Girl & Guy Guide
I journeyed into the belly of the beast to see if it was really true. For months I’d been hearing rumors of a bar in the heart of Ginza, Japan’s snobbiest district, that featured free, live music and offered all drinks and food for ¥500 a pop. I figured that if it actually existed it would be the bar equivalent of a roach-infested Ueno ramen shop.
I was expecting a one-man operation serving happoshu instead of real beer, with room-temperature shochu for those wanting fancy drinks. For music, I was sure it was endless repetitions of “My Way,” belted out by drunken salarymen on a tinny karaoke machine.
To my pleasant surprise, the only thing Five to Five had in common with a cheap noodle shop was the ticket machine. But even that didn’t detract from its charm. In fact, the anti-brand-name rebelliousness it symbolized, in the heart of Pretension Central no less, endeared me to the place almost as much as the cheap drinks did.
Five to Five was bright, clean and spacious. We saw a few salarymen lurking about, but none tried to sing, urinate in a corner or even ask us where we were from. The staff was incredibly friendly and—most impressively—served up quality alcohol. Beers included Sam Adams and Carlsberg in a bottle and Suntory Malts on tap. I wanted to try the Berliner Kindl, but they were out. The Kronenburg 1664 didn’t do much for me, even for ¥500. (Why do the French even bother with beer?)
Just for research purposes, I sampled one of their top-shelf scotches (Glenfiddich, Bowman’s, etc). I’m no scotch drinker, but for that price I couldn’t pass up a shot poured over one of those tennis ball-sized chunks of ice. The ice ball alone would cost more than ¥500 at most Japanese bars.
The crowd was refreshingly casual. At the end of one set we were asked to join along in a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” for the androgynous guitarist. When that was followed by “Moon River” as filler between sets, I started to think they were going to organize a group hug.
Then a Japanese Barry Manilow moaned his way through his 45 minutes of fame. When he was done, everyone clapped and commented on what a nice voice the handsome young gentleman had. Nobody even thought of taking advantage of the Yellow Card system, with which the audience can politely request that an act not be invited back (one card per person per act, please).
And just when I thought it couldn’t get any stranger, a college-aged Japanese guy walked in with his mother. I’ve never seen a Japanese guy that age with his mother anywhere, let alone in a bar.
Feeling like Alice in Wonderland, I decided to clear my head with a smoke. When I asked the bartender for matches he reached into a basket, pulled out a lighter and said with a smile, “rent, rent.” He really meant “borrow, borrow,” which made me feel even warmer and fuzzier inside. If I had accidentally walked out with that lighter, I would have gladly committed hara-kiri. The place has that kind of effect on you.
So if you must go to Ginza, leave your Gucci bag and music critic’s attitude at home and enjoy the good booze and good vibe at Five to Five.
I am overly proud of my hometown: Nashville, Tennessee. Growing up in a musical city, actually “Music City, U.S.A.” according to the bumper stickers, has given me a certain degree of blind, cocky listener expertise. I think I’m entitled to hear good live music any night of the week, with no cover charge.
Nashville has a steady bumper crop of musicians trying to break into the business, which explains the city’s other nickname, “The Third Coast.” For this reason and others, life in Tokyo has led me to pine for many peculiar and irrational things.
One of them: a homemade CD of someone who will have a big-time recording contract within the next six months.
Not unexpectedly, Five to Five made me just a wee bit homesick. Live music with no cover. Some good, some not so good, most of it passable and a nice accompaniment to my cocktail. In a town where on average you can’t hear live music for less than ¥2,000 door charge (and that will usually guarantee you a live DJ), Five to Five delivered a better quality of performer than I expected for the price.
Big pluses: Zero Japanese-language skill ticket system for cheap drinks and a menu of tasty dishes, nicely featured on a big wall-menu with color pictures. Just point and “o kudasai.” I had more than a few taco wraps (skipped dinner, you know how it goes). The bands play long enough to let you know if you like them, but not so long as to drive you screaming into the street if they’re tone deaf.
Along with the constantly rotating line-up, the crowd seems to turn over pretty quickly, too. If it’s dead, wait 20 minutes; it may change. If it’s buzzing, don’t cancel your plans for the evening; the vibe could fizzle in the pluck of a bass guitar string.
The Three Hundred Bar is a much safer bet and about 20 yards away. Hardened curmudgeon that I am, I was mildly amazed that I went to two bars in one night and liked both of them. What a way to start the holidays! Seiya, the manager of both Three Hundred and Five to Five, is a riot. Here, you buy tickets from the bar and, of course, everything is one price.
One would expect a crap drink menu and scant food. Pleasant surprise! The alcohol is no different than you’ll find anywhere else; their house cocktails are more than worth the ticket.
This basement hangout was packed last Friday with salarymen, economy-conscious office ladies (probably saving their yen for a return trip to Ginza the following day), and your stray gaijin here and there. The menu is much the same as Five to Five, with some new dishes thrown in. I topped off my greasy night’s fare with at least two pizza chips. (No one ever called me a dainty eater.)
This is good place to come if you’re alone and want to start the evening early but cheap. Or stay all night and you might have enough yen left over for the taxi home.
In the heart of Tokyo’s haute posh district, Dan and I found two of the cheapest bars in the city: a pub equivalent of a ¥100 shop and its fire-sale cousin. This is the best sale Tokyo has to offer.
Five to Five
Fazenda Bldg, B1F
5-9-11 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Hours: daily 5 p.m.-5 a.m.
Three Hundred Bar
Fazenda Bldg, B1F
5-9-11 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Hours: Mon-Sat 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Sun & Holidays 5-11 p.m.
Located one block behind Nissan Gallery and two blocks over