Saturday, March 6, 2010

Okajouki, Nakano (陸蒸気)

Well, I had promised to meet The Woodsman at 5 PM, after my bath. Due to excessive bathing and the sluggishness of mind that immediately follows it, it took me some time to get back up to the station and then start north along Nakano's enormous, insane, pack-em-in covered shotengai. I didn't even have a chance to get up to the Nakano Broadway bit at the end, which I remember from a visit years ago to have a sweet collection of figurine and hentai shops. Just kidding, neither of those is among my hobbies. You people, always thinking the worst. And me with a promise to meet a friend at 5...

and late. But there's always time to take a picture of a huge, wacky clock.

Here's how you get to Okajouki - leave the station via the north exit. Follow all the people into the arcade. Turn right at McDonalds. As Woodsy points out, you leave the clean, bright, covered shotengai and immediately are plunged into a relatively grubby neighborhood with a distinct flavor of entertainment and topnotes of sleaze. This street will give you solace though, no matter what your tastes. In addition to fresh vegetables on the right, and Okajouki farther down on the left, you'll note that this sign promises to provide for both Christians and fashionistas at 'Jesus' and 'Milan'.

Of course, Jesus actually says 'card shop', whatever that is, and Milan is a Nepali restaurant (it says 'Indian and Nepali food', and I stand by my theory that when a sign says 'X and Y' food, the subtext is always "We're really from Y, but we think we can sell more if we use the name of our larger, more popular neighbor." Kind of like "American and Canadian food", or "Australia and New Zealand".). Crap, I've digressed, and I'm still late for the agreed time.

We needed a big picture of that, didn't we? The web site says "In the middle of Nakano, a little piece of Aomori," and they're not half trying, are they? They're all-in on the train theme - the inside is full of train-station bits and bobs too. And now that I've looked at the map, I've got a theory about how they got them.

There's no town called Okajouki any more. In fact, there isn't even a Tsugaru station. My guess is that at some point, these various towns rolled up the sidewalks and packed it in, forming larger tax catchment areas (which happens all the time in rural Japan). Okajouki didn't merit a station any more, and somehow these guys picked up all the pieces and installed them in Nakano.

On the other hand, with okajouki meaning 'steam train', maybe they just made up a fake sign and imported all the other stuff from China.

Inside is like this - one big counter around the fire pit. It's warm and pleasant, with touches of class in the wall decoration and handcrafts in the display cases. The atmosphere is decidedly male though; like some ramen shops, every order is an occasion for the staff to communicate it loudly to the kitchen and engage in a round of loud acknowledgements with each other. ("Yo!") 

Of course it helps that the staff is all male, and the preferred method of cooking is to impale things on stakes and stand them up in the ashes around a big fire. If you noticed, the sign outside does say 'grilled fish', so I guess they're honest and forthright about that. The guy that you see here seems to be the head waiter, and he was very nice about writing out all the specials for us, with prices. Let's look at some of the items on offer yesterday.

Mmmm, flamez. I want to be forthright about the pricing here, because if I were you and saw these pictures, plus indeed the indicative pricing on the web site, I would be in with bells on (as I was - my main goal was roast lobster). In front, what you see is a bunch of pieces of soi, a biggish white fish, that were grilling up nice and juicy. The other grilled fish option for the day was kinki. Why is it that all the fish you can see is soi? Because the soi was Y1500 per piece, and the kinki was Y3500 per fish, which was probably a similar quantity. At left is the lobster that I coveted. The web said "From Y2600", and I was excited; the actuality was Y4800, and we left without eating one.

We did eat starters, of course. At left, some kind of slimy chop-up involving seaweed and carrots, and at right, something like namasu (daikon and carrot in vinegar).

Spring is nearly upon us, and I can't resist bamboo shoots. This is still early-season stuff, which has a different kanji, but it was quite good.

Oh, sake? Why yes. Interestingly, they have only a few varieties, and they're all Aomori. The heart of the menu is from Momokawa brewery; I think they have 3 or 4 levels, which you can get in glasses or small bottles (720's). We had the junmaishu, not an overly special level, but nice enough.

And we had a kinki, rubbed liberally with salt and grilled right up. I could have eaten two of these myself and not broken a sweat. We definitely felt under-served by him. But damn was this a good fatty, so juicy, and just great. The fish ran out fast; I kept a salt-crusted fin and nibbled bits of it as an accompaniment to the rest of the sake.

At this point we started thinking about a second round of fish. The soi was already sold out, 2 hours after opening. This is imbubitably because it was more meaty and yet much cheaper than the kinki. We considered the shrimp sashimi, which had looked delightful at our neighbors' station...the menu price was Y1500, and they had gotten two on the plate, so I naively assumed it was 2 per order...but I asked before ordering, and a good job of it too, because that was the per-beast price. C'mon, really? I can accept that if you go to very high-end sushi, everything you eat will be in that price range. But they've deliberately cultivated the ambience of a fireside cookery in a train station, and the incongruenciality is jarrificating. We just packed up and left.

All of this sounds a bit grumpy...No strike that, the preceding paragraph was exceedingly grumpy. But I loved this place! The atmosphere is outstanding. The quality of ingredients, at least our kinki, was also first-class. If I was out for a quiet night, didn't mind spending, and wasn't planning to try more places, I could stay longer and eat more quite happily. Now you know what to expect, and can choose your own adventure.

To order the $15 shrimp, turn to page 23. To move on to the next Nakano place, turn to page 38.


  1. Looks like a place worth a visit. Not sure about ordering non grilled items though with their prices.

  2. no english menu. come on. that's so easy.

  3. Easier than writing a sensible comment, it seems.

  4. Actually, Anonymous, producing a decent English menu takes quite a bit of work. I've done so for my own restaurant here in Tokyo and those of Japanese friends. Considering that your typical target is 99% Japanese, the pay-off ain't that great.