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Staving off the bulldozers for one more round

by Julian Littler

Special To The Japan Times

Tokyo is roughly divided into styles and cliques. Neighborhoods delineate and categorize, often in keeping with the cool factor of their inhabitants: Omotesando, Aoyama and Harajuku for fashionistas; Shibuya for party kids; Koenji for earthy music fans; and Shimokitazawa for the vintage-tint rock-star social set.

In the latter of these, things are beginning to change. The ramshackle buildings next to Shimokitazawa Station’s North Exit are mostly closed and shuttered in preparation for demolition, part of a long-planned and controversial redevelopment of the lively suburban area with high-rise buildings and a major new road.

The doomed area houses countless bars, many that are decades old and smaller than a walk-in closet. Walking around these, I spy a dim light emanating from one tiny bar pumping out the saccharine-sweet tones of Paul McCartney in concert.

Miyoshino seats seven or eight, and two regular customers are spread wide across the short counter. Yoshida, 55, an avid fan of old-school Australian punk, and the other regular who prefers not to be named are so engrossed in the on-screen former Beatle that conversation is slow to start.

Seated with a view straight down one of the miniature labyrinth’s lanes, we choose our drinks: mugi shōchū on the rocks and an ode to the end of summer for me, Okinawan shikuwasa citrus and orange for my wing girl Mayumi.

While educating me about my own country’s seminal punk scene, Yoshida and Hasegawa, the barman, pepper their patter with jokes. This is a place to knock the drinks back and get work out of your system on the way home.

Over-eager to know the impending future of the building housing this evening’s drinks, I chime in asking how much longer the bar has. “About one more year,” Hasegawa says nonchalantly. “They are going to turn the land into a bus rotary,” he continues, explaining the divisions of the reconstruction.

Miyoshino, also known as Michi Michi but seemingly called Mi-chan by all, occupies the spot that will be bulldozed last. Thus it gets a year of grace, meaning we can continue visiting for laughs and drinks.

Just as we are preparing to leave, another two characters arrive. Yamada, with his peace cap over his short gray hair, is a rocker who formerly toured Europe and beyond with his band. The second, a backgammon champion and owner of nearby bar Never Never Land, hands me his card.

“Save the Shimokitazawa” is emblazoned across the top, with his name, Kenji Shimodaira, underneath. Shimodaira started the Save the Shimokitazawa movement in his bar back in December 2003, organizing petitions and community meetings in protest against the redevelopment.

He brings breaking news for the crew at Miyoshino — that the land beneath us is to become a square, not a bus rotary. “That’s no different at all!” cry Hasegawa and his regulars. Shimodaira points out that at least squares allow people to gather.

“My friend (politician Nobuto Hosaka) won the mayoral election for Setagaya Ward in April this year,” he tells us. “He changed the plans, so this area will remain a space for people even if the old building, bars and yakitori restaurants will be gone.”

After sharing the news and a single drink, Shimodaira takes off, and the rain thunders down on the old roof above. Hasegawa, encouraged by thoughts of the past, explains that this tiny space used to be a sushi bar. After that it became a ramen shop, opening at 5 a.m. and closing at 5 p.m. — referred to as the last stop before Shimokitazawa Station for the surrounding bar staffers, who would congregate to eat ramen and drink after closing their bars in the early morning.

It was only then, seven or eight years ago, that it became the Mi-chan where we are drinking today. Drinks for ¥500 and no table charge make this atmospheric, educational evening a pretty sweet deal, but it’s time to move on.

On a nearby corner is a bar with many names. Most call it tachinomi (standing bar), and I’ve also heard it called the Rat Bar, but the name its owner gave it is actually Namazu, or Catfish.

The crowded corner bar is open to all — and to the elements, too.

The tiny bar counter is hidden behind an outer layer of benches and decorations and seats about nine; once past this, you enter the inner core by way of stepping through a doorway that reveals seating for five. The barman, fixed in the inner cube, waits to dispense drinks and chat to anyone who engages him.

Standing while my friend takes the last seat, I order a ¥300 beer and an oolong tea. No table charge for this hub of local social interaction either, and since everyone here seems to connect with newcomers so well, I idly wonder what the recent trend for marriage services is all about.

The departure of two guys to go see a nearby live show — at midnight on a Thursday — opens up a low-level “seat” for me. Now, I’m forced to look up as though in childlike wonder whenever I talk to anyone. But I’m steeped in relaxation, so there is nothing to stress about here.

A woman named Sora walks into the bar, and looks at me with a big smile and a “Hello.” She’s just come back from playing a gig in Harajuku, her backpack heavy with mics, cables and other music gear.

She won’t reveal her full name, but she befriends me on Facebook and we talk for the next two hours. I’m thrown at one point by the barman, Masa, asking me where I’m from — in heavily London-accented English. He says he lived in New Zealand for a few years and Australia for a few months, and thought he’d picked me out as an Australian. Few can.

Talking more, smartphone in hand, Masa asks me to add him as a Facebook friend too. “The photo with the guy holding a guitar is me,” he chirps. Next thing I know, I’ve been invited to his live show: He plays under the name Georgie Pie, named after his favorite and now defunct New Zealand meat-pie brand.

Two Shimokitazawa ramshackle bars and a whole lot of new rock-star and backgammon-champion friends later, we hit the road home in the rain. Wet on the outside, but still warm from the stories and local insights, I wonder where my new local will be one year on.

Miyoshino (Mi-chan): 2-24-3 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo. Namazu: 2-24-3 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo. Nearest station: Shimokitazawa (Inokashira and Odakyu lines).

Old-fashioned drinks in a sci-fi setting

Close to Shimokitazawa lies the sleepy suburb of Ikenoue, which hosts its own set of small, friendly bars — and one particular favorite is Gari Gari.

Inside, this bar is like a scene from a dystopian sci-fi movie: Multiple screens constantly play films and documentaries, while multiple mutilated clocks, circuit boards and countless other decorations offer nonstop discovery. Even a visit to the toilet makes for a truly unforgettable experience.

Beers cost ¥600, and this dark basement bar stays open until 5 a.m. daily — but the Soviet sci-fi and whacked decor are what make this a great otherworldly local.

Gari Gari: B1 Tobita Building; 2-45-9 Daizawa, Setagaya-ku; (03) 3481-6997. Nearest station: Ikenoue (Inokashira Line; Gari Gari is across the street.