A pub is a pub, and a sports bar is a sports bar — or so you might think. In fact, these watering holes come in subtle shades of cultural preference. All conveniently bear the bold colors of a national flag somewhere on the premises for ease of reference. No prizes for guessing which one you will find hanging at The Maple Leaf in Shibuya.
Yes, it’s Canadian, but a Sports Bar and Grill, no less — a hefty subtitle that belies its rather modest size (meaning, you could probably squeeze a pool table in, but then there wouldn’t be much room to sit).
The Maple Leaf has already been up and running for three years, but it’s off the beaten track, and yet right in the heart of Shibuya at the same time. It sits up high on the fourth floor of a vaguely European-looking building with big bay windows on a relatively quiet back street. I’ve walked past it dozens of times but never gone in — those stairs look like a lot of work. And they are — though I’ve since discovered the elevator.
But it wasn’t the promise of the sports channels or a pint of Molsen that lured me into making my first ascent. It was to see an old friend. If anyone has been wondering what happened to Ono from Yen Bar, this is where you’ll find him most nights. Sadly for those of us who treasured his street-chic hideaway, he sold Yen Bar lock stock and barrel at the beginning of the year and took off to travel for a few months: hitting the powder in Hokkaido; the beaches in Thailand; and even doing a stint on the staff at a hot-spring resort in Hakone.
Yen Bar is sadly missed. Although the new owners have kept the name, it’s not the same. It was Ono who made it so alluring, with his earthy warmth and urban cool. At least he’s back in his natural habitat, behind a bar and ready, willing and able, once more, to serve and socialize. The fact that you can do so while drinking a Molsen and eating some Buffalo Wings could even be seen as a bonus — especially if you happen to know the Canadian national anthem by heart.
But it isn’t only Ono who makes The Maple Leaf a good spot for a beer. As I neared the top of the stairs on that first visit, I could hear Bob Marley pumping out of the speakers. Ono wasn’t there, Yutaka was the man responsible — a super-chill young dude, with long straggly hair held back under a baseball cap, and more than one tattoo visible under his oversize T-shirt.
Then the manager, Sebastian Angel, arrived, hauling his bicycle out of the elevator. He also wears his hair long and under a baseball cap. When Ono arrived, he upped the musical ante even further, but that was mostly because he was carrying some wicked rock and blues — his own compilation, which included The Stray Cats and The Pogues.
As always, it’s the people who make a place. Unlike the plethora of corporately owned Japanese pub chains, where the staff wear uniforms and never interact with the customers, except to serve, The Maple Leaf feels real. And, judging by the patter between the staff and the customers, most of the people who go there are regulars. When I visited, they included small groups of both Japanese coworkers, there for a bite on their way home, and gaijin mates, out to make a night of it. The latter, one and all, creased with laughter when the sports channel began broadcasting championship Ping-Pong. It was rather surreal.
What the sports channel may lack in programming, the kitchen more than makes up for with spice. The Buffalo Wings (simply called Buffalo Chicken) were searingly hot. I was asked whether or not I could handle it, and be warned — they mean it.
Fortunately, there is plenty of beer on hand as first aid. And there are plenty of other milder food options available — such as ribs, burgers and poutine, a uniquely Canadian dish consisting of baked potatoes topped with cheese and gravy.
Unfortunately, the Molsen isn’t on tap, but Sebastian is proud of the fact that The Maple Leaf is the only bar in Tokyo that even sells it in bottles. They do have the standard Irish quaffs on tap (Guinness and Kilkenny) and some local ales (Sapporo and Yebisu) for good measure.
Shibuya is not an easy place in which to find a relaxed, foreigner-friendly bar — especially now that it has not one but two Gas Panics. Yen Bar has moved on, but you can too, just a few streets down, into the safe and sane retreat that is The Maple Leaf.