The tiny neighborhood bars and watering holes distributed throughout Tokyo are probably as numerous as the stars on a clear night in the Himalayas. Perversely, they’re often the kinds of places that are easy to miss, at least in the daytime, even if a given joint is open when one happens to walk by.
But sometimes one can pass a Tokyo bar, even a run-down looking place, and feel strangely drawn to it somehow. Something about it catches the eye, perhaps the way it’s painted or how the bar’s name is displayed on the street. And suddenly one finds oneself walking into the joint even if one wasn’t originally in the mood for a drink.
Freedom in Nakano 5-chome is that kind of place, an unassuming little neighborhood bar that doesn’t look like much on the outside, but had an allure that made going inside an unexpected but rich Tokyo experience…
Freedom is on the eastern edge of Nakano 5-chome, near a place called Kitano Shrine. The combination of its severely-faded blue color, arched window, and the liquor bottles on the curb made the building stand out.
The katakana and phone number were missing from the front of the building, revealing the more vibrant color the place used to be and begging the question as to whether Freedom was actually still named Freedom.
But once inside, the outside didn’t matter much. Even to a foreigner with very limited Japanese, the folks in Freedom were warm and welcoming. Mama-san, the owner, is the lady laughing.
One of her customers, a garrulous and inquisitive older fellow, was quick with questions in limited English about California. And with the universal sign that he was Japanese and posing for a picture.
Mama-san showed obvious pride in her place, and it showed in the service she provided.
As to the interior of Freedom, it was like being in an artist’s teeny world where the artist serves up booze as a way of saying thanks for visiting.
With the front door open and light from an overcast sky seeping through it and the window, Freedom had a comfortable, glowing beauty within that a photograph almost can’t convey.
Mama-san enjoyed her place and her customers. One got the impression that her customers were more than regulars, but friends on whom she relied not only for income, but also for a reason to even own and run a bar in the first place.
Along almost an entire wall there was a more fiery interpretation of Mount Fuji than one typically sees. It was obviously Freedom’s visual centerpiece.
Even while relaxing with a beer, Mama-san paid warm attention to everyone in her bar, even those shooting flash pictures while barely being able to speak Japanese.
Freedom had little artistic flourishes almost everywhere, from the walls…..
….to the various objet d’art which contributed to Freedom’s quirky beauty.
But the true quality of a Tokyo bar begins and ends with the people one meets there. And judging by the folks at Freedom, it was a rather exceptional place.
Freedom is the kind of place one is glad to have found, and feels reluctant to leave. Freedom and the little places like it throughout Tokyo are showcases for the kind of hospitality for which the Japanese are famous, and for their often-overlooked friendliness and warmth.
In a sense, one hasn’t really discovered Tokyo, or Japan, until one finds one’s own kind of Freedom.
(Photographs taken in Nakano 5-chome, Tokyo in September, 2013. Published concurrently on Scholars and Rogues.)