A Café for Nocturnal Wanderers
In Nishiogi there is a café that opens only after 8pm.
“So, you would call this place a café and not a bar?” we asked.
Adatsu, a woman who tends the bar once a week, replied, “Yes, it is a café. We do serve alcohol though.”
Situated in an alleyway famous for drinking spots, they seem sensitive about how their place is defined. “At first people who don't drink alcohol started this place, aiming to make it like a bar without alcohol,” explained Adatsu.
As you step out from the South Exit of JR Nishiogi Station, and walk west, you see a couple of narrow dilapidated alleyways. At first glance, you find the red signboards of the vibrant drinking places along what is now called “Ebisu Alley.” Behind you find “Willow Alley” a narrow path between old narrow window storefronts dominated by ethnically themed shops such as Handsome, Miruchi, and Toyaji. The modest café called Wanderung hides in the middle of the visually noisy Nishiogi’s Willow Alley, noticeable only by a white wooden doorway through which visitors squeeze themselves to go in and out. The customers there, and even the managers, are rather young compared to the rest of alley, ranging from late teens to thirties. In their own way, these young people seem to be redefining the Japanese norms of nocturnal “nominication” (communication through drinking) by encouraging conversation among customers, lingering over a hand-dripped coffee made by the master. Though beer and whisky also are on the menu, it is not a place to get drunk. It is also cheaper not to drink, probably a factor for some young people.
Punctuated with her infectious laughter, Adatsu described her first experiences with the café. “For me, Matinee [the former name of the café] was the very first place where I'd come by myself [as a woman]. You don't have to drink alcohol, and you get to talk with others because they have such a tiny counter. So as I would come here more often, I got to know more people, so it felt more comfortable to come back.”
Moe, a regular customer who works as the bar master on Thursday night, echoed Adatsu’s enthusiasm. "I have about five places that I always go in this area. An izakaya, curry restaurant, a café, another café, and then here. If all of them were full, I'd get lost and not know where to settle. And those five places would always have someone I know.”
Adatsu replied, "I've never seen any community this big other than in Nishiogi. I wonder if there's any other community like this in other areas in Tokyo?"
“I'm sure there are some,” Moe said. “But for me this community is so unusual because of the fact that I don't drink alcohol. I never imagined myself being in this kind of community, being a non-drinker, but then, here I am! Even though we don’t make any arrangements, in this area at any place I go, I see somebody I know every time.”
It seems that there is a floating community of young people centered on this little café, with the distinction between customers and workers blurring and shifting.
If you happened to stop by Wanderung every night, you could meet different bar masters (or managers) each time. Depending on the day of the week, your impression might be quite different. People take turns running the café on a weekly rotation, and all of them are from that floating community of young people. Though Mr. and Mrs. Yokota (the wife is usually just called “Kumako-san”) are now the main owners of the café, with others helping them run the place, it seems as though they all are sharing the management, rather than maintaining a fixed hierarchy of owners and workers. Kumako did remark, however, that she and her husband need to make a living, so they do hope for some profits. In the afternoons, she also operates a massage service for female clients in the second-floor space.
The community surrounding Wanderung is tied to the history of this location, which has had other names and other owners, though maintaining a certain continuity. “Matinee was the name of this place before, and before Matinee it was called Echika,” Adatsu explained with a laugh. “Ever since this place was called Echika, it has been identified as a café. People who worked at Matinee were regular customers of Echika, and those who work now at Wanderung used to be regular customers of Matinee. So, the place is passed on from one generation to the next.”
In fact, the principle owners of Matinee still work one night a week in Wanderung.
Many of the customer-cum-managers at Wanderung became so attached to the café that they wanted to become part of the staff, but there is also more to their stories. A young man who works the bar on Tuesday nights, Sou, dropped out of his career as a business man to work here, while pursuing his dream to be a music event organizer.
“I know it's tough but it's fun for me. We sometimes have concerts upstairs, though only ten people can fit in because we got such a tiny space up there.” Once he stepped in to the life as a normal ‘salaryman’ like many other Japanese young men, he came to feel his life was boring, giving him no challenge.
“I had worked there for three and a half years since I graduated university, and everything went so smooth and easy. But then I thought to myself: 'this isn't challenging, I can do this without any effort'. Then I thought back on my dream of owning a place like a cafe or a live house, so at the age of twenty-five, I quit my former job to start working here.”
He now organizes music events at four different places other than the attic of Wanderung, while also working here every Tuesday night. But that doesn't cover the cost of living, so he also sacrifices sleep to work as a receptionist at an emergency hospital during the night. “If my life won't work out this way, I think I would just go back [to my salaryman life] again.”
Wanderung thus may even be a place to establish connections for a new career.
One of the biggest changes the Yokotas made in turning Matinee into Wanderung was to place a glass window in the small wooden door. As Sou’s regular customers said, that change has made the interior open to view from the street and made the café much more welcoming to new guests. On the glass window, written with white paint there is a garbled phrase of the poem “Abends” by Hermann Hesse, part of the inspiration for the name of the bar. It goes:
Sehe Mond und Sterne kreisen.
Ahne ihren Sinn.
Fühle mich mit Ihnen reisen.
Einerlei wohin. [corrected]
(To watch the stars and moon circling,
To ponder their purpose
To feel myself traveling with you,
No matter where it be.)
The nocturnal traveler, or wandering soul, in this poem somehow reminds us of those people who'd come to this place alone every night. At this little hut, you don't need to drink alcohol to open up to others because the space closes in upon the people who come there, bringing them together in a single conversation. Every night at Wanderung, a tiny floating community welcomes you. (Reina Kohyama, James Farrer, June 6, 2017)