Atsushi meets you at the appointed hour at Mizukuchi shokudo, the family restaurant run by his family since before there were family restaurants. He speaks softly and shyly. But he doesn’t speak much. He says, If you want to ask about this place, you should really talk to my mum. She knows a lot more than me. He introduces you to her, and returns to his kitchen and his three or so fellow cooks. It’s 10.30am, and getting busy.
Atsushi’s mum’s name is Hatsune, and her father opened Mizukuchi in 1950. I’ll be with you in a minute, she says. She is in her white chef’s smock, dusting off the customers’ bottle-keep liquor by the frosted window. You can keep your own shochu or whisky here for up to two months. The only charge is when you buy the bottle from Mizukuchi.
He looked at you a little warily. Territorially. Not aggressively. Protectively.
A lanky older customer is already having a drink at the big central table. You caught his eye as you came in. He looked at you a little warily. Territorially. Not aggressively. Protectively. A waitress gives you a cup of tea and indicates for you to sit and relax until Hatsune is free.
Such a comfortable room, you could get protective about it too. Sort of like a dine-in kitchen at home, if your home was really big, and your neighbours came over from the morning to drink shochu and eat and watch TV, and maybe your mum served them grilled mackerel with pickles and miso soup and some sweet simmered seaweed. Or niku-doufu, rich sukiyaki-style beef and tofu in a hotpot.
The telly is high on the wall. Sumo and horse-racing, or the news. There’s always some bustle. The decor is drink posters, and menu items on hanging strips. You don’t want much more. A big terracotta haniwa doll by the bottle-keep, watching over everything. Hatsune says, My husband brought that back from Kyushu, about 40 years ago.
She works the floor along with a few other staff. It can be a big job. There’s upstairs as well, the whole place seats about a hundred and is busiest at weekends, with the tourists and the locals with their racing guides. The daughter helps out.
Hatsune says, She says Mum we should do something about the smoking. We should maybe outlaw it at least at lunchtime. Hatsune looks at you. I must think what to do, she says. Foreigners especially dislike it, right? You say you don’t really care, but you know many Japanese who don’t like it either. Yes I know, she says. But it’s so hard. When a customer asks, Can I smoke here and I tell them, Yes, their faces become so happy. Me? she says. No, never. Don’t smoke, don’t drink. But these days women come in and have a drink. She speaks quietly, Take this woman here.…
The waitress said Welcome, and the old lady said in a loud voice, I haven’t got any teeth!
As you’ve been talking, a tiny elderly woman wearing an apron has sat nearby on the banquette. The waitress said Welcome, and the old lady said in a loud voice, I haven’t got any teeth! So give me something soft! By the time Hatsune points her out she has polished off a large plate of curry rice and is getting through a serve of niku-doufu in an iron cauldron. Hatsune says, Like this woman, she’ll come in of an evening and have a black beer as well. She’s quite amazing for her age. But I have to keep an eye on her, in case she falls over.
Business has gotten better with the Tsukuba Express line and Skytree, says Hatsune. But it was tough for a while. It used to be, thousands of people would come down the street out there, once the movies let out. Before they went off to Yoshiwara, hahaha, or cabaret. There were 10 theatres along the street. I guess about 300 people at each theatre. That was until about 1975. Then the theatres closed and everything went quiet. Until recently.
You wonder if, like fashion making a retro comeback, younger people might rediscover the uncontrived quality of Mizukuchi. As opposed to what most people think of as a family restaurant. The fish here is always on. The atmosphere has grown organically. It’s no surprise Mizukuchi has longstanding ties with a quality Tsukiji supplier. The maguro sashimi is a specialty.
Hatsune says, Some customers tell us we should advertise that we make all our food here, because these days so many restaurants buy their food pre-made. We make our hamburgers, and potato salad and nuka-zuke pickles by ourselves. People say we should make a boast of it. But it’s just what I grew up with. I never thought it was worth mentioning.
Mizukuchi shokudo is at 2-4-9 Asakusa, Taito-ku tel 03-3844-2725 Open 1000–2130 (last order 2100) Closed Wednesdays