A Neighborhood Bar with No Cultural Boundaries
Nishi-Ogikubo is known as, both physically and culturally, “a town of intersections.” In one example, “Willow Alley” (Yanagi kōji), located near Nishiogi station’s south exit, is now regarded as an “ethnic food” alleyway in Nishiogi, where you can find Bangladeshi, Korean , Greek, and Thai cuisine restaurants, to name a few. Perhaps the oldest of the multicultural spaces on this Showa-style street is a bar established by an Okinawan woman. At night, you can see a faint blue neon sign with the name “Hut Baboy” written in red. Its current customer population is mostly Japanese, but in the past, it was a bar full of immigrant workers. Entering the late-night bar, an eclectic mix of world music can be heard floating down the narrow stairwell. Individuals sit at the counter, while groups relax on the sofa in the back. It’s easy to strike up a conversation with the regulars, and first-timers, including foreign customers, are made to feel welcome by the owner. On one visit in August 2018, the customers and the owner discussed love, peace, and Okinawan culture, along the narrow bar counter. The laid-back and tolerant atmosphere of Baboy, like Balthazar, reflects Nishiogi’s long legacy of hippy culture.
According to Babu, owner of Miruchi, the Bangladeshi restaurant directly across the alleyway, Baboy was once a popular spot for foreigners to relax, including many of his friends from Bangladesh. It was in part due to the existence of a place like Baboy that Babu decided to start a restaurant on what was, 20 years ago, a derelict “snack bar” alleyway 20 years ago. Baboy was a lodestar for these new migrants.
Originally at another spot South of the station, Baboy was established in this location by Keiko Oroku in 1996. Although the name of the bar means “pig” in Tagalog, a language of the Philippines, Oroku is originally from Miyako island (Okinawa) and has lived in Nishogi for decades. Despite this, she has never forgotten her roots; during the interview, she was boiling hot water for sanpin tea, an Okinawan Jasmine tea. Customers, including Babu, affectionately call her “One-e,” meaning “sister.” “’One-e’ comes from ‘Ne-ne,’ like what we use in Okinawa,” she explained. “My sisters don’t call me Ne-ne, but One-e. That’s why my Nishiogi friends call me One-e.” “Ne-ne” means “sister” in Okinawan dialect, and is used to refer to an older sister figure. Over the years, foreign customers picked up the nickname, according to Oroku.
Oroku’s inspiration for starting Baboy was her previous experience working at a bar. “A different person started a bar called “Baboy Hut” [also in the South side of Nishiogi]. I used to help at that bar.” In the 1980s and early 1990s, as the last of the financial hot air was draining “Baboy Hut” was a place for migrant workers to drink and unwind after work. Many customers were from Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, she said. As the name suggests, Baboy Hut was a small space of only about seven square meters, on the same alleyway occupied by Rahi. According to Oroku, it was a standing bar the size of Baboy’s kitchen. Still, she said, migrant workers from across the globe brought a unique energy and created Baboy Hut’s lively atmosphere. Oroku worked there for three years.
“It was as if I was inside a zoo,” she said. “It was so fun! It was as if I was traveling while working at the same time. People from all over the world came, really. Latinos, were there, of course, but there were many different languages, too. So, English was the common language I guess. The first owner realized that there were many foreigners working in Nishiogi, and those people needed a place to go after work. They couldn’t go to an izakaya, because they couldn’t read the menu. We ran a place for those kinds of people.”
Oroku witnessed both love and discord in Baboy Hut. When asked who stopped fights when they came to blows, she exclaimed, “I had to!” The customers stood by her, however, and helped stop fights with her. She says she feels very lucky to have had all those experiences.
Originally quite a few customers from Baboy Hut followed her to Baboy. In the mid-2000s however, the original international clientele of “Baboy Hut” began to shift to the current Japanese demographic of “Baboy.” “Around 10 years ago, or more than that, more Japanese customers started to come.”
Over the years, many foreign customers returned home, or got married and settled down. They have since been replaced with Japanese customers, many of whom have been introduced by other customers. “People come after they receive recommendations from friends. Good friends of mine still visit my bar.”
New customers are, of course, welcome, but the majority of the customers are regulars. “When I say ‘friends for over 30 years’, I’m talking about regulars who continue to come to my bar even after 30 years. It’s only natural that we become friends. Even though they were once just walk-in customers, those people still visit my bar.”
“I think that’s what it is. Those people bring friends and so on… and it continues to grow. And, customers really get along with each other! That makes me very happy.” Oroku is proud that her customers also are friendly with each other. Asked what attracts such customers to Baboy, she exclaimed “I don’t know! I don’t know! Sometimes I wonder, ‘why a place like this?’ Nothing is special here. There is no special type of service.”
The music at Baboy is quite eclectic. Although labeled a reggae bar, Oroku said she had tired of hearing the same familiar reggae standards years ago. The current sounds range across her broad musical interests from blues to hip hop to contemporary club music to alternative rock. One long-term hobby is listening to “World Music” program on Tokyo’s Inter FM where she picks up new ideas for her own nightly program.
Baboy regulars proactively give a helping hand to Oroku. For example, when Oroku is busy, there are regulars who stand behind the counter and assist her. Among those regulars, there are some who Oroku even trusts to run the bar while she is on a long-term break. “For example, if I’m taking a break for a month or going somewhere, these people swiftly come to help. They are the sort who would do anything for you.” Oroku theorizes that this knack for helping others is a trait that is special to Nishiogi.
It can even be said that she and Baboy have also helped foster the alternative and hippy atmosphere of Nishiogi. “Nishiogi is like that. It’s rooted… you know, hippies and Nishiogi; maybe it’s because the hippy culture has long existed in Nishiogi, but those who come here are like that.”
Oroku had a lot to say about how she ended up in Nishiogi and the appeal of this place. “When I first came to Tokyo, I lived in a different part of town,” she said. “A friend of mine lived here and I came to visit. Back then there was a live music place called Nishiogi Loft. [Another old music club from that era] Aketa is still around…. It’s really amazing. Nowadays, the neighborhood has really developed. There are all sorts of drinking places all over, but back then you would not have ever imagined that. If you just went a bit away from the station in Nishiogi there was still farmland. It still has a really local feel…. It was really amazing. You could come out to this local neighborhood and see a musician like Asakawa Maki just walking around. It was amazing, a town like this with really top rate musicians walking around. So, I thought, I really want to live here. That was forty years ago now, and this place has now become my second home. Back then in Tokyo, listen, in Tokyo there was discrimination against Okinawa people and discrimination against Ainu people. It was hidden, it wasn’t overt, but it existed in that era. But when I came to Nishiogi, I made friends and with those friends, I never once felt that discrimination. It was a real homey feeling. As I made more and more friends, I really began to like this place. So, I am still living here. I can’t leave. Even though I am always saying I want to go back to Okinawa, for some reason I am still here. That’s how it is.”
During the interview, Oroku stated multiple times that she was thankful for the people she has met in Nishiogikubo. “I only have gratitude. I really, really think so.” (by James Farrer and Amy Kamura, April 4, 2019)
(Interview and transcription by Amy Kamura Sept. 23, 2018, interview by James Farrer April 2, 2019, article by James Farrer and Amy Kamura, Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura, copy editing by Briana Bagliani, copyright James Farrer, all rights reserved.)