Astrophysicists may bicker over whether the universe is exploding or imploding, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that in the microcosmic world of Tokyo, expansion is the overriding force at work. Proof of this would be clearly visible from space — especially at night — as one after another of the semiurban centers that surround the city comes online as an entertainment enclave.
If you superimposed the network of Tokyo’s major commuter trains on what you’d see, the path of expansion would even make sense. The first to flare up are always the areas around stations where express trains stop, especially the first two or three out of town. But Sangenjaya, which is in the magic inner circle of “first express stops” (on the Denentoshi Line out of Shibuya) would look strangely dark — an inexplicable brownout in an otherwise logically lit grid.
But then the area is wedged between Shimokitazawa and Jiyugaoka, two local hot spots of long-standing, each of which sits on its own discrete spoke on the commuter hub from Shibuya. In fact, Sangenjaya is equidistant from all three — Shimokitazawa, Jiyugaoka and Shibuya — trapped there in a triangle.
The Sangenjaya Triangle, as locals jokingly call it, is a maze of shopping arcades and alleys jammed with dozens of mostly narrow two-story buildings whose facades are noticeably crumbling. A developer is probably waiting patiently for the leases to lapse on all the shops and noodle stands in the area so that the triangle can be razed and another high-rise Carrot Tower built. But, until then, it promises to burn brightly at night. Ironically enough, Carrot Tower’s presence more or less ensures it.
How sweet it is
One of the treats to be found here is Sugar, sequestered away on the second floor in an alley off Sangenjaya Crossing. A bright-red lightbox at the foot of the stairs, which advertises another bar, is misleading until you learn to use it as the marker for Sugar. And how sweet it is at the top of those dauntingly steep stairs (so steep that customers tend to literally fall in once they reach the top). Inside you’ll quickly find a niche in which to chill and chat and toe tap to some music.
Sato, the bar’s master, dropped out of working in television production four years ago because he was more interested in drinking and hanging out than being serious about competing in the media world. And like many masters before him, he has created his own unique world in a hobbit-sized space which seats nine at a push (10 if you count the toilet). His TV days have stood him in good stead, as many of his former colleagues now come to him to unwind after a hard day’s work. As, too, do other bartenders and cooks and the ever-expanding ranks of residents who’ve found their way to his world.
Sato exclusively plays dancehall reggae — a towering stack of albums on 12-inch vinyl sits on the bar, as do two powerful Hitachi Lo-D speakers. He is legendary for picking and choosing his own hours, never opening much before midnight and often staying simply closed. But with no cover charge and all drinks 600 yen (including his original coffee shochu), it is well worth the dime.
Up on the roof
If you want to rise above it all, A-Bridge, on the roof of one of the only high-rises in the triangle, will definitely lift your spirits. Tachi Noriyuki, the owner, has commandeered the entire top floor of the building, and knocked down several interior walls to create two large and airy lounge rooms around a central bar.
Wood floors and white plaster walls give the space an earthy, natural feel. Mismatched sofas, easy chairs and low tables give it a personal touch, as does the local artists’ work which hangs on the walls. One lounge also features a small stage for live performances.
But by far the best feature of A-bridge is the roof itself. A small sunroom off to one side of the bar leads to a spacious outdoor terrace. Various parts of the terrace have been fitted with low wooden decks and built-in benches. The upper floors of Carrot Tower still loom overhead, but you also get an unobstructed view of the triangle below. It is a fitting setting in which to observe such urban extremes as it feels like you are in the great outdoors in the middle of a big city. The tag on the shop card pretty much sums up the modern urban experience, “Cafe, bar, party, gallery, club, theatre, living.”
But the first cool bar that opened in Sangenjaya was Dune. And even though I had a clear visual memory of the shopping street and arcade which led me there, it took me 10 years to find my way back there. The area can be confusing to navigate as, in addition to being sliced in two by a major road, it has more shotengai shopping arcades than anywhere else I know in Tokyo.
Dune is still there and still exactly as I remembered it, though the vibe and clientele have settled in more with time. It is on the second floor at the entrance of an arcade with plate-glass windows on both sides, which, from the outside, somehow makes it feel like it’s suspended from the roof of the arcade rather than rising from the foundations below.
From the inside, Dune’s windows are covered with wooden blinds, which provide privacy while allowing you to peek outside. It is long and narrow like a train carriage, with an extremely well-stocked bar running half the length — fronted by the same wrought-iron chairs I remember from my first visit. Three small booths line the length of the windows opposite. The same delicious garlicky smells still escape from the kitchen.
But there has been one significant change. As of six years ago, Dune has had a new owner and resident master, Masa. He is a young, relaxed thirtysomething who wears his hair long under a baseball cap. With fresh hands at the helm, Dune is poised to glide through another 10 years without blinking. But blink, you will, once Sangenjaya really starts blazing . . .