Iseya (いせや) a Filthy Kichijoji Institution

Hi there. Remember me? I haven't written/posted since the earthquake. No, it wasn't because I was scarred physically or emotionally; it was because I am colossally lazy. And yeah... this one wasn't even written by me, it was written by David Z. Morris who blogs at \\Minds Like Knives//, over 6 months ago when he still resided in Japan. Anyhow, it's mid-winter and I thought it'd be nice to finally post something with a more summer feel to help keep you warm during your non-insulated, concrete tenement sucking in cold air, Tokyo winter. Do enjoy, please.

If this blog has any message (beside the obvious one that drinking is great and you should introduce your children to it at an early age) it’s that Western images of Japan as a wonderland of shiny hyper-tech and gleaming elevated highways are spectacularly misguided. If you want to burn those myths from your mind, I doubt there’s a more large-scale, spectacular way to do it than Iseya.  This two-story yakitori – well, tent, really – has been around since 1928, and apparently hasn’t been cleaned since (and that includes the staff’s uniforms, which  consist of standard issue sweatpants, white t-shirt, and towel-around-the-head).  It’s like your own little piece of Jakarta right in Kichijoji.

Any American health inspector would walk two feet into this place before trying to shut it down, but he’d have an aneurysm halfway through the paperwork.  The runner over the entryway to the main dining hall is black at the bottom from decades of scalp oils soaking into it bit by bit.  The roof over the main dining area is the kind of plastic waffle you’d build a shed out of.  We were seated on the second floor right next to a broken section of roof, and leaves, bird droppings, and god knows what else were collected on a platform conveniently tilted ever so slightly towards our food.  This is where a large section of roof had been jury-rigged with a tarp.  It looked like the tarp had been there for a while.

Whether because of its shittiness or despite it, people love this place.  It seats over 100 people, but still we actually had to queue up for about ten minutes to get in.  But it’s more than just busy – when Iseya opened up a new, clean, fancy store on the other side of Kichijoji, there was a minor revolt on Mixi and they ended up keeping both locations.  Part of the secret is location – Iseya is right next to Inokashira Park, one of Tokyo’s best, so you can get takeout yakitori and go watch a puppet show or professional manga reading (if you’re lucky).  But the place itself has a great atmosphere, too, public and loud and rowdy.  I was kind of reminded of the big open-air dancehalls around Austin, Texas, except of course that there was no band (Iseya, you can have that idea for free!)

I’ve been to Iseya twice now, and the provisions were mixed.  The first night everything was way above-average, with crisp gyoza and great yakitori, with a truly hand-made vibe that would definitely justify people’s passion.  This week I went back and the gyoza were so oily I only ate one, and the yakitori was okay, but not a jump-out.  We got a nice fresh tomato and some great homemade pickles, though, so maybe the gyoza were just bad luck the second time around.

And maybe they would have been better with the bird shit.

- David Z. Morris

So there you are, Iseya is a dump, but our sort of dump. I was surprised to find that they had an official website, and that it's a lot nicer than the restaurant itself... Sign of the times, I suppose.

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