Otaru has around 100 sushi restaurants, including some 20 on the famed Sushi Street, which is five minutes on foot from where we were staying. As much as we like sushi, we were in the mood for a variety of small hot dishes – specifically, we wanted to eat at an izakaya.
We decided to check out the nightlife and entertainment district, which is a few blocks south of the main train station. Given the concentration of eateries in the area, we were certain that we would readily find a nice izakaya.
We were wrong.
Every shopfront we passed was shielded behind a closed door or curtain. Aside from the lit signs that I could barely make out, we had no idea what each place had to offer nor what it was like inside. As we wandered aimlessly from one street to another, our stomachs started to growl. We were getting hangry!
There was a lone eatery on an alley that connected two side streets. Like everywhere else, the doors were drawn shut. But, there was an ajar window on the street side, thus enabling us to peek inside. It was a small place with counter seats only and there were a few guests chatting heartily.
I had a good feeling about the place and convinced AB to enter. He was hesitant as we spoke no Japanese and was concerned that this would be a problem. I, on the other hand, paid little heed to this and was confident we will somehow get by.
He was right to have his reservations. When we bashfully entered the izakaya, everyone turned round to look at us, slightly surprised to see the gaijin next to me. Someone made space for the two of us at the counter and I expressed my gratitude with a nod and smile.
This was a one-man shop. Once seated, the chef started speaking to me in Japanese. To which I responded with a sheepish grin as I shook my head to express my incomprehension.
What do you do when you’re in a place where no one speaks the same language as you?
The chef spoke no English and us, no Japanese. The handwritten menu over the stove was mostly in hiragana with a smattering of kanji that I could decipher – “grilled”, “tofu”, “small pot” and “eggplant”. This was going to be interesting.
For starters, we asked for “beer”, which was immediately understood and served in ice-cold mugs. It was refreshing.
Then we looked to our left and right. Including us, there were only seven customers. I pointed at the grilled fish that was being prepared behind the chef and signed for one. Then I pointed at the almost empty plate of tempura next to AB and repeated the sign for one.
As our fish was being prepared, I looked around the room. It seemed like the izakaya was located in what was probably the reception area of someone’s home, probably the chef’s. An ajar door revealed a sitting area shrouded in darkness.
There was something particularly charming about the place – it was not polished and had a DIY feel. It was as though the owner decided to open an izakaya and set up an open kitchen with counter seats in the welcome area of his house.
My thoughts were interrupted by laughter from the television that was perched in a corner above the counter. Ah, the ubiquitous box showing some Japanese entertainment programme.
Our orders were soon served. The food was tasty and we washed it down with more cold beer.
As the evening continued, we pointed at other things on the counter, gulping down more ice-cold beer as we waited.
P.S. We decided to learn some Japanese after this trip knowing that we would return to Japan in the future and have started taking weekly beginner classes!
2丁目1-8 Hanazono Otaru Hokkaido / 北海道 小樽市 花園 2丁目1-8
Open 1130-1300, 1700-2200