A Bangladeshi Bar down Willow Alley
You really can’t say you have been drinking in Nishiogi until you have raised a glass in“Willow Alley” (Yanagi koji) a narrow alleyway formed by two parallel wooden long-houses (naga-ya). Exiting the south exit of Nishiogi JR station, a hundred meters to the right, you immediately come across the dilapidated structures of this atmospheric post-war '"market," or yokocho, that now is devoted to restaurants and bars. The first alleyway is dominated by the popular yakitori restaurant Ebisu, which has gradually spread its smoking tendrils down the alleyway. This “Ebisu alley” resembles many crowded nostalgic bar streets nestled against train tracks in Tokyo. On the back side, however, we find Willow Alley, a similarly nostalgic Japanese bar street, but with a distinctively cosmopolitan flare; Thai, Korean, Okinawan restaurants, crowd together, alongside a bar specializing in Uzbek wine, an aging reggae bar, and Miruchi, a Bangladeshi restaurant and bar.
Babu operates the Miruchi together with his Japanese wife Asha. It might best be described as a “nomiya” or drinking place. Usually both of them can be found inside, with Babu cooking, while Asha serves and chats with customers. There are many regular customers. While I was conducting an interview with Babu, one of the female regulars came in with her dog, sat in the corner, imbibed Indian wine and chatted with Asha. The reason she likes to come drinking on this street, she said, is that there are “so many intelligent people” who come here, unlike the "common drunks" to be found in neighboring Kichijoji. While she got happy on wine, her dog happily gobbled some of Babu’s tandoori chicken.
Babu came to Japan from Dhaka in 1989 as a language student. He told his story in fluent Japanese. Like many other students from developing countries, while he was learning Japanese, he worked in Thai, Japanese and Italian restaurants. He lived in Nishiogi from the beginning. Indian food was not very popular in Japan in those days, he said, and he didn’t have much interest in it himself. He only learned Indian cooking later, as the interest in Indian cuisine grew.
When he first moved to Nishiogi in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Willow Alley was in an economically depressed state. The atmosphere was utterly different from today. Most bars were “snack bars” operated by an aging “Mama” who took care of the customers, themselves mostly aging “salary men.” Babu remembered it as scary and dark. The area was not especially friendly to foreigners either, he said.
Miruchi occupies one of the two-story stall-like shops in the long-house on the south side of the street. In the old days bar owners worked on the ground floor and slept on the top floor, sometimes carrying out sexual commerce upstairs. Now the sex business is a distant memory, but some of the old hostess-style clubs remain.
The alley began to change around the year 2001 when four young Japanese men from Kichijoji opened up a Thai restaurant and cheekily named it Handsome Kitchen, perhaps as an appeal to potential female customers. From its beginnings as a single two-story stall, it now occupies three stalls on the street, which led the redevelopment of Willow Alley as a cosmopolitan bar street.
Miruchi opened up across from Handsome’s original location in 2002, also renting his shop space from the same the corporate landlord that owns the whole of Willow Alley. Over the years, the atmosphere of the alleyway has changed. The bar-hopping salary men have given way to a younger mixed crowd of both genders. Foreigners have also become more common.
The hours for Miruchi are 6 p.m. to 3 a.m., Babu explained, and the most popular time is the hour after midnight when the bar hoppers drop by for a late night curry and a beer. Many are curious to try the Carew’s Gold Riband Gin from Bangladesh or Grover wine from India. There are many customers drinking alone, including women. “People get to know each other and become friends. Some couples have met here and got married,” he said.
Babu has also observed the changing Indian restaurant scene in Japan. “In the past there were many Bangladeshis running restaurants,” he said. “Now that it is no longer the case, there are more Nepalese. There are not many Indians.”
The taste of Indian curry has also changed. “Indian curry is different from Japanese curry,” Babu explained. “In the past there were a few famous Indian restaurants such as Moti and Maharaja in Shinjuku. But these were very expensive. There was also Nakamura, but that was Japanese curry. Now Japanese people know the difference between Japanese curry and Indian curry.”
“But Japan’s Indian curry is also different from India’s Indian curry. It is not as spicy. Sometimes I go to the Indian restaurants run by Nepalese, and there is not enough spice. For our tandoori chicken we marinate it three days in yoghurt and spices and then we roast it in the oven.”
Miruchi cannot use a tandoori oven in that location so they bake the chicken in an ordinary oven. In the nagaya (two-story wooden townhouses) of Willow Alley, fire would be a catastrophe, so people must take care of each other, Babu said. “If anything happens people will come help you as well.”
The normal pattern in Willow Alley is “ladder drinking” (hashigo nomi, or bar-hopping) from place to place, Babu said. “People will drink here for a while and then go over to the next place for a while. Often they will finish up work at their own shop and go drinking at another.”
On his day off, Babu himself often goes drinking at an okonomiyaki shop on the North side of the station. After he finishes at his place, the master of that shop comes over to Babu’s place for a drink.
“In Nishiogi, there are many people who drink until three in the morning,” he said. “Some drink outside of Nishiogi, and then when they come back, drink here, eat here, and then go home. Some go from place to place. There are a fair number of drunks around.”
“But there are not many people getting drunk and getting in fights. There used to be those kind of people. But now if people run across them they don’t sell them a drink. In the past the old guys would pick a fight with the young people, and some would get in fights with them, but now we don’t have that. But in the past, and now, there were no gang bars here.”
“The oldest bar here is Baboy Hut, a Reggae Bar. I used to go that place often when I was young. Everyone calls the master there, 'O-ne' ('older sister’). They also stay open late.”
Of the traditional bars that feature a flirty Mama-san and a coterie of regulars, only a few are left, including Beni next door, a friendly establishment now running for 37 years. But most of the Mama-san in these bars grew old and retired. Just like Golden Gai in Shinjuku, young owners have come in with a new style of bar management.
The styles of the bars on Willow Alley are also changing. The old bars were secretive windowless spaces that required some courage to enter. The new bars and restaurants on Willow Alley are largely open-front spaces, inviting new customers inside. Tables and chairs line the alleyway allowing the customer to see and be seen on summer afternoons. Younger customers, especially women, have greatly increased. It looks and feels a bit like a night market in Southeast Asia.
But in many ways, the old urban cultures of “ladder drinking” and the sense of Willow Alley as “an everyday drinking street” have not disappeared. According to one regular in Miruchi, “Even if I don’t drink, sometimes I just take a walk through here before going home.” (James Farrer, Oct. 11, 2016, edited March 14, 2017)