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The Vacuum Issue 12 Down Mexico Way spacer The Vacuum Issue 12 - Down Mexico Way
Dubliners in Toyko
by Amy Plant
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A typical Tokyo journey can involve encounters with talking escalators, smooth trains with heated seats, nursery style jingles at pedestrian crossings, taxis whose doors open automatically at the white gloved driver's push of a button and hot, sweet coffee cans from vending machines. It was a surprise to stumble across a Dublin bar in the middle of this clean contemporary scape. Until I kept on discovering them and I realized it was just another Tokyo interpretation of something western. The Japanese seem to love themes. Theme parks are everywhere. Adopting aspects of another part of the world is often approached thematically. Just outside Tokyo there is even an English village (with a London bus parked) and a 'little Holland', complete with windmills.
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The first Dubliners Bar I noticed was in Shinagawa. I passed it every day on my way to the station. It is jammed in a new complex of tall buildings that shine like a brand new Chicago. What goes on in the top is a mystery but below along the silver, controlled walkways are spaces for leisure and convenience. Cheap restaurants, a Seven Eleven, a Starbucks, a Dubliners.
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Take the Yamanota line from there and you may get off at Shibuya, a district naturally developed so that anyone over the age of 25 apparently feels too old to be there. There appears to be little to do but spend money in the huge department stores or the new recession-inspired 100-yen shops but if you look closer you find underground manga heavens and cool nightclubs. It is the Tokyo we have all seen in pictures, in movies, in our televisions. As you leave the station you are confronted by a mesmerizing and overwhelming array of sparkling and giant video screens that boom jingling noises, tinny beats and high pitched Japanese voices to accompany the colourful and kitsch and almost scary pixel pictures. These move quickly from a group of futuristically clad women playing white electric violins to Japan-ified Disney to cute cartoon cats. Towards nearby Love Hotel Hill, (even the rooms in these are themed), I found another Dubliners Bar and decided to investigate. Like most bars in Tokyo it sits on top of something else with something else above it, often another bar. Establishments compete in this multi-story anonymity with signage, mostly neon, flashing and multi-coloured. Dubliners has a banner sign, 'old fashioned' and 'traditionally European' and Irish-ly green. It jars out from the Asian electricity as something 'familiar'.
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You reach the bar in style. Effortlessly by escalator. And find yourself on a balcony with chairs and tables and a new view of the shimmering street from this high. Inside there are no windows. The place is small with a low ceiling with lots of cosy comfortable corners and nooks. Irish memorabilia and junk shop bric-a-brac is everywhere. In a Japanese bar you might find a print of a sumo wrestler's hand on the wall, here its old violins, an antique typewriter, dusty books. At the bar you can order Guinness and Kilkenny of course, as well as a range of lager, wine and spirits. The sound of gentle Irish tunes tangles with the street life noise below.
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All the staff are Japanese and move from behind the bar to the tables taking orders with little lucky charms dangling from their pens. They wear green sweatshirts and smart black aprons. There is a pleasantly relaxed and informal air about them and they might speak a little English but no Gaelic.
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The helpful manageress had never been to Dublin but hoped to go one day. She told me there is a rapidly increasing number of branches of the Dubliners in Tokyo and the chain is actually owned by the massive Japanese brewing company Sapporo. In fact Irish bars are a new concept for Tokyo. Dedicated drinking places hardly existed before then, despite drinking being a strong Japanese activity it is usually accompanied by eating. Lunch is however available in the Dubliners and is served in the form of stereotypical dishes such as Colcannon (cabbage and potato stew), fish & chips, green salad, beef & Guinness pie.
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I found a denser concentration of western people here than anywhere else in Tokyo. These bars seem to attract ex-pats and those on business. Japanese 'Salary men' accompanied by their western business associates feel this an appropriate place to discuss deals and dealings. And I heard about a club of English speaking web programmers who frequent the bar every Tuesday after their meetings. But small groups of young Tokyo women out for the night come here too.
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I took a place at one of the ornate, old-fashioned iron seats on the balcony. Cushions and soft blankets are provided to keep at bay the December bite. Out here in the twinkling night I met Bob who assumed that I was teaching English. An American who has spent much of his adult life in Japan, Bob is what the Japanese might call a 'gaijin' - meaning foreigner, but applied to those who live in Japan rather than to visitors. A scholar of ancient Japanese arts, he had tried to return to the States recently but came swiftly back to escape the doom of George Bush. We talked about politics and he ordered whiskey chasers and Japanese rice crackers. It was the night after the capture of Saddam Hussein, which we had all seen (but I had not heard) on TV. Bob spoke fluent Japanese and that was one of the reasons he liked coming to the Dubliners Bar, the staff new him a little by now, and weren't disturbed by his proficiency in their language. He also liked the warm atmosphere and the central location.
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But rather cagedly Bob didn't mention anything about feeling homesick or that drinking alone in a Dublin theme bar brought him closer to western culture, although meeting someone like me with whom he could talk English was clearly a bonus. Maybe it's not about that, because what ever it is, you are really not transported into a bubble-like piece of Ireland or Dublin at all. And in fact the weird familiarities in an unfamiliar context seem simply strange and make you feel far away.
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So do Irish people come here at all? According to the manageress they do, from time to time. The Shinagawa branch is even hosting an Irish Traditional Festival planned for February 2004. It will feature pub sessions, instrumental and set dancing workshops, as well as ceilis and a film. The festival is organized by the Irish Network Japan who aim to help the Japanese experience Ireland's culture, traditions and people and provide a social network for the Irish living in Japan, organizing events in Tokyo including a St. Patrick's Day Parade. Global mingling continues
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The Dubliners in Shibuya can be found at 2-29-8 Dogenzaka and is open 12 - 1am Monday - Saturday and to 11pm on Sundays and holidays. Lunch is served until 3.00pm. Other branches are scattered all over Tokyo in districts including Akasaka, Ikebukuro and Shinjuku.
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