Images by Nazareth Kawakami
Animations by Taylor Oishi
Nightclubs: a vital component to the cultural identity of any western society, typically characterized by painfully long lines, expensive drinks, and too often, deejay’s whose jobs could be accomplished just as well by an R. Kelly Pandora station. American nightclubs are often fairly predictable: dark, quite warm, an empty VIP area guarded by a man who looks like he could eat me.
However, the Japanese club scene, Tokyo’s to be precise, is not so predictable.
Given the task, I found it very hard to picture. Based on what little clues pop culture had to offer, my guesses would have been a cute Harajuku nightmare, a karaoke bar where people wear pink wigs and fall in love with Bill Murray, and every awkward party scene from The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. I am unimaginative.
Despite having spent a fair amount of time in Japan over the years, I hadn’t delved into its club circuit until the summer of 2016. At the behest of my friends—Tokyo natives of questionable morals who began pre-gaming at 10 in the fucking morning—I followed them into what was sure to be a sweaty late-night abyss.
Of this group, Yuto was my closest friend (though he hardly spoke English) and my primary tour guide for the evening. The other members of the group fluctuated throughout the night, but with consistently wilder antics than I would have expected, ripping their shirts open on a dare, or engaging in competitive push-up challenges. They weren’t the best that Tokyo had to offer, but they were my friends nonetheless.
By the time we hit the first bar, our group was around 11 people, an annoying accommodation for an understandably cramped izakaya – but soon enough, our glasses were empty and we were loose on the streets once again. While on a Jack Daniels stop at a one of Tokyo’s 2,659 7-Eleven stores, I watched Shibuya’s early-night crowd disperse, making room for those who, like us, were in it for the long haul. Herds of Japanese business men and young girls in black dresses and snapback hats began to flood the hilly neighborhood where every other building was a nightclub and the rest were by-the-hour hotels, punctuated by teens dressed like Urban Outfitters employees who had hit their peak too quickly and were asleep in a gutter by quarter-past-9.
Club No. 1: King’s Court Shibuya
The first club had no line, a red flag if ever there was one. We each paid 1000-yen (roughly $9) for entry and one drink ticket, followed by a prompt frisking by a doorman dressed like a steeple hand. We walked up a staircase which opened into the most painfully empty nightclub on Earth.
Between the plastic chalices, the fake swords and shields that lined the walls, and the suit of armor in the corner of the room, it was a good guess that this place was medieval-themed. The DJ booth was a castle guarded by a dragon that blew smoke onto the dancefloor in timed intervals and I was surprised at how unsurprised I was. The DJ looked strikingly similar to Lil Jon, an aesthetic choice in stark contrast to the venue in which he was playing, but to be honest, he just seemed quite happy to be out of the house. Yuto knew the bartender, which made it easy to stretch that drink ticket into five or six.
To be frank, this was a shit club, though I may have only seen its low point. The night was young, and in fairness, the place could fill up at the stroke of midnight like a debaucherous Cinderella, though I doubt it. It was comically awful, but where else can you drink a beer from a plastic gauntlet and listen to 50-Cent get mashed up with 50-Cent?
Club No. 2: Hachi Aoyama
The outside of Hachi Aoyama was fairly ambiguous. I am unable to recall any attention-getting signage. There was, however, the comforting familiarity of a velvet rope and a costume-less bouncer outside. One of the members of our party knew the doorman and we avoided the 1500-yen (roughly $13) fee, and I began to think our club choices were based not on the best party, but on whether or not we knew a guy.
This place felt more like home, with danceable music, a dim lighting scheme, and an eerily sticky floor. There were four floors to this club. The second floor had a bar, the third had a dancefloor. We weren’t the only people there, nor was any of the staff in costume, making it a far better experience than the renaissance fair we had come from. One of our friends got a round of drinks, a clear liquid that I was told should be drank as quickly as possible, so after the cheers, in an effort to assimilate with the culture, I threw the drink back in seconds. I recoiled at the burning in my throat, and was handed another drink, a process that repeated several times.
It would be inappropriate to disclose my level of intoxication at this point (or any) suffice to say that I remained on the third floor for a period of time that far exceeded my friends’ expectation (or my recollection). I’ve never been a dancer, some would describe me as “stoic”. I believe that alcohol, the vacation mentality, and the music selection are to blame (something about hearing DMX’s “X Gon’ Give it to Ya” and Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” in rapid succession gets me going). My friends abstained from the third floor in favor of a tamer evening, sipping soju and calling me a gaijin.
We left Hachi Aoyama in search of greater heights and a konbini meal, leading us to yet another conveniently located 7-Eleven. The streets were littered with victims of the night, Japanese citizens who had spent their evening searching for the limits of their alcohol tolerance, and finding them in the same way a speeding car might find a brick wall. Determined to survive till dawn, and with the enabling, sadistic encouragement of my friends whose numbers had swelled to somewhere between 15 and 30 (things like the lines between friend, acquaintance, and tag-along-stranger get blurred quickly), we carried on.
Club No. 3: Catnap
The third club was promising from the start. At the entrance was only a young girl behind a desk wearing a black leotard and cat ears. Yuto spoke to her for a while, she pinched my cheek and we went inside. We wandered down a winding stairway, illuminated only by black light, an ominous touch. The walls were lined with some sort of synthetic pink fur material, and most notably, this was the first place we had been to where we had to walk downstairs instead of up. I was led by Yuto to a small wooden door with the word “catnap” written on a piece of duct tape stuck at eyelevel. Yuto pinched my cheek and opened the door to an expansive basement packed to its brim in dancing bodies.
The ceiling was low, there was a disco ball, strobe lights, and a mist of sweat and Gatsby spray. The crowd was a vision of unity – men in business suits dancing with leather-clad girls, mohawks alongside slick middle-parts, artists and bureaucrats twisting together for a higher purpose: a good time. It was truly a beautiful sight, the splendor and collective catharsis of 100-plus Japanese youth in a shitty basement, relinquishing their reserved culture in acts of personal rebellion best expressed through the rawness of rhythm and movement.
My posse quickly dispersed into the crowd and Yuto danced me toward the bar. The staff were wearing cat ears and the drinks were cheap, but Catnap’s patrons weren’t here for the alcohol, nor the bomb-shelter ambience, they were here to dance. The music was without definitive genre (notable songs of the night included Darude’s “Sandstorm” and New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle”). Anything danceable was given the green light. Very quickly I was in the mix, another body melting in with the furious faces of Japanese twenty-somethings, drunk on Kirin and the suppression of their day jobs. The energy was tangible and palpable, electric air like an exorcism.
I was lost in the crowd for an unknown amount of time, though long enough for me to lose my hat and camera, accidentally elbow a celebrity in the neck, and turn my white shirt translucent with sweat. Eventually I was found by a friend of Yuto and brought outside. The time was 2:30 a.m., and though clubs in Tokyo are often open far longer, I had reached my limit. Catnap was one of the most fun and authentic experiences I’ve ever had, and the most important thing I’ve ever witnessed in understanding the complex clash of Japan’s ancient, traditionally reserved culture, and the rebellious, dancing, explosively joyous culture of their modern youth. It was a demonstration in freedom and the human ability to find joy even in a dim dirty basement, but I lost my hat and camera, and it took a while to get served.