A Bar Stool as Night School: Snack Bar Beni
For newbies like us, a “snack bar” is a night school, with the Mama-san residing as the chaired professor and the regular customers serving as guest lecturers. History, sociology, musicology, even astronomy all are on the syllabus. And if the information is not always reliable, it is usually delivered with an enviable wit.
At sunset Willow Alley becomes a lively scene of drinkers and diners in the open front spaces of nightspots like the Bangladeshi bar Miruchi and the Thai eatery Handsome. Nearly lost in this cosmopolitan jumble of facades, one can find a lonely pink sign with a single kanji character that reads Beni (“red”). It advertises one of the oldest “snack bars” on the street, representing a different style and in some ways a bygone era of Tokyo drinking culture.
From the outside you can’t see anything of the interior of Beni. On our first visit, we wonder if new walk-in customers are welcome (in many snack bars they are not). We open the door nervously and peer inside. There are two women working inside, and only eight seats at the narrow bar. It’s tricky even to find a place to hang a coat. There’s a smallish widescreen television screen for karaoke, and behind the counter a row of liquor bottles kept for regular customers. The middle-aged mama welcomes us with a throaty “welcome.” We are sandwiched shoulder-to-shoulder around the L-shaped bar in between the other customers. The mama hands us a plate of plastic-wrapped snacks. For starters we just order a beer.
Beni has been operating for 38 years. “Big Mama,” Seiko-san, and her daughter “Little Mama,” Kumiko-san, who greeted us, are both from Aizu in Fukushima Prefecture. Seiko came to Tokyo over forty years ago, and Kumiko followed. Seiko is already a great-grandmother, and Kumiko a grandmother, though neither looks the part. Over a few visits, and a few drinks, we learned their story
Beni has been introduced in the media a few times, and it seems that there may even be a nostalgic boom in interest in the institution of the snack bar. In any case the subculture of the snack bar is rapidly aging along with the bar "mamas" and their customers. At Beni most of the customers look to be late middle age or retirees. A few tottering old gentlemen come just to sit with “Big Mama.” Perhaps the companionship of Seiko and Kumiko keeps them young. Like Seiko and Fumiko, many of the regulars are themselves migrants to Tokyo from provincial Japan.
Of course, younger customers are very welcome, and in recent years, female customers have increased. As Kumiko says, “Things have really changed. Women now come in, some without men. In the past it was different. In the past it was only men, men from the National Railway, from Tokyo Gas, from the publishing companies. They would come every day, day after day.”
Now she said even foreigners come. “And if they come, they will keep coming. When they move away, they will send letters. There are even people who come in from Nagoya.” From talking to Kumiko, it was also clear that many famous people had come to the bar, from writers to politicians and businessmen.
We asked Seiko and Kumiko about the definition of a “snack.” In earlier times a snack was defined as a space where the “mama” would stand behind the bar. In contrast, a “bar” was a licensed sexual entertainment business where female employees would sit with customers. A snack, by definition, must serve food, Seiko explained. Beni once served yakisoba and other warm dishes, but Seiko no longer wants to deal with cooking. They now serve chocolates, crackers, snacks, cheese and other dry snacks that customers can take home if they do not finish.
We asked them why they chose Nishi-Ogikubo and received a surprising answer. “We knew this place was good from the beginning,” Kumiko said. “A meteorite landed nearby and that is why it is a 'power spot.' My mother heard about this and came.”
Kumiko then delivered an impromptu lesson on power spots in Tokyo. “Because of this power spot, many religious groups have come here. It was a long time, like a hundred million years ago, this meteor fell and made this into a power spot. At first spirt mediums heard about it and came, and then other spirit mediums.”
Tetsuro Tamba, a famous actor and spiritualist, also came here, she said. “The sense that something was good about this place drew them here.” One of the exceptional power spots in Tokyo is Omiya Hachimangu Shrine, she said, also called Tokyo's navel. It has a relationship with Ise Shrine. “They say there are dwarves and fairies in Omiya Hachimangu Shrine," said Kumiko with no hint of irony.
It is likely that a meteorite fell on Ogikubo, she reiterated. "There is a saying that Ogikubo became Ogikubo (literally “wisteria valley”) because the meteorite fell and a valley was made."
Kumiko said that they tried businesses in other areas of the city but they were always drawn back by the spiritual pull of Nishiogi. “We started Beni here, and we also ran other snacks and bars. Everything we have opened in Nishiogi has gone well.”
We asked about the changes in Willow Alley. In the postwar period it was an unofficial red light district, Kumiko said. All of the shops on the street have two stories, and on the top floor was a tatami room. There were stairs up to the top and a couple could climb up and spend the night. As she said this, the regulars laughed at her use of the onomatopoeic word "mishimishi" to describe the sound that the creaking floorboards would make when the couple were moving around up above. There were no toilets though, she said, so people would keep a bucket up there. In Beni's current space, a man used to keep his mistress who ran the shop. There were some legal disputes when he died, she said, so they sold the business.
In the 1980s there were many snack bars in the neighborhood, Seiko said, but now they are disappearing as the former “mama-san” age and pass away. Regrettably, she said, many of them spent all their savings and, without husbands and children, are now living on social assistance. Kumiko, in contrast, is a savvy business woman. She has operated as many as six cabarets and pink salons at one time. She even had a hip-hop club in Kabukicho. That was popular with Africans, Seiko said, but many of them wouldn’t pay their tab. It was too much trouble, so she closed it. Kumiko still has one other bar in nearby Shoan. In the old days back in Aizu, the family had a tobacco shop in an old wooden building (back when tobacco was a licensed business). As Seiko puts it, Kumiko has this ancestral business sense flowing in her veins.
The bursting of the economic bubble in the 1990s was a turning point for the alleyway as a whole. After the crash there were just a few bars left on the street. At one point, the pink Beni sign was one of very few lights glowing on the street at night.
The recovery of Willow Lane began with the opening of the Thai bar Handsome about fifteen years ago. With the weak economy, Kumiko said, young people looked for new outlets to make a living. The young men who started Handsome belonged to that group who couldn’t get other jobs and tried their hand at the risky restaurant business, Kumiko speculated. Handsome has been a great success, bringing Willow Alley back to life but also creating a very different, more open and anonymous, style of drinking culture than the closed, intimate snack bars represented by Beni.
After hearing this familiar story of the revival of Willow Alley, the regular customers started singing karaoke. For us newbies, we felt accepted into the small privy circle, with talk of meteorites, power spots, illicit affairs, local celebrities, yakuza, and ordinary family drama, all in this alternative night school of the snack bar. (James Farrer, Dec. 11, 2016, edited April 23, 2017)