Hiroyuki Inoue had been cooking long before the idea to open his own izakaya pub finally took hold. And it was a pub in Manchester, England, of all places, that provided the inspiration.
As the 50-year-old Inoue tells it, he was in England with his band First Alert, a punk and power pop band from Kyoto. The previous year they had invited The Drones, a pioneering Manchester outfit that had been around since the birth of punk, to come play in Japan.
“We were surprised they actually came,” Inoue says. “And in return, The Drones invited us to a huge punk festival in Morecambe the following year. During our free time, they brought us to their favorite bar in Manchester. There were a lot of punk fans hanging out there, and I thought, ‘This is the kind of place I’d like to own.'”
That was 1998. It would be almost two decades before Inoue set up shop in Saiin, just west of Kyoto’s city center. But in 2015 he finally took the keys to his own place. Perhaps unsurprisingly, for a musician, the name he chose to christen his izakaya, Eramasa, was taken from the title of a song by a Finnish band he likes.
While Saiin is less than five minutes by train from central Kyoto, that relative distance — and lack of World Heritage-listed temples — has in some ways let Saiin just be Saiin; it has largely escaped the manic makeovers fueled by the tourism boom elsewhere in the city. There’s a couple of well-known long-standing live music venues in the area, and there’s a great concentration of restaurants piled in behind Saiin Station.
You’d be forgiven for passing by Eramasa if it weren’t for the battered old Vespa outside that acts as a stand for the menu advertising the restaurant. Although Inoue’s original inspiration came via a rock-and-roll bar, Eramasa’s design is much more in keeping with the aesthetics of an izakaya.
The long L-shaped counter has the best seats, but there’s a few tables for bigger groups. On the wall facing the bar is a giant blackboard where you’ll find the entire menu as well as a few doodles chalked up. But your best bet is to ask the man behind the bar what’s on offer.
Inoue serves up excellent sashimi cuttings, so start with a platter of rainbow runner — Inoue’s favorite fish to use for sashimi — which has a delicate, buttery taste.
“The reason I serve sashimi is because I’m not good at cooking. Good fish tastes good even if it’s raw,” Inoue says with a laugh. “Also, I think sashimi is a great nibble for when you’re drinking. I think if you go to a bar or restaurant (in Japan) without sashimi, you’ll kind of feel disappointed.”
Inoue is being modest when he says he can’t cook. There are not many bars, in Kyoto at least, where the menu jumps around like a karaoke mix on shuffle so successfully. Dishes range from sashimi cuts to spicy bean curry, fried mackerel and okra morsels and Inoue’s take on the venerable tamagoyaki (omelette), into which he folds coriander and zāsai (Szechuan pickles).
Inoue’s affinity for fish comes from his childhood: He grew up in Amanohashidate, a northern Kyoto Prefecture town on the Sea of Japan. Tourists come in droves to get a view of the town’s famous sandbar, which is nearly 4 kilometers in length. His father ran recreational fishing boats for tourists, and the young Inoue spent a lot of his time fishing. He also cooked a lot as he was often home alone while his parents were out working.
Inoue left Amanohashidate after high school and headed to Osaka where he went to cooking school for a year, but as many a young man or woman left to their own devices is want to do in a city like Osaka, hanging out in the city was a bigger draw than staying in cooking school.
Over the next 25 years Inoue’s time was split between music and cooking. He cycled in and out of part-time jobs as First Alert toured, and cut his teeth in the kitchens of Italian restaurants, izakaya and cafeterias, and also dabbled in making bento lunches.
Interestingly, all his fellow bandmates are now working as cooks as well. When I ask if, in their band years, they were all into food, Inoue laughs and replies, “We all loved drinking.”
Incidentally, if you’re a fan of chūhai, the cocktail of shōchū, carbonated water and lemon, which Inoue certainly is, he makes a version that is far punchier than it is saccharine.
Inoue bats away descriptions of himself as a chef — “I cook like a grandmother,” he says — and yet he makes the kind of dishes, whether it’s cuts of black skipjack or bigeye trevally sashimi, fried chicken gizzards or oden staples such as boiled egg or daikon radish, that are both a delight and a comfort. A favorite is Inoue’s tebasaki chicken wings — the skin is rice cracker crisp and comes covered in a spicy glaze.
“I don’t think there’s any other job I could do where I can meet new people as well as my regular customers every day. But when I’m here, I can, and I have a good conversation. And that is my salary.”
Saiinkitayakakecho 46-2, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto 615-0026; 075-322-2230; open Mon.-Sat. from 6 p.m.-midnight; Sun. lunch time only; dishes from ¥300; smoking OK; cash only: some English spoken
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5