Standing to Attention

We’ve all been there — in need of a cool one after work, at the end of a day traipsing around the shops, after the most recent ear-lashing from the missus, or just because…
Beer, according to a certain American born scientist/writer/politician named Benjamin Franklin is proof God loves us. Whether or not this is wholly true is one for the theologians and brewers out there to ponder, but few are those who deny just how pleasant it is to throw back a glass of the amber nectar when the mercury reaches its peak.
And for those with experience necking Stella Artois in Europe, Fosters down under (a beer so synonymous with the Lucky Country that ‘Fosters’ is often said to be the correct spelling of ‘Australia’), and pints of lager or bitter in the UK on balmy summer evenings, the fact that this is an act primarily enjoyed whilst standing will not raise a single eyebrow.
Today — showing Japan does, at times, change at a pace faster than that of the continents moving — this concept of drinking as you stand is catching on, big time.

A decade ago there were few, if any, real standing bars. These days, however, they are giving more than a few izakaya chains a headache with their ability to pull in the crowds at the lower end of the spending spectrum. Instead of having to find an izakaya, doing away with their shoes, and being forced to pay a table charge (thanks to those small dishes you don’t actually want but that are brought out as soon as you enter), Japanese men in their tens of thousands are now heading to open-fronted establishments where standing is the name of the game, the beer plentiful and the eats ordered to taste — not served de-rigeur to squeeze out an extra couple of hundred yen from everyone who walks in the door.

Unlike the major chains where stools at the bar or tables with a sunken leg space dominate, the decor at tachinomi hangouts might leave rather a lot to the imagination, but when you can pay as little as 200 yen for a glass of draught and 100 yen for nibbles, not many bemoan the fact that they haven’t been offered a wet towel. True, copies of once classic posters depicting pretty girls in kimono offering a beer to a customer may be as classy as it gets, and oftentimes you will be left to wipe the counter or raised table you opt to call yours for an hour or so, but we return to the get-what-you-pay-for argument, and for most in this day and age, reduced costs trump fluffy zabuton most of the time.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many tachinomi can be found in the so-called downtown areas in the north and east of the city, with Ueno and Akasaka in Taito Ward and Kitasenju in Adachi Ward home to more of these standing bars than you can shake a stick at. That is not to say the more traditionally upmarket areas are falling behind. Shinjuku’s famed Omoide Yokocho alleyways, crammed with dirt cheap eateries small enough to touch both walls with your arms outstretched, have a few popping up, as do several of the side streets branching off from the main thoroughfares near the main JR Station. Ikebukuro also has a handful of similar places where the rough and ready will always feel more at home than will the hoi poloi, but so too of late does Ginza to give the tachinomi map some balance.
The Ebisu, Shibuya and even Meguro neighborhoods have offered up their own take on the working man’s homeward bound pit-stop, but have done so in true south-east Tokyo style. Relatively scarce are the posters of kimono-clad beer carriers, fewer still are the out-and-out open-fronted places in which a pay as you go system (a la ’rounds’ in the UK or Oz) operates, to avoid having the inebriated wander off unnoticed without paying. Instead, as might be expected in the plusher parts of town, the set-up is somewhat more refined.
The interior is noticeably better pieced together in many of the standing bars in Shibuya and Ebisu at least. Wall decorations are certainly more varied than posters! Several offer both standing and seating options so as to enable those not quite yet comfortable with a night shifting from foot to foot or leaning on the counter an alternative to zabuton usage. Lighting — usually bare 100W light bulbs in places like Ueno — tends to be a central part of places in West Tokyo, with ‘tasteful’ being the name of the game. The waiting staff, unlike the uni-students and at times high-school kids earning a few extra yen in Kitasenju, are arguably more used to dealing with customers willing to pay a little extra and getting a little extra service wise; a simple shout of ‘nama!’ (draught!) being enough to have a waiter promptly serving you a fresh glass.

Besides the run-of-the-mill beer, shochu and nihonshu drinks, most tachinomi places also serve food. Some may offer menus on the bar, others will have the top-to-bottom strips of paper hanging on the walls (which means at least some knowledge of the lingo is required), and a few of the quasi-standing ‘300-yen bars’ in Shibuya even provide bilingual menus and drink lists.

Standard fare at most authentic spots will include yakitori, nikomi (a kind of simmered stew made partly from animal innards), cabbage with miso paste, perhaps other vegetable offerings (also served with miso), and more often than not chunks of octopus and/or tuna served with a dollop of wasabi on the side. In several of Ueno’s finest tachinomi, a hot plate and attendant cook guarantee the yaki-soba is freshly prepared. In the same area, once frequented by the 1950s/60s sumo yokozuna pair of Tochinishiki and Wakanohana, the yakitori are also grilled on the premises — to order. Prices for food vary depending on the quality and amount served, but will rarely be above a reasonable 500 yen a plate. At least one place in Akihabara, though (on the opposite side of the station to Electric Town, and across the street from the JR and Hibiya Line exit on Showa Dori) offers most of its tidbits at an amazing 100 yen a plate! The ‘expensive’ 200 yen dishes at this tiny second floor locale include a full ‘hokke’, grilled squid, and regular and/or black beer. Not a place easily beaten for price, even if the staff do shout at you should you fail to clear your tray when finished.

* One small snag when covering a subject such as tachinomi is the usage of names. Many do have names but few customers, including the local residents, will know them. If you are heading out in search of one of Tokyo’s standing bar spots in the areas mentioned above, just stop and ask someone for the local tachinomiya. A kind soul will eventually point you in the right direction. Usually, however, simply wandering around the area close to a train station will reap rewards.

Story by Mark Buckton
Photos by Haruna Miyashita

From J SELECT Magazine, August 2010