The Japanese Table
Taishu Shokudo—Eating Houseby Isao Kumakura
"Japanese cuisine" can mean so many different things, depending on where one goes to eat! As we continue our series on Japan's various dining styles, we introduce the taishu shokudo, the kind of neighborhood eatery where the locals go for a hearty—and inexpensive—meal.
From the end of the sixteenth and through the seventeenth centuries, a variety of restaurants appeared in Kyoto, then Japan's imperial capital. Genre paintings of the life and customs of the city in those days illustrate some restaurants where men can be seen eating standing up, as well as others where noodles are being made in the front of the shop. These images show not only fine restaurants for the wealthy, but reveal that popular eating places for the common people came into being during this era.
In the late eighteenth century, as the population of Edo (now Tokyo), the political center of the country, grew to over a million people, the number of popular-style eating establishments grew exponentially. It is said there was at least one such eating place for every block in the city. Many of them specialized in various types of noodles, while a new kind of shop, called ni-uri-ya, served rice and soup accompanied by a variety of simple side dishes. Benches were provided in the front of the shop for people stopping by to eat.
In the nineteenth century, yatai, stalls consisting essentially of a portable kitchen and counter where customers stood to eat, proliferated throughout the city; these offered such popular foods as sushi, tempura or grilled eel. There were also vendors who carried cooking units for boiling water and sold soba noodles in the streets. Several thousand such soba vendors are said to have been operating in the city of Edo alone by the middle of the nineteenth century. This figure tells us how rapidly the culture of eating away from home had developed by that time.
With the advent of the modern age, the numbers of young workers and students in the cities increased, and popular-style restaurants catering mainly to single men began to open throughout the country. These establishments seem to have evolved from the ni-uri-ya of the Edo period.
Called taishu shokudo—"people's dining halls" or "public restaurants"—some of these shops offer a varied menu of side dishes, including simmered or grilled fish, chilled tofu with seasonings (hiya-yakko), simmered vegetables, blanched greens (ohitashi), simmered seaweed dishes, and so on. Customers serve themselves from a selection of these, picking up their own dishes from a shelf, to accompany rice, miso soup and pickles; prices are calculated depending on which dishes are selected. These restaurants resemble Western-style cafeterias, but are small in scale, catering to no more than fifteen or twenty people at a time. Many have an established clientele and are run by the proprietor and his wife.
As suggested by some of the other names for this type of restaurant—ichizen-meshiya ("meal-on-one-tray shop") and teishokuya ("set-meal shop")—other types of taishu shokudo offer set meals of simple, traditional foods: rice, miso soup, pickles, grilled fish, a simmered vegetable or main dish such as tempura or deep-fried fish, and one other small side dish (kobachi). Donburi-mono (meal-in-a-bowl dishes) and curry and rice are standard items on the menu as well. Informal in atmosphere and inexpensive, these restaurants serve sake and beer, but unlike izakaya and other establishments where people go primarily to drink, the taishu shokudo is intended to offer cheap and substantial midday or evening meals. Their shop fronts tend to follow a distinctive style: a noren curtain hung across the entrance and signs indicate that noodles or donburi-mono are served. There is often a display case in the front where inarizushi (deep-fried tofu pockets stuffed with rice) or other take-out foods are sold.
In recent years, old-fashioned taishu shokudo have gradually begun to disappear. Small family-run neighborhood restaurants, where one can go for a quick and inexpensive meal, remain in some old areas of Kyoto and other cities, but in Tokyo they are increasingly hard to find. One reason is that customers are increasingly drawn to spacious, American-style family restaurant chains with parking lots. The younger generation tends to favor Chinese, Italian or American-style cuisine over traditional Japanese fare, and in many ways, fast-food hamburger and fried-chicken chains have taken over the role once played by taishu shokudo.
While the numbers of traditional taishu shokudo do seem to be dwindling, various kinds of popular restaurants serving original or specialized cuisines have increased. Many feature ramen noodles, tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlet) or curry and rice; then there are shops that focus on "Japanized" Italian or Chinese cooking. Today there is quite a diverse range of restaurants where one may find a lunch for 500-600 yen (US$5-6.00) and supper for around 1,000 yen. A variety of restaurants specializing in Japanese-style dishes with attractive interiors and inexpensive standard-fare menus are twenty-first century taishu shokudo in a new guise.
Japan's once-typical image of the small neighborhood restaurant has slowly begun to fade: vertical lattice facade, signboard and noren printed with the characters for taishu shokudo, reliable menu of standard Japanese-style dishes and a simple, hearty meal . . . all evoke a distinct aura of nostalgia in the face of today's rapidly changing cities.
Isao Kumakura was born in Tokyo in 1943. He taught at Tsukuba University from 1978 to 1992, and then held the position of Professor of Japanese Culture at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka. Since 2004, he has been director of the Hayashibara Museum of Art, Okayama. Among his many publications are Tea in Japan and The History of Japanese Food.