Hidden Tokyo

Hidden Tokyo
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First Published: Fri, Jun 15 2007. 12 41 AM IST
Updated: Fri, Jun 15 2007. 12 41 AM IST
It was the middle of the night as a Japanese skateboarder and concert promoter named Chris led me through Tokyo’s Shibuya district—a sort of futuristic Times Square—with its hyper-commercial vertical sprawl of glass office towers and flashing neon billboards advertising the latest cellphones and pop stars. We threaded past shopping malls and shiny multiplexes, down winding streets and through a stone pedestrian tunnel, until we emerged beneath raised train tracks.
In what seemed like a prewar red-light district, dozens of pocket-size bars are tucked in a long shed pieced together shanty-style with slabs of corrugated metal, mismatched wooden boards and battered shoji rice screens mended with newspapers and ragged cloth.
We trolled up and down until Chris found a dusty glass window. He looked through a peephole but, rather than going through the front door, we ducked down a small side alley where an older woman, probably the owner, greeted Chris by name and bowed. After trading our sneakers and stiletto boots for house slippers, we slipped inside the club, Shisui. It was a cramped space, with a few older men sitting at a thatched bamboo bar. The hostess pointed to a ladder and up we climbed into an even smaller room, furnished with nothing but a straw mat, a few cushions and a low table. A kimono clown doll and a dusty wooden guitar hung on the wall—boho signs, Chris pointed out, of the Ben Harper-listening, yoga-taking skater set who have adopted this as their unofficial, VIP-only clubhouse that fits about four.
Such hidden nightspots have become a rage among a certain Tokyo set—weaned on anime and text messaging—that has graduated from dancing under the strobe lights at big Western-style nightclubs. Infused with a knowing, postmodern nostalgia for pre-Sony Tokyo, these hard-to-find hang-outs feel as intimate as living rooms and are often just as small. They are not advertised or virally hyped on Mixi—Japan’s answer to MySpace—but, oddly enough for a society intravenously hooked up to high-speed gadgetry, traded solely by word of mouth.
“I don’t go out that often, but when I do, I like to go to these little secret places,” said contemporary artist Takashi Murakami, tinkering with a trademark anime sculpture. “There is something very familiar and personal about them that I find comforting. They may have a modern design, but the feeling is more like traditional Japan.”
Hidden bars are as Japanese as geishas and toro. Some are the unadulterated originals, built as brothels before the war and somehow overlooked by bulldozing developers. The largest remaining tract is Golden Gai, a ghetto of vintage bars on a bamboo-lined backstreet in the Shinjuku district that is clogged with the so-called hostess bars. In the 1960s and 1970s, when prostitution moved elsewhere, the Golden Gai became a refuge for boozy intellectuals, including writers Yukio Mishima and Akiyuki Nosaka (it is also where Wim Wenders filmed scenes for his 1985 documentary, Tokyo-Ga).
The gritty and low-tech aesthetic of hidden bars feels positively homey—even when the nomiya (no-nonsense drinking hole) has been tricked out beyond recognition.
Down the alley from Golden Gai is Piano Bar, hidden behind an ornate wooden door. A couple of years ago, several young upstarts took over the shoebox-size space and remodelled it in King Arthur style. Crystal chandeliers were hung from the ceiling, a faux fireplace mantel installed and the walls covered in red velvet and gold frames.
This hidden-bar craze may have its roots in retail. More than a decade ago, a street-wear label, A Bathing Ape, opened an unmarked shop in a deserted part of Tokyo. It became an instant hit in the fad-obsessed, brand-saturated city. Copycats sprouted.
“Everyone knows that the best stuff in Tokyo is in a small room on a little side street,” said Nicole Fall, a trend spotter who recently started a concierge service, Bespoke Tokyo, that helps tourists find the city’s secret treasures. “Not Found,” an appointment-only clothing boutique that opened last winter, is among the latest. Wander down a main thoroughfare in Azabu Juban near Roppongi and you might stumble across it. From the sidewalk, it looks like another concrete office building with a sign-less door. The rail-thin space, which carries only a few articles of precious clothing hanging behind thick glass displays, was opened by the 33-year-old founder of a tech company as a sort of luxe closet for his closest friends.
Hidden bars, of course, tap into the same desire to be in the know. They are as exclusive as a limited-edition sneaker, and addresses are guarded by their patrons like PIN numbers. That might explain the white-hot popularity of Casba, a groovy haunt in Shibuya that draws fashion elites such as Rei Kawakubo and Marc Jacobs. From the sidewalk, it is virtually undetectable; the only clue is a little sign at the bottom of a dark stairwell. Inside, the scene resembles a fashion photo shoot, with Japanese surfers mingling with beau monde types in what looks similar to a 1970s California living room with turquoise banquettes and shag pillows. Reiko, the owner, flits about in a leopard-print mini-dress and pink tights, greeting guests with hugs and gossip. To be accepted into this clique, one must befriend Reiko. Her approval, it turns out, is granted if she shows you her Polaroids or, better yet, takes one of you.
Hidden bars have become so pervasive that they are beginning to seep into the mainstream. Le Baron, a branch of the celebrity-packed Parisian club, opened near Omotesando Street last December. It is not easy to find. You wander down narrow lanes and dead-ends at darkened storefronts, and spot a single neon pink “B” next to an empty parking lot. From inside, it resembles a sex club in a Hong Kong action film, with pin-sized red lights and sealed Plexiglas stripper booths. But to go inside, you need to be in on the secret. Remember, it is a close-knit group. NYT
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First Published: Fri, Jun 15 2007. 12 41 AM IST
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