Pass by the noisy pachinko parlor near BicCamera in Yokohama, turn the corner at the red paper lantern outside the yakitori shop and, tucked away down an alleyway, you'll find a villa-like little storefront labeled "Snack Sakura."

The mama-san's full name is Sakura Koide, though here she's either "Mama" or just Sakura. She opened her shop 25 years ago when, still in her 20s, she came into some money when she divorced, and decided on mama-hood rather than tying the knot again. In that, her story is probably not unusual among mama-sans.

Each snack has its own character, and with a giant photo of the Manhattan evening skyline on the wall, Snack Sakura aspires to a kind of international chic.

Unsavory types, of whom there are many in the neighborhood, generally stay away. This is a place for gentlemen, fellows who bow politely when offered a drink, and who keep their voices low when they tell her she is utsukushii (attractive). Some of these men have been frequenting this snack for decades, and when they gaze at Sakura, there is a sense they are not so much sizing up her appearance as drifting down memory lane.

Certainly Sakura herself -- a petite woman dressed this evening in a gray suit jacket and gold-loop earrings -- credits more than her looks for keeping her in business this long.

"It's not youth and beauty that are required in this industry," said Sakura. "It is the wisdom of age." That, and a good memory. "I keep every customer's profile stored in my head."

Sakura is an upbeat woman -- someone who seems enviably exempt from the woes that afflict most people. But when asked what is the chief difficulty she has faced in her many years as a mama-san, she becomes thoughtful. It is, she says, when a customer drifts away after retirement or losing his job. Or worse, "When a customer dies. Sometimes a week will go by and I don't see somebody, and then I'll think, 'Maybe it's cancer; maybe they're gone.' "

That's certainly one downside to having a devoted clientele. As Sakura puts it: "My customers and I have grown older together."

But despite that close relationship, because some customers' wives are entirely unaware of her existence, Sakura is often unable to pay her final respects at a funeral.

But it doesn't do to dwell on such things, so Sakura excuses herself to make the rounds at her customers' tables. She picks up a microphone and, in a birdlike voice reminiscent of a 78 rpm phonograph recording, gently revives a group of drowsy businessmen with a karaoke rendition of the enka ballad "Ginza No Koi No Monogatari (The Legend of a Ginza Love)."

Many people grab the spotlight over the evening as the karaoke microphone gets passed around. Occasionally, a customer sings in pitch, and even with a touch of panache. And with two cheerful furoa reidiizu (floor ladies) there to help Sakura tend to the glasses of whiskey, there is no shortage of feminine charm in the room.

But the fiftysomething man whose table Sakura approaches when the singing has subsided keeps his eyes on her. Sitting across from him, she mixes him a drink and he sips it quietly. They speak in subdued voices. It is a contemplative moment.

Yet, there is an energy, the kind found only between a man and a woman who have known each other a very long time. Sakura happens to look away for a moment and the man whispers, "Isn't she beautiful . . . "