Posts Tagged ‘Roppongi nightlife’

Blinded by the Night opens in a bar* in Roppongi. This scene was inspired by a now defunct bar which was, in its day, one of the best and most popular bars in Roppongi. Practically every night was party night. Most of the male clientele were Westerners while the females were predominantly Japanese with a preference for western men.
Bar in Roppongi

Most people probably think that the scene that greeted Toyoda as he entered the bar from the street—a bare backside—is something inverted by the author. In fact it is the kind of thing that frequently happened, especially on Fridays. A group of brokers gathered there every Friday to let off steam and one of them invariably dropped his pants every week.

That the bar no longer exists is indeed regrettable, but while it was in business it was definitely a fun place to drink in. It had a great staff, friendly and very efficient, and they kept the drinks flowing as long as people were still standing and able to enjoy the party spirit.

The only negative aspect about the bar was the fact that there was only one toilet — problematic with the amount of liquid consumed on the premises — which often called for creative solutions to the call of nature. It was not unknown for some of the clientele, usually foreign men, to relieve themselves over the balcony at the back of the bar. This occasionally caused offense to some of the more vociferous denizens of Roppongi, especially when they were the recipients of an unwelcome shower.

* The name of the bar has been changed in accordance with wishes of the original owner of the bar.


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Akira Toyoda’s mobile started vibrating in his pocket; he ignored it and took another swig of Newcastle Brown Ale. The vibrating persisted. Shit, he thought, it’s got to be headquarters. For a moment he considered switching it off; then he relented. There was no point in getting himself into any more trouble.

He took the phone out of his pocket and checked the call number on the liquid crystal display screen. He was right: headquarters. That could mean only one thing—the end to his Friday night. He leant over the table and shouted, “Back in a minute.” Yelena stuck her tongue out.

Toyoda pushed his way through a rowdy crowd of drunken foreign brokers, some of whom looked as if they’d been drinking since lunchtime, and stepped out into the balmy, grimy night air of Roppongi.

Although the second-floor terrace that fronted Inn for the Night was not as comfortable as the interior—there was no air-conditioning—it was just as crowded and just as noisy. The overhead speakers blasted out White Room by Cream. Everybody on the terrace was speaking at full volume.

One man, an American, was drowning out Eric Clapton’s meaty guitar solo with boasts about his business acumen. And a young Japanese woman, the only person trying to follow the man’s one-way conversation, was awestruck.

For a split second, Toyoda thought of giving the man a shove that would send him crashing down the stairs and knock the wind out of him. Then he relented and squeezed past him to go down to the street.

The humidity was stifling. It had rained until mid-afternoon, then the sun had come out, and the temperature had risen to thirty-five degrees. But it was the humidity—it stood at about ninety percent—that hit Toyoda the hardest. By the time he arrived at street level, Toyoda was drenched. He dialed headquarters and got an answer at the first ring.

“Where are you?” snapped Superintendent Tanaka. “I’ve been ringing for ages.”

“Roppongi,” he answered. “I didn’t hear the phone ringing.”

“I bet you didn’t,” said Tanaka. “What the hell are you doing there? Don’t you see enough foreigners when you’re on duty?”

“It’s Friday evening so I was just ….”

Tanaka cut him off. “Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed yourself, because you’ve got work to do now. Get yourself off to Minami-Senju. And I mean now, not after another drink!”

“Minami-Senju?” groaned Toyoda, “What’s going on up there?”

“Suspicious death,” said Tanaka. “A dead foreigner, so that means we are involved.”

“Homicide?” asked Toyoda.

“How the hell should I know?” growled Tanaka. All I know is that we have a dead foreigner on our hands. Don’t ask any more questions; just get up there as fast as you can. Oh, and by the way, don’t even think about driving up there in that flashy Mercedes of yours! I’ve no intention of covering for you again.”

“It’s not a Mercedes, it’s a Porsche,” said Toyoda, cringing at the reminder of his latest, and most serious cockup, a reckless act of stupidity that could have cost him his career. Tanaka had covered up for him, but that meant he owed his boss something. And Tanaka would wait for the right moment before calling in his debt. Meanwhile, Toyoda had to jump every time Tanaka barked. And Tanaka had just barked.

“I’ll get a squad car from Azabu police station,” said Toyoda, “I wouldn’t risk taking my own car up to Senju. It would probably get stolen.”

He rang off and looked at the time before putting the phone back in his pocket. It had just turned seven o’clock; the evening had hardly begun but for him it had already ended—in tatters. He cursed his luck as he climbed the stairs back to the pub.

As he pushed the door open and entered, one of the foreigners dropped his pants and mooned him. The others cheered and howled with laughter. It was a sickening sight. The mooner was grossly overweight and carried a great part of his weight on his buttocks. Most Japanese would have froze, turned and gone straight back down the steps. But Toyoda was made of sterner stuff. Besides, he had seen it all before. He walked straight past the mooner, shoved a short, fat bald foreigner to one side and forced his way through the crowd.

