Blok M in the mid-1980s was not the bustling nightlife hub of neon lights and signs in Japanese characters that it is today.
Back then, it was known more for its daytime activities as a mid-range shopping area, its highlights a sprawling, open-air vegetable and fruit market fronting Ramayana department store, Aldiron Plaza with its haberdashery, batik painting and clock shops, street-side stalls selling knock-off Rolexes, a Bangka tin souvenir shop and Melawai Tailor.
In terms of leisure venues, it could only boast Lipstick, a small roller-skating rink, and a handful of karaoke bars and Japanese restaurants.
This commercial block to the west of Melawai Plaza bloomed and boomed in the 1990s with Japanese supermarket Papaya and late-night diners, clubs and a variety of bars. Now known as Japan Town or Little Tokyo, its inner streets lit with Japanese lanterns advertising yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers) and takoyaki (baked octopus dough-balls) are jam-packed with cars from 6 p.m. until midnight or so, even on a Monday night.
While Gran Wjaya center can also lay claim to catering to the expatriate Japanese community in Jakarta with its bustling Cosmo supermarket, a ramen (noodle soup) house, shiatsu massage parlor and Japanese tour agent, Blok M is unique because it is host to izakaya, eateries that specialize in home-cooked fare and drinking in other words, Japanese pub culture.
Japanese men are not the exclusive clientele of izakaya -- as opposed to nightclubs, where "hostesses" in skin-tight cocktail dresses accompany their male guests for the evening. Instead, it is a place of gathering, of socializing, where men and women come to unwind, eat, drink and make merry.
As with English pub culture, conversation is as much an essential part of izakaya culture as, say, a good bottle of sake or Sapporo beer, and many customers are regulars who stop by after a long day at the office just to see a friendly face and chat awhile.
Izakaya proprietors converse easily with their customers and know regulars by name, and make newcomers feel at home the moment they step through the door with a boisterous "Irasshai-mase (welcome)!"
As for the food, sushi and sashimi are commonly on the menu, but most dishes are a la carte and served in single portions, such as nikujaga (stewed beef/pork with potatoes), yakinasu (grilled eggplant with grated ginger), suigyoza (boiled dumplings), shishamo (grilled roe fish with grated white radish), agedashidofu (fried tofu in batter with dipping sauce), kakuni (cubed pork bacon stewed in soy sauce) and oden (assorted fish balls in broth with hot mustard).
If you are a sake drinker, you can buy a bottle -- it can be anywhere from one to two liters -- and write your name on a small card that will be hung around the bottleneck -- your bottle will be held in reserve on a shelf for your next visit.
Rice is not a staple at izakaya, but is available as onigiri (rice balls wrapped in dried seaweed) and yakionigiri (grilled rice balls basted with soy sauce), both of which can come with a filling, such as grilled flaked salmon.
Ochazuke, a simple rice dish with radish leaves, pickled plum, flaked salmon or another condiment with hot green tea poured on top, is typically ordered to wrap up the meal -- apparently, it can soothe a tummy stressed from too much good food and has anti-hangover properties to boot.
Ordering at an izakaya may sound daunting, but just ask a waitress -- it helps if you can specify whether you're looking for a fish, chicken, pork, beef or vegetable dish, and don't forget seafood, including seaweed. A menu is on hand with English or Indonesian equivalents, but many of the day's specials are written in Japanese on placards that paper the walls of the establishment.
Japanese food is mainly flavored with sea salt, sugar, soy sauce, cooking and sweet sake, soy bean paste and/or rice vinegar, and are grilled, stewed, seared or deep-fried, so you can't go wrong -- unless, of course, you've something against soy sauce. And don't worry -- grasshoppers are not on the menu.
Still intimidated? Grab your nearest Japanese mate and say, "Take me to an izakaya." They'll be impressed and show you a good time out -- Japanese-style.