Snack Bars Uncovered

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Imagine a windowless 20 storey tower block packed with pubs the size of your living room all dimly lit and all open for business every night of the week until the early hours.  Imagine your favourite pub with your own personal cheery barmaid who is keen to engage in flirtatious small talk over a shared drink at the end of a long day at work.  A pub that doesn’t have a menu or a pricelist but has unlimited peanuts, crisps and individually wrapped chocolates on the bar and hot towels whenever you return from the toilet.  A pub with with a long list of karaoke classics with barmaids that encourage you to informally sing at the bar  ….  welcome to the underground world of Japanese snack bars.

Snack bars are usually instantly recognisable by their bright neon signs and hideous names written in a mix of katakana and English.  Whilst the British have spent many years cleverly inventing imaginative names for our pubs (usually based around the themes of animals or royalty), the Japanese are equally creative when it comes to naming snack bars.  I often wonder where they draw their inspiration from.  Here is a selection from my town: プリティードール(Baby doll)、ピエロ (Piero)、ピュア (Pure) and サントロペ (Santrope).

Whenever I mention the words “snack bar” to my friends I get one of two responses – you spent how much?? or what exactly do you get for your money?! (rolling eyes)  Lets be honest, “snacking” in Japan doesn’t come cheap, but nor does a night out clubbing these days.  Before I continue I should also clear up that the majority of snack bars in Japan are not licensed brothels or seedy strip clubs as the names might suggest….  at least not the one that I frequented during my three years of snack bar research to bring you this article.  The jury is still out among the Japanese themselves on any after-service (known as アフター) that may or may not be offered.

Living in reportedly the most densely populated snack bar town in Japan (a rural town somewhere south of Hiroshima) let’s just say there were few other forms of entertainment to keep me amused.  Some of my fondest memories and strangest encounters in Japan are from my self-confessed love of snacking.  These include more than one encounter drinking Champagne courtesy of real Yakuza (only the next morning did I feel this was slightly immoral).  On another occasion I racked up a rather large bill for a very short time in a male snack bar with a female friend (no explanation needed).  I recall a number of local “snack crawls” with a seasoned Japanese “snacker” colleague of mine who introduced me to almost every snack bar in my town.  An interesting night spent introducing my friend to snacking – a night spent with one hostess who turned out to be a former student.  On a more recent trip to a snack bar I was accosted by an 80 year old woman missing most of her teeth who invited me out for a private dinner….   Never a dull moment had in a snack bar in Japan!

My next article looks at snack bar etiquette….

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