Wed, Jun 20, 2007 - Page 13 News List

The best things in Tokyo are hard to find

Tokyo's trendiest clubs do not keep people out with bouncers and velvet rope, they simply make sure they can't be found

By Julia Chaplin  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , TOKYO

Bars along Nonbeiyokocho, or Drunkard's Alley, in the Shibuya district

PHOTOS: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

It was the middle of the night as a Japanese skateboarder and concert promoter named Chris led me through Tokyo's Shibuya district — a sort of futuristic Times Square — with its hyper-commercial vertical sprawl of glass office towers and flashing neon billboards advertising the latest cell phones and pop stars. We threaded past the sleeping shopping malls and shiny multiplexes, down a series of winding streets and through a stone pedestrian tunnel, until we emerged beneath raised train tracks.

In what seemed like a prewar red-light district, dozens of pocket-size bars are tucked in a long, ramshackle shed pieced together shanty-style with slabs of corrugated metal, mismatched wooden boards and battered shoji rice screens mended with newspapers and ragged cloth.

We trolled up and down until Chris found a particular dusty glass window. He looked through a peephole, but rather than going through the front door, we ducked down a small side alley where an older woman, presumably the owner, greeted Chris by name and bowed. After trading our sneakers and stiletto boots for Japanese house slippers, we slipped inside the club, Shisui.

It was a cramped space, with a few older men sitting at a thatched bamboo bar. The hostess pointed to a ladder and up we climbed into an even smaller room, furnished with nothing but a straw mat, a few cushions and a low table. A kimono clown doll and a dusty wooden guitar hung on the wall – boho signs, Chris pointed out, of the Ben Harper-listening, yoga-taking skater set who have adopted this as their unofficial, VIP-only clubhouse that fits about four. A very elite club by the size of things.

Such hidden nightspots have become all the rage among a certain Tokyo set — weaned on anime and text messaging — that has graduated from dancing under the strobe lights at big Western-style nightclubs. Infused with a knowing, postmodern nostalgia for pre-Sony Tokyo, these hard-to-find hangouts feel as intimate as living rooms and are often just as small. They are not advertised on party fliers or virally hyped on Mixi — Japan's answer to MySpace — but, oddly enough for a society intravenously hooked up to high-speed gadgetry, traded solely by word of mouth.

Tokyo, especially after dark, is notoriously hard to penetrate. With its winding mazelike streets, the city is a challenge for even seasoned taxi drivers. (Many bicyclists have GPS devices on their handlebars.) So imagine hunting down the restaurants, bars and clubs stashed away in patchwork alleys, nondescript apartment buildings, faceless office towers and basement stairwells illuminated by red bulbs.

Discreet, out-of-the-way bars have been a staple of Japanese culture for decades. Before World War II, Tokyo was filled with these pocket-sized dives called nomiya (counter bars) with space for just six or seven stools. Behind the counter was a proprietor whose role was confidant and caregiver to the regulars. When the city was rebuilt, most were bulldozed in favor of larger, glossier, more Westernized offerings.

Now a younger, postwar creative class is reviving nomiya culture — with a decidedly modern spin.

"I don't go out that often, but when I do, I like to go to these little secret places," said the contemporary artist Takashi Murakami, tinkering with a trademark anime sculpture. "There is something very familiar and personal about them that I find comforting. They may have a modern design, but the feeling is more like traditional Japan."

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