In the early 1900s, steel workers pioneered “kaku-uchi” in Japan. Today, these liquor stores are where local communities across the country gather for drinks.
One chilly day in late December, when most people were busy preparing for the New Year, I walked into a seemingly ordinary store in Kitakyushu, the northernmost city on the Japanese island of Kyushu. Sake no Awaya had the usual appearance of a well-stocked liquor store specializing in sake: the shelves were densely packed with hundreds of carefully arranged bottles, most of which sported brightly colored Japanese lettering.
I walked from the main entrance to the counter of the 75-year-old business in the port area of Moji, once one of Kitakyushu’s industrial hubs, and was greeted by an unexpected image, but one so familiar it seemed like a memory: a group of women and men sat on high stools around the counter, behind which an elegantly dressed bartender poured drinks, collected money and entertained his patrons at the same time.
It reminded me of the scene I usually encounter when I walk into an izakaya ( roughly translates to “Japanese pub”) during one of my regular nighttime perusals through the tangled webs of alleyways scattered throughout cities across Japan.
However, liquor stores that double as bars are known as kaku-uchi , is anything but not uncommon in Kitakyushu; this is where they first appeared, and this medium-sized city is still home to about 100 of them. The term “kaku-uchi” means “to get into a corner” and comes from the local dialect, although it has become a common Japanese word for liquor stores that serve drinks, and even received an entry in one of Japan’s most authoritative dictionaries.
Sake no Awaya looks like a regular liquor store, but inside is a regular bar serving drinks and snacks (Photo: Mara Budgen)
The interesting meaning of kaku-uchi is believed to come from the old practice of drinking sake from square wooden crates known as mass , which were once used to measure portions of rice; people drinking from “cups” of masa in sake shops are depicted in paintings and poems of the Edo period (1603-1867). However, at the turn of the 1900s, more recognizable modern liquor stores and kaku-uti appeared in northern Kyushu.
Their first visitors were the employees of the Yawata Steel Works, Japan’s first modern metallurgical plant, founded in Kitakyushu in 1901. Liquor stores were the only place where workers leaving the night shift could reward their tired bodies with a sip of sake or Japanese shochu . distillate.
“Attending kaku-uchi was part of the identity of these workers,” said Shigehito Yoshida, president of the Kitakyushu Kaku-uchi research group. with 280 members, which organizes events and meetings in liquor stores.
The story goes that when the metallurgists were transferred 800 km northeast to Chiba, they brought the kaku-uti culture with them, spreading it to nearby Tokyo and throughout Japan around the middle of the 20th century.
While kaku-uchis have since evolved – for example, the drink selection has expanded, with some serving cocktails and others serving beer or wine – they have remained true to their proletarian origins. Everyone mixes on an equal footing, and often the fluid arrangement of seating or standing means that all customers gather at the same table or counter, making conversation incredibly easy. Simple snacks are available, including typical dishes including canned and dried foods, pickles and one or Japanese hot pot.
Food options at kaku-uchi are usually simple, like Japanese hot pot (Image credit: Mara Budgen)
Some kaku-outi may offer more sophisticated dishes such as sashimi and fried food, but service is always minimal, and some places even use self-service refrigerators and a payment system where customers put money into a bowl or basket, which is then taken out each time. order.
Twenty years ago, my male colleagues refused to take me, saying that kaku-uchi was only for men
The enduring appeal of kaku-uchi is simple, Yoshida said: They’re cheap and people feel at ease, whether they want to socialize or drink alone. Kaku-uchi Culture Study Group members Kiyomi Ono, Tomoko Ikemoto and Yuki Yoshioka – all women – agreed. And while kaku-uchi is traditionally the purview of men, women are increasingly mixing it up.
“Twenty years ago, my male colleagues refused to take me, saying kaku-uchi was only for men,” said office worker and resident Kitakyushu Ikemoto. Decades later, she finally satisfied her curiosity by recently joining a kaku-uchi group. Yoshioka joined because she is more comfortable drinking in a group than by herself.
