HYAKUNINCHO

Skate on down to Little Korea

by Nicholas Coldicott

To misquote Judy Garland: this doesn’t feel much like Tokyo anymore. There are shops selling bootleg Korean videotapes. Yes, tapes. There are Halal grocery stores that stay open until 1 a.m.; cut-price clothing stores that close even later. There are signs in Thai, Arabic and lots of Korean Hangul script. And unusually affable ladies keep asking if I would like to play.

It is Tokyo, though. It’s the capital’s most cosmopolitan neighborhood and the darkest part of its underbelly. Hyakunincho is an unofficial Koreatown, but that belies the true eclecticism of the area and turns a blind eye to its seamiest section. The blocks just north of Kabukicho are dominated by dingy love hotels and women who will accompany you into them. There’s no neon on these streets; just faded flea-pits that never need their “no vacancy” signs.

And right in the middle is the $1,000,000 Lion bar. It sits inside a graffiti-covered complex, aptly named The Ghetto, which also includes a skate ramp, half a dozen clothing stores and a tiny museum.

If you look carefully, you’ll spot signs of The Ghetto’s previous incarnation as one of those seedy love ahotels. Framed photos in the hallway depict the old rooms in all their grottiness, and a showcase displays a bugging device discovered beneath one of the beds.

A sumi-e (ink painting) print at the bar’s entrance sets the tone of this new establishment. The framed brushwork suggests a love of art, and its depiction of copulating lions signifies an affection for all things alternative. Skateboarding is the bar’s raison d’e^tre: “So the skaters can skate and drink,” says the bartender with no discernible irony. And the rest of the complex is geared to skater tastes: Phallic graffiti and tags such as “Kamikaze Rastafarian” decorate the hallway; legendary local graffiti bombers EKYS and QP have planted their designs inside and out; a handwritten sign attached to the beer pumps offers four tequila shots for ¥1,000; and sooner or later Bob Marley will sing from the speakers.

Upstairs, clothing stores hawk hip-hop attire, including toddlers’ T-shirts printed with English profanities, and the complex’s minuscule Hyaku Gallery (open 12 p.m.-8 p.m.) is currently hosting a study of identity as depicted in early Heian Period art. Just kidding, it’s about body-modification, from facial tattoos to artificial cats’ whiskers.

None of which stops $1,000,000 Lion being a wonderful place to drink, and one that attracts a young crowd of artists, writers and, of course, skateboarders. The decor is pure college student fantasy, with a melange of sofas, mattresses, sheer drapes and satin cushions. The layout riffs on the love hotel origins, with “rooms” defined not by soundproof walls but by abrupt changes in theme. The Japanese corner, with its floor cushions and bamboo blinds, abuts a Chinese-themed space marked by a round lacquered table, oriental scatter cushions and an imposing metalwork mirror.

Elsewhere, one of the old hotel’s bathtubs has survived the refit, and its ceramic tiles now support a lipstick red sofa. There’s a large wooden barrel for those who enjoy the standing atmosphere of an olde-worlde English pub, and even a “terrace” (read: parking lot with chairs) for clement days.

The bar counter gives the impression that it was erected an hour or two earlier, devoid of the design frivolity so evident elsewhere. The staff echo this indifference, dispatching orders lackadaisically with none of the stock phrases of Japanese service. Unless you’re talking tattoos, urban art or skating, you’ll be left alone. But it’s nonchalance, not rudeness, and fits in perfectly with the neighborhood. If you don’t need waitress service or honorifics with your beverage, then the contrast can be refreshing. It’s hospitality without the rituals or fuss. This doesn’t feel like Tokyo at all.

$1,000,000 Lion, The Ghetto, 1-1-10 Hyakunincho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; tel/fax: (03) 3209-3100; www.theghettotokyo.com Open: 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Mon-Sat. No cover charge. Draft beer: ¥550.