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Bar Aoyagi owner Reiko Yoshimura

by Judit Kawaguchi

Reiko Yoshimura is the owner of Aoyagi, a tiny bar in the basement of Tokyo’s Shimbashi station. Built in 1966, the retro Shimbashi Ekimae Biru Ichigokan (Shimbashi Station Building No.1) is home to dozens of inexpensive drinking establishments that cater to salarymen and the occasional salarywomen who stop by for a beer and a bite on their way home. At Aoyagi, Yoshimura’s simple menu comprises 25 snacks, all priced between ¥400 and ¥700. Besides nuts and sliced cheese, she serves cold boiled vegetables and bowls of hot oden (stewed vegetables and fishcakes). Her house specialty, however, is nikudofu (simmered meat and tofu), which her regulars love to munch on as they drink.

Writing haiku is a wonderful way to connect with nature. I joined a haiku group 20 years ago. Once a month we’d go to some lovely place, such as a forest or by the riverside, and the eight of us would sit there quietly and observe the scenery. Once we had composed our poems, we’d read them out loud. It’s always fascinating how differently people perceive the same atmosphere and view. Sadly, one by one, all seven of my haiku friends passed away. Now I’m the only surviving member. But I continue our haiku group alone and submit my poems to the haiku association, which publishes them in its monthly publication.

In-laws and money can destroy even the happiest marriage. I was born in Hakodate, a port city in Hokkaido that is famous for its gorgeous night view. I loved my hometown as it’s very beautiful, almost fairy-tale-like. Sadly, my final few years there were not pretty, and my story didn’t have a happy ending. I married my shamisen teacher’s son. He was kind but that was our undoing because he was kind not only to me but also to his mother. She was overpowering and destroyed our life. At one point we moved out but my mother-in-law convinced us to return. She offered us money if we moved home but if we didn’t, we were not going to get much of her inheritance. My husband asked me to oblige. I did but I escaped soon after. We divorced and I ended up in Tokyo. Maybe if we had lived on our own, we’d be still together now. He was a good person but too weak as a man.

Making money is not the sole purpose of running a business. For me, having fun and not going senile are the main benefits of coming to work. Even if I don’t make much money, it’s better to be here meeting people than just getting old at home. It’s like this bar is my salon where I receive guests. If I break even, I am happy. Recently that has been getting harder because many of my regulars have retired, so they rarely visit. But hopefully business will pick up soon.

When I arrived in Tokyo, I knew I’d be happy here. Even after all these years, I love being in Tokyo, especially here in Shimbashi, in the middle of the action. This is where it all happens and I’m part of it. Life is wonderful.

Men might need to unwind after work, but in Japan what they seem to need more is a drink before going home. Home is just not fun, I guess. They need a stiff drink to help them put on a happy face for when they see their families. Their wives probably pester them about money and torment them about getting a raise. Of course, since they go home tipsy, their wives complain about their drinking, too. But by then they are in a good mood so they don’t mind their wives so much.

Exercise is fun! I go to the gym almost every day. I take yoga classes and I do stretching and some weight training. I began dancing when I was 5 years old and I used to be in the athletic club in middle school, so daily exercise comes naturally to me.

Having a job keeps one fit. Before opening this bar 28 years ago, I was dancing nichibu, a form of Japanese traditional dance. It was wonderful being a performer, but I wanted to run a business that I knew I could continue even when I got very old. A bar seemed like a good choice. I am sure I will be here for a few more years.

Whatever happens, consider it as great! Instead of thinking “That was tough” or “I’m so tired,” I always say “That was fun!” It puts a smile on my face and I soon believe that I did indeed have a good time.

Not selling much is sometimes the best service. I don’t recommend any food or drink to my customers. I wish I could sell more but I can’t. I imagine that they want to relax with a beer before heading home after a tough day at work, so I would rather not disturb them.

I’d rather spoil people than teach them what’s right. I’m not even sure yet what is right myself. Maybe one day we will all find out. I basically never say “no” to people. I just accept their opinion so that customers can feel safe here.

We must take care of ourselves. I receive a pension but that’s not enough to live on. I would never ask for government assistance, though. I’d be ashamed to be on welfare, so I work instead. It’s fun!

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “journeys in japan” Learn more at: juditfan.blog58.fc2.com. Twitter: @judittokyo