The Kitakyushu Kaku-uti Cultural Study Group organizes events and meetings at liquor stores (Image credit: Mara Badjen)
Many kaku-uti also aim to attract a younger clientele. Akiyasu Seki is the owner of Tokyo kaku-uchi Futaba and president of the youth branch of the Tokyo Liquor Retailers Association. The organization, which unites 2,300 liquor stores, promotes sake culture and responsible drinking among young people; and in 2018 he launched Liquor Store Kaku-uchi Festival , one of the most recent editions of which attracted 30,000 participants. Held in Tokyo twice a year. Dozens of the city’s liquor stores have booths where people can sample their products while enjoying food and live music.
Seki explained that kaku-uchi used to be popular in Tokyo, but all but disappeared in the late 1990s and early 2000s when hygiene regulations were tightened, requiring liquor stores to register as restaurants in order to serve food and drinks. . However, they are now experiencing a renaissance. “Historically, liquor stores are places where people exchange information about the neighborhood, and in Tokyo, kaku-uti is becoming more and more a part of society,” he said.
However, Seki noted that while kaku-uti is growing in the capital, its liquor stores are declining and, in fact, “more of them have started kaku-uti businesses to survive.”
Founded in 1934, Uozumi kaku-uchi is located in the Moji area of Kitakyushu (Image credit: Mara Budgen)
In Kitakyushu, liquor stores, and therefore kaku-uti, are also suffering. Uozumi , founded by the Uozumi family in 1934, is tucked away among the gloomy residential buildings in the Moji district, less than 2 km from Sake no Avaya. The wooden interior is a narrow, rectangular space, mostly occupied by the counter, where customers face shelves full of bottles, jewelry and old photos. The remaining walls are plastered with beer posters whose faded, tattered look and retro designs show how long they’ve been there.
I can support myself, but no one will come after me
The owner, Tetsuji Uozumi, a soft-spoken man with a warm smile, showed me and the Kaku-uchi Cultural Study Group tour I had joined a photo of his mother. She used to manage the business, but after her death, Wadzumi was left alone. “I can support myself, but no one will come after me,” he said.
Like Wadzumi, nearly 80% of Kitakyushu’s liquor stores have no successors, according to the research of 2015 , conducted by Yuki Nakashima and Bart Dewanker of the Faculty of Architecture at Kitakyushu University. While the number of liquor stores continued to grow until the 1970s, since then the downward trend has been inexorable due to owners aging and unable to pass on their businesses, as well as competition from other types of liquor retailers such as supermarkets and mini markets. Yoshida estimated that 80 years ago there were twice as many kaku-uti as there are now.
Tetsuji Uozumi has no one to hand his business over to when he retires (Photo: Mara Budgen)
After leaving Wadzumi and saying goodbye to Yoshida and the rest of the group, I met Stephen Lyman co-author of the book ” The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks” , in Fukuoka, a 15-minute bullet train ride from Kitakyushu. Fukuoka is another kaku-uchi hot spot, and Lyman and I talked about his favorite spots like Koba Saketen a shop specializing in sake and wine, which he praised for its friendly atmosphere and good drink selection.
Lyman also recommended stand Todoroki Saketen Yakuin which sells hundreds of varieties of sake, as well as natural wine and craft beer, noting that it is a good place for foreigners visiting kaku-uchi for the first time, as it is especially welcoming to newcomers.
Lyman, who is American, noted that many of the other kaku-uchi are small, local businesses that mostly cater to regular customers. So for those looking to explore this scene (regardless of their chosen location), there are a few things to keep in mind. For example, knowing even a little basic Japanese can help you with this. In addition, many kaku-uti only accept cash, accept only small groups, and have no toilets.
Lyman remains convinced, however, that kaku-uchi are a unique way to learn about Japan’s drinking culture and neighborhood life, and are generally welcoming places. He recalled that Koba was the first kaku-outi he had ever visited, and that he had been pleasantly surprised to find that the store served drinks. Holding a pint of Japanese craft cider, Lyman exclaimed, “Of course you should be able to raise a glass to new and old friends at the liquor store!”