One of the several things missed about Tokyo evenings is going out after work with a couple or three friends to a favorite izakaya. Apparently izakaya restaurants are popping up here and there even in Florida. Sushi bars and karaoke bars are not hard to find anywhere in the US these days, but I wonder if the traditional Japanese izakaya is something that will bridge the gap. An izakaya, a restaurant serving traditional homestyle dishes is identified by an aka-chôchin (red lantern) hanging over the restaurant’s front door and more often than not a noren curtain in the doorway. Passing through the noren, the first sound is a blast of welcome from several employees shouting, “Irasshaimase!” In the next instant the senses are overcome by a cacophony of laughter, shouted orders, a blast of old enka music, a rattle of plates and scrape of chairs. Pretty secretaries and handsome young businessmen red faced with the effects of beer lounge at tables on one side, while a tilting group of older men toast each other with glasses of whiskey nearby. A waiter races past with a plate of nikujaga, a traditional stew of meat, onion, carrots and potatoes. Here comes another with plates of kawa-ebi (river shrimp) and pickled vegetables. The delight of eating in an izakaya is in the discovery of a new taste, a recipe special to that one restaurant and the relish of eating from half a dozen or more small dishes. Grilled smelt here, over there a bowl of chilled tôfu bean curd, octopus with hot green mustard, a platter of raw oysters…
About an hour outside of Tokyo, in the town of Utsunomiya is an izakaya that features two monkeys ‘working’ as waiters. The area around Utsunomiya has its share of mountains and in those mountain live quite a few macaque monkeys. The owner of Kayabuki decided to turn the monkey angle into a theme. At his izakaya two monkeys, Fukuchan and Yacchan, bring hot towels to guests and help out in other small ways. Fukuchan, the female of the pair is dressed up in a woman’s mask and wig and in all truth looks just a little creepy. With encouragement from the master, Fukuchan and Yacchan will deliver bottles of beer, take bills with the money and return with change and perform a few other simple tasks. They are encouraged by the tips they get from customers in the form of edamame (boiled soy beans).
Because I never had the pleasure of eating at Kayabuki, stories of “monkey business” have to be taken as reported. For some customers the cute simian help sometimes crosses the line into bad behavior when the master is occupied elsewhere. One or two diners have complained of being slapped by Fukuchan, nipped on the finger by Yacchan and burglarized by both. Apparently their desires sometimes reach beyond a measly soy bean. But for those who suspect the animals are being mistreated, it may offer some comfort to know that their ‘work’ schedule is monitored and they are allowed only two hours a night on duty.
I love a good izakaya, but don’t fancy monkey fingers in my dinner plate. Color me picky.