The Strange, Arcane & Magnificent Bars of the Far East
After living and working in Asia for 15 years—Tokyo, Okinawa, Songtan, Abu Dhabi, Dubai—and traveling extensively throughout the region, there’s one thing I know: where to find the good bars, the really good bars, and the bars that are so horribly bad they’re actually quite great. Let’s take a look at the five most provocative and unusual bars of the Far East (we can look at the Emirates and Middle East some other time).
1. Jesse James: Fussa-shi, Western Tokyo
Down the street from my apartment—past the 7/11, pornography machines, rockabilly bar, and a few thousand vending machines—was a world-class bar. Fussa is on the outskirts, a modern village within a futuristic city, but Jesse James looks like a saloon in Cheyenne, Wyoming circa 1875. Embedded in a city block of glass and steel, the outside of the bar looks like a log cabin. The sign, naturally, uses Old West lettering. I assumed this was just a gimmick, a semiotics as meaningless as the Japanglish phrases decorating Japanese t-shirts (Ahead, it is lengthened, and waits for you!). But then I stepped inside. The walls and floor are constructed of unpainted dark wood. A giant flag of Missouri—James’ home state—covers one wall. They only serve two drinks: bourbon and Brooklyn Lager. I sat at a long table of blonde wood and ordered Jim Beam. It’s expensive, as American whiskey usually is in Japan. It’s cheaper to buy a membership. The bar is, technically, a private club. Members don’t have to pay the steep liquor surcharge. They’re also allowed to buy whiskey by the bottle, which the bartender keeps for you in a little nook in the wall. The patrons of Jesse James are quiet. Serious drinkers. There’s no music. If you’re hungry, there’s a cauldron of chilli at the edge of the bar. Jesses James is one of the simplest and most unadorned watering holes in the world, and certainly one of the best.
2. The Izakaya: Mizugama, Okinawa
Mizugama is a town on the west coast of Central Okinawa. I lived a half-block from the seawall. Directly across the street, quite literally within stumbling distance, was The Izakaya. Very convenient, unless you were in for the night, in which case you could hear every barking laugh, every flushed toilet and broken plate. Izakaya means “sake place,” a traditional Japanese bar that serve small plates of food in addition to beer and sake. The Izakaya was a popular meeting place for my colleagues. Cheap Orion beer in frosted mugs. Sushi fresh from the East China Sea, a few feet away.
My favorite snacks were asparu-butta and fri-po-day-do, which I thought were local specialties but were, in fact, just buttery asparagus and fried potatoes. Okinawans learned to cook for the American GI’s stationed on the island during the occupation after World War II. The Izakaya (did it have a name? Were we not hip enough to know?) had efficient service, great food, and a happy hour that seemed to last all day. Everything was dark, lacquered wood and red banners with white kanji I could barely read. The space was impeccably minimal and unfussy. You just sat on the floor, ate, drank, and shared food. In the bathroom, there was a hole in the floor with a rope above your head to hold onto. No extras, nothing fancy, but everything you need.
3. Hard Rock Café: Beijing
My wife and I were staying at a once-swank hotel near the Forbidden City. We had dinner at a French bistro in the Northeast corner of the city. Uneasily, we ordered wine and a five-course meal in our rapidly-vanishing French and eight words of Mandarin. Afterward, we wandered the streets. There were no taxis, phone booths, or cell phones. This was 20 years ago, when China seemed 100 years in the past. Tourists and affluence were rare. After wandering for 20 minutes, we found a Hard Rock Café. There was a long line of tall, thin, young Chinese women in Mariah Carey dresses. A smiling man held up the velvet rope and guided us inside. Tommy Lee’s codpiece hung from a nail above my head. Axl Rose’s red-white-and-blue bandana was framed and pressed under glass like a rare butterfly.
I ordered drinks and looked around. Mariah Careys stood alone or next to western men in dark suits and loose ties. Ah... the Yuan dropped. Sex workers. The reason it took me so long to figure this out was that, although the women dressed provocatively, they acted like schoolmarms. There were no raunchy come-ons, no crotch-grabs, not even a shimmy or wiggle. In fact, the sex workers were practically inert, mannequins with voice boxes. A man sat next to me. Brown suit, brown tie, brown shoes, gray skin. Plastic nametag that read "Anonymous Salesman" or "That Guy From HR." Mariah Carey’s 23rd incarnation came over and stood next to him, without speaking. After an uncomfortably long silence, Mr. Brown made his opening remarks:
“You from around here?” he asked.
