Socializing with Niigata’s Friendly Folk


The friendliness of the regular folk in Niigata’s eating and drinking establishments always impresses my friends from afar when they hang out with me in Niigata. Delightful exchanges of thoughts, feelings, and customs develop naturally in the izakaya (Japanese-style taverns with excellent food), traditional and modern restaurants, bars, and coffee shops across Niigata City.

Therefore, when a visitor from Tokyo recently came to town, we decided to embark on a night-hopping tour of Niigata’s traditional and Western eating and drinking establishments that would conclude in Furumachi. The ambiance of the Furumachi (meaning old town) area always blows away my guests.

First on our hop was Gotokuya Jube Café for appetizers, aperitifs, and chats with locals and the café owner’s cats. Owner Fumi Wada and her cats promote a casual, relaxing atmosphere in which conversations develop naturally between strangers. The café is on the first floor of a building in Honchodori, a short walk to Furumachi.

We asked Fumi about the displayed photographs of modern-day women dressed like oiran, high-ranking courtesans from hundreds of years ago. In response, she invited us to tour the second floor of her building to view an uncountable collection of colorful kimonos and props and a photo studio. Besides running the café, Fumi also prepares Japanese and foreigners to wear kimonos, makeup, and hairstyles and arranges for photo sessions.

Immediately after this impromptu tour, we enjoy scrumptious Japanese hors d’oeuvres back in the cafe. I opted for a glass of hot Niigata-brewed sake for my drink. I don’t remember the brand, but it was as pleasant as the surroundings. One of the café’s cats charmed me, rubbing against my leg and purring contentedly.

While enjoying our light repast, two women playing a Japanese board game asked our nationalities. They were the first of the friendly regular customers we met. After that, more started entering and greeting us. Fumi was holding a cosplay event later that evening. I was curious and thought about staying longer, but a reserved dinner was waiting at the following location.

So, we hopped toward the strangely named Ebinohige (meaning shrimp beard). It is an elegant Furumachi izakaya with a rustic wooden interior that evokes Niigata’s countryside farmhouses. One of my friends had reserved an enormous sashimi plate that included an indescribably delicious mixture of tuna, shrimp, squid, and others that I cannot recall now—the result of drinking more excellent Niigata sake, which a knowledgeable stranger recommended. I do remember the soft, flavorful sashimi melting in my mouth

Our next stop was Bar Faro, an exceptional bar showcasing a mastery of the cocktail-making craft and bar etiquette. Kai San, the bartender, wearing a perfectly straight bowtie, was holding a silvery stainless shaker when I walked in. He looked like a high-class bartender in a James Bond film. We sat at the beautifully polished wooden counter. Lights glitter on multicolored bottles of alcohol ranging from absinthe to whiskeys worldwide. I felt like we were in a museum of mixology. While Kai carved ice cubes with a knife, he asked what sorts of cocktails we liked and told us about his bartending experience. We learned that he had won an all-Japan cocktail competition in 2009.

Impressed, I decided on a Manhattan cocktail, a drink I love, but finding a well-made one is rare. However, the flavors of the whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters were perfectly balanced. It brought back memories of the Manhattans my uncle from New York used to serve at family gatherings.

The lady beside me asked the bartender if he could make a cocktail with Japanese sake. He gave her several choices before finally concocting a lovely beverage she loved. This lady was curious about my Manhattan, and so was I about her cocktail. Spontaneously, we agreed to taste each other’s drinks.

My friend and I planned to stay for just one drink and hop somewhere else, but the bar was so comfortable, the cocktails so tasty, and the conversations so enchanting that we stayed for three drinks. Finally, we embarked on an evening walking tour of the historic buildings in the narrow, lively alleys of Furumachi. After a while, I heard someone behind me in an out-of-breath voice say, “Excuse me.” I turned and saw one of the bar staff. He had been searching for us to give me the phone I had left at Bar Faro. His action exemplifies the incredible lengths the Japanese go to accommodate customers.

Here are some tips from a seasoned ex-pat to assist you in having social experiences at Niigata izakayas. First, sit at the counter to enjoy the food preparation, ask the chefs for recommendations, and nod in a friendly manner to other diners. Then, offer the chef or chefs a glass of beer or sake. They will appreciate the offer and often reciprocate with unique off-the-menu dishes. Don’t be shy. If people around you want to speak to you, pour them some of your beer or sake. Forget about language differences. Use body language. Suddenly, you’ll be interacting with the locals. Have a great time. Kanpai!

Written by Greg Goodmacher

Written by Greg Goodmacher
After living in five countries and traveling to about twenty-five countries, I have settled in Japan. Deep snows, refreshing Japanese sake, ancient customs blended with modern technology, regional cuisines, fantastic arts and crafts, unique traditions, and magical festivals combine to create a country that fascinates me so much that I may never return to my home country, the US. Japanese onsens, in particular, have a hold on me. So far, I have bathed in more than six hundred locations between Hokkaido and Okinawa.