by Dan Riney and Gia Payne
A proper dive bar must have three things: character, quirky customers and cheap booze. George’s gets a big Pints Up on the first two but, disappointingly, fails with the third.
It would be tough to find a bar anywhere with as much character as George’s. Nostalgia drips from the walls, almost literally. Every inch of space is plastered with personal photos, old concert posters, classic LP jackets and autographed mementos from R&B and soul legends. (I still haven’t quite recovered from the shock of seeing a pre-bleached Michael Jackson grinning down at me from the ceiling.)
But what really sets George’s apart is an ancient jukebox that wheezes out vintage, scratchy, vinyl Motown for as long as the ¥100 coins keep coming.
The original owner and mama-san, Nobuko Okada, died last October at 72, and George’s is now as much a shrine to her as it is to soul. I defy anyone with half a heart to not be touched looking at 1960s photos of Okada and her son while listening to Gladys Knight and the Pips sing “Midnight Train to Georgia.” If you don’t get a lump in your throat at the line, “He’s going back to find a simpler place and time,” get your ass out and go somewhere you’ll feel comfortable, like Gas Panic.
Gia and I arrived at George’s early in the evening to find an almost empty bar and a wall of silence. No one was overtly unfriendly, but the discomfort was palpable; the way it is when Japanese strangers are forced to communicate—either with each other or with foreigners—outside the prescribed boundaries.
Attempting to ease the pain, I plunked a few coins into the jukebox. This worked temporarily, but I was still afraid to clear my throat between songs for fear of upsetting the wa.
Just as I was ready to write off George’s as a fraud, the characters started rolling in, and everything changed. A dashing lad in his 20s swept in with his gal. They promptly occupied the seats nearest the jukebox, brushing aside warnings they were in a high-traffic area. He enthusiastically dominated the music selections for the next hour, singing along and imparting all his Motown knowledge to his date, who feigned interest admirably.
Right on cue, another couple came in and took over the captain’s chairs as soon as the others departed. This duo was older, but oh-so-much smoother, actually getting up and dancing while singing in perfect unison every lyric of every song.
Their enthusiasm was contagious, and soon everyone in the place, including us, was discussing soul. I got the sense that most of these people knew more about Motown than Berry Gordy himself. But if you’re going to be a geek, you can’t get any cooler than being a Motown geek.
When “Ike and Tina” left, George’s started feeling funny again. Though we knew it was only a temporary discomfort, Gia and I decided to call it a night. That’s when I discovered George’s was really not the dive I so dearly hoped it would be. ¥10,000 for 10 drinks is not unheard of in Tokyo, but it certainly disqualifies George’s from being a true dump.
George’s is special. I’m quite sure there isn’t another bar even remotely like it within a 30-mile radius. And with an address on the fringe of the Roppongi strip, that is no meager claim. Actually, I’m hard pressed to sum up the proper combination of circumstances that would help a patron fully enjoy all the charm and, dare I say, ennui this old boy has to offer.
The crowd is definitely older, even older than the average “just past their prime” bar bunnies who sport two necklaces and three earrings (men) and all the wrong hyper-bright colors in the latest Spandex-Lycra blend (women). Actually, I don’t think anyone is ever past his or her prime. You can look fabulous at any age; merely don’t ignore the obvious, try just a bit, and you’ll usually come out looking like money.
The music is comfortable; not banging, garbled house mixes that change up just when you figure out what song you’re listening to. The space is cozy, but no smaller than you’d expect from a facade where you can spread your arms and almost touch both corners of the building. Yet, from the outside George’s looks quaint, or at least seedy enough to be interesting.
In fact, George’s is full of intrigue, but not the frolicking, drain-your-glass-with-a-smile kind. Things seem to be off-kilter about 10 degrees to the left. The music, though a behemoth vintage collection, is too retro. George’s has got soul in spades, but with photos of dead and dying stars left, right, and center, even the up-tempo tunes come off as overly wistful.
Those strains of perfect four- and five-part R&B harmonies feel like hazy flashbacks of a time when Aretha Franklin was much thinner. Days when Okada-san was behind the bar with a glossy, sleek beehive and eyeliner that would make a “Cleopatra”-era Elizabeth Taylor envious and Diana Ross’ “Mahogany” gnash her teeth.
A night in George’s left me feeling like I’d missed something. But I had no urge to go back and find it. Modern-day Detroit is about as far as from its Motown heyday as I am from Spandex pants and an off-the-shoulder “Flashdance” tee. “What a Feeling” it was, but I’m looking for the next great time, not the last.
Unless you crave James Brown, Dinah Washington and The Chi-Lites, followed by Rick James and Hall and Oates, the Cavern (also in Roppongi) may be a better bet for soft lights, a drink and mature company. George’s 45s just aren’t my speed.
George’s Soul Bar
9-7-55 Akasaka, Minato-ku
Daily 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Near Nogizaka Station, Chiyoda Line, and Roppongi Station, Oedo Line
Gia Payne is an editor, writer, self-preservationist, and devoted Tokyoite. And she co-wrote a book about bars, pardon “pubs,” with some guy named Dan.
Dan Riney has spent years honing his bar-researching skills worldwide. He currently hones in Tokyo, where he works for a newspaper and an economics think tank.