Raku Izakaya, Hirafu having just eaten some amazing sashimi

Me in Raku, grinning like an idiotMe in Raku, grinning like an idiot

It’s my day off tomorrow and a few of the other NISS guys were heading into Kutchan for dinner, but I thought it would end up being quite expensive and kinda wanted to break away on my own for a bit, so I grabbed a map and wandered into Hirafu to see what was going on.
My aim was to find a cheap izakaya (Japanese pub, what we would think of as a sushi bar) with a local flavour and as little Australian as possible.
My first call was Mina Mina, a cosy little place with a wood fireplace – but sadly no seats. After a fumbled Japanese exchange, I bowed out (literally) and wandered off down the road. Next stop was Jam Cafe, not an izakaya, but somewhere that was supposed to be quite good and cheap. I hestitated at the door, then abandoned it as it felt too touristy and bar-like.
Trundling down the snowy road, my jeans getting wetter and wetter, I almost walked past the enormous sign saying Izakaya Raku. Nervously sliding the door open (after a failed attempt on the wrong side!), I greet the staff and try to ask if I can eat something. My japanese fails me and I end up just saying “eat” and pointing at myself like a dislocated Tarzan. It works, and I’m soon sitting at the bar by the chef.
Exploring the menu (in Japanese, but fortunately with pictures), I bravely try to ask what the special is (kore wa nan desuka) and get a long-winded response that is succintly boiled down to “salmon pickles”. Unable to decide if this is salmon sashimi with pickles or some sort of weird japanese pickled salmon, I bottle it and order maguro sashimi (raw tuna), edamame (boiled soy beans), miso shiro (white miso soup), gohan (rice) and nihon shu (japanese sake). The waiter seems to understand and passes my order to the kitchen as I breathe a sigh of relief and take a look around.
The place is pretty much empty, in contrast to the packed mainstream venues. 3 japanese girls sit in the corner chatting and giggling quietly. There’s a bar round the small galley kitchen and several other tables. 4 staff (that look more like samurai than chefs) are busy preparing food. Short banners hang all around with various menu items scrawled in japanese. Some cool chilled out Japanese funk/soul beats. The counter is a light pine and the floor a dark wood of some sort, it feels very natural and warm.
My food arrives and I politely say itadakimasu (a standard phrase that japanese say before they eat). I plonk wasabi into a dish and pour shoyou (soy sauce) over it, before deciding that I should tip it all on my rice. I give the hot rice a mix and eagerly shovel some into my mouth with chopsticks. About a millisecond later, my sinuses are burning as I underestimate the strength of the wasabi. I fight back the tears and only just manage to refrain from exploding rice across the counter and my laptop. Fortunately the pain subsides and I manage to enjoy the rest of my meal, nibbling each different taste neatly and sighing contentedly after each bite.
Taking a look at the menu, it looks like the whole meal will cost me around 1500 yen (about a tenner) – not the cheapest, but a heck of a lot cheaper than other restaurants and a damn sight nicer. Rather pleased with myself, I toddle off back to Unitas, a little wobbly from the sake, but filled with sashimi and a sense of achievement.
EDIT: And on the way back, I missed my bus, but got a hitch from Lina and Cleo from Niseko Gourmet – nice!