There’s a small, white street cart lined with candles and Baccarat crystal glasses that mysteriously appears at midnight on the streets of Tokyo.
It would not seem out of place in a Haruki Murakami novel — fleeting and, just like its warm candlelight, seeming to flicker in that borderline space between fantasy and reality.
On this particular evening, it is parked just off a major north-south road cutting through the city. Three individuals — an older lady and two younger men — are drinking and chatting around the bar. Behind it, a man in a dark fur coat and gray knit sweater is slowly smoking a cigar, constantly twirling it in his fingers.
This is Shotaro Kamijo, and he created the yatai (street stall), known as Twillo, 14 years ago. Originally from Nagano Prefecture, Kamijo graduated from Yokohama National University and dabbled in a variety of fields, first going into banking and later into politics, working as a public secretary to a member of the House of Representatives.
“I decided to stop pretending to be a fool,” Kamijo says about what motivated his pivot to a distinctly unusual lifestyle. “That’s not to negate the work I had done up until that point. I enjoyed my work at the bank and as a public secretary. … But if I had only lived a life walking safely on the rails, then that seemed to me to be pretending to be a fool. … I wanted to live as honestly as I could.”
From this realization, he derived three requisite conditions for starting his own business: It should allow him to express his worldview, give him a high degree of freedom and enable him to earn a living. Thus, the idea for his yatai bar was born.
Twillo currently appears in various places in Tokyo around midnight and stays out until Kamijo feels like pulling the yatai back home, usually around 5 or 6 a.m. Kamijo never announces his exact location by address or coordinates, but instead posts descriptions on Twitter, alongside a theme of the day — an invitation for those dedicated enough to head out into the city past the last train, and those are usually the kind of people looking for an adventure.
This night, the tweet reads: “Next to Tokyo University … Adventure Day 3,555. Alongside Yamate-dori, right next to Komaba University. Around Shoto. Let’s relax and smoke a cigar here tonight. The theme is ‘bōkyaku’ (‘forgetting completely’). That is to say … in order to live longer. It’s a ‘safety device’ (grin) …”
Kamijo serves a limited selection of drinks, priced only by what you feel they are worth. This evening, there are two options, selected to pair with cigars: a rich and smooth 23-year-aged rum and a Calvados with a comparatively restrained sweetness and refreshing quality. These are served on the narrow bar counter which bears a chalkboard displaying the evening’s theme (per Kamijo’s tweet) to spark a discussion or two.
Food is a bring-your-own-affair. One of the salarymen sneaks off to the convenience store and returns slurping a cup noodle, and an elderly gentleman courteously places a square of dark chocolate beside everyone’s drink in turn.
Around 1 a.m., a lady in a leopard print coat arrives and unwraps warm couscous with a vegetable stew, which she doles out in paper bowls. Hana Nishino works at a nearby sake bar, and has come three nights in a row since a customer tipped her off to Twillo’s existence and currently convenient location.
“I love the concept and style,” she says. “You expect that you’ll meet people there you’ll get along with. It’s exciting because there’s this feeling of finding a secret place, and you feel a bit superior because it’s a bar for only people in the know.”
Kamijo rarely takes time off. Aside from illness or injury, “there has never been a time when I just didn’t feel like (heading out),” he says. “I think that’s perhaps because it doesn’t feel much like work to me. I am doing this while drinking alcohol, smoking cigars, talking to people … I wouldn’t go as far as saying I am just playing around. But I am doing this because I enjoy it.”
So do others: The temporary street-side community evolves throughout the night as eclectic characters come and go.
Itinerant and outdoor, Twillo might seem like an avant-garde answer to the coronavirus era, as the rise in remote working prompts many to reassess their location and lifestyle choices. But Kamijo says that, long before the pandemic, customers would tell him they envied his lifestyle. In the context of 2020, Twillo’s concept of personal expression and freedom simply resonates even more.
There is certainly no denying the fairy tale-like quality of a candlelit bar that appears, like magic, around midnight. At some point in the evening, two youngsters passing by on bicycles — university students, perhaps — pull up, eyes-wide and faces alight at the sight of this unexpected discovery. On their way home and without cash, they decide to stop by next time — if they can find it.
“Just search for the white yatai,” Kamijo says, as they pedal off into the night.
Follow @Twillo0 on Twitter to track it down.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.