One of the foreigners was slouched back in a chair with his legs stretched out across the floor. On his way past, Toyoda tripped over the legs and fell into the foreigner, elbowing him in the chest as he did so. The man grunted and dropped his glass, sending beer cascading across the floor. Before the foreigner realized what was happening, Toyoda apologized: “Sorry mate, tripped over some bugger’s foot!” He patted the foreigner on the shoulder, winked and walked into the back of the bar, where Yelena was waiting for him. As he walked away the foreigners all fell silent and stared after him.

“What the fuck was that all about?” said one of the foreigners.

“A Japanese with a Geordie accent!” said another. “I’ve heard it all now.”

“You should have decked him,” said the first one who had spoken.

“I don’t think it would have worked,” said the other. “Look at the size of the bastard. He was just hoping you would try something, and then he would have decked you. Confident bastard; he’s got to be connected.”

Yelena was talking into her cell phone when Toyoda dropped into his seat. She flashed a perfunctory smile and went on talking. Toyoda picked up his cigarettes, put them in his shirt pocket and stood up. Yelena covered the mouthpiece with her hand, “Just a moment, I’m almost finished.”

“Take your time,” said Toyoda, “I have to go.”

Yelena spoke hurriedly into the phone and rang off. “What do you mean, you have to go?” she said sharply. “You promised to take me to that new German restaurant. I haven’t eaten since breakfast and I’m starving.”

He shrugged. “Sorry. Something has happened, and I have to go. I’ll get back as soon as I can,” he promised, then he left her at the table and pushed his way through the crowd again. This time the foreigners saw him coming and moved respectfully out of the way.

He stopped at the door and turned back towards the foreigners. He looked the mooner straight in the eye. “You want to be careful who you show your arse to around here, mate. There are a lot of fellows who might find it too much temptation. And you wouldn’t want to lead anyone on, would you?” He tapped his nose and left the pub. A raucous bout of laughter followed him out the door.

He turned towards the Roppongi Intersection and set off for Azabu police station. The street was bustling. Although it was still early, the African touts were out in force. One of them grabbed his arm and tried to drag him towards a club. Toyoda shook himself free.

Another of the Africans, a gigantic man in a floral shirt, baggy trousers and a beret laughed out loud. He shouted something in Yoruba to the other African, who responded in the same language and then laughed.

“What’s the joke, Sonny?” Toyoda stopped in front of the large African, who held out his hand. Toyoda took it.

“He’s new on the street. I told him that he’d just tried to hustle a cop.”

Toyoda smiled. “That’s nothing,” he said. “A guy up there,” Toyoda pointed to the pub he had just left, “flashed me as I walked through the door.”

The African laughed “You should have flashed him…..with your warrant card. That would have brought him back to reality.”

Toyoda shook his head. “No point in giving that kind of information out unless it is really necessary.”

The African nodded in agreement. Toyoda turned and waved his hand in the air as he walked away.

Roppongi is certainly not Japan, he thought, savoring the aroma of roast chicken wafting across the sidewalk from the illegally parked rotisserie van. The Chicken Man, as the African who owned the rotisserie was known, interrupted his conversation with one of the Turks from the kebab van parked next to him to greet Toyoda. Toyoda nodded, but did not stop. A ten minute walk along Gaien Higashi Dori, he thought, and you practically go through the United Nations.

Toyoda strode into Azabu police station and went straight up to the front desk. The uniform sitting there looked surprised when Toyoda walked in. “You’re back early,” he said. “What happened, I thought you had the night off?”

“So did I,” replied Toyoda, somehow managing not to sound bitter. “The old man called me, and now I am off to Senju. Have you got a car and a driver to take me up there?”

The uniform gave a twisted smile and shook his head. “On a Friday evening? You’ll be lucky to get one before midnight. Anyway, what’s wrong with your own car? I thought you had it parked out back.”

Toyoda leant over the desk and breathed into the younger man’s face.

The uniform jerked his head back, waved his hand in front of his nose, and pulled a face. “That’s enough! I get the picture. It’s a taxi or the subway. And if I were you and I were in a hurry, I wouldn’t even bother trying to get a taxi. You’ll only end up sitting at the crossroads for the next thirty minutes or so. You’d be there by then on the subway.”

Toyoda grabbed a magazine from the desk and turned towards the door. “See you later.”

Chapter 2




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Everybody in Japan has heard of Roppongi, the legendary entertainment quarter sandwiched, like a juicy filling, between Akasaka in the north and Azabu in the south. But not many people, apart from the regulars, really know much about the place.

To most Japanese, however, Roppongi is a dark and dangerous place, despite the glaring neon, inhabited and frequented by foreigners or denizens of the fringe underworld of sordid sex and crime. There are Nigerian touts that harass passers-by into following them into clubs where they will be ripped off; Chinese hookers offering a “massage”; furtive men from the middle east selling trips to heaven (or hell); transvestites and transsexuals preying on drunks whose powers of observation have been diminished by alcohol; gangsters openly exercising their rights to behave in any way they want to; and a doctor on a mission to help young girls in need of treatment or counseling for sexually transmitted diseases.

