In Tokyo, Skipping the Hot and New for Enduring Haunts (2023)

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Using a guidebook published more than 20 years ago, a writer searches out the bars and restaurants that express the city’s traditional eating and drinking culture.

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In Tokyo, Skipping the Hot and New for Enduring Haunts (1)

By Tom Downey

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Upon landing in Tokyo in December, three years since my last visit, I thought about where I should first eat and drink in this vast, wondrous city. The answer was obvious: Iseto, an ancient sake-drinking den operating in the same wooden house since 1948.

I strolled down a narrow alleyway in the Kagurazaka neighborhood, slid open a door and was greeted by the owner, who asked me to wait while he cleared a spot at the bar. Four lone drinkers sat at the counter, pensive and serene. Two couples chatted quietly on the floor in the neighboring tatami-mat room. The homey yet horrifying scent of grilling kusaya, a salt-cured fermented fish, wafted through the place. It was just as if I was setting foot in here five, 15, maybe even 50 years ago — exactly as Iseto wanted it.

I found Iseto in a travel guidebook called the “Tokyo Q Guide,” last published in 2001. I started using the guide — and first visited Iseto — in 2005, when the “Q Guide” should already have been out of date. But over the years I have found this lovingly curated paperback guide, now 22 years old, to be remarkable because it predicted the future, identifying not the newest, coolest places but selecting what would last.

Food- and drink-focused travelers seem always to be after what’s best and what’s new. But establishments like Iseto offer a persuasive counterargument that we should instead seek out what has endured — locales that express a distinctive eating and drinking culture and offer insights into a region: Spanish customers like to congregate around a bar where everyone can converse; Japanese adore a place where they can be comfortably alone. Locations that reveal the most about a culture have often lasted not just a few years, but a few decades.

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The long-term survival of old-school places like Iseto is an accurate barometer of how much a city has been able to stay true to itself and resist the onslaught of the hot and new, often bywords for globalized sameness. As Tokyo frantically knocks down and rebuilds itself, a process that greatly accelerated in the run-up to the Olympic Games held in 2021 and continues apace today, the many thousands of oddly shaped, often ancient spaces located underground, upstairs or down narrow alleyways, containing classic places like Iseto, are threatened by this wave of redevelopment.

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Behind Iseto’s low counter, the master knelt, clad in an indigo cloak. He tended sticks of red-hot charcoal used to heat sake, lowering metal vessels into a small sand pit that surrounds the coals in order to warm the brew. Modern bars have for decades been using thermometers to get the temperature right. At Iseto they use their bare hands, trained by years of practice warming these same flasks, feeling the metal on their skin and test-sipping this sake, the only one served here for 70 years.

But you don’t come to Iseto just for the food and drink. You come for the evocative, transporting atmosphere, and because, unlike many other bars this old or this nostalgic, it remains a living, local place with rules that you disobey at your peril: If customers’ voices become too loud, the master shushes everyone — and they shut up. No photography is permitted. This is a drinking den, but of a peculiar kind. Last order is at 8:40 p.m., so it can only be the prelude to a longer evening or a pit stop before going home, not the site of a nightlong debauch.

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Continuing my quest, I visited Fukube, another “Q Guide” favorite, located in a bustling neighborhood a couple blocks east of Tokyo Station. The main room, with just a handful of seats in front of a narrow bar counter, was full of suited salarymen. I squeezed into the last stool and ordered sake tapped from a barrel before me and a serving of grilled mackerel with grated daikon. There were a few changes since my last visit: The lighting was brighter. The master’s son was now manning the bar. But the same bottles decorated the same shelves.

Then, as I turned and scanned the walls, it hit me: They’d removed the tobacco stains, fingerprints, charcoal residue and marks of humanity that decorated this 83-year-old establishment and rebuilt the interior. That old patina had been the kind you couldn’t fake: grooves, scratches and streaks signifying decades of loving use. Before, I had savored the feeling each time I entered that Fukube was just as it had been since 1938. Now it felt unmoored from history.

