A doorway filled with the charcoal-infused smoke of roasting animal bits. A six-person strong chorus welcoming you, each cook, server, and dishwasher shouting as loud as their lungs will allow. Cheap beer that only comes in 1.3 pint bottles, all the offal you were always curious about but never had the gumption to try, a crowd of people of varying ages and backgrounds all looking for the same thing; this is the yakitori shop, and it’s the most dangerous place in Japan.
The word “yakitori” tells you just about everything you need to know about these extremely common establishments that pock the Japanese landscape from Kyushu to Hokkaido. “Yaki” means grilled, and “tori” means bird or chicken. You no doubt get the picture; yakitori shops are where you can get some really killer bits of chicken, everything from the intestines to the skin, skewered and grilled over charcoal.
While these nourishing bastions of debauchery specialize in chicken, you might find — as I have on multiple occasions — that it’s not the perfectly charred dermis of Foghorn Leghorn, nor the fried breast meat of his cousins lightly coated in sweet, salty tare sauce, that keeps you coming back. For me, surprisingly, it’s the beef tongue and the shiitake mushrooms, salted and served with a hot mustard that threatens to make your sinuses implode with even the slightest taste.
Beer, Meat, and Japanese Flow as Your Budget Dies
Now, if all of that sounds like something you could imagine indulging in on your Saturdays, perhaps even the other six days of the week, too, and you find yourself wondering how these promised lands of often neglected parts and over-sized beer bottles could possibly be dangerous, I’d ask you to simply consider the following.
As I said earlier, yakitori joints, typically, are the grimy, broken-in types of places with simple food that locals love to eat. While that means delicious, real food not made with the money-laden tourist in mind, it also means that yakitori setups, whether you’re talking the street cars or the full restaurant versions, are typically as accessible to the non-Japanese speaker as a collection of Matsuo Basho’s works in their original form, crinkly 17th century paper and all.
Not to say the master grillsmiths and servers won’t put their best effort into making sure you have a good experience, but unless you speak some Japanese, ordering things you actually want to eat and keeping track of your bill can be a real challenge.
An anecdote on my recent shortcomings in Japanese: truly intoxicated by a stomach full of Asahi Super Dry and various char-marked vegetables and creature extremities, the drive to flirt took hold, and I made the mistake of asking my server what her favorite thing on the menu was.
“My favorite food?” she asked, guessing at the game.
After reassuring her that I was asking her opinion, she said with a smile, “Shiro is delicious.”
“Shiro it is, then!” I replied, likely a bit too enthusiastically.
“Arigatou,” she said, beaming, before threatening to break every window in the place with the volume of her voice as she shouted the new order to the sweating chefs behind the grills glowing with cherried chunks of wood.
In my euphoria, I quickly equated “shiro” with the word for “white,” assuming that she had recommended I order all white chicken meat. As the meat arrived a short time later and I bit into flesh that was closer to pudding than any chicken I’d ever eaten, I realized my error. Five sticks of small intestine, not white meat, now sat in front of me. To say that getting through those sticks of expertly scorched hell was a trial would be an underestimation of ineffable size.
Beyond the trial-by-mystery-meat scenarios you’re likely to encounter, the language barrier, and the clientele that are sure to be interested in speaking at a mile a minute to the foreigner in the corner — particularly once they’ve had a few beers of their own — there is the issue of money to consider.
Imagine a place that offers a selection of skewers for about three dollars. At first, you think you’ll just order a few selections, before being off on your way with a $15 bill. The thing is, to my memory, this is never how the scene plays out. Never.
Call it a matter of science. Back stateside, you’re often given free pretzels or salted nuts. The idea is that the astringent sodium will make you thirsty enough to order another drink. Yakitori shops, not to mention their close cousin the izakaya, have this down to a real scientific formula. Customer enters and wants a beer. Customer orders deliciously salty and sweet foods on a stick. Thirst drives another beer, which drives another round of food.
What you’re left with, particularly if you’re up for the conversations in broken Japanese that will ensue and this sort of simple, average human’s cuisine, is a bill more in the $30 to $40 range, the sudden discovery that you’re at least twice as drunk as you planned, and the vague but palpable feeling that something, maybe intestine, has violated your tongue. Despite all this, the forced sharpening of your language skills, the unfortunate lightening of the wallet, there’s the certainty that next week you’ll be back to do it all again.
Therein lies the true danger of the yakitori peddler.