When Shogun Tokugawa Iesu made the village of Edo (present-day Tokyo) his capital, Roppongi was a rustic idyll of rolling hills covered with pine trees, which provided local farmers with all the firewood they needed. Although there is not much greenery left in the area, the hills are still there and some of their names bear testament to their rustic past. There are names such as Enoki-zaka (Chinese hackberry hill), Tanuki-zaka (racoon dog hill), Itachi-zaka (weasel hill), Nezumi-zaka (rat or mouse hill), Ueki-zaka (plant hill) and the fabulously-named Imoarai-zaka (potato washing hill).

Roppongi’s first claim to fame came about in 1626, when Shogun Hidetada chose it as the site for his wife’s cremation. After the cremation, the remains were carried to Zozoji Temple in Shiba (just below Tokyo Tower) in a spectacular procession consisting of all the nobles of Edo and their samurai retainers, all in ceremonial costume. Although the area appears to have prospered after the funeral, not much was recorded about it until around 1660, when name “Roppongi,” which means “six trees,” was first used.

There is much argument about how the name evolved. One legend is that Roppongi was after for six ancient ginko trees that used to dominate the landscape around the present Roppongi Crossing. Another says that Roppongi was named because six Daimyo whose estates were located in the hills of Roppongi had names that ended with the word for tree. Whatever the origin of the name, life must have been idyllic for the nobles in those days. From their villas they could look out across Tokyo Bay or enjoy splendid views of Mt. Fuji to the south. The whole area was lush green, and the air would have been pure, not the caustic, biting pollution that passes for fresh air nowadays.

Roppongi was still little more that a village when, in the 1790s, it was incorporated into the municipality of Edo. And it remained this way until after the Meiji Restoration (1868). The situation changed drastically after the Third Division of the Imperial Guard moved to new barracks in Roppongi. Soon after the soldiers arrived, new businesses opened up and Roppongi started growing. Naturally businesses that catered for the tastes of military men were particularly prominent in the area, and Roppongi soon acquired a reputation that has stood the test of time.

Like the rest of Tokyo, Roppongi has been plagued by fires over the centuries. The first major conflagration was recorded in 1668 and the last one in 1945, when the American B-29 bombers scorched Roppongi—as well as the rest of Tokyo—with their incendiary devices. Strangely enough, however, Roppongi was one of the few areas of Tokyo spared from the fires that accompanied the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

When the war ended, there was very little left of Roppongi, and it had to rebuild itself from scratch. Again, it was the military that contributed to the growth of the area—this time the Americans. Roppongi housed a large portion of the American soldiers stationed in Tokyo, which greatly contributed to the rapid growth of Roppongi nightlife. Western-style bars and restaurants as well as houses of ill-repute catering to foreigners sprang up.

Roppongi took another great leap forward in 1964, when the Hibiya-sen opened up to improve transportation for the Tokyo Olympics. A number of discos and clubs opened up, attracting crowds of young Japanese and foreigners, mainly Westerners, of all ages. It reached its zenith in the 1980s with the ever-expanding bubble economy that fooled everyone into thinking that the money would keep flowing forever. Reality struck in 1989, however, when the bubble burst. Practically overnight, many of the discos and clubs disappeared.

Things started to look up again in the mid-1990s, and many of the foreign-themed establishments—English and Irish pubs; sports, shot and cigar bars; and salsa clubs—opened up. The variety of foreign restaurants also increased dramatically. Now just about every cuisine on earth is represented somewhere in Roppongi—even on the streets. Late at night the mobile food vendors appear offering a selection of goodies that include, doner kebabs, grilled chicken and Thai or Indian curries.

Two huge complexes—one finished and operational, the other to open later this year—are changing the face of Roppongi. The first, Roppongi Hills, which covers an area of 109,000 m², is practically a city in itself. Right in the center of the complex stands the 54-storey Mori Tower that houses restaurants and high-class shops on the first six floors and the Mori Art Center and Art Museum as well as an observation deck on the top six floors. The other floors are occupied by offices.The Grand Hyatt Tokyo occupies one corner of Roppongi Hills and TV Asahi occupies another. In between there are gardens, an arena, more luxury brand shops, restaurants, cafes, and the Virgin Cinemas complex. The other huge complex, Tokyo Midtown Project, is situated on the former site of the Japanese Defense Agency, less than 1 kilometer away from Roppongi Hills. The Midtown Tower, which soars up to 248 meters, will be the tallest building in Tokyo, and it will house offices and residences as well as the Ritz Carlton on the top floors.

Forty percent of the total area of Tokyo Midtown Project will consist of greenery and parks, and it will be home to the Suntory Museum of Art. There will also be restaurants representing a wide variation of global cuisine, cafes, luxury brand shops, and a 24-hour upscale food market.

Where Roppongi goes from here is anybody’s guess. One thing is, however, certain. Now that the new and glamorous complexes are here, the rest of Roppongi will eventually follow, and the old, dirty and seedy buildings will disappear and be replaced by something else. It is just a question of when.

© 2007 Charles R. Pringle

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