Since their days as humble liquor shops during the Edo era, izakaya have undergone an intriguing evolution—whether they're in Tokyo or Hong Kong
Izakayas are often referred to as “Japanese pubs” and, although they look rather different from British watering holes, they also started out as places that sold alcohol. “Izakayas were originally sakaya (liquor shops),” says Japanese sake writer Madoka Numata. “In the Edo era [1603-1868], some of the sakaya started to let their customers to drink sake in the house, and gradually they also served food to accompany the sake.” Within the word izakaya itself, "i" means to stay, "zaka" is a form of the word "sake" and "ya" is a house.
From a retail liquor store, they became places where people could stay and drink. “They are casual places where food is served in small plates for sharing, tapas-style,” adds Tokyo-based food and sake writer Melinda Joe.
Shun Sato, head chef of new Hong Kong izakaya Fukuro explains that, at their core, izakayas are “democratic public spaces where talking loudly and being drunk are encouraged and facilitated, which is something outside of the norm for Japanese society.” In this sense, he continues, izakayas are an equaliser, where it doesn’t matter if you are a boss or a worker or a labourer. “Anyone can come into the space regardless of what you do,” he says. “A good izakaya should feel like a second home.”
In Tokyo, as well as other cities around Japan, izakayas with a modern edge are becoming more popular, not unlike the gastropub revolution of the United Kingdom in the 1990s, where better food, drinks and décor brought in a more cosmopolitan crowd and made pubs cool again. The trend is widely believed to have started with The Eagle, a pub in London acquired by David Eyre and Mike Belben in 1991, which made the good food just as important as the drinks. Today, there are gastropubs worthy of Michelin stars—The Hand and Flowers in the town of Marlow, northwest of London, has two.
“I think it mirrors the global trend toward fine-casual dining. It probably has to do with the boom in the 90s, after the [economic] bubble burst, when more people were looking for reasonable places to eat that offered good quality. I associate modern izakaya more with design than with types of food served. Having said that, though, there are some more modern izakayas that serve more fusion food,” Joe says.
“Anyone can come into the space regardless of what you do. A good izakaya should feel like a second home.”—Shun Sato, Fukuro
Sato’s father runs a classic izakaya in Sendai, northeast of Tokyo, but Fukuro, with its t-shirt and denim-clad waiters, sleek timber and concrete interiors and cool subterranean feel, is decidedly modern.
In preparation for Fukuro’s opening, Sato, along with Ho Lee Fook’s Jowett Yu, who acts as Fukuro’s executive chef, plus Chris Mark and Syed Asim Hussain of Black Sheep Restaurants, the group behind Fukuro, visited Tokyo for a research trip. The trip included stops at several modern izakayas, such as Kan in Meguro, an izakaya with thoroughly minimalist concrete and timber interiors. There, they discovered dishes such as eel sashimi lightly charred to order with binchotan, or techniques such as finishing a classic simmered fish nitsuke with butter for extra fragrance.
“Classic izakaya have been offering a range of dishes for a long time, to varying degrees of success, that can feel like a mashup of cuisines,” says Joe. “Places like Kan offer a step up in terms of refinement and decor”.
Sato believes that what they’re doing at Fukuro is less about trends and more about creating an atmosphere they themselves would enjoy. “We don’t really believe in trends.”
Sato explains, “I think when we came up with Fukuro, we distilled down what izakayas meant to us into some basic elements. Everything has been chosen to be part of the story we are telling. This continues into the menu, for example with our sashimi, we treat and cure each fish we get differently, we first think about the natural flavour and then how we can elevate it."
Being outside of Japan presents even more opportunities for innovation. Sato says that Fukuro is a place that “will feel like a familiar experience [when compared to an izakaya in Tokyo], but we wanted to create an izakaya for our city, not just a copy of something from Tokyo, partly in terms of the produce we use. We buy locally when we can – for example, our spinach is grown in the New Territories – but [it is even more localised] in terms of the people. Restaurants are always an extension of the teams behind them and myself, Jow, Chris and Asim have all made Hong Kong our home and created Fukuro to serve our city.”
Fukuro, G/F, 1-5 Elgin Street, Central, Hong Kong