In the area surrounding most train stations in Japan’s towns and cities lies a typically cookie-cutter assortment of izakayas, hostess clubs and bars. These typically uninspiring establishments provide solace for the modern Japanese corporate employee; an oasis where he can temporarily escape the drudgery of the working world, drink heroic amounts of shochu, sing karaoke, and smoke like a monster truck with a malfunctioning exhaust, all before catching the last train home to sleep it off before another 14 hour day at the office. This is a domain where only the stoutest of heart fear to tread: this is the domain of the salaryman. Luckily for visitors of Sano, in Tochigi Prefecture, there is an alternative.
Tucked away in an unassuming side street, a five minute stroll from Sano station will bring you to Mahler’s Parlor. Although slightly hard-to-find, it’s truly one of Sano’s hidden jewels. Furnished with retro 60’s decor, engaging artwork, and plenty of musical instruments available for customers to play, Mahler’s Parlor is a hip, unique pub that has the feel of being in someone’s living room.
Established 5 years ago by Ashikaga-based musicians Sumusu and Aki Ota, their pub features an eclectic menu featuring locally-grown produce and meat from local farms. The menu changes throughout the year, but some of the staples are pasta, pizza, and more traditional fare like Japanese curry. Aki, who does most of the cooking, tends to use healthy, natural ingredients; however, this certainly doesn`t detract from the flavor. From the dishes I sampled, the pizza had a golden, crispy crust and plenty of gooey cheese; the curry used a unique blend of spices which resulted in a refreshing take on the standard Japanese curry, and the salads feature heaps of farm-fresh veggies and light, homemade dressings.
In addition to the excellent food, one of the best features Mahler`s Parlor has to offer is live music. About 2 or 3 times a month, amplifiers and a small drum kit are loaded into the already cozy space for a few hours of musical entertainment. The live acts are eclectic, ranging from singer-songwriters and DJ`s, to blues and psychedelic rock. On one of my recent visits, I was lucky enough to catch a set from blues musician Tokyo Mississippi. Despite the local noise ordinance and small space, TM and his band put on a foot-stompin', barn-burner of a show that was one of the better live performances I had seen in some time. Although the bar is often brimming with customers during live performances, it never feels uncomfortable; the clientele is exceptionally friendly and considerate, ensuring a good time will be had by all. In warmer months, outdoor seating is also available.
The warm, friendly vibe that Mahler`s Parlor exudes is a refreshing change from the sequestered dining of izakayas that makes conversation outside of your social circle awkward, if not impossible, folks with severely limited Japanese ability will feel welcome here, as Susumu, Aki, and all the patrons go out of their way to make everyone feel at home. While outlet shopping and eating Sano ramen are the typical activities of most Sano visitors, why not try something different? Try a hike in Sano’s beautiful Mikamoyama Park, and stop by Mahler’s Parlor after for dinner and drinks. It’s a great opportunity to sample some great local food, and more importantly, make new friends.