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sake shibuya

Bustling Shibuya has in many ways become modern Tokyo’s most emblematic district. Its famous “scramble crossing” intersection – so-called, we imagine, out of a mixture of affection and exasperation – has in itself become a global Tokyo icon. Yet as sensory-bombarding as the junk food outlets, striking fashion choices and camera-happy throngs are, the fringes reveal an entirely different side to this area.

Less than three minutes’ walk from the crowds lies a quieter street. Here, a modern yet simple wooden storefront blends seamlessly into its surroundings. Some passers-by might never notice the little sake bar called Kiyoi (formerly called Kinari), but for those who do pause to peek through the small, slatted window, the interior reveals a scene reminiscent of someone’s kitchen. A counter, lined with large bowls of daily dishes, snakes across the room in front of cluttered shelves of mismatched crockery and a refrigerated cabinet brimming with bottles of sake.

sake shibuya“I wasn’t initially interested in sake,” confesses the owner, Yuri Murai, who is quick to recommend a bottle with a smile. “Japanese home-style cooking is being eaten less and less at home nowadays, so I wanted to offer Japanese home-cooking which people could eat and feel relaxed. Sake is part of Japanese culture, and I thought customers would love to enjoy it alongside Japanese food. So that’s how it all started.”

Initially training as a beautician, she was inspired by her grandparents who ran a longstanding eatery to head into the restaurant business. After working part-time at a couple of places, she secured a space on the second floor of Kiyoi’s present location where she opened an izakaya, a traditional Japanese bar with small dishes, in late 2013. There, for over three years, she set about studying cooking, devouring both books and menus of similar eateries to learn her new trade.

Yet the space was a sublet, which pushed up the cost of the monthly rent. Yuri also began to long for an easy-to-use space that she could design from the start. Equally important was room for a large refrigerated cabinet, where she could store a greater selection of sake.

Last year, while pregnant, the first floor beneath her izakaya suddenly became vacant. Yuri took the plunge, and began renovating what was a yakitori (grilled chicken) shop to create the ideal space. Kiyoi was born, opening only two nights a week while she juggled parenting and her property business (in the years since first opening the izakaya, she had qualified as a real estate broker and became the director of a real estate company). Now she’s joined by Tomomi Seki, a sake consultant, writer and advisor, and together the pair make Kiyoi a cozy home, one that’s open four to five days a week.

“That’s how I learned,” she says of frank comments she receives about the food and sake.

Echoing a Spanish tapas bar, most of Kiyoi’s daily dishes are on full display along the counter. The menu is simple and changes depending on the week and season. Our latest visit fell on a sticky and humid day in July, so we began our evening with marinated octopus and summer vegetables, after receiving a fervent recommendation from a gentleman to our left. Yuri selected a fresh and crisp unpasteurized sake from Miyagi Prefecture in the north to accompany our choice, and its clean finish made it dangerously drinkable.

The food line-up on the day of our visit also featured a potato salad, in which salty chunks of pork belly were balanced by strips of sweet pickled kombu (kelp), unleashing waves of umami. Then there was stewed chicken, so succulent that it fell away too temptingly from the bone, and lightly grilled shiitake mushrooms, enhanced by a lick of soy sauce. There was also gyusuji – stewed beef tendons in sweet sake and soy sauce – topped with spring onions, a worthy challenge to the bolder, heavier sake that it was paired with.

Meanwhile, along the counter, a sake debate was underway. A sweeter kind was suddenly placed before us, courtesy of a customer wishing to expand the scope of our palates.

sake shibuya

Kiyoi is clearly a place where sake lovers can discuss the alcohol to their hearts’ content – or to the bottom of their cups. Expert or novice, everyone is welcome to proffer an opinion. Advice and tips bounce back and forth, and Yuri equally asks for feedback to guide her menu. “That’s how I learned,” she says of frank comments she receives about the food and sake. “In fact, I’m still studying.”

This collaboration between customers and host, whether it’s Yuri or Tomomi, only adds to the homey atmosphere. That is exactly Yuri’s intention. “It is absolutely not a store where I prioritize profits, but rather, I want to build a warm atmosphere where lots of people gather.”

The path ahead may be challenging – Yuri points to the fact that only 5 percent of eating and drinking establishments are said to last more than 10 years in Japan. “It’s hard to maintain a business, not just in the food and drink industry. But I’m going to do my utmost so that Kiyoi continues for a long time.”

With the mayhem of Shibuya just a stone’s throw away, may it forever be a relaxing refuge.

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Published on August 21, 2018

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