Had I known it was the last time I’d be sleeping in a bed for the next 10 weeks, I would have enjoyed the moment more. I found myself at 5 a.m. wide awake staring at the ceiling in my small hotel room in Amami City. It still hadn’t hit me how much different Amami is than the Japanese mainland.
The yakitoriya was an small place with old men smoking and drinking bottles of shochu while watching American sports on a tiny TV over the bar. We sat on a tatami and tucked into lots of yakitori and a bottle of shochu. The strangest food was cod intestines in Korean red pepper sauce. Goes great with shochu once you ignore what you're eating.
Izakaya Honda Ya is a gem in an unlikely place. It sits on the 3rd floor of a shopping mall in Little Tokyo just east of Downtown LA. When the taxi dropped us off we thought we had the wrong address. There's nothing on the outside to suggest an izakaya awaits inside, but we went into the mall full of closed up boutiques, and took the escalators to the 2nd floor. From there we saw the neon Kirin Beer sign and a gaudy neon “open” sign beckoning to us from the level above.
There are few places in New York City where you legitimately feel like you could be sitting in Tokyo. Most places are either too big or too small or the proportions of the space are just off in some subtle way. Perhaps there's a Latino bus boy or English signage. There's almost always something that gives away that we're in the U.S. At Tori Shin you have to look very, very closely and the evidence only appeared in early 2012.
Essentially an izakaya is a Japanese tavern. But it's also Japanese tapas. And it's a Japanese gastropub. So perhaps the way to think of an izakaya is as a Japanese gastro-tapas-pub. Don't plan on having a 45 minute meal before a movie. Don't plan on going and having a starter, a main, and a dessert. Go planning on having a long, lingering meal over good drinks and better conversation with a group of great friends. Make an evening of it. Once you're in that mindset the rest is easy.
As you climb the stairs you hear the buzz of happy diners. More than likely before you reach the top of the stairs you're met with a line of waiting customers, red Kirin lanterns hanging overhead. Squeeze to the top and you enter the large multi-roomed dining hall of Village Yokocho.