Our Lives | TELLING LIVES

Building a home in Fukuoka one salsa step at a time

by Irina Grigorovici

Contributing Writer

When you feel like dancing, Tokyo has a ton of places you can go. In Fukuoka, the selection is smaller, but that means the community is closer.

One of my favorites is Latin Bar Salsa in the city’s Tenjin neighborhood. Stepping into the third-floor space, you’ll often be met with a room teeming with smiling faces, bodies smoothly circling their way around a dance floor in pairs, passing each other in what looks like a well-choreographed performance. Latin American rhythms fill the air, and it’s hard not to be drawn into the undulating mob.

The walls spin fast, then slow, as I’m led to the dance floor and across it. A Dominican friend nearby calls out, “Que bonito!” (“How nice!”), in reference to our matching steps. Of course, you don’t need to be a professional to get into the groove.

I’ve stopped by Latin Bar Salsa so many times it feels I’m part of a second family. This same fondness is unequivocally shared by the Latin American community and others interested in the culture, many of whom see the bar as a home away from home.

The bar’s owners, Natsumi Vanessa Hernandez and Yusei Maeda, will celebrate the venue’s three-year anniversary on Dec. 16. The husband-and-wife team is currently preparing to open for the night, with Hernandez, 32, standing across from me putting things in order and Maeda, 26, happily distracting their baby daughter to my right.

“It was a very sudden decision,” says Hernandez when asked about what led her and her husband to open Latin Bar Salsa. “We had always been thinking of starting up a business,” adds Maeda, “so when an opportunity came up to have this place, we went for it.”

Hernandez first arrived in Japan from Colombia five years ago after being granted a government scholarship aimed at familiarizing descendants of Japanese living abroad, like herself, with their ancestral culture. She was a student when she met Maeda, who is originally from Saga Prefecture but has been in Fukuoka ever since enrolling in university there at the age of 18. The couple married earlier this year.

With Hernandez’s South American background, the couple naturally had many Latin American friends, which meant an abundance of home parties. When the chance to set up their own business arose, however, the pair looked at the opportunity as a way of creating one central “home” for all of them.

Latin Bar Salsa opened at the end of 2016, offering a central spot for their group to drink and eat — particularly dishes from other countries when their friends took on the challenge of cooking.

Hit the dance floor: A Colombian flag hangs on the wall of Latin Bar Salsa in Fukuoka's Tenjin neighborhood. | IRINA GRIGOROVICI
Hit the dance floor: A Colombian flag hangs on the wall of Latin Bar Salsa in Fukuoka’s Tenjin neighborhood. | IRINA GRIGOROVICI

However, the venue’s main product was in its name. Twice a week, for 90 minutes starting at 7:30 p.m., instructors would teach dance lessons that would lead into Cuban salsa nights on Tuesdays and Bachata nights on Thursdays. LA salsa nights on Wednesdays were soon added to the lineup, and all three nights continue to this day.

“At first, maybe 90 percent of people said this was not a good idea,” Hernandez recalls, adding that Fukuoka didn’t have “many Latinos and, also, the community of people dancing salsa is not so big.” They were told they’d never be able to survive as a business by simply catering to their own community. “But we made up our minds. No, this would be a Latin bar, no matter what.” Their decision proved to be the right one.

“If I hadn’t left my country, I would never have known how big (the dancing community) is,” Hernandez says. “Australia, France, there are people coming to our bar from everywhere. Salsa is all over the world.

“Actually, I’ve come to realize that dancers like to travel, and they end up dancing wherever they go.”

Hernandez says she has also been surprised by “how much Japanese people like Latin American culture” and “how many can dance.”

“For them, it’s like a hobby,” she says. “Some, my goodness, they dance better than me.” That’s quite a compliment coming from Hernandez, who grew up in Cali in southwestern Colombia, a city of more than 2 million that has become known as a salsa capital.

Maeda learned his first salsa steps by going out to bars with his non-Japanese friends. The rest he has picked up from the very lessons organized by Latin Bar Salsa, which I wouldn’t have guessed considering how natural he looks on the dance floor.

After becoming a university student, Maeda decided to travel abroad every two or three months, working part-time jobs in between to save money for his trips.

“I have always tried to improve my character, the way I act and my way of thinking,” he says, adding that when he was 21 years old he rode his motorcycle from Kyushu to Hokkaido. He says he has always “wanted to think differently from other people,” to which Hernandez chimes in, “‘Wanted?’ You still do, my God!”

With that in mind, Maeda explains that what he likes most about running a bar is “talking with people.”

“I’m here (at the bar), but I don’t feel like I’m working,” he says. “I’m not shy and I like to get to know new people; speaking English, learning Spanish.”

“Little by little, customers become regulars, and then good friends,” Hernandez says, adding that the pair recently traveled to South Korea together with one of their regular customers. They say that, first and foremost, their bar is about people. Though they were met with skepticism when they first started, thanks to the community they’ve developed they have amassed a loyal base of support.

Hernandez and Maeda aren’t stopping with just the bar. On Dec. 20, the couple plans to open a taco shop that they’re calling Tacomia.

“People usually only know tacos when it comes to Latin America,” Hernandez says. “I’m not Mexican, but it seemed like the best way to enter the market.” Hernandez adds that they’re not doing anything that’s currently being done in Fukuoka. Tacos, she says, are different from one place to the next in Mexico, so their take will be one with homemade tortillas (“No one has that”) and top-notch beef, pork and fish fillings.

“We eat too much, I don’t know if that’s good or bad,” Hernandez says while talking about how they came up with the idea to start the restaurant. “We work for food, food makes us happy,” the pair starts laughing. Little do they know, they’re preaching to the choir. Music and food are the key ingredients for a healthy community, and the two of them are no doubt doing their part, one salsa step at a time.

Latin Bar Salsa is located on the third floor of the Bacchus Building at 3-4-15 Tenjin in Fukuoka’s Chuo Ward (closed Mondays). For more information, visit latin-bar-salsa.negocio.site.