The man pictured below, the one arming himself with a head-missile made from a menu, is sometimes known as "Yukio Uchida."
If you meet him in person and ask for his name, he'll tell you it's Mark Kagaya. The one and only. If you ask him how he got to where he is now, he'd say that one day he was walking by the river and got struck by lightning. Ever since then, he–and his izakaya–had gone crazy.
"I cannot go back now"
The real story of Kagaya Izakaya sounds less like a bad comic book origin story. The Uchida (Kagaya) family has been in the alcohol business for nearly a century. It started with his grandparents. They owned a simple alcohol shop. Then near the beginning of the Showa Period, Kagaya's parents opened an izakaya. In 1988, Mark Kagaya took over and decided he wanted to make it into something unique. Over many years, he collected props that he would use to entertain guests. Then, CNN aired him wearing a frog costume and he thought: "I cannot go back now."
Over time, Kagaya Izakaya's actual craziness grew side-by-side with its reputation. In fact, this was all I knew of the place when I stepped off the train at nearby Shinbashi Station:
- It is an izakaya.
- The owner is crazy.
"What do you mean by 'crazy?'" I asked Mami.
"I don't know. People just say he's crazy."
Shinbashi is a district in Tokyo that caters to salarymen looking to shake off stress. Pachinko, massage parlors, "massage parlors," and of course endless izakaya are stacked together as far as the eye can see. Everywhere I turned, there were huge backlit signs, beckoning restaurant employees, and loud noises.
But, Kagaya Izakaya isn't particularly big. Nor does it stand out. In fact, I doubt it could sit more than twenty people. Kagaya's sign is backlit, at least, but you wouldn't see it if you weren't looking for it already. Shinbashi truly is as Tokyo people say: A ruthless "izakaya battleground." Small fries like Kagaya shouldn't stand a chance.
Yet, Kagaya's tables are always full. While we ate and enjoyed the spectacles, countless numbers of couples, groups, and individuals walked down the narrow steps to poke their head in, hoping to grab an open seat. Every time they were politely turned away. "All our tables are full and reserved," Mark Kagaya would say. Through some unspoken understanding, it was at these times that every single customer pretended like absolutely nothing strange was going on. When the intruders left, everyone laughed. "We did it! We pretended like nothing weird was going on. Ha!"
However, if you were lucky enough to get a table (or you were smart enough to make a reservation), he'd welcome you like every other normal izakaya in Japan.
"Irashaimase. Do you have a reservation? Oh, yes, there you are. Please have a seat. I'll be right back."
You would sit down and Kagaya would go into the back room. After a minute or so he would return, now accompanied by a gigantic plastic remote-controlled Anpanman figure. It's purpose is to bring you a wet towel to clean your hands with.
At this point he would scream a single piercing tone at the top of his lungs while flinging his arms into the air. Or, depending on who you are, he might just skip to the singing. Everyone else in the small basement room would sing along. If you grew up in Japan, you'd know the song too, though I won't go into great detail due to various copyright issues. Upon completion, he'd man the remote control and steer Anpanman towards your table. All that's left is for you to take a towels and clean your hands.
But all this is tame compared to what's coming. I think he uses this initial act to read the table's reaction, much like a master sushi chef reads a customer's reaction when consuming that first nigiri.
Did they use their left hand to eat? I should change the angle of the next one to make it easier. Did it seem like the amaebi was too sweet for them? Next I'll try something with a little more saltiness.
In much the same way, Kagaya asks himself questions like, "How conservative is this person?" and "Will he mind if I yell "HADOUKEN HADOUKEN" at his groin through a rolled up menu and follow it up by sexually pleasuring his water glass?"
In my case, the answer was apparently "No, I don't think Kou-chan would mind." After pretending the rolled up menu was a rocket preparing for launch (yes, everyone in the room took part in the countdown), he came at me from the other side of the room and proceeded to ask, through the rolled up menu, where "Kou-chan" was. First on top of my head, then in, uh, another area.
