Big night out in Shibuya
It’s 6 p.m. in dusk-lit Tokyo and the neon-striped towers of clamorous Shibuya are pulsing and winking at passersby as they weave between their favourite night-out haunts. With its retina-grabbing illuminated signs and frenetic, arcade-like electronic tunes, it’s like being in a vast, walk-through pinball machine. But there’s much more to the city’s leading nightspot than sensory overload.
I’m starting my big night out with an immersive wander. Packs of mini-skirted teenagers giggle past while sombre-faced salarymen head for quiet bars to drink away their workday woes. Food is the imminent requirement of many and the backstreet noodle bars and tiny izakayas nearby are packed. I’ve already eaten but I can’t resist Taiyaki, a friendly takeout shack serving filled waffles shaped like fish for around $2 a pop.
Fortified by my crispy cheese and curry snack, I choose a random subterranean hideout for a kick-off drink. Shibuya operates on many levels and tower blocks in this area frequently house bars, clubs and eateries on different floors, including below ground level. Easing down a narrow stairwell, I push through the door of Grandfather’s, a smoky, darkwood nook not much bigger than a railway carriage.
Perching at the end of the L-shaped counter, I sip a copper-coloured Yebisu beer among a handful of chilled-out older locals who look like they may have been here all day. Mellow 1970s soft rock percolates through the room – presumably from the huge vinyl library tucked behind the bar – as I peruse a menu of finger food. The definition of cozy, it’s easy to consider sinking in here until the bar’s 3 a.m. closing.
Instead, I down my brew and climb back to street level. A short walk away, Gabi Gabi is an even smaller upstairs bar with an alluringly grungy, den-like ambiance. Decorated with dog-eared music posters and old album covers – plus a washing line of concert T-shirts – it attracts a younger, hipster crowd. They often come for the cover-free weekend live music.
Since the bar has only just opened for the night, I chat in halting English to the two-person band while they set up. A cool guitarist and a shy tom-tom player elaborately named Daisuke Chiba’s Rock and Roll Dogs, they tell me mostly play stripped down versions of cool Western songs. As I sip some vodka-like shochu, they hit me with an excellent, laid-back rendition of the Beatles’ Nowhere Man.
Proving the lyrics aren’t about me, I’m soon joined by a local friend: I taught English in Tokyo in the 1990s and I still have a contact or two here. While little bars like this are a global nightlife staple, Hiromi reminds me that Shibuya has some more distinctive options for revellers. First up: Crocodile, a subterranean spot hosting a regular comedy night that’s usually packed with student coolsters.
A short walk away, we pay the $20 cover and find a narrow perch near the club’s bar as a dozen spirited performers barrel on stage and launch into a string of improv games. Anyone’s who’s been to a similar show in the West would recognize the format and although almost entirely in Japanese it’s easy to be swept up in the evening’s jollity – helped by the occasional translation from my friend.
If you time your visit right – the last Friday of every month – there’s an English language version of the show, according to the troupe’s twinkle-eyed leader Jun Imai who comes over for a chat during the interval. “Japanese people don’t like to improvise, so this form of comedy is unusual here. But the troupe all want to be actors or performers, so this is great practice for them,” he says.
Not everyone is a born performer, though – something I’m quickly reminded of at Shidax, a 6th-floor karaoke bar we head to next. For around $10 an hour – make sure you request an English-language song list at the front desk – we sock ourselves into a private room disconcertingly decorated with a large mermaid princess mural. Within minutes, I’m happily crucifying You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling, followed by an equally painful Carpenters’ medley duet. It would have received a big laugh on the improv stage.
Not quite the evening’s finale, there’s time for one more – slightly surprising – stop. My idea of darts playing involves overweight blokes in grubby pubs. But in an unexpected nightlife twist, new darts clubs have become a fun Tokyo trend, especially among early twenty-somethings. Lined with retro vinyl chairs, twinkling mirror balls and a leopard-print carpet, Bee Dining Darts Bar is ringing with tipsy young chatter on our visit.
Picking up some plastic-tipped faux darts from the wandering attendant, we head to one of the many boards lining the walls. It’s around $1 per game and the Stickle-Brick-style plastic board registers our scores on an electronic screen. It soon transpires that I’m almost at good at darts as I am at karaoke. Spotting the obvious foreigner, several locals also wander over to practice their English on me and it turns out to be a surprisingly fun way to end the evening.