Chichukai Uomaru チチュウカイウオマル
Tokyo, Shinjuku-ku, Kagurazaka 3-2
Open every day. Mon-Fri 5pm-5am; Sat 3pm-5am; Sun 3pm-11.30pm
Price range: count on 3,500 to 4,000 Yen for a meal per person. Draft beer is 600 Yen.
Tel: 03 5206 7178
The Kagurazaka slope in northern Shinjuku can look back at quite some history. In Edo times, this was an important area of temples, shrines and - closely related - erotic entertainment. The place was packed with geisha guesthouses at the time.
Today, the area is a major tourist attraction. The back alleys still retain plenty of historic buildings, definitely worth seeing. The main thoroughfare, Kagurazaka-dori, running from Iidabashi Station to Kagurazaka Station (Tozai subway line), offers lots of restaurants.
But as it goes with major tourist areas, they go tepid over time. The buildings on Kagurazaka-dori are new, most restaurants are Western style. The food is good, soft jazz is the sound, smoke-free the rule and it all feels a bit like a street you would want to take your grandmother to when she visits Tokyo.
That is until you hit Chichukai Uomaru. Freshly cut off tuna heads and other assorted seafood sit on the shelves outside, the sounds coming out from the restaurant are more likely to be Jimi Hendrix riffs or Ramones rock.
The place is open towards the street and you can see right from the sidewalk that this place is different. It looks rough. Like an old-fashioned fish market joint taken over by a punk rock gang.
Vintage bare light bulbs light the place, the walls are wooden planks on which a great variety of specials are pinned. Smoking is permitted at all seats.
Every table is equipped with a gas cooker and once you sit down, the day's tsukidashi will be prepared on it. The welcome dish you get without ordering. It's different every day but in the most cases some sort of shellfish or shrimp.
Chichukai Uomaru can be roughly translated to "Mediterranean Fish Boat". It doesn't mean that this is an Italian restaurant in any way. The dishes on offer originate from a wide variety of Mediterranean cuisines fused with the dishes traditionally served at Japanese fish market eateries.
Raw sea urchin (in Japan usually served as a sushi topping) comes here with hot garlic bread. Delicious.
Koujun Saito is one of the waiters and his background very much reflects what this place is about. He used to live in Greece for a few years, he said, and his sister lives in Istanbul. He visits her there sometimes.
He still remembers the days of the old Galata Bridge crossing the Golden Horn in Istanbul. On the lower level of that bridge used to be lots of great fish restaurants - fusing Western Mediterranean and Turkish cooking. Places just like this one here - bridging cultures and creating new culinary experiences.
While there is a set menu, of course, much of what's on offer at any given day depends on what was on offer at the fish markets. The Chichukai doesn't buy at Tsukiji, Tokyo's famous fish market, but rather directly from the fishing cooperatives further afield in the local markets.
So, studying the many flyers pinned to the wall is an essential part of the Chichukai experience. Fried shark? Only on offer today.
The food ranges across pretty much everything the sea has to offer but some meat dishes are also available. Some dishes consisting purely of vegetables might even keep a vegetarian happy.
One of the stranger items permanently offered via flyers on the wall is Maguro Sawa A. As there is a drawing of a tuna on the flyers, unsuspecting foreigners might mistake that for a dish. In fact, it's an alcoholic drink with tuna fish eggs in it. Only served here.
But just when you lean back and think you discovered a totally unique place here - and ask the wait staff for just that tiny little more piece of information - like, who actually owns the place, you will learn that the Tokyo restaurant world is a lot more complicated than you thought.
There are actually three Chichukai Uomaru in Tokyo. One in Ebisu, one in Shinagawa and the one here on Kagurazaka. They are all the brainchild of Yoshinori Hamakura.
Hamakura started out as a helping hand in a gyoza (meat dumpling) shop in his youth and has worked his way up to his current position as vice president of the Nippon Izakaya Association.
His main concern is to bring life back to areas that turn dead at night and he does so by opening izakaya pubs right where he feels they are needed. To provide a meeting place for the neighborhood, to provide a place to go after dark.
They are not any old izakaya, though. Hamakura considers them "projects" - with an artistic idea behind each one of them.
In the case of the Chichukai on Kagurazaka, he must have had a sort of CBGBs of seafood on mind. He certainly brought a cool place to a great old area in acute danger of getting suffocated by the proliferation of sterile tourist shops.