[From February Issue 2012]
It took a lot of courage for me to walk into, my local nomiya (bar), sit down and order a drink. I’d passed by this tiny ramshackle building a number of times while exploring my neighborhood. From what I could see of the interior through the steamed up windows, this was a very cosy-looking place. A group of artistic looking types were gathered inside enjoying a beer and each other’s conversation.
After living in Japan for four years, I’d acquired a number of Japanese friends to hang out with when I went out into central Tokyo, but when it came to having a casual drink in my local area at short notice, I realized I had no one to call on. It seemed sad that I didn’t know anyone in my area and I wanted to change that, that’s when I decided to see if I could find a bar that suited me.
The first hurdle to becoming a regular is the worst and just has to be done as quickly as possible, like ripping off a bandage. Don’t linger by the door or you’ll never get up the confidence to go in, just walk in with your head held high, sit down and order a drink. Just like in the Westerns, once you step through the saloon doors, the conversation becomes hushed and people will dart nervous glances at you.
There’s an upside and a downside to being a foreigner in Japan, on the one hand you’re seen as exotic and interesting, but on the other people are a little wary, and are probably worried that they will have to speak English. This is where you have to leap in and start making conversation to assuage their fears and if you’ve chosen your nomiya wisely, this should be no problem.
Many nomiya, are tiny, my local only has space for around eight customers at a time, but huddling round the bar like this creates an intimate atmosphere that’s really encourages conversation. Because I’m a music fan, I was able to bond quickly with SHIBA Kazuhiko, a musician and owner of Ba Cáfe. We both love really noisy experimental rock so once the geeky conversation was out of the way I found myself accepted and introduced to the people gathered round the tiny bar.
The owner or “master” (“mama” if it’s a woman) acts as the gatekeeper to the bar and will make it subtly known to those who don’t fit in that they aren’t really welcome. If you find yourself politely turned down, there’s bound to be a place that’s more your style as there are nomiya tucked away into just about every nook and cranny of Tokyo. Golden Gai, in Shinjuku for instance, is a tiny ramshackle row of streets packed with bars catering to almost any type of customer.
I tend to visit my nomiya about once every two weeks and usually bump into a familiar face when I go there. A few are journalists, like me, and it is fun to talk shop with them a bit as I unwind with a drink. I live in Nakano, an area which despite being home to a lot of people who work in the arts and media, is also refreshingly unpretentious. At my nomiya I’ve met musicians, a film director and even a pro wrestler, but I also get to meet people who work in local businesses who tell me interesting information about my neighborhood.
Whatever your interests, you can find a nomiya to suit. There are nomiya for rockabillies, photographers, film fanatics, karaoke fans, and there are bars staffed by monks who discuss the finer points of Buddhist philosophy with you over a beer. The ideal way to discover a nomiya is to go with a Japanese friend who’s already a regular, but if you don’t have that option my advice is just to dive right in on your own.
Text: Felicity HUGHES