Tokyo: Dinner and Dancing at Shinjuku Awa Odori

After the quiet of Meiji Shrine and the noise of the Shibuya Scramble Crossing, we found we were running late to meet Yu, a friend of Shannon’s. Yu is a Tokyo native and was excited to take us around his hometown, even if only for one night. We made our way to Shinjuku station and met Yu just outside the West Exit. It’s bad enough getting into Shinjuku late, but trying to meet someone there will only make you later. Luckily for us, Yu was forgiving and ready to dive into the night life.

I’d been hoping to visit Golden Gai, famous for its hundreds of tiny pubs packed into less than an acre of a space. Unfortunately, the five of us would fill any of them to capacity even if it wasn’t already a busy Saturday night. As a compromise, Yu took us through Omoide Yokocho, a less well-known area of equally small bars and eateries closer to Shinjuku Station, but we found it suffered from the same space deficiency as Golden Gai.

"Untitled" by Jason Gerecke (used with permission)

“Untitled” by Jason Gerecke (used with permission)

I was beginning to despair of finding any place at this point, but Yu hadn’t even begun to fight. Like any good Tokyoite, he had plenty of great places to eat saved up in his back pocket. He led us around to the east side of the station, past buildings I recognized, until suddenly were going into a building and up an elevator. In a few moments the doors opened to reveal a panoply of traditional music, including the sounds of kane bell, shamisen, and shinobue flute. A wall stood between us and the source, but it sounded like the music was live. Yu asked for a table, and the hostess rushed into the restaurant to check.

While the hostess was gone, we peeked in to see what was going on. Long, communal tables were lined up perpendicular to a large stage on which women and men in traditional festival dress danced and sang. On the sidelines, musicians in the same festival wear played for the dancers. Every table was full to the brim with smiling people, and a little worry shone through Yu’s air of Tokyo sprezzatura.

The hostess ran back and spoke quickly. What little worry had been apparent on Yu’s face melted as he turned to us with a smile. “There’s a table in the back. It’s a little small; is that okay?”

We nodded, our hunger obvious and artless.

"Untitled" by Jason Gerecke (used with permission)

“Untitled” by Jason Gerecke (used with permission)

The hostess led us to the very back to a tiny room hidden near the stage, barely bigger than a large closet. A table and chairs took up nearly every inch of space. We squeezed into our seats as Yu started ordering food and translating drink orders, encouraging sake and shochu consumption. I was grateful for the translation help. After my late night/early morning at Ageha the night before/that morning, I’d opted not to sleep and had now clocked over 36 hours awake. The tiredness was starting to make me feel a bit hungover, and I hadn’t even started drinking! Determined to have a wonderful time, I requested a shochu.

This being the first time any of us but Shannon had met Yu, we fell into silence, no one sure where to start. I did my best to jump-start the conversation, but with everyone so famished it was hard to gain ground. Luckily it was only a few minutes before the first drinks and plates of food arrived, which softened the atmosphere. We took a little food, then Yu encouraged us to climb out of our tiny room to check out the dancing. We obliged and shuffled out, standing against the wall to watch.

It was the perfect vantage point: we could see both the musicians and the dancers, and watched as men wearing nothing but socks, headscarves tied under the nose, happi jackets, and (I hope) shorts danced in halting steps with their hands over their heads. The women were a little more refined in fine white and pink yukata, sleek black geta, and peaked amigasa straw hats, their dancing more restrained given their costumes. All cried the same traditional chant in rhythm, encouraging spectators to dance. We watched for a few minutes, transfixed by the chanting and dancing, then retreated back to our table for a little more food and conversation. It was only minutes, though, before a waitress came by and asked if we’d like to dance as well. We were reticent, but Yu encouraged us to try it out, so we clambered back to the door, the boys peeking out of the room behind me. Performers from the stage led a twisting line of dancers that consisted of nearly every customer in the restaurant. “Go on! Go on!” Yu said behind me, so I dove in at the first possible moment.

