While bars often use tactics such as offering healthy low-calorie food items or fruity cocktails on the menu to attract female customers, Aisekiya in Akabane resorts to an extreme that most sane businesses would not risk: Women can drink as much as they want — without paying a single yen. But the izakaya has been open for almost four months, and it doesn’t look like it’s on the verge of going out of business.
“We offer a place in which men and women can easily meet each other,” says owner Haruaki Sumiuchi. “Some people also come here to build connections.”
The bar is essentially a new alternative to gōkon, group dating parties in which two people of the opposite gender try to scrape together whatever single friends they can find to have dinner and drinks at an izakaya or restaurant. Aisekiya, which markets itself as a place where people can have a “once-in-a-lifetime encounter,” saves its customers the hassle of trying to get an equal number of people together in order to hold a blind date.
The biggest challenge is attracting women to the bar, which Aisekiya overcomes by allowing women to drink all they want for free, but slapping a bill of ¥1,500 per 30 minutes of drinking — plus a ¥1,000 table charge — on men. The 30-minute rate drops to ¥500 for customers who prefer to drink alone rather than join a table.
“People, including my acquaintances, thought we were super shady when we first opened,” jokes Sumiuchi. “But these days the ratio between men and women is equal.”
Guests consult with the staff on their taste in partners and what they’re looking for before being assigned to a table. To ease the tension of meeting someone for the first time and lighten the atmosphere, there are games such as Uno or Pop-up Pirate. But if all else fails and the person sitting in front of you is an unbearably dull conversationalist or just plain creepy, all it takes is a trip to the bathroom — the perfect cover as you discretely pull aside one of the staff to request a seating change.
The bar also charges customers for food, which includes typical izakaya fare such as edamame beans and deep-fried chicken. Sumiuchi says he plans to add healthier items to the menu geared toward women.
While it may be a challenge for foreign residents in Tokyo to navigate the complexities of Japanese matchmaking, Aisekiya is open to anyone who wants to have a chance to practice Japanese.
“We welcome anybody,” adds Sumiuchi. “Sometimes foreigners drop by with their Japanese friends, and it certainly adds a new dynamic.”
Aisekiya can’t guarantee that you’ll meet the love of your life, but it’s a sure way to step out of your comfort zone and meet new people.
3F Shinnaka Building, 1-15-1 Akabane, Kita-ku, Tokyo; 03-6454-4701; www.aiseki-ya.com. Angela Erika Kubo is a freelance writer and bar lover based in Tokyo. Follow her on Twitter @aekubo.