On the big TV screen attached to the wall opposite of the counter, Sendai’s baseball team, the Rakuten Eagles, stand on the pitch in an away match against Nippon Ham from Hokkaido, arguably the meatiest team in the Japanese baseball leagues. The guests from Sendai used the first half of this inning to steal the lead from the opposing team, but the tides turned again quickly when Ham took the batting stage. A collective groan runs through the small audience following the match.
I avert my eyes from the screen and have them wander through the room. First, I look down in front me, to confirm whether or not my drink is still there. Turns out it is - phew. I take a sip and savor the sweet taste of yuzu, Japanese lemon, running over my taste buds and filling my mouth. The Yakitori skewers I ordered are still in the making, but I am not in a rush. Yes, this "Go Night Store" tucked away in a quiet corner of Kokubuncho has found its way into my heart.
The selection of drinks here is impressive. Bottles with labels sporting colorful landscapes and free-flowing Kanji characters contain a wide range of sake and shochu, a liquor made from potatoes and wheat. They cover the wall behind the counter as well as the counter itself, and staff members have to step on a stool to fetch the higher lying ones. Sake made from fruit like plum, the yuzu I am having and peach wine, are delectable pieces of heaven in a glass for sweet-toothed customers. Looking around, however, I seem to be the only sweet tooth this evening.
The staff is extremely knowledgeable and will gladly recommend drinks to customers depending on individual preferences. The welcoming and relaxed atmosphere of Go Night Store is characteristic for these kinds of smaller locations, where everybody seems to be connected somehow and the staff does its best to not have the first time be the last time. Roles are distributed evenly and according to every member's strengths.
To the right of me, two Japanese men are involved in a lively discussion. One of them, with neatly laid back hair and an equally neatly trimmed beard, turns out to be Yasuo Kera, the owner of this Yakitori restaurant. In addition to Go Night Store, he owns four more establishments scattered all over the heart of the Sendai. Each store is modeled after its very own concept – "Orihime", for example, has a slight traditional touch to it, with wooden beams arranged in formations characteristic for old Japanese architecture, while "Il Piattino" is distinctly inspired by Italy in both interior design and the dishes they serve. Most places are hidden in "Yokocho", the small back alleys that are a such a quintessential part of Sendai.
Let us return to Go Night Store, though, where those entering should prepare themselves to get sucked into a very peculiar flow of time. Mouthwatering skewers, a colorful variety of customers and staff so bright it is almost blinding will make you forget the troubles and exhaustion of everyday life in a heartbeat.
Behind the counter and in front of the grill stands a Yakitori veteran. Higebo Gonai takes care to deliver only the juiciest grilled chicken in various shapes and sizes to his customers. He has been gathering experience in the world of gastronomy since a very young age, starting his training at 18 in a vocational school. Since then, he has worked in a number of restaurants until finally, in June of 2017, he reached the point where a place carries his own name (in Japanese, at least).
Apart from Gonai-san, two people work here, Aoi and Narumi. Together, the three of them make an excellent team - Aoi has a certain charm that helps customers relax, while energetic Narumi knows to connect new and old customers alike with entertaining tidbits, giving her a mood maker like aura. When she goes on delivery runs for other places in Kokubuncho, she will now and then return with a new customer in tow. They both had a prior connection to Kera and his stores - Narumi had worked at another bar, as had Aoi's sister.
Those of us who have already been in a Yakitori restaurant will without a doubt recognize the items on the menu. Chicken breast together with leek called "Negima", liver, heart, chicken meatloaves wrapped around chopsticks to make them look like oversized drumsticks called "Tsukune" and even cartilage (known as "Nankotsu") are all standard fare for places similar to here. However, when the actual order arrives and you start digging into the salty or saucy skewers, you will realize that this place is something else.
While the drinks are served mostly instantaneously, customers will have to wait quite a while to receive any food they order. The reason for this lies in the approach Gonai-san takes to grilling the skewers - rather than throwing them onto a blazing fire to leave them there until the outside of the meat turns into a tasty charcoal color and the inside is still very much uncooked, he takes his time to distribute the heat evenly and guarantee that the precious chicken does not burn. The results are staggering and made me reconsider what makes good Yakitori. When my order arrives, I cannot help but crack a smile in anticipation. Time to drift off into savory ecstasy.
Go Night Store opens up every evening from Monday to Saturday at 17:00. Check out the address below!