Misogura Tamayura, as introduced in my Japan Times column on Friday, is a sturdy old timber-frame tradesman's shop that has been carefully converted into an atmospheric izakaya — one of the best in the neighbourhood.
It stands in the grid of streets just south of Ueno's Shinobazu Pond, a holdover from the times when builders were artisans and all the fixtures — door frames, windows, ceilings and stairs — were crafted by hand from wood.
Even in daylight the sight of this lovingly preserved little store is likely to bring your feet to a halt. But after evening falls and with the old-fashioned lamps illuminating the interior, you may find it hard to resist sliding back the glass doors and venturing inside for a closer look.
Unlike its neighbors, many of which offer boisterous carousing and entertainments of a rather more dubious nature — the area around Ueno-Hirokoji station is an old red-light district — Tamayura is quiet, wholesome and entirely welcoming.
Notwithstanding the array of sake bottles that greet you, Tamayura has a much stronger emphasis on the food it serves. You can tell that from the amount of space devoted to the open kitchen, filling so much of the ground floor that there is only room for a narrow counter of hard black amalgam running along two sides.
If you enjoy watching your food being prepared, this is the place to sit. Your focus will be the hearth, where cuts of meat and chicken are slowly grilled over the glowing charcoals. You can also inspect the wide obanzai-style platters of fish and vegetables, or view your sashimi being deftly sliced to order.
What to order first? The best suggestion comes from the first half of Tamayura's full name. Miso is the seasoning of choice here, and it features in most of the dishes. They're very serious about their miso here: they display diagrams about how miso is made; and they source their miso from all over the country. Here (for those who read Japanese) is the miso menu…
So… Start with an order of organic vegetables, served raw with a selection of miso dips. At this time of year the choice is likely to be from cucumber, white kabu turnips, purple-tinged daikon, kabocha pumpkin and the like. The dips are not simply miso straight out of the vat. Instead they are blended in-house, flavored with walnut, yuzu, umeboshi or garlic. This makes a good nibble to go with your first drink and while waiting for more substantial dishes to arrive.
Other good tidbits include yaki-miso: a thick paste of sweetened miso mixed with ground chicken meat applied to a bamboo shamoji (serving spatula) and grilled until the surface is almost caramelized.
Or try the misozuke starters: slivers of cod, slices of fish roe in their sac, and even cubes of cream cheese — all have been placed in a vat of miso and left to "pickle" for a week or so, until they have absorbed a light saltiness and gentle umami savour from the fermentation.
The sashimi is more than worthy…
But as an intriguing alternative, the kitchen will rustle up a serving of namero. The flesh of the fish — usually aji (horse mackerel) — is chopped up coarsely, then blended with miso and fine-sliced negi scallions. No further dip required.
What else is good? Well, at this time of year there are small, one- or two-person nabe claypots with a choice of ingredients: ours was kamo-nanban (duck and negi scallion) and it hit just the right spot.
However, when temperatures drop, it's the charcoal grill that's likely to demand the most attention. Start perhaps with satsuma-age, a patty of pounded fish meat broiled to a delectable golden-brown.
Or opt for the fish served in saikyo-yaki style — grilled with a coating of sweet white miso; or the excellent sumibi-yaki jidori (charcoal grilled chicken breast).
All these take time to prepare, so get your order in early — and most especially for the meat cuts. The menu this winter has included a selection of waterfowl and wild game, such as aegamo duck, ezojika venison and inoshishi boar. This will not be the finest gibier (wild meats) around — the slow grilling process tends to dry the meat too much — but they certainly go well with sake.
And that, of course, is the other reason for being at Tamayura. There are 30 or more varieties of sake on the menu, many of them premium brands, as well as several special bottles that are unlisted. About a dozen of them can be ordered warm — just ask for "okan" — and you can pick out your choice from the magnums lined up along the counter. Pick from the menu — or just point at the bottle of your choice.
For those who read Japanese, these were the two sake menus last month. Left: the selection of reishu (chilled sake), with red dots indicating those also suggested as good to drink warmed. Right: the list of bottles — most of those arrayed along the counter — intended as okan.
There is much more to Tamayura than the dozen or so counter seats that initially meet the eye. Slip off your shoes and step up into the main part of the house; at the top of a steep flight of wooden stairs is the main dining area.
Most of the tables here are on tatami mats.
But a section of the floor has been removed so you can look right down onto the kitchen, while the warmth and aromas from the grill waft up to the rafters above.
There is also a private chamber at the back — called the "hanare", it is actually separate from the main store — that would make a great party space (albeit you'd have to sit on the tatami, with no leg wells under your tables)…
Whether it's the food, the sake or the heat rising from the charcoal grill, you are likely to leave Tamayura well warmed. Enhanced by the pleasure of having spent an hour or two in such a simple classic setting, with such excellent period details...
To round things off, some more menu details: for those who enjoy sake and good food (and can read the kanji) this is music to the eyes…
Currently (Jan.4), the Japan Times online version is lacking the full address/phone/data. Until that gets sorted out, here are the vital details:
Tamayura, 2-4-4 Ueno, Taito-ku, Tokyo; 050-5796-3001; r.gnavi.co.jp/a827304/
• Open 5-11 p.m.; closed Sunday & holidays
• Nearest subway stations: Yushima (Chiyoda Line); Ueno-Hirokoji (Ginza Line)
• What works: Classic architecture; cheerful ambiance.
• What doesn't: Apart from the counter, all seats are on tatami.
• Smoking permitted.
• Cost per person: figure around ¥3,000 (plus drinks).
• Japanese menu; a little English spoken.
NB: Tamayura will reopen after the New Year holiday from Jan. 7.
Tamayura is run by the Yumemania company, which operates a growing stable of restaurants and bars, almost all of them in old wooden buildings that have been restored, converted and brought back to life. This is a great project, made even more worthwhile by the level of enthusiasm — invariably the staff are excellent, cheerful and skilled — and an appreciation for real food offered at highly affordable prices. A round of applause!
A few years ago, I wrote a New Year column focusing on miso, and the best place in Tokyo to buy it — Sano Miso, out in Kameido on the eastern fringes of the city.