As anyone who has ever entered a Japanese-style pub, or izakaya, will tell you, whether you want it or not, as soon as you’ve ordered some form of alcohol, a small plate or bowl will be placed in front of you alongside your chopsticks and hot towel. The contents of said vessel are almost always a mystery to the customer prior to its arrival; it could be noodles, vegetables, fish or even meat. Sometimes it’s piping hot, sometimes it’s as cold as the ice in your Bill Murray-inspired Suntory whiskey.
Known as お通し (otōshi) or sometimes 突き出し (tsukidashi), this appetizer is given to each and every alcohol-imbibing customer, and sometimes even to those only sipping on soft drinks, regardless of whether you’re drinking at a chain pub or a family owned watering hole. The customer has no say whatsoever in what the snack will be, and even if it remains completely untouched it is added to the bill, costing on average 200-500 yen (US$2-5) per head.
The otōshi is a firmly rooted izakaya tradition in Japan, going back generations. While many would rather it didn’t exist at all, it is often used in place of a seating charge, presumably ensuring that even customers who nurse their drinks and get lost in conversation still pay enough to warrant taking up a table. For this reason, it is customary for izakaya staff to introduce the food as otōshi when placing it on the table as a way of avoid situations where customer demands that it be removed from their bill on account of not having ordered it.
Looking at the kanji character used in the word, otōshi can be thought of as literally meaning “passing through” (通る tōru), or to make a path between two places (通す tōsu). This lends weight to notion that the miniature dish was originally intended as something to occupy the customer and keep their hunger at bay between the time they place their order and when their food arrives. Another theory regarding the origin of the word is that, after the waiter or waitress had taken an order, they would return with these small dishes, taken from the kitchen, almost as proof that the order had been properly relayed. Unlike in the west where people often go to pubs and bars with the sole intention of drinking, it’s still typical in Japan for alcohol to be consumed alongside food, which, when you think about it, probably isn’t the worst idea.
Nevertheless, otōshi is a curious thing. Although on numerous occasions I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the little dish that magically appeared alongside my beer and would have quite happily consumed two or three more of them (were they a little more competitively priced), there have also been plenty of times when I’ve taken one bite of what I was given and promptly slid the dish to the far end of the table, where it remained for much of the evening until I insisted to the waitress that I was quite finished with it. As a Brit, the otōshi system simultaneously confuses and irks me (though not as much as compulsory tipping in bars and restaurants in North America. Can I risk damaging international relations forever by suggesting that you pay your waiting staff a little more from the outset and spare me the chore of doing any form of mental arithmetic while I’m out having fun?), but it’s just one of those things that you have to accept as a part of living in Japan. I could play the foreigner card and flat-out refuse the dish when it arrives, which would probably work since the average izakaya waitress would probably have no idea how to handle the situation. I could even smash the dish to bits with my bare fist, tear off my shirt and end up in someone’s YouTube video titled “Hairy Gaijin Hates Food”. But then Japan has always been very nice to me, and if we’re about to start pointing to things that we don’t like and demanding their eradication like some kind of coked-up interior designer on a lifestyle TV show, then we probably don’t deserve to keep all the bits that we are quite fond of, like sushi, miniskirts with stockings and monkey knife fights.
Besides, when many Japanese landlords and letting agencies still operate under the “gratuity” system wherein new tenants must pay sometimes up to two months’ rent as a gift to the landlord – on top of security deposit and the actual rent – when moving into a property, I can’t help thinking that a couple of hundred yen added to my bill at the end of the night probably isn’t that big a deal.
Photos by RocketNews24