Sunday, 30 May 2010

The Seedy (but soft) Underbelly

Last night, we went to Ingrid's.
Ingrid's is a karaoke bar, and the place that most of the foreigner community in Tokushima visits at one time or another. There was a time when I would come here almost every weekend, sometimes two nights in a row, though I don't go out as much as I used to. Ingrid's is run by a lady called Ingrid (surprise!) and has no cover charge or fee for using the karaoke machine. Hooray!

Em and I went for something safe to sing:
 You can never go wrong with Gaga.

Ingrid's is located in Sakae-machi, which is one of the most atmospheric and alive places in Tokushima city. It's a series of narrow alleys off Akita-machi, and along with that street houses the majority of the drinking establishments in town. When the sun sets, these streets begin to come to life. They fill with students and other young people going for drinks with their friends, with salary-men and other professionals having after work drinks and "nijikais" ("second parties" after official work functions), with hosts and hostesses soliciting on street corners, yakuza types going about their secret business, and the occasional drunk vomiting or urinating up against a building. Tis truly a magical place.
What sets this kind of district in Japan apart from similar places elsewhere is a strange illusion of sincerity that exists between the proprietors of these establishments and their customers. In Japan, customer service is number one, and when most of the bars in town are very small and therefore rather similar in layout, this is very important. When a so-called 'Snack Bar' charges 2000-3000 yen just for seating, they have to be offering more than just a place to sit. Whether it's the kindly ear of the barman, the companionship of a beautiful young lady or the missing half of your karaoke duet, it's up to the staff to make you feel comfortable and at home - so that you'll stay and keep drinking, and, more importantly, so that you'll come back next time. These bar people are not your friends, and if you ask them out on a date they will probably be busy, but while you're under their care they will treat you like family. As long as you have the cash.

Walking down Sakae-machi late at night you see this dance playing out all the time. You see snack bar girls come outside as a customer is leaving, lamenting his early departure and ensuring his return in the not-too-distant future. The customer, who may have a wife at home, says goodbye, fawning over the lady and not caring about the 10,000 yen un-itemised bill he just paid that has taken advantage of his inability to remember how much he actually drank. Some say this kind of thing is the result of a lack of communication between spouses and friends, and fills that particular void in the Japanese lifestyle. I find it fascinating, but also a little frightening.

While we're on the subject of the seedy, there's this:
This is Marie De Medicis, the Love Hotel down the road from my apartment. Love Hotels are a novel invention that provide couples with a discreet place for a hook-up. I say discreet, despite the glaring neon signs and often ridiculous exterior design that are the hallmark of the Love Hotel, because it's often unnecessary to see members of staff face-to-face to get a room. In the case of this particular Love Hotel, they have an underground parking area so no one has to be seen entering or leaving the premises. I find the whole concept ingenious.

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