinomi prices. It’s a short walk away from Den Den Town, Osaka’s version of Akihabara.

Hiromi Kobayashi, a gregarious chef in his late 40s with a multicolored mohawk, converted his parents’ rice shop into an izakaya by building a wooden counter from a 300-year-old cedar from Nara Prefecture.

Senbikiya has adopted the self-service policy from kaku-uchi; customers take their own drinks from from the refrigerator, including bottles of Sapporo Red Star (¥460), which pair well with the food.

Its name translates to “Shop of 1,000 Fish” and one of the most popular dishes is clams with spinach cooked in garlic and chili with a side of horse mackerel sashimi. This is expertly prepared food at prices that rival the cheapest tachinomiya.

Senbikiya also keeps a selection of costumes, wigs and props on hand for customers who feel like giving an impromptu cosplay performance. It is not unusual to see regulars of all ages dressed up as anime characters or wearing plastic elephant-shaped watering cans as hats.

Imanaka Saketen: Juso-Higashi 2-6-11, Yodogawa-ku, Osaka 532-0023; 06-6301-3361; open daily from 10 a.m.; nearest station Juso
Kasetaniya: Inari 1-6-1, Naniwa-ku, Osaka 556-0023; 06-6562-0602; open Mon.-Fri. 4:30-9 p.m., Sat. 4:30-8 p.m.; nearest station JR Namba
Senbikiya: Nihonbashi 5-16-5-104, Naniwa-ku, Osaka 556-0005; 06-6632-4514; open Mon.-Sat. 5-10:30 p.m.; nearest station Ebisucho