It’s Saturday night at Bar Shampoo, one of the roughly 200 tiny watering holes crammed into the Golden Gai district of Shinjuku, and Takashi Goto is setting up for G10 Sake Night, the popup event he’s hosted every weekend since June.
Bottles of premium brews sit chilling in ice buckets as Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” blasts from the speakers.
Goto stands behind the counter, dressed in a blue yukata (summer kimono) and a white scarf, examining the labels through a pair of square hipster frames. He is tall and wiry with a mane of long, black hair, and this colorful attire seems at odds with his otherwise goth-like appearance — the lip, cheek and ear piercings joined by a silver chain and chunky rings that cover half of his fingers.
Everything about the scene is delightfully incongruous. Stepping into the dim space, which seats six at the bar and four at a table under the staircase, you might expect to find a clique of standoffish regulars swilling highballs — or an equally unwelcoming cover charge of ¥1,000.
Although I love the idea of Golden Gai — an area that exudes a noir-esque aura evocative of the neighborhood’s louche past, when artists such as photographer Daido Moriyama chain-smoked through the alleys — the establishments can be intimidating, and I rarely stay for more than one drink (another problem is that few places in Golden Gai serve alcohol that I actually enjoy). But Goto is a congenial host with great taste in nihonshu (sake) and shōchū distilled liquor.
The first time I dropped by G10 Sake Night, I found myself singing along with him and another guest to Spandau Ballet’s “True,” after a couple of glasses of Mutsu Hassen Ginjoshu from Aomori Prefecture.
“A few bars are trying to change the image of Golden Gai to make it more open,” Goto says. “I like conversation and wanted to have a place where people could drink good sake and talk.”
A native of Yamagata Prefecture, Goto had moved to New York City to work in the fashion industry, but after four years he was unhappy with his job. Like many young Japanese, Goto had thought of sake as a cheap drink with little character, until friends in the sake business sparked his interest in the brew.
“Daishichi Minowamon (a junmai daiginjo sake from Fukushima Prefecture) changed my life,” he recalls with a laugh.
It was love at first sip, and he soon began bartending at Decibel, New York’s oldest sake bar, where he got deeper and deeper into the world of nihonshu and connected with an international community of enthusiasts.
When he returned to Japan last year, destiny drew him back to sake. A chance meeting with the owner of Bar Shampoo gave Goto the idea to organize pop-ups that would attract a different crowd to the bar, which was closed on weekends.
Judging by the photos Goto posts on his Facebook page, the guests — a mix of locals, tourists, and sake brewers — may enter as strangers, but they always leave as friends.
G10 Sake Night at Bar Shampoo Kabukicho 1-1-7, Shinjuku-ku; www.shampoosg.jimdo.com; open 7 p.m. till late on Saturdays and Sundays. Melinda Joe is a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs about drinks at www.tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com
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