If you're walking under the tracks in Shibuya and you don't bother looking to your left, it would be very easy to miss nonbei yokocho, or Drunkard's Alley. But if you do look to your left, either because you tend to look around when you walk or because you are turning towards a noise, or a smell, you will see a few strings of those cheesy red and white paper lanterns that I inexplicably love hung around the end of an alley containing bars so small you have to hold your breath to fit through the door.
One night a few weeks ago a friend and I headed out to explore this small corner of Shibuya, with a view to have a drink at Piano Bar, sister bar to the no-name red bar (which I will rant about a few paragraphs down). We almost missed Piano Bar, with its dark wood door and 10-point sign that looks like it was stuck there out of obligation rather than actual necessity. It wasn't open yet and the obachan running a yakitori joint next door told us to walk around the block once and it would probably be open by the time we got back.
We ended up doing a little more than just walking around the block. We were first waylaid at a bar that reminded me of a small antique bookstore with its classic windows and wooden bar. We didn't see what the upstairs was like but downstairs the bar fit four people and was already occupied when my friend and I arrived making six. As we neared the end of our first drinks, a group of four arrived who seemed to know the bartender so they squeezed in next to us as we edged closer to the bar, clutching our drinks for dear life. Judging by the conversation, everyone downstairs was a regular and feeling a bit claustrophobic, we moved on to another bar.
Up a steep flight of narrow stairs we entered Tight, a bar with pink bamboo wallpaper and white tile, and space for no more than five or six customers. The bartender was a lot friendlier than the bookseller one, so we ended up chatting to him through two or three more drinks. He talked to us a bit about the area and recommended a couple more bars to go to, before we promised to call again and bid him good night.
We headed into a small lane running parallel to the alley and visited a "tapas bar", also with an upstairs we never got to see. With the stairs running above the area behind the bar, the downstairs space was, you guessed it, cozy and small. As soon as we were settled along the bench at the bar, some regulars standing near the door began talking to us. One thing that became very apparent at each of these small bars is that the majority of customers are regulars who treat the bar like their own. This means they either don't really want to share their stomping ground with you, or they take a liking to you and invite you back to the bar as if they are the ones running it. Such was the case here, the regulars were so kind to us, hooking us up with sweets and escorting us out of the alley when we left. After so much liquid fun a trip to the bathroom was inevitable and all these bars being so small, none of them have bathrooms. No problem, there is a small row of sketchy squatter toilets at the end of the alley.
Calculating our time before last train we decided to make a move back to Piano Bar after our walk around the block and were happy to find it open. I don't recall seeing an actual piano per se, but the lush interior of red velvet, gold and goblets from King Arthur's time more than made up for it. We sat on the second floor, accessed by a set of stairs made from toothpicks, which feels like a medieval tree house with three tiny tables and some haunted mansion surrealist paintings on the walls. One last drink and some sounds of awe later we made it back down to earth and out of the quiet alley into the reality of Shibuya, this time making promises to each other to come back soon and start the evening with some yakitori or oden from one of the Showa-era shops holding up the bars.
Back to no-name red bar. Also down some dark dark street, in a dark dark alley and through a dark dark door, this place has been open for around five years. Similar to Piano Bar it is covered in red velvet and looks like it bought out the remaining stock from a liquidating chandelier store. I was first taken there by a friend three years ago and as we approached the place, he told me that it had no name, no hours and no phone number but that it had been written up in a few European magazines and was now frequented by cooler-than-thou Japanese hipsters and wanderlusting Euro-trash (who I love by the way). I'd also heard that you couldn't take photos or document the interior in any way and that the bartender was affected. Well. The first few times I actually found the bartender to be rather friendly and chatty. The next time I tried to take the beau but the bar wasn't open yet and the bartender wouldn't tell us what time he was planning to open it later. OK. The Cowgirl and I popped in once last year and proceeded to get properly sloshed, with no thought given to the bartender as we told lies to the semi-nice German guy talking to us and posing inappropriate questions to some other random guys from who-knows-where.
I went back last week with a friend who has just moved to Japan and barely got an acknowledgement from the bartender on walking in the door. Mistakenly assuming the bar was well-known enough by now to allow photography, I didn't stop my friend from taking a photo of me with probably no indication of where I actually was peeking in from the background. The bartender immediately gave us a curt NO PHOTOS and that was that. I'm half-surprised he didn't tell my friend he wasn't allowed to buy shots for the hos at the bar or use the restroom in the back. We had a good laugh about the whole thing but I ask you, what the fuck is up with red bar? It's hardly exclusive or unknown and yet the bartender still continues to put on these affected airs like he's doing us a favour allowing us to exist in his red velvet cave. That said, let's be honest. To drink there is like being in a precious musical jewellery box (albeit owned by a madman) and knowing how exclusive and hidden it is, you can sit back with a smug look on your face and forget about the bartender.