Our last stop in Golden Gai takes us in deep — deep into its heart and soul, deep into its geographical center. This is where you’ll find the crumbling cinder-block row houses, which once dominated the area, still clinging to the narrow alleys that zigzag through Golden Gai’s core. Whereas Tre Tre and Krishna, the two bars previously reviewed, are atypical of most of the bars in the area, this stop is a classic — holed up, as it is, in still-sturdy cinder block in the middle of its row.
Each of these little two-story nomiya (drinking spots) was cloned from the same blueprint. The ground floor typically houses a boxlike bar that hogs the space and holds the stools hostage against the walls. A narrow strip of stairs in the back leads up at such a steep angle that you must climb them like a ladder. The second floor would traditionally be a tatami room with low tables and zabuton cushions, but many modern barkeeps opt for shoe-proof flooring and Western-style seating — as does Masami Kasai, the owner of Atom Heart Mother, our target in the heart of Golden Gai.
I love the name. If you know your way around progressive rock in the ’60s, you will recognize it as the name of the Pink Floyd album released in 1970. Being a huge fan of Pink Floyd, Kasai-san knows it well. He is also a big fan of Osamu Tezuka, the Japanese cartoonist who created the universally popular animation series known in the West as Astro Boy and in Japan as Tetsuwan Atom. Out of this fusion, Atom Heart Mother was born.
But the only obvious element is Pink Floyd. A giant reproduction of their mascot album jacket towers over the entrance. The jackets of some of Kasai-san’s other favorites are the only decorations inside (The Allman Brothers, Lou Reed, another Pink Floyd). The music played also reflects this mood — despite the fact that Kasai-san is never present. He mans the helm at Atom’s mothership bar, Balboa, named after an obscure Tezuka manga.
The running of Atom is left to a rotating crew of bar hands, each of whom hosts a regular night throughout the week. Chiemi holds the weekend spot and forms the nucleus around which the others orbit like subatomic particles.
But my favorite little electron is Kuromiya, who energizes the scene every Wednesday night. His Kewpie-ish proportions and avant-garde chic are unique. A few multicolored twists of hair sprout from the base of his otherwise shaven head. These are then nicely off-set by a pair of thick, heavy-rimmed glasses. He also sports a lively and decidedly kitsch collection of shirts — slinky ones wallpapered with miniature ukiyo-e and graphic ones with cute Americana appliques (check www.leedungarees.com/buddylee/ to see what I mean).
Most of Atom’s customers are young wannabe artists or somehow living on the edge. But you will also find the odd contemporary of Golden Gai’s pioneers happily tucked in next to some kid in flares with long hair — trappings which these old-timers traded in long ago for a suit and a 9-to-5. But it is their presence that gives Atom depth . . .