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A Mama-san Made by the Community, Making Community

Just a couple of minutes from Nishiogi station there is a nondescript tile-covered building featuring a basement floor entirely devoted to bars. Down a narrow linoleum covered hallway, a variety of signs advertise an all vinyl rock bar named Bar Bitch, a Philippine lounge named Deep Kiss, and other small places promising mysterious forms of companionship and amusement. If you don’t have an introduction, especially if you are alone, you probably wouldn’t quite dare to venture inside most of these places. At the long end of that hallway is Bar Hako, with its cleverly designed sign based on the kanji  for "hako" (literally "box") that also depicts the staircase you've just gone down.


On Farrer’s birthday, he made a visit with a couple of foreign male friends. After a few drinks at home the three friends staggered into Hako. The counter seats were all occupied by young salarymen and one attractive salarywoman, but the “Mama,” aided by her customers, rushed to make room on the lone sofa. The lively crowd, who seemed to be regulars, had a great deal of international experience and were eager to practice their English, peppering us with the usual questions about where we were from and why we were in Japan. Everyone snacked on the savory steamed omelet provided as otoshi (a bar tapa that comes with an obligatory charge), sang pop songs in English and Japanese, and chatted boisterously with the young "mama." It was pretty much an ordinary Tokyo karaoke bar, but the charismatic "Machiko Mama" seemed to be something new.


Like many other tidbits of Nishiology, Kimura actually heard about Bar Hako from the owner of the old Auckland Jeans shop which is right under Nishiogi's famous pink elephant. The mama at this new bar is "really entertaining," he said. “People go there just to talk to her.” He seems to be one of the regulars there himself.  


Her curiosity peaked, Kimura decided to head over there and see for herself. When she walked in the Mama-san was doing prep work for opening. When addressed with a tentative “good day,” a husky but vibrant voice replied with a big smile, “Hey, what’s up?” This was “Machiko Mama.”


When told that the boss of Aukland had sent her over, Machiko enthusiastically responded as if they had been friends for years. “Oh! So, next time before I open up let’s go get a ‘thousand yen blast’ (sen bero) together. In Nishiogi, you can get a thousand yen blast.” When Kimura, who had never heard the expression, asked the meaning of a ‘thousand yen blast,’ Machiko replied, “Oh that means getting blasted drunk for a thousand yen!”


So, a few days later, the three of us (Kimura, Farrer and Machiko) went to a venerable soba shop Yasuda, for “soba drinking.” Machiko had met the mistress of this shop at an all-female team carrying the shrine in the local temple shrine festival. This time also it was like they had known each other for years. We ate soba and drank the house specialty of soba broth with shochu (sobayu wari). A bit tipsy, Machiko headed out the door with an irresistible, “Let’s go!” On the way to Hako we dropped into a variety of shops, where she warmly introduced us to the owners. She seemed to be on friendly terms with everyone, and we thought she must have grown up in the neighborhood.


In reality, however, she only moved to Nishi-Ogikubo four years ago. She was born in Yanigawa City in Fukuoka Prefecture. She moved to Tokyo when she was twenty. Nishiogi is a relatively new chapter in a life bouncing from one irregular job to another.


“I graduated from high school, and I was working as a freeter. My mother told me I should get a job that had social insurance. I know they were right.  But well, in Tokyo there was this one clothing brand that had only one shop and they called me to work for them. So, I went to Tokyo for that. At the time, they only had menswear but they wanted to start a ladies line, and that was why I went. ‘Yes! I’ll do it!’ Just like that. And they were like, ‘Yes, the job is yours.’”


“I told them I didn’t have any money. They said, ‘You have half a year, right. Save some money and come in half a year.’ So, after half a year I moved to Tokyo. And for the next few years I was in retail, sales, and then I changed my workplace and in my thirties I shifted to desk work, and worked as an office lady.”


She came to Nishiogi because of a boyfriend, it seems. But she felt a bit restricted in that relationship, she said, and with her sociable personality she started broadening her network around the community. The big opportunity for her was the first Nishiogi Lovers Festival which was held in 2016. She applied to be a member of the voluntary organizing committee, and she was accepted.


“I made a lot of connections at the festival,” she said. “a great many relationships came from there.” Becoming the mama at Hako was also a result of these relationships, she said. A bar with a different name had operated in the current space of Hako for over thirty years. The aging owner could no longer keep it up, and the master at the karaoke bar Bay, across the hall, along with many of the regulars, wanted to keep it going. So, they looked for a successor to carry on. One of the women working at Bay was also a member of the executive committee of the Nishiogi Lovers Festival and suggested, “Why not Machiko?” The owner of Bay replied, ‘Why not?’”


At first she was reluctant. Her many friends from the festival kept encouraging her. With their support, she agreed. She opened the shop three months ago.

