There once was a Tokyo night empire called Ink Stick, which spawned a handful of cool jazz slash ambient slash progressive clubs around town. But this review has nothing to do with Ink Stick. It is about Shinichi Watanabe, who took over the space that the Nogizaka Ink Stick occupied. Even more than 10 years after the fact, I cannot go down those stairs and walk through that door without thinking about Ink Stick.

Teresa Harrow and Shinichi Watanabe

Watanabe-san did hang out there. He and the owner were good mates. But, then, there are few players with whom Watanabe-san did not hang as he rose through the ranks during Tokyo’s disco and hostess club heyday. After the Vietnam War, Shinjuku — not Roppongi — was headquarters for jugheads on R&R. That’s where Watanabe-san started working part-time, when he was still in high school, in a club called Harlem Pop.

Those were exciting times. Artists like James Brown toured in the slipstream created by the inflow of GIs. And that’s when Watanabe-san decided to make mizu-shobai (the water trade) his life — despite dad’s attempts to fast-track him as a lawyer and his own dreams of becoming a movie director. “But, hey,” Watamabe muses, “running a club is like directing a movie — a different movie every night.”

When he got his hands on the Ink Stick lease, he opened a strip club called Flamingo Bar. After 13 years of operation, he decided it was time to refresh. “I wanted to create something crazy — not dirty crazy, but stylish crazy,” he explains.

So in January this year, he reopened with Coco Bongo. It is part bar (a long curvaceous one covered in leopard print), part hostess club (but one where the girls are encouraged to have fun) and part showcase (with belly dancers on some nights and live jazz or African percussion bands on others). As Watanabe-san envisioned, it is elegant with an edge.

“A club needs four things — fun atmosphere, sexy nuance, excellent cocktails and spontaneity!” Coco Bongo’s official tag reads “Expect the unexpected.”

For me, that has held true. My first encounter was bumping into a former Ink Stick bartender, which confirmed that I had entered the Twilight Zone. In fact, all the staff are gold-card personality holders. Tomomi, the glamorous mama-san, who glides, not walks; Emi, all sugar and spice and everything nice (and naughty) in a hostess; Hannes, a waiter with a thing for showing off his nipples; Billy, another waiter who does magic tricks; and on the list goes.

Coco Bongo is a great place to add a little sizzle to your summer.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.