Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on February 2008

Koji Nomura

Koji Nomura

If you want to get a feel of what Tokyo was like in the ’30s—the Showa ’30s, that is—head to Kamiyaki Toriya Honpo. This retro izakaya recreates the flavor of postwar Japan, a time when the country was getting its groove back and learning to have fun.

There are, obviously, very few salarymen left from those glory days, so Kamayaki will appeal to the curious rather than the nostalgic. For foreigners, the experience is also likely to be educational. We were confused by the katakana script on a vintage liquor poster (“ru-bi roposa”), until our Japanese friend suggested reading it from right to left. Ah, yes: “Sapporo Beer.”

Apparently, there was a lot of wacky booze floating around postwar Tokyo. The “Retro” portion of Kamayaki’s menu lists such drinks as Torys, a classic brand of Suntory whiskey (¥420); Denki Bran, a bottled concoction of brandy, gin, white curaçao, wine, and goodness knows what else (¥420); and Akadama Sweet Kachiwari Wine, which—well, we never quite figured out exactly what that one was (¥580). During our visit for a press dinner last month, we tried Hoppy (¥380), which is an old-school beer-flavored drink (sans alcohol) that comes with a mixer of “Nakami” shochu (¥180).

The kitchen specializes in chicken from the city of Sanuki in Kagawa Prefecture, where Kamayaki Toriya Honpo operates over 40 restaurants. According to the staff, the meat is marinated overnight in an original spice blend, drizzled with homemade soy sauce, and roasted. It’s then served two ways: tender “Hina” and chewy “Oya” (both ¥780). Though both varieties had admirably crisp skin, we preferred the Hina, if for no other reason than the Oya was difficult to cut with wooden chopsticks. We were, in fact, tempted to just grab the chicken leg with our hands and dig in. When the staff saw our dilemma, they actually encouraged us. “Even the women in Sanuki eat it that way,” they said. That’s all we had to hear.

Courtesy of food stadium

Courtesy of food stadium

Other dishes would have seemed right at home in a mid-century Tokyo pub: an otoshi of raw cabbage served with spicy red miso; a shiokara (¥380) made from katsuo—very chewy, very salty and very spicy; jakoten (¥450), which is flat, soft tempura; and an assortment of oden (¥130-¥230). These foods and other small-bite dishes complement a drinks list that includes sake (¥780-¥880), beer (from ¥480), shochu (¥480-¥780), and a lineup of fruit liqueurs, including a dangerously drinkable variety of umeshu made with black sugar (¥480).

Kamayaki’s purposefully bare-bones interior features what looks to be real exposed-tin walls, which not only call to mind a ramshackle postwar drinking den, but probably saved the owners on decorating costs as well. The music, unsurprisingly, is heavy on enka standards, but also included a perfectly frightening Japanese-language rendition of The House of the Rising Sun.

Open since November and located in the bustling Nishi-Shinjuku district, Kamayaki Toriya Honpo is the perfect spot to kick back and wax nostalgic about that magical period 50 years ago when Japan’s future was all ahead of it. So stop in, order some Denki Bran, and have a few for old time’s sake.