Birioza is a small bar tucked away down an alley from the Kamagawa River, and a place you may just pass by if you’re not careful enough to notice it. Make sure you do notice it, though, as this has honestly been one of my favorite bars in Utsunomiya so far.
First off, let me introduce myself a little bit. I am incredibly stingy. I think ordering a beer (unless it’s special or craft or so) at a bar is crazy, because you first need to pay a cover charge (most of the time) to drink that overpriced beer you could just buy in the supermarket and drink literally almost anywhere else (unlike the US, it is perfectly legal to drink out in public in Japan). I often get ticked at bars for making pay a 500 yen (or so) cover just to be a customer in their store (get off your high horse, bars), even though I receive some little dish of stir-fried bean sprouts (pretty much the cheapest vegetable out there in the Japanese supermarket industry) or whatever.
Birioza, like most places, has a 500 yen cover charge–but I have absolutely no qualms about that whatsoever. So that’s saying something.
Now as to the why I am at peace with letting go of the big gold coin:
First, the food the bartender Mr. Nakamura serves is actually quite nice. It’s oden and comprised mostly of kamaboko (basically the Japanese fish version of a hot dog)–which to those who know me, may sound like I’m being sarcastic. I’m not, and this even surprises me, because I’m very vocal about my distaste for kamaboko (the taste doesn’t match the texture which doesn’t match the color–it’s just a big clump of over-processed fish). But it was actually somewhat enjoyable to eat the way he prepares it. I had come in after eating dinner, so I wasn’t hungry for anything more, but he says he makes a mean karaage (fried chicken)–to the extent that he has a customer who comes all the way from Tokyo just to eat it on occasion.
I just ordered one drink for the night, which was like an intense Kahlua milk (which he rightly warned me to drink slowly). The bar doesn’t have the widest variety of drinks on the menu, but it does have the basics and a few of his own creations.
Next is Mr. Nakamura himself. He has been running the bar for 24 years, and while he originally hails from Wakkanai (the northernmost tip of Japan), he has lived in various parts of the country for his jobs leading up to what he’s doing now. And he’s just interesting to talk to. His customers include people who went on to be famous magicians, doctors, high ranking company employees, and foreigners who come from Seattle, Florida, and Hong Kong. He’s a very open person and treats you with respect and interest. He looks out for his customers as well–which is probably why he has a large amount of female clientele. On the subject, he says,
“I have a lot of female clients–really, all sorts. There are some days when they even come in crying. And then there are some men, and especially if they’re drunk, who see that there are a lot of women in this bar and try to come in and cause a scene. I need to look out for my customers who are already here, so I just tell those men to leave.”
I told him my name only once, and he remembered it for the whole evening (I, on the other hand, wasn’t too sure of his name–despite it being incredibly basic and common–after about 30 minutes). This is pretty impressive, since most Japanese people aren’t too accustomed to Western names besides perhaps the traditional, most common ones.
In addition to his personableness, he also is a minor performer. He has been practicing magic for about 10 years and will perform a couple tricks if you ask (and he might even tell you the secrets of how to do it). He will tell your fortune and personality based on your birthday according to an Indian method.
And finally, despite being over 50, he is still keeping up with the times. “My hair is thinning, so while I still have it, I stick it straight up all fashionable-like.”
Overall, Mr. Nakamura is an A+ bartender at a promising hole in the wall.
Hours of Operation: 5:00 pm – 03:00 am