Hub the centre of attention in Japan

The most popular chain of English pubs in Japan is about to celebrate the opening of its 52nd outlet - one for every week of the year, according to its chairman.

Despite the recession, new outlets of The Hub have been opening at a steady rate across the country, with the newest addition due to open its doors in the Yoyogi district of Tokyo on June 20th.

And quite apart from the warm welcome and value-for-money food and drinks, regulars really like the fact that they are not Japanese-style "izakaya," or bars, Hub Co. Chairman Kenichi Kaneshika told Relaxnews.

"The idea for an English-style pub came out of a business trip to England by Isao Nakauchi, the late founder of our company, who was immediately impressed by how friendly pubs were and how simply the system operates - you want a drink, go the bar, pay for it and off you go again," Kaneshika said.

"It's simple and effective - but it's also a good way for people to move around and communicate," he said.

The Hub company was first set up in 1980 as part of the Daiei group of companies. The first bar was opened in Kobe's Sannomiya district, although Kaneshika admits the first few efforts to get the internal design correct were a bit hit and miss, primarily because not many of the people behind the project had had the opportunity to actually try a genuine pub in Britain.

With most of their images taken from photos, Kaneshika says they made a few howlers to begin with.

"Nobody really knew much about British pubs so we just made it up," he says. "At one point, we had 10 different types of sherry and not a lot else. That was a pretty strange pub."

The business trundled along until the mid-1990s, expanding to 10 pubs, although it had still to unify its image, concept, services, taste and menu.

"We wanted The Hub to be the sort of everyday place that anyone could stop by for a drink or two after work, or to stay longer if they want an evening out with friends," he said. That included providing a limited array of beers on tap - the choices are Kirin, Hub Ale or Guinness - but all at reasonable prices, as well as a similarly cheap-and-cheerful selection of meals.

In June 1997, the company opened the Ikebukuro outlet as its first unified concept of the Hub brand and they have been opening three or four new pubs every year since.

"Our target customers are in their 20s and 30s and it is split pretty evenly between men and women," Kaneshika says. "They come here because we're different from an izakaya. There you will get a full-service style, but that means you can't really get up from the place you have been assigned, you can't easily talk to other people and you're rather stuck with the people that you arrived with.

The Hub does not also see the chain of Hobgoblin pubs as a direct rival, partly because there are only a handful in the centres of big cities but also because the vast majority of their clients are foreigners and the bars themselves are more of the "Euro-pub" variety, Kaneshika says.

Another thing the company insists on is that its trademark Hub Ale is made with hops that are specially imported from England, Germany or the Czech Republic before the beer is brewed in Niigata.