Tachinomi, or standing bars, offer drinks and small bites often at bargain prices. In this article, which fist appeared in Metropolis magazine, Alex Vega and I visit popular tachinomi in Shinbashi, Nihonbashi, and Hatchobori.
http://archive.metropolis.co.jp/tokyo/668/localflavors.asp (text follows)
In a country famous for its reserved
populace, tachinomiya are among the few places where it’s easy to talk to strangers. That’s what makes these “standing bars” fun. As well as an obvious lack of seats, there are a few unwritten rules.
Some places are pay-as-you-go, at others you run a tab, and at others you may find a small bowl on the table where you leave your loose change; the server will take what you owe from there. Be flexible, as you may be asked to move around to accommodate newcomers. Because counter space is also limited, order your food bit by bit. And, according to one tachinomi aficionado, while it’s fine to be friendly, don’t be too friendly.
One of the best places to experience standing bar culture at its most relaxed is Shinbashi, especially on a Friday night, when the salarymen celebrate the end of the work week creating a real party atmosphere in the streets.
Most of Shinbashi’s bars are on the west side of the JR station. Noyaki is one of the friendliest. It’s been around for 30 years, and it looks like nothing has changed in that time. There are seats inside, but standing out in the narrow alleyway is a good way to soak up the Shinbashi culture. The smoky aroma of nikomi (innards stew) wafts out of the window in front of the grill. The house specialty is chicken and pig bits skewered and grilled, but you may need a few beers before you can stand the gristlier bits.
Tonko is hard to miss, with a plastic pig outside that signals its specialty: pork. It’s famous for its friendly, all-female staff, and many customers seem to be regulars who go for the flirting as much as the beer. You can get every piece of the pig here, from the mimiga (ears) to the “Titanic” kakuni (soft, braised pork), to the gutsy nikomi.
Higoikini is a one of a new generation of standing bars; you might call them “gastro-tachinomi” (like the modern British “gastro-pubs”). It’s a cavernous space with long communal tables and a wall of shochu bottles. The young crowd outnumbers the salarymen. The food is self-service (the deep-fried calamari is recommended) and drinks are ordered from the cashier.
Also in the area, Heso is known for its good food, but is a male bastion of gray-haired chain smokers, so we gave it a miss. There are dozens more, so stroll around and get adventurous.
In Nihonbashi, Masukyu Liquor really feels like something from another era. Every day at 5pm, this liquor store on Chuo Dori turns into a standing bar. The same goods it sells during the day (cup sake, cans and bottles of beer and shochu) can in the evening be consumed in the shop. Early birds can stand around the mama-san at the cashier; latecomers may find themselves in the office space at the back. As there is no kitchen, for food you can select from an array of snacks and canned goods: tuna, yakitori, scallops, squid—even whale. Yes, all in a can.
Another favorite that is definitely worth seeking out is Maru in Hatchobori. The bar is located next door to a wine and liquor shop. Pick up a bottle in the shop, pay for it and then take it into the bar, where they will open it for ¥500. The menu is quite extensive with European tapas such as grilled and cured meats, olives and cheese, as well as typical izakaya fare. The first floor is a tachinomi, and there are seats upstairs. Maru fills up quickly, so come early.
Heso 2-8-2 Shinbashi, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3508-0466.
Higoikini 2-8-9 Shinbashi, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3502-3132.
Maru 3-22-10 Hatchobori, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-3552-4477
Masukyu Liquor 2-7-19 Kyobashi, Chuo-ku. No phone.
Noyaki 2-8-16 Shinbashi, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3591-2967.
Tonko 2-9-17 Shinbashi, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3508-1122.