“No, I am not. I am from a village in the south.”
“It is near Kunming,” she said.
“Oh yeah? What’s the name of the village?”
She raised a hand to conceal a smile, or maybe a yawn. “You have not heard of it.”
“Kunming is in Yunnan Province, right?”
“I thought so. Important during World War II... economic and industrial center known for... copper production, machinery, textiles, paper and... cement?”
She looked confused. He had no idea she was trying to pick him up. There was a reason for crotch-grabbing, it turns out. Genital contact is an excellent method of disambiguating idle chitchat from sexual advances.
“So,” Mr. Brown asked, “do you have many siblings?”
“No, this is not allowed in China.”
The one-child policy would not be relaxed until 2013.
Mariah Carey-23 eventually walked away, frustrated. We stayed for an hour enjoying the cleanliness, air-conditioning and elbow room, a welcome respite from a city of crowds, yelling, pushing, car horns and smog. Beijing was beautiful, in its own way, not just another interchangeable world capital, but a city unafraid to be itself. And the Hard Rock Café was its opposite—openly inauthentic—which was strangely charming and very difficult not to love.
4. The Bus Stop: gravelly side-street, Okinawa
Like all the hippest spots, this place is hard to find and doesn’t have a name. Bus, we’ll call it, is an old American school bus, painted psychedelic colors, rusting in an alley between two anonymous concrete buildings. The ground outside is dirt and gravel. The bench seats have been replaced with padded folding chairs and tiny wooden tables. A guitar amp, connected to a 50-foot cable, brings quiet rock and blues music to the customers. A tiny candle sits on every table. A waiter takes orders almost soundlessly. There’s no food, no menu. The waiter never forgets an order. Beer, wine or liquor in tactful unadorned glassware. Bus is the ideal spot for a romantic drink, a secret meeting, or a few moments of peace.
5. Jazz Bar: Songtan, South Korea
I was living outside an American air force base in the crooked streets of Songtan, a farming village that had transformed into a cramped enclave of bars, restaurants and shops to capitalize on the strong foreign dollar. Mrs. Kim’s MacDonnalds was right outside my window. It may not have been an authorized franchise, despite her official-looking uniform, since she operated out of a pushcart selling corndogs and deep-fried insects. Across the street, on the second floor of a blasé city block, a handwritten sign sat in a window. Jazz Bar. I couldn’t believe it. Live music was scarce in these parts. I loved jazz, and drinking, preferably at the same time. I mounted the steep, dark, narrow staircase. On the landing I turned right and nearly ran into Kenny G, with his poodle hair and alto sax. He looked as stunned as I did, nearly immobile, maybe because he was a cardboard cutout. A moment later I was greeted by the world’s worst hostess—the sound of smooth jazz. It wasn’t Kenny G, but it was similar. Kenny H, maybe. The music was horrifying, yet comforting.
The actual hostess came out and seated us in a plush leather banquette that had once been luxurious but was now scarred with rips and stains. Some of the patrons wore sunglasses. Couples canoodled in dark corners. There were no American GI’s fighting or doing shots of Jager, which was the default setting in Songtan. A waitress brought a huge tray covered with tiny dishes of complimentary appetizers. Seaweed crackers, fried squid, tofu bites. The food was strange, delicious, and the perfect match for 24-ounce bottles of OB, a world-class Korean lager. Pretty soon the music switched from light jazz to heavy metal. No one seemed to notice. Iron Maiden and Mötley Crüe assaulted us as violently as Kenny G and Kenny H had consoled us. I ordered a Jim Beam. A few minutes later, I saw the bartender pouring Imperial brand bourbon into an empty Jim Beam bottle. This isn’t a hipster bar, but an authentic dive, the most eccentric and wonderful place in Korea. I’ve never heard Miles Davis or Ornette Coleman in Jazz Bar, and somehow I wouldn’t want to.
What these bars have in common is they don’t try too hard. In fact, they don’t seem to try at all. They’re all weird and flawed and wonderful in their own unique way.