by Matt Kaufman. All photos by Ross Randles
Everyday from Monday to Saturday, at around 4:30, with the exception of Sunday and national holidays, Seinosuke Kasetani, 94 and Toshiko Kasetani, 83, can be seen outside preparing to open their liquor shop, Kasetaniya Saketen, which has been in the neighborhood since 1956 on the corner of a quiet street less than 200 meters from JR Namba Station.
It is around six o’clock in the evening and the rain is coming down hard because a typhoon is scheduled to hit Osaka tomorrow. As I make my way towards the shop I see Mr Kasetani standing on a shaky beer box trying to take down the noren, the cloth curtain that hangs over the door. I run over to give him a hand and then help him take some plants inside.
When I enter the shop Mrs Kasetani greets me with a warm smile. Mr Kasetani goes to take a rest in a small converted storage room located behind the counter. Running a liquor shop is hard work that involves a lot of lifting and stacking, but they still do everything by themselves–there are no other employees.
Mrs. Kasetani has prepared a selection of five or six small dishes of food, that are covered with saran wrap: shrimp tempura, yakibuta, edamame, yakitori. My favorite dish is the hamburger, spaghetti, broccoli and tomato combination with exactly one French fry (¥300) which I order right away because she only makes one serving a night. A small faded handwritten sign on the wall states that all food is ¥120-¥300. The term for snacks or side dishes that go well with alcohol is otsumami. Anything from peanuts and edamame to yakitori and sausages, but people in Kansai usually say ate (from sake no ate).
Kasetaniya has two refrigerators by the counter. The larger one is for customers who come into the shop to buy bottles and cans to take home (like an off-license in the UK). The smaller one contains drinks that can be consumed in the shop for a very small markup, a few ten yen coins above the standard retail price. There is also a third option: purchasing cans of beer from the vending machines outside and drinking them at an outdoor bar–a worn wooden slab that has been placed on stacks of Asahi and Kirin beer crates.
I grab a large bottle of Kirin beer (¥440) out of the smaller refrigerator, place it on the crowded counter and pop the cap off with a metal bottle opener called a senuki. A large bottle of beer is called oobin in standard Japanese and daibin in the Kansai dialect, but most of the regulars like to drink from cans here.
Mr. Kasetani was born in 1924. He took a job at a local company after the war ended. Mrs. Kasetani said with a chuckle that her husband was too strong-willed and stubborn to take orders from his superiors. After the family lumber business burned down, Mr Kasetani decided to quit his job and worked at a liquor shop owned by his cousin for five years.
After Mr Kasetani started his own business in 1956, he went around the neighborhood of one-story houses and small factories and knocked on every door to take orders. Some of his customers still lived in run-down barracks and shacks because the neighborhood hadn’t recovered from being carpet bombed in the war.
Mr. Kasetani is wearing a sharp pressed check shirt and an apron tied around his waist by a belt with small tools that he uses in the shop. He has several hobbies, including calligraphy. On the wall by the entrance, you can see a water-stained piece of paper with ink brush writing on it that has been torn and taped together many times. It contains the lyrics of a popular enka song called Boketara Akan. Nagai Iki Shinahare (Don’t be senile. Live Long) by singer Ryotaro Sugi.
Mr. Kasetani, who was born in 1924, says working hard keeps him young and fit. “I plan to keep working when I am one-hundred,” he says with a smile.
Mr. Kasetani also likes traveling and adding to his ceramic doll collection which is displayed a glass case under a framed poster of actress Fumiko Miura dressed as a geisha in an advertisement for Kizakura Sake from 1965.
“I don’t like traveling,” says Mrs. Kasetani. “He goes by himself.”
Mrs. Kasetani was born in 1935. She has a wonderful laugh and a great sense of humor. When I asked her if I should address her as Okamisan, the respectful term that means proprietress She just laughed and said, “This is Osaka. Most people call me Okasan or Obacchan, just don’t call me Mama. This is not a snack!”
I am standing at the counter drinking with Mr. Sakai, 64, a company employee who sports an impressive designer perm like legendary boxer Yoko Gushien (“Don’t call it a punch perm,” he warns playfully.) The counter is littered with empty cans of beer that we have consumed. Mr. Sakai has been coming to Kasetaniya for around 15 years when it was still crowded.
“You should have seen it back then. This place was packed with people from all walks of life who drank at this very counter. Businessmen, gangsters, unemployed laborers, even a famous comedian.” He pulls out his phone to show me a familiar face from television.
I point to some small chairs and stools scattered about. “I thought chairs are prohibited in a liquor shop tachinomi.”
Mr. Sakai gets animated. “It is still the rule! You can’t sit down because this isn’t a restaurant. But a lot of the regulars started getting up in years, so these stools were brought in. If someone we didn’t know came into the shop we would say, ‘Oldtimer, stand up!’ and yank them up quickly.”
Mrs. Kasetani, laughs. “I don’t remember any of that.”
“Well, I certainly do”, Mr. Sakai responds with a smile. “I was the one doing all the heavy-lifting!”
I still have questions. I know that you have to pour your own drinks in a liquor shop tachinomi, but what about the harder stuff? I ask Mrs. Kasetani if I can open up a bottle of bourbon and drink it on the counter like a cowboy in an old Western.
“No!”, she laughs. “We don’t sell much whiskey and bourbon here anymore, but it has to be measured by us in exact amounts.
“Who decides the amount?”, I ask. “The breweries?”
Mrs. Kasetani shows me a glass with writing on it. “The local liquor merchants association (shuhan kumiai) we belong to supplies the cups, 200ml for sake and shochu.” Both sell for ¥250.
Another regular, Mr. Yamamoto, 70, tells me that he grew up in the neighborhood, but started coming to Kasetaniya after he retired 10 years ago. “I got lonely,” he says while pouring a can of Suntory Highball into a cup on the counter. “I drink here five nights a week. I know everybody. It’s like a family.
“Drinking here is very cheap, but you got to pace yourself. When you hit a thousand yen it’s time to go home.” He signals for the check.
Mrs Kasetani pulls out an ancient-looking soroban that was given to her by a brewery when the shop opened and tallies up the total with her fingers. I could watch her calculate on her abacus all day.
These days only five or six people drink here a night. Most people in the neighborhood of high rise luxury condos prefer to shop at the Family Mart across the street, but Mr. and Mrs. Kasetani continue to run their shop well into their golden years because making their customers happy still gives them tremendous satisfaction.
Kasetaniya has six decades of history inside, but the real treasures are the owners who are two of the kindest, hardest-working, most generous people I have ever met. And if it feels like you’ve stepped into a Yasujiro Ozu movie from the 1950s when you enter their shop, then you are not alone. Their affectionate, playful banter and mannerisms remind me of the beloved elderly couple from his masterpiece, Tokyo Story.
Postscript to the story. Mr Kasetani’s handwritten lyrics of the song Boketara Akan that was hanging by the entrance for years was damaged beyond repair in the typhoon and he was sad to discover that he had given the original copy away. Then I remembered that I took a photo of it with my crappy iPod. I printed it up A4 size and laminated. Ross Randles captured the moment when he realized that his work was not lost for good.
Update: Mr Kasetani was hospitalized in December 2018 and Kasetani closed for good shortly after.