Yakoressha Sake Bar: The Oasis of Ueno

Yakoressha Sake Bar: The Oasis of Ueno

Almost seventeen years ago, on my first trip to Japan, my wife (then my girlfriend) took me to the bustling markets of Ueno.  Born as a central black market after WW2, the Ueno shotengai (shopping streets) now weave underneath the elevated JR Train tracks between the Ueno and Ueno-Okachimachi stations. It is a dense neighborhood, tourists, locals, Tokyoites all looking for bargains amongst the honeycomb of fish mongers, dry goods vendors, restaurants, clothing stores and candy shops. It is one of my favorite places in all of Tokyo.

On my first visit I struggled to take it all in.  I was used to crowds, had been to street markets in Mexico, in Italy, in Prague, but nothing I had ever experienced came close to what I was experiencing in Ueno.  The sheer density of people, elbow to elbow, packed tight like a subway car. My senses were on full alert, in danger of going into overload. There was just so much happening: Fish sellers, competing with each other, shouting Irasshi (welcome) as if the vigor of their voice simulated the freshness of their wares:  jewel-like boxes of fresh uni, screamingly fresh whole fish, squid, octopus, shrimps and crab; thick chunks of pale, fatty tuna; shimmering sushi-ready cuts of bonito, yellowtail, fluke, mackerel; clusters of pollack, mackerel and salmon roe; piles of tiny whitebait  A candy seller stood on a table auctioning off bags of sweets — “ONE THOUSAND YEN!!!! He shouted as crowds gathered…”ANYONE?!?!?!?” And then, with drama, he would throw a gigantic fistful of candy into the bag.  “LET”S TRY AGAIN!!!  ONE THOUSAND YEN!!!!!!” and on and on until the bag was purchased, the street theater complete.  Venerable sellers of seaweed and rice, competed alongside Chinese merchants hawking knock-off Nikes. Huge Hiroshima oysters were being cracked open, served with soy sauce and ponzu; tiny restaurants served a riot of Chinese dishes, seafood soups, sashimi and followed with freezing mugs of beer.  Along the side-streets flimsy tables and tiny stools  spilled out from yakitori spots, suffusing the air with the scent of grilled chicken and long cooked offal. At a cross-roads, an ancient man roasted chestnuts, his rapid fire spiel needed no translation as he teased, cajoled and flirted his way into sales.  The strength in those aged muscles coming to life as he threw a few extra hot chestnuts into a paper bag for a pretty girl.

At the end of one street, hemmed in by a lively seafood izakaya on one side and a pachinko parlor on the other, I spied an ancient looking door, carved out of cedar.  Across the street, a long line crowded around a vendor selling freshly-griddled, fish-shaped pastries filled with custard and sweet red bean paste.

We went in.  The moment the door closed, it was as if stepping into a vacuum sealed chamber — the noise, the crowds, the chaos of the Ueno streets simply vanished as we were embraced by a warm pool of pale wood and the tinkling notes of Art Tatum on the stereo.  The long bar was mostly full, but customers politely shifted to let us sit down together.  We nodded to the master, an older man with hooded eyes and certain gravity to his bearing, and asked him to recommend a sake.  He poured us two glasses that spilled over the brim (a standard Japanese way of showing generosity).  He explained the sake was from Nigata prefecture, brewed at a small and old factory.  Most importantly, he stated, it was fresh.  He watched us we sipped.  It was a revelation for me.  There was a bracing complexity to the sake — notes of banana, of cold spring water pulled from a glacial stream and a lingering warmth that spread through my mouth.  I smiled in approval and the master simply nodded and moved off to serve another customer.  His wife, a striking older woman, jet-black hair tied in a severe bun, parsimonious lips set in a straight line, prepared a few small dishes: pickles, tomato salad, roasted ginko nuts.  Their son, dressed in a heavy hand-tooled leather apron, busied himself with cleaning dishes, bussing tables, opening new bottles and pouring beer.  His eyes and ears registered everything — like a hawk he tracked his parent’s moves and the customer’s needs. We sampled sake for an hour or so, getting pleasantly buzzed and chatting with our neighbors.  Each new sake was as interesting as the first.  We learned the owner had a philosophy of sake, a belief that sake was the greatest spirit bargain in the world.  The great sakes were the freshest, capturing the flavors of rice, the unique molds and yeasts that caused fermentation.  They were inexpensive and could stack up against the great wines of France. I couldn’t argue.  My previous experiences with sake were random bottles in New York — some better than others — but nothing that registered as anything more than “Yup, that’s sake!”

