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The drinking culture hidden inside Japan’s liquor stores

On a chilly day in late December, as most people were busy with New Year’s preparations, I stepped into a seemingly ordinary shop in Kitakyushu, the northernmost city on Japan’s island of Kyushu. Sake no Awaya had the usual appearance of a well-stocked liquor store specialising in sake: shelves were tightly packed with hundreds of meticulously arranged bottles, most of them brandishing bold, colourful Japanese writing.

I walked from the front entrance to the counter of the 75-year-old business in the port district of Moji, once one of Kitakyushu’s industrial hubs, and was greeted with an unexpected image, yet one so familiar that it felt like a memory: a group of women and men were sitting on high stools around the counter, behind which an elegantly dressed bartender was simultaneously pouring drinks, collecting money and entertaining his patrons.

It reminded me of the kind of scene that I usually encounter when wandering into an izakaya (roughly translated as a “Japanese pub”) on one of my regular nocturnal perusals through tangled webs of back alleys scattered across cities all over Japan.

Yet liquor shops that double as bars, known as kaku-uchi, are anything but rare in Kitakyushu; it is here that they first emerged, and this medium-sized city is still home to an estimated 100 of them. The term kaku-uchi means “hitting the corner” and comes from the local dialect, though it has become the catch-all Japanese word for liquor shops that serve drinks, even garnering an entry in one of Japan’s most authoritative dictionaries.

Their earliest frequenters were workers from the Yawata Steel Works, Japan’s first modern steel mill, founded in Kitakyushu in 1901. Liquor shops were the only place where labourers leaving the night shift could reward their tired bodies with a sip of sake or shōchū, a Japanese distillate.

“Visiting kaku-uchi was part of these workers’ identity,” said Shigehito Yoshida, president of the 280-members-strong Kitakyushu Kaku-uchi Culture Study Group, which organises events and meetups in liquor shops.

The story goes that when the steel workers were transferred 800km north-east to Chiba, they brought kaku-uchi culture with them, spreading it to neighbouring Tokyo and throughout Japan around the middle of the 20th Century.

While kaku-uchi have evolved since then – for example, the choice of drinks has widened, with some serving cocktails and others specialising in beer or wine – they’ve stayed true to their proletarian origins. Everyone mixes on an even footing and, often, fluid seating or standing arrangements mean that all customers gather around the same table or counter – making it disarmingly easy to strike up a conversation. Simple snacks are available, with typical fare including canned and dried goods, pickles and oden, or Japanese hotpot.

Some kaku-uchi may offer more gourmet options like sashimi and fried food, but service is always minimal, with some places even adopting self-service fridges and a payment system where customers put money in a bowl or basket that is then taken out at every order.

Twenty years ago, my male colleagues refused to take me, saying that kaku-uchi were for men only

The enduring appeal of kaku-uchi is straightforward, said Yoshida: they’re cheap and people feel at ease whether they want to socialise or drink alone. Fellow Kaku-uchi Culture Study Group members Kiyomi Ono, Tomoko Ikemoto and Yuki Yoshioka – all women – agreed. And while kaku-uchi are traditionally the remit of men, women are increasingly blending in.

“Twenty years ago, my male colleagues refused to take me, saying that kaku-uchi were for men only,” said office worker and Kitakyushu resident Ikemoto. Decades on, she’s finally satisfied her curiosity by recently joining the kaku-uchi group. Yoshioka joined because she feels more comfortable drinking in a group than on her own.

Many kaku-uchi are also aiming to attract a young clientele. Akiyasu Seki is the owner of Tokyo kaku-uchi Futaba and president of the Tokyo Liquor Retailers Association’s youth branch. The organisation, which unites 2,300 liquor shops, promotes sake culture and responsible drinking among young people; and in 2018 it launched the Liquor Store Kaku-uchi Festival, with one of its latest editions attracting 30,000 participants. Held in Tokyo twice a year, dozens of the city’s liquor shops have stalls for people to taste their products while enjoying food and live music.

Seki explained that kaku-uchi used to be popular in Tokyo but practically disappeared in the late 1990s and early 2000s when hygiene regulations were tightened, obliging liquor shops to register as restaurants to serve food and drinks. Now, however, they’re experiencing a revival. “Historically, liquor shops are places where people exchange information about the neighbourhood and, in Tokyo, kaku-uchi are increasingly becoming part of the fabric of the community,” he said.

Yet Seki pointed out that, while the capital’s kaku-uchi are increasing, its liquor shops are declining and, in fact, “more of them have started kaku-uchi businesses as a way to survive”.

In Kitakyushu, liquor shops – and hence kaku-uchi – are suffering too. Uozumi, founded by the Uozumi family in 1934, is tucked away among scruffy-looking residential buildings in the Moji district, less than 2km from Sake no Awaya. The wooden interior is a narrow rectangular space mostly occupied by a counter, where customers stand facing shelves full of bottles, ornaments and old photographs. The remaining wall space is pasted with beer posters whose faded, tattered appearance and retro-looking models reveal just how long they’ve been there.

The owner, Tetsuji Uozumi, a soft-spoken man with a warm smile, showed me and the Kaku-uchi Culture Study Group outing I’d joined a photo of his mother. She used to run the business, but after she passed away, Uozumi was left on his own. “I can just about support myself, but no one will take over after me,” he said.

Like Uozumi, almost 80% of Kitakyushu’s liquor shops don’t have successors, according to a 2015 study by Yuki Nakashima and Bart Dewancker of the University of Kitakyushu’s Architecture Department. While the number of liquor shops kept growing until the 1970s, since then, the downward trend has been relentless, due to proprietors ageing and not being able to pass on their businesses, as well as competition from other types of retailers selling alcohol, such as supermarkets and convenience stores. Yoshida estimated that 80 years ago there were double the kaku-uchi there are now.

After leaving Uozumi and saying goodbye to Yoshida and the other group members, I met Stephen Lyman, co-author of the book The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, in Fukuoka, a 15-minute bullet train ride from Kitakyushu. Fukuoka is another kaku-uchi hotspot, and Lyman and I chatted about his favourite joints, such as Koba Saketen, a shop specialising in sake and wine that he praised for its friendly atmosphere and good drink selection.

Lyman also recommended Todoroki Saketen Yakuin Stand, which sells hundreds of varieties of sake as well as natural wine and craft beer, noting that this is a good spot for foreigners visiting a kaku-uchi for the first time as it’s particularly accepting of newcomers.

Lyman, who’s American, pointed out that many other kaku-uchi are small, local businesses mainly catering to regulars. So for those who wish to explore this scene (regardless of the venue they choose), some things should be kept in mind. For example, knowing even a little basic Japanese can go a long way. Also, many kaku-uchi only take cash, only accept small groups and don’t have toilets.

Lyman remains convinced, however, that kaku-uchi are a unique way of exploring Japanese drinking culture and neighbourhood life, and are, overall, welcoming places. He recalled that Koba was the first kaku-uchi he ever visited and that, at the time, he was pleasantly surprised to see drinks being served in the shop. Holding a pint of Japanese craft cider, Lyman exclaimed: “Of course you should be able to raise a glass to new and old friends inside a liquor store!”


Reproduced with kindness: https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20230413-the-drinking-culture-hidden-inside-japans-liquor-stores

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