Monday, December 7, 2009

Drinking in alleys

I've hailed the joys of drinking in narrow alley bars before, and it appears to have not been just a phase. A few weeks ago the beau and I had a rare Saturday night together so I suggested we start the evening off at nonbei-yokocho in Shibuya. The beau, while able to get down and dirty with the best of them at Yoshinoya, is a bit of an elitist when it comes to drinking establishments. To him, sipping a bourbon while rubbing shoulders with the other customers (closer to molesting really) along a narrow bar counter is not a good time, nor something one would actively seek to do. Admittedly, the kind of establishments one finds in nonbei-yokocho are frequented by a certain set: the ojisan set, the cool, jet-setting gaijin set and the young hipster Japanese set. The beau, bless him, is not part of said sets. He has, however, learned to play along when I suggest trips to the countryside to eat bamboo shoots, jaunts in dark narrow alleys and evenings in sweet-smelling hookah bars.

I am always surprised to find a seat when I drink in nonbei-yokocho. Given the lack of space and proportion of regular customers, I often show up assuming I will not be able to start off at my first bar of choice. Strangely though, despite nonbei-yokocho's appeal and begging to be in a guide-book uniqueness, I have gotten a counter seat every time. This past evening, I looked out the window and saw a pair of frat boys walking through the alley taking pictures, which made me realize that despite its allure, many people will show up only to leave sono after, feeling intimidated by the intimate atmosphere at most of the bars and restaurants.

We began the night at a place whose name I can't remember for the life of me. The regulars are always friendly and despite some awkward silences at first, we were soon engaged in conversation with the customers on either side of us at the counter. One poor ojisan was berated by the others for asking me where I was from despite having just been asked twice by other people, but the conversation was light and playful. The (apparent) owner is a hip older Japanese man who showed up with a dark-haired Russian woman in sunglasses and hummed an enka tune from behind the counter. After a few drinks we headed over to Tight were we met a cool Middle Eastern and French-Japanese couple. Located on the second floor on eye level with the train tracks, I felt like I was in a childhood treehouse, but with alcohol and trippy graphics bouncing around a plasma screen.

I am always so warmed by my experiences in these tiny bars. Unlike the glam restaurants and bars whose atmospheres discourage interacting with other customers despite the tables (sometimes) being very close together, at the small bars of nonbei-yokocho, you can't help but talk to your fellow customers, and conversations are surprisingly honest and revealing. It's a Japan away from Japan.

As the name implies, Tight is very tight and was made more so by the arrival of three more customers. The beau begged claustrophobia so we paid the check and headed off into the darkness. Approaching the entrance to the alley I asked him whether he would ever come back with me and he avoided the question by asking aloud why people like drinking in such confined spaces. I think in a city like Tokyo where anonymity is prized, drinking at one of these small places allows you to connect with others in a brief and fleeting way, even if you join one bar's small community for only a couple of hours. Whether he comes back with me or not, at least I coaxed him out of his comfort zone, showing him to an unknown nook of the city.


Tokyo Moe said...

Great post. I like how you and the beau experience Tokyo differently. I agree with you that intimate encounters despite the scale of Tokyo humanize this metropolis and make it more appealing.

I am luck that my hubb and I usually enjoy the same places in Tokyo-- well, except for the idea of a host bar, which he is allergic to!

You can't demand too much sameness, between individuals or cultures (^_-)

Jen B said...

Ahhh I'm glad to read this, I was going to suggest some alley bar exploring :-)

Tornadoes28 said...

The tiny alley bars are just another one of the aspects that make Tokyo so interesting.

Beth said...

i'm addicted to going to those bars alone. this summer whenever i found myself alone and bored i would go out to a new one. i love finding old drunk alleys at random stations. i've only been to the piano bar in shibuya. do you go to golden gai as well?

i think you're right about why they haven't exploded as an attraction yet. i didn't go into them until i felt pretty comfortable with conversational japanese. if you can't chat with the patrons and bartenders you kind of miss out. but old drinking alleys are so awesome and time-warpy, i think most people are content just to walk through and peer around.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post. Makes me heartsick for TKO. OW

Green-Eyed Geisha said...

Tokyo Moe - Thanks! You put it much more succinctly :) While the beau and I share the same taste, I have little shared time with him so I tend to cultivate interests separately. Does this mean your husband doesn't share your admiration of hosts??!

Jen B - There is truly no greater past time in my opinion :)

Tornadoes28 - Don't they? I would be pressed to find something comparable in Nth America.

Beth - The time-warpiness has definite appeal to me! I haven't been to golden gai yet but have been reading up on it this week. I'm wanting to take a wander there soon! How do you think some of the smallish places in Koenji compare to trackside bars?

Anon - Thank you, the feeling I get visiting these places can't be replicated and I will miss them fiercely when I leave...