The usual images of Tokyo oscillate between two extremes: gilded metropolis of the future and repository of the aristocratic past. The “Q Guide” evokes a different, real, thoroughly proletarian and much more intriguing city, most faithfully depicted in works of art and literature that I love.

I thought of Donald Richie’s “Tokyo: A View of the City,” a short book published in 1999 that illuminates Tokyo’s downtown culture, when I waited in line outside Dote no Iseya, a basic but brilliant tempura restaurant in what was once a lively red-light district. Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s magnificent graphic novel, “Abandon the Old in Tokyo,” a collection of stories from 1970, focused on the city’s postwar, working-class culture, came to life when I ducked into Uosan Sakaba, an izakaya located on the far eastern side of Tokyo. I trailed two salarymen, obviously a little tipsy, into the steamy space. The counterman said to them, with no greeting or preamble, “Have you been drinking?”

“We had a few,” the men replied.

“Get out,” the counterman said, authoritatively, and that was it. Uosan may be cheap and loud, but they too have their rules. You can get drunk there, but you don’t enter if you’re already inebriated.

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Unlike the precise, manual sake temperature control of Iseto, at Uosan the staff circulates with giant flasks of cheap, hot sake, filling glasses as fast as customers can drink. Handwritten menu items hang on every inch of wall space. Waiters scream to the kitchen, and food emerges lightning fast to soak up the drinks. Uosan serves comforting dishes like daikon stewed with monkfish until tender, dressed with a yellow streak of spicy mustard.

One of the authors of the “Tokyo Q Guide,” Robbie Swinnerton, Japan’s most important English-language restaurant critic, told me that a foreign chef friend who often visits Tokyo insists on staying around the corner from Uosan so that he can soak up the atmosphere here every night. After a few glasses of sake and a bowl of fish stew, I emerged with the comforting conclusion that nothing at all had changed at Uosan and that, like many other such establishments — and people — in Japan, it had managed to live long beyond its normal life expectancy.

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The real test of my “Q Guide” aptitude came when I tried to find my own places worthy of inclusion. How did a location qualify? I went to lunch at a longtime favorite, Sushi Yajima, in bustling Shibuya. The owners, the septuagenarian chef Susumu Yajima and his wife, Yoshiko, served exactly the same kind of sushi they’d been preparing for decades: a rapid-fire sequence of generously sized slabs of fish over strongly flavored rice that Susumu exhorted patrons to down before the rice got cold. This was a service that laid bare sushi’s origins not as gourmet cuisine but as Edo-era, Tokyo street fare.

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Yoshiko has learned English in recent years, which means that as their customer base has shifted to more and more foreigners they haven’t become linguistic exiles. She can translate, interact, laugh and even make fun of her husband with these customers.

Sushi Yajima had stayed true to its Tokyo roots, retaining its regulars, yet it had also managed to evolve to attract a newfound clientele. Maybe there’s another “Tokyo Q Guide” to be written, a book that someone like me will page through 20 years from now, charting places like Yajima, which have changed as needed, but still remain grounded in the enduring lifeblood of this city.

If You Go

Iseto and Sushi Yajima require reservations. For Iseto it’s best to have a Japanese speaker reserve over the phone. For all of these old-school locations, patrons should observe Japanese protocol: Enter and linger near the door until someone approaches you to help rather than seating yourself as you might at a tavern in the United States.

Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram and sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to get expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places to Go in 2023.

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In Tokyo, Skipping the Hot and New for Enduring Haunts? ›

Using a guidebook published more than 20 years ago, a writer searches out the bars and restaurants that express the city's traditional eating and drinking culture. As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.

Is overpopulation a problem in Tokyo? ›

Tokyo is one of the most overcrowded cities in the world, with a population of approximately 37 million people, and although this number fell for the first time in 2022, some policymakers within central government are said to believe that more action is needed to lower Tokyo's population density, and encourage people ...

What is the Tokyo government doing about the overcrowding? ›

In 2021, 1,184 households moved to the countryside. The government hopes that by 2027, 10,000 people will have moved out of Tokyo. Tokyo residents without children can also get in on the government stipend.

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