In clubland, regular openings and closings are a given. Bars, on the other hand, live by different rules — longevity is proportional to the dedication of their creators. In Tokyo, a hybrid type of nightspot has evolved (and multiplied, because they fit well in the big city). You could call them mini-clubs, but that sounds too grand. And, hence, they are usually called DJ bars. You can sit, or you can dance. What you can’t have is much room to move. Even if a space is bigger than a matchbook and smaller than a breadbox, in goes a DJ bar and out goes a sign. But, until recently, they had the life-expectancy of an insect.
328 (San-Ni-Pa) is an exception. It has survived for 23 years, during which dozens of cool little DJ bars have failed. A couple of years before it opened, three girls were raped and murdered by boys they met in a disco, and, as a result, dancing after midnight was made illegal — illegal, that is, without a license. But a license is expensive and requires heavyweight guarantors. And most of the independent operators who are tempted to open a night spot can barely muster the key money for the space. Therefore, you still find tables and chairs butting into the only available dance space in an already insanely small “club.” They are the remnants of camouflage.
The police used to actively target dance joints that operated outside existing party centers. And 328 was directly in the line of fire, burrowed, as it is, in a basement right on Nishi-Azabu crossing — smack-dab between Roppongi and Shibuya, and in an area that, at the time, was predominantly residential by night. Until 10 years ago, Ma-chan, the master, was subjected to periodic raids — always on a Friday or Saturday.
“Everyone had to leave and I had to close. They really knew how to hurt me,” he says, with a grin and a wince. But except for losing him money, the raids ended without incident. Yet even now, you will find a table on the dance floor.
Yellow had to fight its battles, too. As did Picasso and Club Next. But when the economic bubble burst, leaving Tokyo’s 23 wards awash in cool little bars, the police couldn’t even pretend. These days, as long as the neighbors don’t complain, the police pretty much leave DJ bars alone. There was a brief wave of terror when Azabu installed a new police chief. But, even then, Ma-chan somehow walked away relatively unscathed. (Yellow was closed for two months; 328 for just two weeks! And the legal limit for dancing was generously extended to 1 a.m.) And life goes on . . .
. . . Especially at 328. In fact, it just keeps getting better. Even midweek, people party till dawn. The bar staff all double as DJs, and they all spin tunes — straight up, no mixing. Stalwarts, like Shibazo, who has been working at 328 for 17 years, spin an across-the-board disco-reggae-ambient set (Abba, Marley, Mix Master Morris). Meanwhile, young bloods, like Lavvi, spin an informed mix of ’70s and ’80s classics (Cream, Parliament, Buzzcocks). You never know what you’re gonna hear next. Which also means you never know when the dance floor will explode.
Ma-chan hasn’t changed. He still wears that beret. And he still cranks out an excellent skat and be-bop set, when he’s in the mood. And he is still impish by nature, though he has become more daruma-esque with age. But that somehow seems appropriate: After 23 years in Nishi-Azabu, both his eyes are wide open . . .