Daniel Robson tries tinned heaven in Tokyo
Masa totally can’t cook. Sure, he serves up hundreds of dishes to his customers, but his involvement is basically just pulling back a ring pull or wielding a tin opener.
That’s because at Mr Kanso, everything comes out of a can. It’s like a particularly well-stocked student kitchen, with 180 kinds of tinned food from around the world, stacked neatly along a wall near the entrance to this narrow drinking hole. These include the obvious – sardines, olives, tuna or nuts – but also the weeeeird.
Let’s start with the curries. Varieties include bear, seal and deer, making the Thai red curry with vegetables seem rather boring. Other things served in metal cylinders and cuboids include whale meat, pate and bacon in honey.
“My favourite is the maki tamago (sweet omelette), which is Mr Kanso’s own brand,” confides Masa as he fiddles with the lids of the two cans I’ve picked out. One contains potato salad and sweet corn, which turns out to be much tastier and creamier than I’d thought it would be, and the other spicy little wiener chunks with a subtle kick.
And then there’s the Spam. Mr Kanso sells a lot of Spam – five varieties, plus some copy brands. The cast of Monty Python would be thrilled.
Spam is actually kind of an exotic delicacy in Japan and a staple in Okinawa, where soldiers at the US Army bases introduced it to the locals after World War II. Spam is the only dish that Masa actually cooks at Mr Kanso: The slab of processed pork is carefully sliced and then grilled on a special griddle behind the bar. It, uh, tastes like Spam, I guess.
At Mr Kanso, even the concept is canned. The branch near my office in Tamachi is one of many across Japan; the original opened in Osaka in 2002 and stocks some 300 tinned treats. Most of the 10 nationwide bars are franchises, which means anyone can open one – Masa suggests someone try a branch in Britain.
The beauty in the business is that canned food requires very little fuss. It keeps for ages, can be served by anyone, and is sold at an astonishing markup. Cans range in price between 200 and 2,000 yen (£1.57-15.70), each marked with a coloured sticker (a bit like the coloured plates at a kaiten sushi restaurant), but actually almost nothing is available below 350 yen.
For example, a tin of yakitori (grilled chicken) that my local convenience store sells for around 250 yen goes for a whopping 650 yen at Mr Kanso.
The drinks, on the other hand, are dirt cheap – glass of beer, wine or shochu is just 350 yen. It’s the inverse of most bars and restaurants, where drinks usually have the bigger profit margin.
As Japan’s economy continues to stagnate, these small, informal, friendly bars that sell cheap drinks and a couple of pile-’em-high-sell-’em-cheap food options are cropping up everywhere. But while they usually boast handmade takoyaki (octopus dumplings) or kara-age (deep-fried chicken) and sell it by volume to drunken salarymen, Mr Kanso takes a more interesting route – a diverse menu encased in steel, no cooking required.