We left into the now-darkened streets of Ueno.  The Yakitori were even more packed, drunker and louder and the lanes pulsed with a frenetic energy.  It dawned on me that the sake bar encapsulated a certain, particularly Japanese binary distinction between “outside” and “inside”.  Just as you always take your shoes off when you walk into a Japanese home, leaving the dirt, the germs, the grime of outside on the doorstep, the bar existed as the counter-balance to the chaos and noise of Ueno.

It became a ritual to visit the bar (named Yakoressha i.e. Night Train) every time we returned to Japan. The owners, in typically under-stated fashion, would not make a fuss when they saw us, but let it be known that they remembered us and were happy we had returned.  During the week of our marriage at Tokyo’s Meiji Jingo Shrine,  I brought my parents in.  One customer, perhaps ten sakes to the wind, insisted on joining our conversation, talking loudly in limited English about baseball and America, and basically making a nuisance of himself. Like any drunk anywhere, the more we ignored him, the more hostile he grew until I was tempted to lay him out.  At that precise moment the son moved from behind the bar and took the man by the shoulders and spoke a few words.  After uttering a “Hai” he quietly sat down and let us be.  I asked my wife if the son had threatened to kick him out?  No, she replied, he merely told the man that it was our family time and he should understand and respect our need for intimacy.  A remarkably un-New York way of dealing with conflict.  It made me love the place even more.

Over the past eight years, I had not been able to return to Yakoressha.  Either my trips were too short or my visits to Ueno were ill-timed and it was closed. Last week I was back, showing the sites to a visiting-from-New York pal, my two kids in tow.  Yakoressha was open and we had an hour to kill waiting for some alterations to be completed on a newly purchased pair of Japanese denim.

The bar was un-changed, an air of calm pervading the space.  The son was now at the helm.  The father, looking quite aged, perched at the end of the bar.  The mother, as composed, as indomitable as always, looked untouched by the years.  We asked for a recommendation and were rewarded with a bone-dry sake, perfectly chilled, stronger than expected and eminently drinkable. As the son prepared a dish of fermented squid guts, both the mother and the father tracked his every movement as if fitted with laser sights. They watched every glass lifted, reading reaction; watched every morsel being eaten, followed each pour of sake, each draught of beer. It was a relentless vigilance, one that, had it been my parents, my boss, I would have snapped under, screaming, “Its been 17 fucking years! I know how to cut a tomato!” However, this being Japan, vigilance is more akin to responsibility, a responsibility to adhere to the perfection that customers have come to expect — or more precisely a perfection that is almost invisible.

We ordered another sake, this time something with a bit more fruit.  I mentioned to the son that I had first come to the bar 17 years previous.  I reminded him of his leather apron, and a customer he knew, who sported an enormous mole and whose father was a “Living National Treasure of Japan” due to his work creating a sort of decorative paddle.  I was not remembered, which was not a surprise and really did not matter.  The sake, was again, remarkable.  Cold and complex with floral notes and hailing from Kyushu.  I nodded to the father, to the mother, to the son thanking them for their expertise; thanking them really for their devotion of crafting something timeless which in turn has become a marker in my life, a constant in a world that is ever-changing. Yakoressha remains one of the top-five greatest bars that I have even been to.

The door shut and once again we were engulfed in the chaos, the raging current of Ueno sucking us back into the stream of life.

2 Replies to “Yakoressha Sake Bar: The Oasis of Ueno”

  1. This another great piece, sir. I was actually mentally transported into the vibe of the place, just by reading some words on a backlit screen. Not sure, but I can probably do without the “fermented squid guts” snack. Also, is fine sake meant to be enjoyed at room-temperature or is that a myth?

    1. As far as I can tell most sake you drink chilled. I had one which was from Kyushu and kind of sour that was served at room temperature. But thanks, I am gald that you enjoyed! Next time you come to Japan I will take you there. Ask Morrie about it!

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