Aoba Oden Machi/Aoba Park Oden Alley/Town
Having spent 36 years eating and drinking my way through Shizuoka City, I suddenly felt last summer in need of a “kakureya/隠れ屋”, that is, a secret place or lair where I could go any time of the day (and late afternoon) without worrying about making encounters of the unwanted kind while indulging with a drink and a bite.
A typical dark broth Shizuoka oden!
Bars or restaurants just wouldn’t fit the bill (in many ways!). Too many people, too many ears, too many known and unknown….
What I needed was a small and cozy place patronized by similar-minded customers.
Quite difficult in Shizuoka, or anywhere else in Japan… a country where secrets can’t be kept safe later than the next morning….
Aoba Oden Machi/Aoba Park Oden Alley/Town before opening time in mid-afternoon.
Oden are comfort food that you can find in any city in Japan, but Shizuoka boasts the largest number of oden shops, restaurants serving them on a regular basis in the whole country. It has been consumed and served there since Edo Times (1600~) and it regularly appears on TV shows, magazines and the like in spite of its humble origins. In English it is sometimes translated as “Japanese hot pot”.
Oden in the rest of Japan are usually served at outdoors food stands or in izakayas.
Although you can find oden in no less than 300 officially recognized izakaya and waterholes in Shizuoka City, our town has a particularity nowhere else found in Japan: Oen Yokocho/おでん横丁/Oden Alleys!
Aoba Oden Machi/Aoba Park Oden Alley/Town in the early evening.
There are only two in town (there are other alleys called “yokocho” but the establishments are more varied including izakayas, yakitori and so on) but they are known all over the country to the point that it is quite usual to meet customers coming as far as Tokyo on week-ends, or on Monday and Friday nights after business meetings and visits!
Aoba Oden Machi/Aoba Park Oden Alley/Town has a history of its own.
The oden food stands were ercted outdoors in Aoba Koen/Aoba Park Street in Aoi Ku until early 1960. And there were many of them!
But in early 1960 the city hygiene laws were changed and all the food stands were ordered to vacate the area.
Some moved to form the Yokocho on the other side of the crossroads with Showa Sttreet. This particular saw a half being renovated this year. Although the food and the atmosphere is the same inside the shops (see pictures later in this article), only half of it has preserved its unique cachet although that might might disappear in the near future. And out of 18, two are more izakayas than odenya.
On the other hand, 21 food stands owners moved to Aoba Oden Machi/Aoba Park Oden Alley/Town.
At that time they were not using gas to heat the oden but charcoal or sumi/墨 in Japanese.
The sumiya/墨屋 who was selling them his charcoal proposed them to move to his property which he transformed into an alley housing 21 (the 22nd is used as a storeroom) small shops and washroom facilities.
Each shop sits between 6 and 9 customers depending on the configuration,
Although the whole place has turned into a real time slip there is little danger of seeing it modernized soon thanks to its national fame!
And the interesting thing is that they all take their holiday on the same day, namely Wednesday!
All of them have a large noren/暖簾/entrance curtain in front of the glass-paned sliding door upper halves to preserve the privacy of the customers inside
Although all shops will serve oden, some will serve only oden while others will also serve “home-made” food by the owners who could be owned a single (in number!) lady, a single gentleman, two ladies or two gentlemen or a couple!
Usually when an owner retires the place is immediately taken over by a former customer or younger person in search of a small establishment!
I prefer the kind that serves true oden with a little extra home-made food for better balance and a little personal touch.
Oden only can become pretty heavy on the system, especially with all the drinks.
Actually the food served in any odenya is a clear indication of the owner and customers’ characters!
The modernized entrance to the “crossroads yokocho”.
Now, how did I choose “my” odenya (once you have chosen one, there is little point in visiting another one in the same alley for many reasons) among the 21 available in Aoba Oden Machi/Aoba Park Oden Alley/Town?
Well, I mentioned that I wanted oden and a little more, which already took care of half of them. I also preferred one held by a single lady (not for the reasons you might think of!) and my “kind of customers”. Moreover, although I would go there by myself, there would be times when I would take somebody else with me (again not for the reasons you might think of!).
For a closer view of the modernized entrance to the “crossroads yokocho” in daytime.
As I said, there are only 21 of them but I still walked slowly around the whole place three times before venturing inside one!
The clinching reason why I chose that particular odenya (whose name I will not tell you!) was that the customers were half ladies, half gentlemen, a sure sign of the balance I was looking for.
A male-only clientele can be very boring whereas that of a different gender can be too noisy and nosey (nice pun, wasn’t it?!
