In December 1981, a small bar named Red Shoes opened in the basement of a building next to the bus stop near Nishi-Azabu crossing. Though only a stone’s throw from what is now a busy intersection, in those days as soon as the sun went down the area was deserted. In terms of partying, Roppongi was the front line and Shibuya had not yet come into play, which meant that Nishi-Azabu was the middle of nowhere at night.
There was no Hobson’s or Ganpacho (the barn-size Japanese restaurant where the climactic fight scene in “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” was filmed). La Boheme, which now occupies the second floor of the same building that housed Red Shoes, had not yet opened. There were a handful of bars tucked here and there around the neighborhood, but they all operated well below the party radar — meaning that they were either dressed up to look like restaurants or tagged as being for “members only.”
Red Shoes posed as both. Its vivid red interior decorated with two large paintings — one of Raijin, the god of lightning, and the other of Fujin, the god of wind — created the perfect backdrop for the haute Chinese cuisine on offer from the kitchen. And the fact that most of the heavyweights of rock who toured Japan during the ’80s would hold their official after-concert parties at Red Shoes meant that you would often find it closed to the public. You could, however, occasionally wangle your way in, which is how I once met David Bowie.
The bar’s name was inspired by a Todd Rundgren song, the chorus for which proclaimed:
“There are black shoes, there are blue shoes. There are pink shoes, there are white shoes. There are plaid shoes, there are purple shoes. But there are no shoes like the red shoes!”
Ten years ago, the bar’s owner passed away, and we were suddenly left with no shoes at all. Then, in December 2002, the current owner — having acquired the Raijin and Fujin portraits from the original bar — decided to open a new version of Red Shoes. Although the original location of the bar was not available, premises were secured on the same side of Roppongi-dori, but further toward Shibuya, in — ironically enough — the last deserted stretch of the street.
The malevolent grimaces coming from similarly vivid red walls notwithstand- ing, the new Red Shoes is nothing like the original. But that was intentional. Rather than trying to relive old glories, the contemporary Red Shoes is aimed at nurturing new talent by giving young bands a venue where they can perform live. These days, instead of rock icons sipping postshow cocktails, every other night you can catch up-and-coming talent strutting their stuff on stage. Many bands that play there are just starting out, which means that some are good and some are not. But Red Shoes gives them a chance to find out if they’ve got what it takes to make it.
The interior is simple and functional with few frills. A large curved bar provides ample space for sitting and serving. Low tables and chairs line the wall opposite. At the far end is the area designated as the stage — it is not raised, which gives gigs a more intimate feel. A piano stands against one wall; a fish tank is embedded in another. A mirrorball hangs overhead. And spotlights circle the stage. They even have a cloakroom.
Whereas the old Red Shoes was expensive and somewhat exclusive, the new one is priced like most bars these days (with little or no cover charge, even on live nights, and drinks priced around 800 yen). And it’s fun. There is no posing and posturing. On nonlive nights you will find fresh-faced DJs playing a lot of the tunes that can also be found in the bar’s jukebox — old rock, swing and blues tunes from the ’40s — and they play them on original 45s. It has also become a popular afterhours hangout on Friday and Saturday nights, when it stays open till you’ve had enough. Even hardcore clubbers I have spoken to give it the thumbs up.
The home page features a section called “Mon’s Diary” — a lively roundup of news, like where to buy tickets for Rolling Stones concerts, for example, as well as live reports with photos of the local bands who’ve played the venue. Red Shoes also hosted a bar tent at Fuji Rock Festival last year. Rather than (exclusively) paying homage to the gods of rock, this version has plugged itself firmly into the roots of rock to come.
Back in the day, it would have been great if Red Shoes had been more like it is now, but, then, I never would have met Bowie . . . .