When railways and expressways are carved through an existing urban grid, awkwardly shaped scraps of land are often left in their wake. In central Tokyo, if the fragment is big enough for a single room and a stairwell, something will be built. Architects need to think both laterally and vertically to capture precious space. The Hayakawa family was lucky. They ended up with a tidy triangle in the heart of Shibuya. And they were even luckier to have an architect as a son.
The result is Fellow, a reggae bar cocooned in a cozy triangular basement. In an area dotted with noisy yakitori shops and shingled with gaudy neon signs for love hotels, the entrance is remarkable in its simplicity. A wooden seat sits on the street cradling a board bearing the name. A single bulb, covered in a small orb of washi, juts out above the door, which is always open. Beyond, a staircase plunges below. Within seconds, you can feel the reggae.
The bar mimics the shape of the building, with two long stainless-steel counters converging in an arrowhead in front of a mirrored wall. Cluttered as it is with knickknacks and huge jars of fruit steeping in alcohol, it feels relaxed and homey. But the best thing about a triangular bar is that the bartender can spin in the center and easily reach everything. Sometimes, being the only customer at a long linear bar can feel desolate. But with a triangle, you always have the bartender for company.
I was introduced by a female bartender who knew Omochi, the manager. They are now married and running a reggae bar called Buju in Fukuoka. These days, you will find, sitting quietly behind the bar like a ninja in the shadows, Nori-san, ready to serve in a single bound. When I met him he was a refreshingly belligerent part-timer. “Being the boss has stolen myself from me,” he lamented. Compared to Omochi’s understated neo-urban chic, Nori is delightfully rough around the edges. And if you hit one of his buttons, expect an immediate and honest response.
A steady flow of misfit designers and DJs come and go like the tide. Most were networked by Omochi during the many years he spent clubbing prior to managing Fellow. Nori, however, is quietly accumulating percussionists with whom he can jam on his night off. People drop by — alone or with a friend — to unwind to the music or slouch into a chat. The bar hits max with a dozen drinkers, but if you have a dozen people of your own in tow, you can hole up on the extra-subterranean floor below. It is like a miniature club — complete with a DJ pulpit, dance floor and microscopic VIP room.
For me, Fellow will always be a place where, like planes over Bermuda, my nights somehow end up getting lost . . .