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Food

Secret ‘snack bars’ give tourists a taste of old Japan

TOKYO (AFP) : Down a Tokyo street lined with bright signs, up narrow stairs and behind a windowless door is a “snack bar” long cherished by regulars but hidden from tourists – until now.

Snack bars are cozy, retro establishments found across Japan, often crammed into small buildings and equipped with karaoke systems that echo late into the night.

They are typically run by a woman nicknamed “mama” who chats to customers while serving drinks with nibbles such as nuts, dried squid or simple cooked dishes.

Despite being a fixture of Japanese nightlife since the post-war era, the tucked-away bars’ tight space can be intimidating, especially for people who don’t speak the language.

So one company is offering guided tours to snack bars like Kuriyakko, in the capital’s Shimbashi business district.

Inside, dim lights reflect warmly off the red wall tiles, illuminating an art-deco poster as an American family belts out “Hey Jude” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

Nora, who used to live in Japan, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) she booked the tour for her parents, sister, aunt and uncle after seeing it on Instagram.

“I’ve always seen the signs for snack bars, but I wasn’t sure of how to enter them, or what to do,” said the 30-year-old, who is now based in San Francisco and did not want her surname published.

“My family hasn’t really been in Japan very often, so it was a good opportunity to get a real experience of the bar culture” in a “jovial” and “intimate” way.

Face-to-face

It’s believed there were 200,000 snack bars in Japan in the 1950s and ’60s, according to Igarashi, but the number has declined as the “mama” retire or sell up.

Now with record numbers of tourists visiting Japan, Snack Yokocho says interest in its tours is growing.

As well as classic spots like Kuriyakko, the company’s guides bring visitors to themed snack bars such as a golf bar with a makeshift putting green.

It also sometimes runs tours for Japanese women who want to experience snack bar culture, but have reservations about knocking on a closed door alone.

For years, the bars’ clientele was almost exclusively men, Igarashi said.

But as more women have joined the workforce, snack bars have become a “place for them to relax, or talk to ‘mama’ about their problems.”

People tend to talk on social media, but after a bad day, nothing beats face-to-face communication, she added.

“At a snack bar, people can look into each others’ eyes, and get to know each other very quickly – even strangers.”