Small Space

4 commentsArchitecture,Tokyo

I won­der if she’s still there.

I went out for the first time in Tokyo one cold Novem­ber night. The air was filled with the spir­it of fes­tiv­i­ty and the smell of saké, and the Yaman­ote train was espe­cial­ly crowd­ed with busi­ness­men well ahead of my friends and I in alco­hol intake.

One of them approached us and asked the usu­al ques­tion “Where are you from?” and struck up a con­ver­sa­tion about Japan, year end fes­tiv­i­ties and whether or not we liked raw fish. It was a good thing he spoke Eng­lish, oth­er­wise it would have been a very short con­ver­sa­tion. Any­way, by the time we arrived at Shibuya Sta­tion, he had already invit­ed us for a drink and we had accepted.

We got out of the sta­tion and he led us first across the main street, then under a bridge, then into a small­er street and then anoth­er. I’m sure if some­one today asked me for direc­tions to the bar where we end­ed up, I’d have a very hard time giv­ing them. Any­way, I stood out­side the bar not sure what was expect­ed of me. The exte­ri­or was made of three wood­en boards that were fas­tened togeth­er by what looked like door hinges. The boards ran all the way to the under­side of the bridge over­head, so there was no need for a roof. I untied my shoes, left them at the door and went in.

The inte­ri­or of the bar was even more sur­pris­ing. I know no bet­ter way to describe it than to say: It was real­ly, real­ly small. There was an L‑shaped counter about one and a half meters long, behind which stood a mid­dle-aged woman cook­ing oden. On the oth­er side of the counter sat two cus­tomers on high stools with their shoul­ders prac­ti­cal­ly rub­bing against each oth­er. We squeezed into the bar and two of us sat at the short end of the counter while the oth­er two stood. The woman behind the counter looked like she did­n’t  even notice us, but she greet­ed the busi­ness­man with a cheer­ful “okaeri­na­sai” (wel­come back) and poured him a glass of beer. He ordered beer for me and my friends and we were all set.

This is one of hun­dreds of tiny unli­censed bars in Tokyo.

When we had arrived, every­one in that bar had seemed more or less sober, but after an hour all of them includ­ing the woman her­self were becom­ing much more talk­a­tive and loud. They told us sto­ries about that bar, about how it was built and that it had the best oden in Tokyo, a lit­tle of which the woman, los­ing some of that ini­tial reserve, final­ly offered us on the house. At the end of the evening we thanked our busi­ness­man friend, the two cus­tomers and the shop­keep­er. Every­one helped with clean­ing up and we all closed up the bar and left.

In a cou­ple of hours, this place will be packed.

Now, almost eleven years lat­er, I still remem­ber that night as if it were yes­ter­day. Since then I’ve learned a lot about Japan­ese cul­ture. I real­ize that such small shops can be found all over Tokyo, thriv­ing in the most out of the way places, each with its spe­cial food and select clien­tele. How­ev­er, the more one knows the less one is aware, and though I am now more knowl­edge­able about Tokyo, I am less aware of these lit­tle details that make up the city.

Through the course of my liv­ing there, it seems I grew used to what had ini­tial­ly struck me as very for­eign. I think that’s the worst thing that could have hap­pened because get­ting used to the city dulled my sens­es. When I first arrived I was like a child in Dis­ney­land, wide-eyed with won­der. By the time I left sev­en years lat­er, I had become blasé.

That tiny bar in Shibuya is one of the rea­sons I miss Tokyo.

This sto­ry is from Mee­do’s upcom­ing book Small Space in Tokyo and its Archi­tec­ture. Please feel free to con­tact us for more details and read relat­ed sto­ries here.


SOOLY May 13, 2010 at 6:58 am

You make me dream of going there much more now.
I can't wait for that book!!

Samsam May 13, 2010 at 10:11 am

This is very nostalgic and pretty. I want to go to Japan, but not before reading your book :)

Irene May 13, 2010 at 5:37 pm

What you said last can be so true. This post makes me reflect back at all the small details that make me miss Japan so much! Looking forward to seeing your book!

Meedo May 13, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Hey! Thanks. :) Is this Irene from Isozaki (the architecture office I worked at in Tokyo)?

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