From the outside, it looks like any other Japanese izakaya, or sake house. Noren curtains are down to let passersby know that its open for business. A wooden exterior is decorated with customary red lit lanterns. The nondescript side street is quiet except for a few cars passing by here and there.
Inside, old enka songs can be heard faintly in the background, while cold beer and a variety of homestyle dishes make their way to the tables. Broiled fish, fried chicken karaage, takowasa (wasabi and octopus), and Utsunomiya's famous gyoza are standard menu choices. Local residents mix with foreign teachers and other inquisitives on the tatami mats. The space is small, intimate, unassuming. Tucked away in a corner of Utsunomiya's concrete jungle. By all appearances, Kayabuki Tavern is just your ordinary, run of the mill Japanese restaurant. However, behind these doors, a very less than ordinary story emerges.
Meet the Kayabuki staff. 18 year old Yacchan has been working at Kayabuki as a host for nearly 10 years now, greeting customers and distributing hand towels. Fukuchan is now 8 years old and following closely in her co-worker's footsteps. Although Yacchan and Fukuchan only work 2 hours a day, they do well for themselves, receiving customary tips every night for their hard work. Three younger “employees” observe from a distance, training to take over when Yacchan and Fukuchan reach retirement.
Enter the extraordinary part. Hailing from the mountains of Tochigi, Yacchan and Fukuchan are macaque monkeys. With resumes. According to Japanese animal rights regulations, the simians are only allowed to work 2 hours a day- monkeys who are subject to labor laws. As fascinating as it is perplexing.
But, as the saying goes, monkey see, monkey do. That's how the tavern's owner, Kaoru Otsuka, explains his restaurants unique theme. Mr. Otsuka was inspired to put the monkeys to work after he noticed them observing him. "It all started one day when I gave him [Yacchan] a hot towel out of curiosity and he brought the towel to the customer,” said Otsuka. It wasn't long before Yacchan was put on the pay role and delivering hand towels and beers to wide eyed customers. A 2 foot tall waiter, if you will, who also happens to climb trees on the side.
While it's slightly frightening to think about the implications of a band of monkeys replacing waiters in the workforce, the experience at Kayabuki Tavern is well worth your time if you're up for something different. Although internet reports regarding possible sanitary issues exist, the restaurant was well kept and the monkeys were only available to socialize in a corner away from any foodstuff. Reservations are required and can be made by phone.
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