Tokyo’s Snack Bar Experience

Tue Jun 11 2024
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TOKYO, Japan: Down a bustling Tokyo street lined with neon signs, tucked up narrow stairs and behind a windowless door, lies a hidden gem of Japanese nightlife: the “snack bar.” These cozy, retro establishments, equipped with karaoke systems, have long been cherished by locals but remain elusive to many tourists.

Snack bars, like Kuriyakko in Tokyo’s Shimbashi business district, are intimate spots where patrons can enjoy drinks and light snacks while engaging in lively conversation. Typically run by a woman known as “mama,” these bars have been a fixture of Japanese nightlife since the post-war era. The mama serves drinks and nibbles, such as dried squid or simple cooked dishes, while chatting with customers.

Despite their popularity among locals, the tucked-away nature and close-knit atmosphere of snack bars can be intimidating, especially for non-Japanese speakers. To bridge this gap, the tour company Snack Yokocho offers guided tours to these establishments. The tours not only provide an authentic bar experience but also teach visitors how to order drinks in Japanese and how to say “cheers” – “kanpai!”

The history of snack bars is rooted in Japan’s post-World War II red-light districts. Originally, some women turned to sex work to survive. However, with the introduction of anti-prostitution laws during the 1964 Olympics, many women began serving drinks and snacks from makeshift street stalls, which eventually evolved into the indoor snack bars known today.

Snack bars have a storied past, with many mamas being divorced women raising children on their own. Working at night allowed them to earn a living while their children slept. Today, while the number of snack bars has declined, their charm and unique cultural significance remain strong.

With Japan seeing record numbers of tourists, interest in snack bar tours is growing. Snack Yokocho guides also introduce visitors to themed snack bars, like a golf bar with a putting green. The tours offer a glimpse into the authentic bar culture of Japan, providing a space for both men and women to relax and engage in face-to-face communication.

In a digital age where social media dominates, the personal interactions at snack bars offer a refreshing change. “At a snack bar, people can look into each other’s eyes and get to know each other very quickly,” says Mayuko Igarashi of Snack Yokocho. This genuine human connection is at the heart of the snack bar experience, making it a cherished part of Japanese nightlife.

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