Unsung Tokyo – In the Takoyaki Bars of Shimokitazawa

It’s 7pm in central Tokyo, prime commuter time, and the Yamanote line train is a hot mass of suited bodies.  My friend and I have long since abandoned the idea of personal space, and are pressed up against some white collar workers.

The train halts at our chosen stop; I tread on someone’s foot, and mutter my apologies as we wriggle free into the cool evening air.  Tonight we are heading for Shimokitazawa, an area of growing popularity amongst Tokyo’s young alternative crowd.  “It’s like Harajuku was, maybe twenty years ago,” a friend tells me, “back when it was more edgy.”

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Unlike other fashionable areas of Tokyo, the streets of Shimokita are relatively narrow, the buildings just a few stories high.  The familiar chains have sunk their claws in here too, yet for every McDonald’s, there is an array of vintage clothes shops, independent bars, and restaurants.  Artists and musicians flock here, and the shutters of many of the shops are adorned with graffiti art.  In recent years, its twisting backstreets have drawn the attention of urban planners hungry for redevelopment, but the area has its own defenders fiercely opposed to sacrificing character for modernity.

We wander around for some time looking for an interesting place to eat.   There is certainly more than enough choice. We pass small, traditional eateries with paper lanterns hanging above the door, serving Japanese staples like ramen and yakitori (fried chicken), as well as burger restaurants, Italian restaurants, and speciality coffee shops wafting the smell of fresh Arabica beans and sweet pastries out into the street.

Taking a side street, we spot “BARBA”, a second floor bar-restaurant advertising its presence with a colourful chalkboard, and a wall decorated with a sailing ship and a length of knotted rope.  Noticing that it serves takoyaki, balls of savoury batter usually filled with spring onion, pickled ginger, and octopus pieces, we decide to give it a go.

With curved, timber-clad walls complete with sails, a door with a porthole, model ships, and skull and crossbones aplenty, BARBA’s playful décor recalls a pirate galley right out of a children’s story book.  Its long, narrow tables seat about twenty-five people, but the space feels more intimate, especially when filled with revellers enjoying the ¥1000 (about £8) nomihōdai (all you can drink) deal.  Nomihōdai is one of those perks of Japanese culture which takes new arrivals to Japan by surprise, and I am inclined to believe that there are few other places it would turn a profit, least of all the UK.  We hadn’t intended to drink much tonight, but with a single drink upwards of ¥400 (still only just over £3), it is too tempting not to take advantage.

The chef, wearing his black beret, ponytail, beard, and pirate-esque hoop earring with a laid back confidence, is tending steaming pots in the cramped kitchen visible behind the bar, while his colleague is occupied with the constant onslaught of drink orders.  We take our seats and ponder over the menu.  It is long and varied, including western style bar snacks like lattice fries, Indonesian nasi goreng, oodles of Japanese comfort food, and even an Okinawan stir fry called chanpuru.  In the end, we opt for the bar’s speciality takoyaki, with some omu-raisu (Japanese rice-filled omelette) and crudités on the side just in case the portions come up small.

We are somewhat bewildered when our takoyaki arrives, not on a plate, but in the form of a jug full of batter, a plate of fillings, numerous toppings, and a gas-fired takoyaki machine.  Apparently, we are to make it ourselves.  The barman kindly fills us in on how much batter to pour and when to turn them, as we are first-timers, and soon our little balls of deliciousness are sizzling away happily.  Between making cocktails, the barman glances over our handiwork; “Jōzu,” he pronounces, with an approving nod, which means “You’re doing well.”

We turn the takoyaki in their hemispherical moulds until they are completely round and golden brown, and add liberal toppings.  Traditional takoyaki are topped with a sweet and spiced dark brown condiment, which beats your average barbeque sauce or ketchup hands down on more-ishness, mayonnaise, and dried bonito flakes.  I burn my mouth in my eagerness to taste them, the crispy outside giving way to a soft and gooey centre.

We munch our way through ten takoyaki each, and discover that our side orders were probably unnecessary. We decimate them anyway; the seasoned, chicken-fried rice filling the omelette is delicious, and the crispy crudités on their bed of ice help us keep up the pretence of eating something reasonably healthy.  The atmosphere is lively, as the umeshū (plum wine, a particular favourite of mine) is flowing, and the group at the next table are having a birthday party.

Sadly, after two hours of merriment, our time at BARBA is up; it is common in Japan to vacate your table after a certain length of time, especially when having nomihōdai.  I barely have room for last orders, but we both have one more drink before thanking the staff for a lovely evening, and heading back out into the night.

I want to tell everyone to go to Shimokitazawa, to meet some creative-types, wander its narrow streets, to drink in its atmosphere and its beer.  Yet, part of me holds back, for fear of encouraging another unnecessary Starbucks to spawn in this new trend-setting district, in a spot better suited to an inventive small business.  My advice is to go, and go soon, before the dark wings of the developers swoop in.

words Claire Castles


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