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The seductive stench of Yurakucho

by Kaori Shoji

“Shall We Meet in Yurakucho (Yurakucho de Aimasho)” was the title of a 1958 megahit number, sung by the king of Japanese blues, Frank Nagai. As Frank described it, Yurakucho was always misty with fog and the collective sighs of hundreds of lovers, the streets were damp with just-fallen rain and lined with graceful willow trees. Distant guitar strumming could be heard from one of the alleys, and the moon overhead was always, always the palest shade of gold.

“By golly, let’s meet in Yurakucho!” said millions of Tokyoites rushing downtown, whether they had anyone meeting them or not.

Such was the power of radio and the seductive voice of Frank Nagai. The song had one failing though: It doesn’t mention the eating houses located underneath the Yurakucho train tracks, stretching left to Tokyo Station and right to Shimbashi.

A blatant oversight. Everything else he sang about is gone. Not a stray guitar note floating anywhere, not a trace of fog, but these under-track joints have survived intact for these past 50 years. The owners come and go, the storefronts change every couple of years, but the grunge, the pigeons and the smell of the places, remain. A smell that harks back to postwar black market days, the chaotic mixture of singed metal and synthetic whiskey. Do I sound like Phillip Marlowe? I hope so.

The first shops went up because the train tracks provided a free roof, and 50 years ago when one found a free roof, one refused to budge. There was also the additional advantage of property ownership, or lack of it. Japan National Railways owned the tracks but there was no clause about the ground underneath; it was more or less a question of who got there first. And so the profiteers came, set up their counter tops and started businesses.

The customers were laborers and salarymen, downing a few before going up to the station and catching a train home. The shop owners usually lived next to or at the back of the joints, rarely stepping out the few yards to catch fresh air and a bit of sun. The Tokyo Sanitation Offices came around three times a year to spray their quarters with DDT, and leave warnings about rats and other vermin.

These days, the proprietors go home to the suburbs and many of the shops have become big-name franchises: Quizno, the U.S. licensed submarine sandwich restaurant, Becker’s hamburgers, Doutour’s coffee shop or Andersen’s bakery. All these boast clean, bright interiors and loud but fashionable BGM (background music), to make you forget trains are stopping and taking off every two minutes right over your head.

But for a taste of postwar Tokyo and the male aesthetics that connect filth with macho, one would have to push open the door to a typical gaado-shita (under-the-tracks) watering hole.

Perhaps the closest experience to entering a womb, the gaado-shita joints are dark, overly snug and hemmed in on all sides by walls that had their last coat of paint in 1952.

You stay there long enough, say a quarter of an hour, and you’ll see mice scurrying along the ceiling beams. Every Yurakucho frequenter has a mouse/rat story to tell and they inevitably end up with a rodent crawling over to take a sip from someone’s drink. (The mahjong houses located on the way to Tokyo Station are said to house innumerable rats, big cheeky fellows that get their kicks from falling out of the ceiling and onto a game, scattering the tiles and scaring the pants off the players.)

Apart from the lively wildlife, the other point of note in a gaado-shita place is the restroom. To call them so is an act of perversion, since the last thing anyone would want to do in there is rest, let alone linger for a second more than necessary. If there is a positive statement to be made about a gaado-shita toilet, it’s that they’re historical. In fact the Japanese Army probably brought them back from Myanmar in 1945 and the proprietors were too respectful to have any renovating done.

It looks as though they’ll stay that way in spite of the sanitation department, because deeply embedded in the Tokyoite DNA is the conviction that these are the only places to get properly and totally blind drunk.

Perhaps the womb feeling enhances the sense of comfort and security. Perhaps it’s just postwar nostalgia tugging at their hearts. In any case, the bad beer, bad food (mostly hot pots of innards known as motsu nabe) and the pissed-off waiters hopping from one rinky dink table to another, conspire to bring on what could only be described as gaado-shita intoxication.

If you want to turn up the collar of your trench coat and sink into your plastic seat (often with no back).

If you want to exchange hostile witticisms with a tough working-class type sitting at the next table.

If you want some long-faced cop with a pot belly and indigestion to come striding over and say “I knew you’d be holed up in here. Word just came that your man wound up in Tokyo Bay. And let me tell you, green ain’t a pretty color for a face.”

Then you can nod, stare moodily into space and say (and I’ve been waiting all my life to say this):

“Too bad. I was supposed to meet him in Yurakucho.”