O-bon is a mysterious Japanese holiday, which falls somewhere between the beginning and middle of August, as determined by the heaves and sighs of the cosmos each year. It is said to be a time when the spirits of one’s ancestors return to roost (especially if one leaves a strategically placed eggplant near one’s home).
For the average Japanese, it means time off work to make the annual trek home to dust off the family tombstone in readiness for the reunion. But if family equals hearth and home, then mine is here in my neighborhood — Jiyugaoka. And my first adopted relatives were Rie and Reo, the mama and master of Strahlen de Sonne, both of whom are alive and well.
When I first discovered Sonne, as it is simply called, I thought I had stumbled into a lesbian bar. Rie is a handsome woman and Reo a strikingly good-looking man. They both laugh as they tell me, “Most locals thought we were a gay transsexual couple when we started living in Jiyugaoka.” And they certainly don’t mind the confusion.
Reo was a country boy from Kumamoto who ended up fronting an indies glam-rock band in Tokyo. “I guess I always knew I was different,” he says with a smile. Rie was a struggling hair-and-makeup artist trying to assemble a portfolio. “I knew that’s what I wanted to be the first time I saw kabuki,” she says. But, as often happens during one’s teens, they both ended up working part time to support their careers.
Rie’s girlfriend first spotted Reo, whom she described as a blond Marc Bolan, working in a shop in Harajuku. On the pretext that Rie needed a model for her portfolio, off they went to make contact. Sixteen years later, Rie and Reo describe themselves as “easygoing divorcees jointly running a bar.”
Sonne is a relaxed, adult space. Its sparse, concrete walls are cozied by a long, solid-wood bar. At one end, Rie cooks and serves tasty bites from a variety of foreign foods, all stacked enticingly behind the counter. At the other end, Reo has squirreled away an impressive collection of vinyl (and more recently CDs), from which he DJs according to his mood — anything from Brian Eno to The Eagles.
This is the sort of place where the mamas and masters from other Jiyugaoka bars come to unwind. It is also the kind of place where the elements of life are tossed like a salad in the course of a conversation. But it is not the sort of place where one would feel comfortable — or welcome — in a suit.
Rie and Reo have their finger firmly on the pulse of the neighborhood. They know exactly what everyone is up to — who’s opening, who’s closing. And I am not the only orphan to have insinuated myself under their wing. Most of the customers who pull in at one of Sonne’s dozen or so stools are regulars. Not only during O-bon, but every day, the door is always open to welcome wandering spirits.