One of Naka-Meguro’s best features is the Meguro River. And though, like most of Tokyo’s inner-city waterways, its riverbed has been concreted to aid with storm drainage, the banks are topped with cobbled walkways and planted with mile upon mile of cherry trees. The blossoms are breathtaking when in season, but in summer their leafy boughs also offer a soothing escape from the sticky heat of the city.
The stretch of the Meguro River that winds from Naka-Meguro toward Ikejiri Ohashi bridge is dotted here and there with an interesting assortment of restaurants and late-night cafes. But the stretch that heads south toward Meguro proper has always seemed strangely quiet by comparison — until a couple of years ago. Now, like everywhere else in Tokyo, the dots are slowly but surely being connected.
Combine is a spacious, unpretentious lounge-style bar less than five minutes from the station — three minutes or so (depending on the lights) to cross the busy Yamate and Komazawa streets and 30 seconds or so (depending on your appreciation of nature) along the banks of the river. Compared to sucking exhaust fumes, that less-than-a-minute feels like an hour of yoga.
The first floor of the building that houses Combine takes full advantage of its riverside location. The exterior wall, which faces the water, is fitted wall-to-wall with plate glass. From the inside looking out, the windows perfectly frame the cherry tree opposite, which makes you feel a bit like you’re in a tree house — a rare treat for city dwellers.
Inside, the wall to the left has been built in with bookshelves that reach from floor to ceiling (and almost down its entire length), literally filled to overflowing with books — mostly coffee-table caliber art, design editions and novels, but it would perhaps take months to flip through all of them to make sure. The part of the wall that isn’t lined with books serves as a screen displaying an arty computer- generated graphic, behind which the signatures of DJs and musicians (and other visitors with “charisma” status) can be discerned.
A wide bar occupies the wall on the right. A couple of chess and Othello boards, as well as a multitude of flyers for club events, sit on a table near the entrance. And in between is a sea of sofas and coffee tables — none of which necessarily match, but all of which soothe your mood. In fact, one of the owners was having an extended nap on the one nearest the windows for the duration of my visit. And even though I rounded up some of the customers and staff to pose for a photograph next to him — and on top of him — he never woke up, so we never did get to meet.
“Combine is about communication,” says Yohei Kaneko, one of the partners behind the place. By that, he doesn’t just mean the spoken word — or even the written word — and hence the visual focus of the books, the projector flickering images on the back wall and, indeed, the framing of the cherry tree out front.
And last, but not least, there is music. Kaneko played an excellent selection of ambient house and edgy drum and bass. And he kept the volume at a level that was loud enough for you to enjoy without overwhelming conversation or thought.
Lounge bars come in two basic varieties, either upmarket or arty. The former are too impersonal to be called relaxing (discreet service often comes off as being cold), while the latter are difficult to create (and therefore often end up feeling contrived).
But not so Combine. Kaneko (and presumably his partner also) are genuinely interested in people. No pretense, no working the customers.
Combine comes together naturally because they do what comes naturally.
Combine: Books and Food, 1-10-23-103 Naka-Meguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo; tel. (03) 3760-3939; www. combine.jp. Open Mon.-Sun., midday-3 p.m. (lunch); 5 p.m.-8 p.m. for tea/coffee; 6 p.m.-4 a.m. for food (last order 2 a.m.). No cover charge. Beer and mixed drinks from 600 yen; snacks 500 yen. Other food 900 yen.