This wasn't the end of the
nightmare experience, though. The contents of the menu, as well as how you are required to order your drinks and food, is its own special piece of work.
You can't just ask for your food like a normal human being. Instead, you must sing for it, as if you were part of a musical and "this restaurant is your stage!" (as Kagaya so aptly put it). I hadn't practiced my lines, but luckily for me the menu doubles as a script. Depending on what course meal you want, you have to sing something different.
I thought I did a good job on my first try, but apparently it wasn't enough. The second time I stood up with Kagaya and went all out. I wanted to eat, after all, and I had heard that he won't serve you unless you really act like you want it. Kagaya sang with me, and we danced and professed our love for our table getting some food. It was, perhaps, my greatest performance ever.
And, don't worry if you don't speak Japanese. There's an English version of the menu, too. For example, for the full course meal and all you can drink, you would have to sing:
"Hey Master, you know what, today I'm feeling free, get me something, 'wow' me, 'bang' me. You know what I'm talking about!"
After completing this ritual, you are allowed to order your drink (that's right, we hadn't really ordered anything yet). To do that, you must pick a country: USA, Japan, China, England, Brazil, or France.
Each table gets to do this just once, so choose wisely. Most likely, you'll see some of the other countries anyways, due to there being other tables who also need to order. That night, we saw everything except Japan. I plan to go back to complete my collection.
Speaking of surprises, I don't want to ruin them for you, so I won't go into much detail about what each of these are. I will tell you that the frog stuffed animal and frog costume are "USA." It's a long story, but one I recommend you go experience first hand.
It's around this point where things begin to settle down again for your table. He brings your drinks in an utterly deadpan and normal way that can only be explained as well-honed comedic timing.
In the meantime, an older lady is cooking in the back. No matter how much screaming, yelling, or laughter there is, she never looks up or cracks a smile.
At one point, we walked up there and asked her if she was related to Mark Kagaya. "Are you his mother, perhaps?" we asked.
" 赤の他人です," she said sharply.
The phrase 赤の他人 (aka no tanin) is translated as "complete stranger." It's a strong string of words. Mami suggested that perhaps she was embarrassed we thought she was his mother. We left it at that. We were hungry and she had plenty of work to do.
The food arrived quickly. Or maybe it felt quick thanks to the entertainment. When it arrived, I was shocked. I one hundred percent expected the food would be so-so at best. Instead, it was one of the best meals of my life.
The food wasn't complicated. In fact, I'd categorize it as "simple" or "homestyle." Yet, it somehow towed the line between "just like mom used to make (but better)" and "absurdly delicious, get this woman a friggin' Michelin Star." You may think I'm exaggerating, but that week I ate at two Michelin Star restaurants. This food was right up there, and it was all happening in a crowded basement izakaya with a man jumping around pretending to do kung-fu. The entertainment was great. The food didn't need to be this good. But it was. It blew me, and everyone else, away.
At the end of the night, we got our bill. I can't remember exactly how it happened, but I do remember something weird happening. I think he made me pull it out of his pants zipper, but it's hard to remember details like this when you're partaking in an all-you-can-drink affair. The total was 21,600 yen (about $200 USD). Five of us got great food, great entertainment, and as many whiskey high balls as we could drink, for around $40 each. That's not bad, all things considered.
I'd like to end this by saying I gave Kagaya Izakaya a perfect score. This is the first perfect score we've given out in the ten or so years of Tofugu's existence. But, Kagaya Izakaya, as well as Mark Kagaya, are both perfect in the purest sense of the word. There's not much else to say beyond that.
If you are in Japan, or planning to go to Japan in the future, give him a call right now and make a reservation. If you're lucky, you'll interrupt a performance, forcing everyone in the room to go quiet.
Then, when Mark Kagaya stops, puts down his props, and walks over to answer the phone in the most deadpan and polite voice possible, everyone will have a good laugh at your expense.