by Dan Riney & Gia Payne
Girl & Guy Guide
I was ready to shoot more than the sheriff after three bars and as many hours traipsing around Shibuya-ku in search of reggae. Bar Fellow was dark. If I were a pothead, I would feel much inclined to light up a doobie in the back corner … if said “corner” weren’t two tatami mats from the entrance.
Luckily, the glow-in-the-dark drink menus made this bat-friendly condition a non-issue. Dan and I occupied about one-fifth of the available seating, though we were happy to “scootcha over” when four girls walked in.
The reggae music wafting through the blackness was soothing to my frazzled nerves, and the barstaff was friendly. In a casual Japlish conversation with one particularly chatty fellow, I learned the sign out front usually hung straight, but had been tilted by the recent typhoon. (Note that the usual state of said sign is nailed to the back of a wooden chair with a ragged piece of blackboard on the seat announcing the night’s drink specials.)
Overall, the bar is cute in a French bulldog kind of way. I didn’t suffer, but I won’t be back anytime soon.
Crocodile was toothless and a bit of a let down. Over the past few years, I’ve run into groovy guys around town who were in Tokyo to play at this very bar. I was never able to attend one of their sets, but these encounters created an image of an enticing, tropical experience. And I’m sure it is, if a band is playing. Otherwise, I’ll pass.
Despite the pool table, food menu and mural over the bar featuring a crocodile and, dare I say, nipples, Crocodile is more performance venue than bar—a point reinforced when near midnight on a Saturday the staff patiently waited for us to polish off our drinks and leave so they could close up.
As I munched on pizza and gazed at the dormant stage, the mental image of a dinner theater was not far off.
Meanwhile, we had picked up Jonah, our token twentysomething and resident musichead for the night. He’s a charming single guy with money to spend and new vocabulary to practice.
By this time, I was beginning to wail for an exodus. I’m a strange type of girl who drinks when she’s having a good time. In two hours I had had two drinks. I have two drinks for lunch. This night was going nowhere.
We headed for the last option of the evening: Shinkukan. We combed the neighborhood for 20 minutes impersonating Lewis, Clark and Sacagawea before realizing that we had already passed the bar twice. If you aren’t looking for it, you won’t find it. At ¥2,500 apiece, including two drinks, it’s worth every yen.
I knew we’d picked a winner when Jonah went speechless for the first half-hour, except to blurt out, “I’ve got this record at home.” Now, you should know that Jonah knows his stuff. He’s a certified New York music junkie with a deep reverence for good DJs and quality speakers. So when Jonah starts bobbing his head, “record” means LP, not CD, and his eyes glaze over with visions of house parties, turntables and headphones.
I highly recommend this bar. It isn’t small, but intimate; not aloof, but absorbed in the music. This night the clientele was all Japanese, more guys than girls, young, fist-pumping and focused. Two best features: the DJ and the layout. The music was spot on and loud (a good close-your-eyes-and-sway volume).
But, with that weird U-shaped floor plan you find in Tokyo, customers ordering at the bar and sitting at tables on one side can enjoy the music and still socialize comfortably. On the other side, the vibe is authentic, ambient reggae. Unlike Crocodile, this bar buzzed well into the night.
I feel about reggae the same way I feel about fantasy literature: The good stuff begins and ends with the masters, Marley and Tolkien.
But I’m always up for a new bar adventure, so when the idea of doing a reggae bar crawl came up, I was all for it. In the end, only two of the bars we visited merit a mention. Based on my all-or-nothing rating system, I give Shinkukan in Omotesando a Pints Up and Bar Fellow in Shibuya a Pints Down.
Landing Jonah as a color-commentator for the evening was a coup. Not only is he still wet behind the ears, genki and into all kinds of music, but he’s also from Brooklyn, which he assures me is an impressive all-around trait. What most impresses me, however, is that he is the only person I’ve ever met who has vacationed in my hometown of Detroit. And he did it just to experience the birthplace of house music.
First up was Fellow. If you like to listen to reggae while sitting at a tiny triangular bar, you’ll love Fellow. I’m ambivalent about reggae and have no particular affinity for misshapen bars, so Fellow didn’t do much for me. The staff and patrons were friendly and very welcoming to gaijin, but if you don’t share their love of reggae, you may not have much to talk about.
It gave me the same voyeuristic feeling I get in a soccer bar.
On to Shinkukan. If you’ve been to a Tokyo DJ bar, then you know the drill. The DJ “performs” at one end of the dance floor while patrons face him and bob their heads in unison. I think they call it “dancing.” Or is it deification? Either way, I couldn’t bring myself to do it, so I dragged Gia off the dance floor to where we could do a little bumping and grinding without feeling like part of the cult.
Jonah, on the other hand, made a beeline for the DJ upon entry. It wasn’t until about an hour later that he finally got around to taking off his backpack and getting a drink. In a sweaty trance he breathlessly raved about the sound-effect machine (“They usually only have them at strictly Jamaican joints”) and the “perfect” mixing. I always thought sound-effect machines went out with disco, and the only mixing I’m impressed with is the kind that goes on behind the bar, so I’ll just have to trust him.
His only complaint was the lack of “hip to hip winding” on the dance floor. I’m still not sure what that means exactly, but I could tell he was hoping to engage in some with one of the coquettish Japanese cuties he had his eye on. Realizing that this, unlike reggae, was something I could discourse on authoritatively, I warned him about the Japanese-girl tease factor.
But he’s been in Japan long enough to have learned all about it, so neither of us was surprised when the flirts’ boyfriends started rolling in around 3 in the morning.
The point is Shinkukan is a damn good reggae bar, not a Roppongi meat market. But I’ve already displayed my ignorance of the genre, so don’t take my word for it, take Jonah’s: “It’s authentic dance-hall reggae from the late ’80s and early ’90s … Shinkukan’s one of the best reggae clubs I have ever been to.”
FS Bldg. B1F, 4-4-14 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
One block up from Royal Host off Omotesando-dori www.shinkukan.net (Japanese only with English map)
Club: Friday & Saturday, 10 p.m. to close ¥2,500 includes 2 drinks Lounge: Monday to Thursday, 8 p.m. to 3 a.m.
New Sekiguchi Bldg B1F 6-18-8 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku on Meiji-dori between Shibuya and Harajuku
Cover charge VARIES
Hayakawa Bldg. B1F, 1-6-10 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku
Across from Mark City West
Daily 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Table charge ¥300 per person