You usually are taken to the best bars — or you’re told about them. You don’t usually find one by walking down a random street — especially a big street — and lurching through the first open door you see.
But that’s what happened one night when I got lost looking for a place near the Meguro River in Aobadai. I realized I had been walking in circles when I found myself back on Yamate-dori, not far from where I started.
Yamate-dori curves in an arc through Tokyo’s innermost western suburbs. By day, it is choked with traffic, but by midnight, it is empty except for taxis trawling for fares. As I retraced my steps along a lonely stretch under a through-traffic ramp, I suddenly saw a light. And a stylish wood slat and plate-glass storefront, through which I caught a glimpse of a comfortable, sofa-filled room. And a bar, from where several faces peered back out at me. But I didn’t really need to stay until 5 a.m. to know I had found a gem.
The interior is elegant, with rough-textured walls rendered in earthy tones. A row of squared-off sofas and armchairs covered in muted shades of cotton line the length of one wall. Lights, mounted in each corner behind perforated rectangles of metal, diffuse a warm glow throughout. The bar is topped with a slab of tree, extracted vertically from the trunk — the knots and burls carefully preserved along its outer edge and protected under a silky lacquer finish. A half dozen stools sit ready. A stack of plump, yellow grapefruit in a wire-frame basket add a Mediterranean touch.
Gama, as my newfound gem is known, means “toad” in Japanese. Yoshida-san, the master, started out in life as an industrial designer. And though a latecomer to mizu shobai, he obviously has a natural flair — not just for interiors, but also for attracting an interesting clientele.
Ishi-san, his bar hand, was the first to greet me with a warm smile and a sparkle in his eye. He is an effervescent young chap who, later in the evening, threw his arms back and proclaimed, “I was born to talk!” And so he does, as does everyone who frequents “the Toad.”
Gama is a chill-out-space-cum-clubhouse for a well-networked circle of creators and designers, who drift in throughout the night to hammer out ideas or howl at the moon. I met Hide, a fashion designer and stylist with a shock of bottle-red hair poking out from under a coffee-colored cap. Then Kyosuke, also a stylist, who is both flamboyant and alarmingly blunt (he asked me in a voice audible by all, “So, which one of these guys would you take home?”). And Yamamoto, a photographer, whose business card bears the slogan, “Stop war — all way.” And Mochizuki, a graphic designer, who entertained me with a dissertation on why all Kyushu Mochizuki’s are descended from ninja. “Honto! It’s true . . .”
Yoshida-san dishes up tasty pickle or tofu treats, while Ishi-san plies the stereo with selected albums dispensed at minimal decibels. He played “Let It Bleed,” an early Rolling Stones album, followed by the latest from Ego Wrappin’, a Japanese jazz and guitar groove unit, and I could just hear James Brown in the background as the tale of the ninja unfolded . . .