"Untitled" by Jason Gerecke (used with permission)

“Untitled” by Jason Gerecke (used with permission)

The line of dancers pulled me along like a river. Although I’d been nervous at first, the nervousness melted away as I saw how none of us danced particularly well, but everyone seemed happy anyway. I wound up just in front of one of the professional performers, and I looked back at her, the reflexive glance of a person thrust suddenly into a crowd. She smiled broadly at me, raising her eyebrows as though to say “Awesome, right?!” The fun was infectious. I made it part of the way around the room before the song ended, then found myself clapping on the sidelines with the other tourists. Jason, Jeremy, Shannon and I went back to our tiny room, where we found Yu giggling in the doorframe.

“Why didn’t you dance?!”

“I’ve already done it. Great job!”

We went back into the room and found the bulk of the food had arrived while we were out. We commenced eating the feast, the conversation finally flowing free as everyone consumed their second round of drinks. We asked about the costumes (traditional festival wear except for the amigasa hat, which is regional), the region (Tokushima Prefecture), the dance (a special Obon dance, Japan’s “Days of the Dead”) and why the male dancers tie their head scarves under their noses (no one knows—silliness?).

Unfortunately for me, the night was soon to end. My 36 hours awake were swiftly becoming 37, and despite having a blast, I found to my embarrassment that I was drifting off, the comfortable warmth of the room mingling with my pleasant shochu buzz to lull me to sleep. I tried to rouse myself several times, and tried to explain the reason for my horrific rudeness to Yu, but I wasn’t sure it came across between the booze and the music. After rousing myself a third—!—time from the comfortable nap that felt set to consume me, there was nothing to be done but beg off. My fantastic night at Ageha would be paid for with an early bedtime on the night I should be drinking with friends in Tokyo; at least Jeremy, Jason, and Shannon would have a good time. (Jeremy, the smart one, had actually slept a good six hours after we got back from Ageha, and although probably tired, wasn’t falling-asleep-in-his-seat tired.)

As I explained why I had to go, everyone seemed sad, but I knew I was leaving them in good hands. Between Yu (Shinjuku transplant from Nakano, where our hostel was located) and Jason (with enough Tokyo experience to at least shake a stick at) I knew they’d find their way back in one piece. I headed for Shinjuku Station and took the Chuo home alone.

The next morning everyone was up late, including me. As we made our way to Yoyogi Park to wish Tokyo goodbye, I was regaled with stories of neverending sake and beer, enough food to shatter propriety, drunken journeys through the backroads of Shinjuku to Nakano and a stop at another bar where it all began again. Yu must have taken out a loan to cover it all! I was sad to have missed such an epic night of carousing, but glad that everyone else had had such a fantastic guide and friend to show them how to party in Tokyo.

"Untitled" by Jason Gerecke (used with permission)

“Untitled” by Jason Gerecke (used with permission)

"Untitled" by Jason Gerecke (used with permission)

“Untitled” by Jason Gerecke (used with permission)

"Untitled" by Jason Gerecke (used with permission)

“Untitled” by Jason Gerecke (used with permission)

"Untitled" by Jason Gerecke (used with permission)

“Untitled” by Jason Gerecke (used with permission)

"Untitled" by Jason Gerecke (used with permission)

“Untitled” by Jason Gerecke (used with permission)

Address: 5F Seno Bldg., 3-18-4 Shinjuku, Tokyo 160-0022

Get There: Arrive in Shinjuku Station (Yamanote, Chūō-Sōbu, Shōnan-Shinjuku, Saikyō, Odawara, Keiō, Keiō New, Marunouchi, Shinjuku, and Ōedo lines) and leave through the East Exit. Cross the small pavillion in front of the exit and the street that runs in front of it, then turn right. You should see the Bic Camera building on the right side of the street ahead of you. Pass the scramble crossing that would lead to Bic Camera, and turn left on the first street past that crossing. The Seno Building is a glass-fronted building on the right-hand side of the street. Go into the small corridor that leads through the building (no door) and get onto the elevator. Shinjuku Awa Odori is on the 5th floor.

Price: Not totally sure, since Yu graciously took care of the bill. However, TripAdvisor tells me the price range is $33-45. (Thank you again, Yu!)

Tips:

  • Dance! Even if you have no rhythm, just jump in. The dance is very simple, and as the chant itself says, “The dancers are fools / The viewers are fools / If both are fools / Why not dance?”

Based on my diary entries from November 9, 2013.

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