The problem for Machiko is that she had no experience in the bar business (or “water trade”). “I had never worked in the water trade. It’s fun to be meet new people and all, but what if the profit is zero. I worry…. It’s stressful.”


Although there are uncertainties and worries in the bar business, you could only describe Machiko as a positive thinker. “I don’t really feel I am working," she said. "You are drinking with all kinds of people. All races of types come. You stand behind the counter and you see people sitting beside each other and talking and making all kinds of connections. When you are looking at that, and see the customers connecting, it makes you happy. I am blessed with good customers.”


Machiko is also on the executive committee for the upcoming 2017 Nishiogi Lovers Festival. The committee members from the previous year became good friends and sometimes help out at her shop.


“Everyone is really helpful. When I am too busy to wash the dishes, one of them will come behind the counter and help out. My female friends are really all good people. They are all from Nishiogi. And they are all people I met at the Nishogi Lovers Festival. There were about 30 people on the executive committee. These people have really helped out. Today we had the meeting about the 2017 festival, after the shop closed.”


Some customers will even help bring side dishes to the shop, Machiko told us. “I was thinking, ‘I don’t really know how to cook’ (laugh). So before, my father sent me twenty daikon radishes from the family garden at home. I thought that it was good to have a customer who was a chef, so I handed him these, ‘Please! Make me some otoshi.’ Then, he made a dish of daikon radishes, chicken and tomato. I thought that was going to be it. But then another customer brought in some meitaiko (salmon eggs). And then another customer said, ‘Machiko doesn’t have any otoshi, I’ll bring something.’ So, people started bringing things, chocolate, crackers, etc. And I would say, ‘great, let’s use this as otoshi.’”


“So, I have been opened for three months now It was trial and error. We sell drinks. I figured I had to make something to eat. For the first two months, I wasted a lot of ingredients, but starting this month I only buying dry goods because people keep bringing in food. In fact, one guy who didn’t bring anything one day came in and said, ‘Machiko, I am so sorry today. I came in empty handed!’ The other customers said, ‘That’s wrong! You have to bring something, even a piece of chocolate.’ Occasionally, I make soup rolled eggs (dashi maki tamago) or other simmered dishes. So, when I serve it they will say, "Stop it! You better not. It’s shocking.’ I was told that. But still, I cook (laughing). "


Machiko has a knack for being taken care of by people. She got into this bar because of her warm way of connecting to people around her  And the guiding principle of the bar is to create more communication among guests. Almost all of the customers are from Nishiogi, Machiko said, from ages twenty to eighty. “Many come in groups. It’s kind of tough for someone to come in alone. There is no price list and it is not in Tabelog.” (The prices are indeed quite reasonable, but because it is a snack, there is no menu with prices, she said.)


Machiko explained to us one important reason why small snack bars often refuse to serve customers who come without an introduction. “Sometimes someone comes in alone without an introduction. The other day a guy came in his thirties. But I refused to serve him. It is dangerous. A woman being in here alone. If it is someone who is introduced you can tell his friends, ‘I don’t like that guy.’ But if it someone you have never seen you can’t even do that. And people can’t see anything from outside the store, so unknown customers are scary.”


However, there are exceptions. She continued the story of the one drunk man who wandered into the bar. Though she initially refused him service, she still patiently explained to him the pricing, so there would be no surprises if he came back. Later, she said, he returned and became a regular customer. Middle-aged men long for communication, she explained. “People that age can often only go to chain pubs. There, you don’t really talk to anyone. But here you have a chance to connect with other people. I am happy to see people connect. But I don’t force it. I don’t introduce people. My job is to create an atmosphere that connects people. I don’t force it.”


Hako seems to have become a community spot for some of the Nishiogi bar and restaurant owners."The restaurant owners here, everyone is friendly, I wonder if it is a Japanese temperament. We go to this shop today, then the shopkeepers come to my shop tomorrow. This is not to spend money. I feel like it is just to circulate the money around among us, like in a biotope, like the barter tradition of the Jomon era. That's how it feels (laughing)."


Even during the interview, Machiko Mama tells us about a number of shops in Nishiogi. The local cuisine of this one shop is delicious. A shop owner of another shop is nice. Another shop has a good atmosphere. As you listen to Machiko’s animated introductions to the attractions of the neighborhood, it makes you feel like your own Nishiogi community network is expanding.


This is a story of community building and renewal. Hako is a bar sustained by a long-existing community of regulars and even other bar owners. Machiko would never have even become a mama-san without the encouragement of these people and also a larger network surrounding the Nishiogi Lovers Festival. At the same time, she also has created a space where others feel they can become part of a small community of nocturnal revelers. (James Farrer, Fumiko Kimura, Feb. 1, 2017)

Nishi-Ogikubo Hako
Nishiogiology Hako
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