More Bday Fun In Morishita

More Bday Fun In Morishita

I turned 51 last week. Not an inspiring birthday. The celebratory mood of hitting a half-century is gone, the long, slog towards old age is all that remains. That said, my wife felt differently. A birthday is a birthday and worthy of celebration. So, she asked what I would like to do. In the past, I have written about Morishita’s fish bar, Uosan Sakaba, and as many times as I have been there, my wife has never joined me.  So, I figured it was time to rectify that situation as nothing can be really so great if it is not shared with someone you love.  I slipped on my birthday gift from my wife: a luxurious, interestingly cut yellow sweater and a new black fedora, gifted to me by my mother-in-law’s boss.  The effect: Dandified Rabbi.

Uosan Sakaba is located in the Morishita neighborhood, smack dab in eastern Tokyo’s downtown — the real Shitamachi.  It opens early, closes early and serves up a wild variety of seafood.  It is CHEAP, rough around the edges and it is one of the more joyful restaurants I have ever been to. The space is made up of two counters shaped like an elongated letter U’s. Diners sit on stools on either side, while two waitresses service a counter each, hustling up and down the center, taking orders and delivering food and drink. These waitresses are older women, they have been there for a long time and are far beyond the polite, “customers-are-always-right” standard of many Japanese restaurants.  They work hard, ignore customers who take too long to make up their minds, snap at anyone trying to shout an order when they are not ready, regularly refuse to pour another glass of sake for someone that has become drunkenly annoying; in short, I love them — their gruffness is a type of fish bar theater and everyone who regularly goes plays along, taking a certain joy in being admonished.  It reminds me a bit of a Japanese Sammy’s Roumanian.  Every time I have gone I have ended up at the counter on the left.  The waitress there is the more ill-tempered of the two. She dresses in a florid style, slightly at odds with her advancing age — on this last visit she was wearing a pink, tiger-striped blouse (with a screen print of a tiger’s face) with two matching scrunchies in her two-toned hair.  She was always mean to me, impatient with my halting Japanese, annoyed at my smoking, bothered by my incessant shouts of “sumimasen!”   However, one night when I was there around closing time, I poured her a glass of beer.  It was an important glass of beer.  The next time I went, she told my friend she remembered us, and somehow became softer and oddly flirtatious.  I had won! I was sort of excited to show off this minor victory to my wife; however, we were seated at the opposing counter.

It is always busy at the Fish Bar.  You have to wait to get a table.  The crowd is primarily made up of neighborhood regulars, old friends, old couples, salarymen relaxing after work.  In between, there are some younger folks and a few food tourists from other parts of Tokyo.  There are not a lot of foreigners, in part because the menu is made up of hanging wooden signs in Japanese Kanji listing the daily specials.  If you do not speak Japanese it is wise to go with someone who does; however, if you decide to visit, you can totally make due by pointing out what other people are eating.  In fact, this is a wise way of handling things as customers at the Fish Bar like to tell you about their food — I have been turned on to everything from Eel Guts yakitori to Yellowtail collar by asking if something is “oishi”.  The closeness of the crowd, the fact that you are facing other diners adds to a buoyant conviviality amongst the guests.

My wife and I got right into the heart of things, ordering tuna sashimi (both medium and fatty), Botan ebi, a tray of uni and a type of Japanese sardine served with ginger and slivers of green onion.  The quality is high, the dividends of a 74-year-old owner who has headed to the fish market every morning for the past fifty years.  I caught my wife laughing as she explained that a newly arrived customer and his date (food tourists, I would guess) took a moment too long to order — hemming and hawing — until the waitress took off, muttering “Say something, anything..”   We continued on, my glass re-filled time-after-time with cheap, heated sake: stunning fried oysters, miso soup dotted with seaweed and fatty fish, horse mackerel sashimi.  As full as we were, our neighbor, coincidently in a yellow sweater of his own, lingered over a tempting plate of grilled fish.  “Oishi?” I asked.  He smiled, nodding effusively.  This turned out to be the collar of an unknown fish, marinated in miso and grilled.  It flaked into large chunks, sweet and firm almost like monkfish or skate wing — painfully delicious.  I picked up a chunk of what looked like cartlidge, the sort of place where sweet morsels of cheek meat hide on a codfish.  It turned out to be a fibrous bit of structure, crunchy and filled with fish oil; the effect was similar to sucking on an unctuous marrow bone. Heavenly. I thought to myself, not for the first time, how much my father aka Hungry Gerald, would love the Fish Bar.  I could imagine him holed up at the counter ordering everything on the menu, dishes stacked up before him, sake glass half full, a Hokkaido clam being extracted from its shell. But, alas, being 90 and getting on a 14-hour flight is asking for trouble, so I will make him green with envy through this posting.

When we were finished — a whopping $40 bill paid in cash — we headed across the street, up a steep, narrow staircase to the tiny Bar Nico.  I have been coming to Bar Nico for awhile — the owner is a reggae fan and regularly holds events.  As as I mentioned, Nico is tiny and shaped eccentrically: two levels, various beams, lots of tchotchkes and somehow a set of turntables off the corner. My wife ordered a lemon sour and I, a beer.  Two DJs played a mix of Thai psychedelic music and some kind of vaguely Brazillian electro — the sounds warm and clear but not distracting.  Two women sat nearby with a tray of crystals for sale.  My wife checked out the offerings with a small flashlight and listened attentively to the descriptions of the terroir of each crystal and the magical properties they embodied.  (“Not for me,” my wife whispered as she sat back down.)  Nico’s owner poured me a complimentary bday shot of Tequilla and asked me about New York’s Gin culture.  He then proceeded to show me all the new Japanese “craft” gins he has been collecting, telling me about the distillers and giving me tastes of different ones — amazing stuff, herbal, complex, even medicinal in a delicious way.  He expressed a dream of creating an import/export business focusing on gins with a dedicated Gin Bar.  On a small burner, he whipped up a delicious-looking Sepia Ink pasta for a hungry customer.  Other customers chatted with me, the music remained interesting and I felt a groundswell of joy bubble up in my chest.  I have been to many bars in my life, places where I have been a “regular” and known the owners/bartenders; yet, Nico — and places like it — represent  (to me at least) the best aspects of Japan: a communal warmth that develops out of a certain erasure of the lines between customers and owners; an embrace of enthusiasms (crystals, obscure music, gin, whatever!); and a feeling that the owner is striving for the best that they can offer and you, as a customer, are in on the effort.  It is pride without attendant smugness.  I explained all this to my wife, who as a native Tokyoer is not always as effusive as I am, and she gave her assent; or rather, she just loves me and was happy to see me happy.

We took off early and headed back to home where my kids greeted me with birthday decorations, a delicious cake and special “Happy Birthday!”  hat and glasses. I looked absolutely ridiculous but as filled with joy as a 51-year-old man can be when that long walk towards old age is suffused with love and kindness from family and strangers alike.


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