As night rolls in and the sun goes down Kagoshima City comes alive with revellers in search of good food, good drink, and good times. The city itself is compact and walkable, and a huge selection of interesting eateries and bars await the adventurous traveller willing to head off the main road and into one of the many side streets. One such side street is Flamingo-dori, a short curved street with bars and restaurants on either side fairly close to the main Tenmonkan shopping district.
One of the best places to have a drink of the local spirit shochu accompanied by some tasty fare is Yokaban. Owner Mori Reina reflects on her time owning an izakaya – a Japanese pub on the street. She says, “I’ve only been here on Flamingo -dori for seven years, but I feel very much at home. All the shop and bar owners get on really well. Everyone is willing to help each other to make customers happy. It’s that kind of place. We do a lot of BBQs and stuff on the side of the road, if someone has an idea we just do it.”
This shared sense of community makes moving from one establishment to another through the course of the night a seamless experience and Reina recommends we do just that. She says, “If you are a first time visitor to Kagoshima, and you come to Flamingo-dori, the first thing you have to do is try ‘Hashigo Zake’ (Ladder Sake). Hashigo Zake is not just going to one place, it’s like bar hopping. There are eight shops on this street, so if you do it at night, you’ll go to like four or more.”
Shochu is the ubiquitous distilled spirit found in probably every bar and restaurant in Kagoshima. Yokaban is no exception, and Reina has a wide selection of shochu to try. “The ones we recommend are made here in Kagoshima prefecture. Most of the shochu we serve here is made locally, but we do have some from other regions. The original raw materials for making shochu are sweet potatoes, a local specialty here in Kagoshima. Also from the island of Amami Oshima we have kokuto shochu, which is made with brown sugar, from sugarcane on the island. When people hear sugar cane people think of sweetness but it’s distilled, so there’s no sugar, no purines. It’s very healthy”
Reina is determined to make sure that everyone enjoys a visit to Yokaban, regardless of language barriers. “I don’t really speak English at all, but I figured when foreign people come to Yokaban just making them feel at home and providing good food and drink is enough. All I really say is ‘OK!’ and ‘happy!’ and I guess if you’re OK and happy well that’s a pretty good start!”
Reina even went as far as to learn sign language to help out a deaf customer she had failed to notice on a busy night. She recalls, “At first we communicated by writing on paper you know because he couldn’t hear what I was saying. There was a time when he came when I was really busy, and he wrote down what he wanted to tell me, but I left it on the counter for a long time, maybe 10 minutes. I said ‘I’m so sorry for making you wait,’ and he told me ‘don’t worry, deal with everyone else first’. I thought everyone is paying the same to enjoy the same food the same drink, the same space, why should one person have to be left out of that? We needed to be able to communicate smoothly. I wondered what to do and thought, ‘I’ll try to learn a little sign language myself’.
When asked about the name Yokaban, Reina beams broadly and answers, “The concept behind Yokaban is a place where people can get to know each other, a place where people can connect and have fun. Yokaban means ‘a good night’ in Kagoshima dialect and that’s what I want my customers to have more than anything else when they come and visit.”