An odenya early in late afternoon inside the renovated part of the “crossroads yokocho”
I was actually quite lucky in my choice as it is not always the case that ladies came in equal numbers.
I found out quickly enough that the great majority of the customers were regulars, ladies and gentlemen alike, but also that they were of very similar mind in spite of their vastly different fields and occupations.
They (the “mama san” included) all shared a love for good intelligent talk (craic-loving Irish would love the place!), good homey food, and better drinks, be they sake, shochu, beer and even wine (yes, you read true!).
The traditional entrance of the “crossroads yokocho”
Regulars include two fluent English speaking ladies (did I tell you not to ask nonsensical questions? LOL), a long course fisherman, a company boss, a famous restaurant owner, company executives, city and prefecture officials, a few “mama san”, an architect, a media man, a media lady, salesmen and salesladies, a foreigner (who, you may ask?) and so and so on.
I can assure that on some days the conversations can be really lively!
A nation-famous odenya at the traditional entrance of the “crossroads yokocho” (not my cup of tea, though)
It is a little microcosm of the better side of the Japanese society. In one of the safest cities of an exceptionally safe country, no one worries to swallow one too many drinks. One leaves his/her bag on her stool when going to the washroom. Everyone sits elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder without undue discomfort. One can share some very useful information thanks to the variety of the customers who would not do so in other establishments.
The renovated inside half of the “crossroads yokocho”
Another reason why everyone feels comfortable is because the “Mama san” is the rare one to refuse all interviews from magazines or TV’s in spite of insistent requests! Almost all the other establishments have appeared in some magazines, TV shows or on the Internet. This is another reason why I will not reveal any names.
Mind you, if you are a good friend who understands “the rules” I’ll be only too happy to take you there!
The traditional inside half of the “crossroads yokocho”
Another aspect of this particular secret and sacred (nothing to do with religion!) odenya is that most customers, e,g, the “regulars or jorem/常連” as they say in Japanese, are active and busy people who do move a lot in the prefecture, country and even abroad. We must be an exception, but I’m sure you will find your own crowd! Some of us regularly come with all kinds of “miyage/土産”, mostly food and drinks, and share them with the Mama san (who does the same more than often) and other customers. That may include sushi, sake, shochu, dry food, even fish sashimi!
I personally bring all kinds of sake I report on! I usually pay only an “agreed token” of 500 yen every time I come, although the Mama san refused any money at first due to all the sake I was bringing her (she drinks a lot of it and I insisted that she asked her own money for it when she served it to “non-regulars”!)! The company boss regularly brings wine for all to drink!
Now, I belatedly realized that I’m patronizing that particular odenya a bit too often…
But I already have decided which other one to patronize inside the “Crossroads Yokocho” at a convenient distance from the Aoba Oden Machi/Aoba Park Oden Alley/Town!
Don’t expect me to reveal its name, either!
RECOMMENDED RELATED WEBSITES
Kraemer’s Culinary blog by Frank Kraemer in New York,Tokyo Food File by Robbie Swinnerton, Green Tea Club by Satoshi Nihonyanagi in Shizuoka!, Mind Some by Tina in Taiwan, Le Manger by Camille Oger (French), The Indian Tourist, Masala Herb by Helene Dsouza in Goa, India, Mummy I Can Cook! by Shu Han in London, Pierre.Cuisine, Francescannotwrite, My White Kitchen, Foodhoe, Chucks Eats, Things that Fizz & Stuff, Five Euro Food by Charles,Red Shallot Kitchen by Priscilla,With a Glass, Nami | Just One Cookbook, Peach Farm Studio, Clumsyfingers by Xethia, PepperBento, Hapabento, Kitchen Cow, Lunch In A Box, Susan at Arkonlite, Vegan Lunch Box; Tokyo Tom Baker, Daily Food Porn/Osaka, Only Nature Food Porn, Happy Little Bento, J-Mama’s Kitchen, Cook, Eat, Play, Repeat, Bento Lunch Blog (German), Adventures In Bento, Anna The Red’s Bento Factory, Ohayo Bento,
Must-see tasting websites:
-Sake: Tokyo Through The Drinking Glass, Tokyo Foodcast, Urban Sake, Sake World
-Wine: Palate To Pen, Warren Bobrow, Cellar Tours, Ancient Fire Wines Blog
-Beer: Good Beer & Country Boys, Another Pint, Please!, Beering In Good Mind: All about Craft Beer in kanzai by Nevitt Reagan!
-Japanese Pottery to enjoy your favourite drinks: Yellin Yakimono Gallery
Non gastronomy must-see sites by Shizuoka Residents
HIGHOCTANE/HAIOKU by Nick Itoh in Shizuoka City