Shisha bar staff Taiga-san on the allure of Shimokitazawa
This piece is the sixth installment in our ‘Love letter to Shimokitazawa’ series. This project aims to uncover the voices within our local community, helping us better understand what and who made Shimokitazawa the place it is today.
When I first started working in Shimokitazawa and didn’t know any place to hang out, a friend of mine – who is a lot more Tokyo-savvy than I am – recommended a long-standing shisha shop in the neighborhood where she’s been hanging out for quite a while. When I first visited, I felt something very “Shimokitazawa” about the place, but I wasn’t sure what it was. In spite of the excessively small space, it was surprisingly comfortable being there. Some of the customers were just there, not particularly doing anything. Some seemed immersed in deep discussion. As I left the shop, I asked the shop staff, Taiga san, if I can interview so that I can find out what Shimokitazawa is for him and where this Shimokitazawa-ness I felt was coming from.
Please tell us about yourself. What brought you to Shimokitazawa?
Before I started working here about ten years ago, I played music in a band. I also worked in a clothing store to make a living. I was extremely bored with my job and my band thing was going nowhere. During that period of my life, my girlfriend and I were hanging out in Shimokitazawa, and we came across this shop. We often visited Shimokitazawa, as it was the closest lively spot to where I lived. There was something about this shop; it seemed to be calling me inside. Maybe it was the environment. Back then, I was very young, so I didn’t know many people or ways to have fun. It was an extraordinary experience for me to be in an environment where complete strangers were conversing freely. I’d never been anywhere like that, so it felt like a discovery. Plus, my favorite band at the time, Sublime, was playing on the sound system. It seemed to me that everybody there was super cool and hip. I felt, almost instinctively, that it was my kind of place. (even though I found out later that the music they were playing that night had just been brought in by a customer) I was so fascinated by this place that I returned the very same evening. That’s how strong an impression it had on me.
After that day, I started coming everyday and the owner and I really bonded. After about two years, he asked me if I wanted to work here. To be honest, I wasn’t doing much back then, so it seemed like a pretty good idea to work someplace I liked. I thought my girlfriend would be happy about me getting a job, too. I fell in love with a Russian customer after a couple of months and broke up with her, though. You never know what’s going to happen in life.
What makes you stay in Shimokitazawa?
I feel very comfortable staying here. I feel like I’m going crazy sometimes as I’m doing the same thing again and again every day. But, I meet a lot of people every day, and there are many special encounters. There was this foreign customer who came here and ended up falling in love with not only this place but also Shimokitazawa, so he ended up moved here. Actually, many regular customers eventually move to Shimokitazawa. I think they want to hang out at this shop until quite late at night.
Regular customers say this place is like their living room. I also feel relaxed when I’m here. Lawyers, fashion students, doctors, musicians, and foreigners - although our customers are quite diverse, they all have very positive and friendly vibes. They are a little bit weird, but very nice and easygoing. I guess they are part of what makes me want to stay here all this time.
What’s your most memorable Shimokitazawa story?
There was an old man who often came to this shop. He didn’t smoke shisha; he just came to talk with the staff and other customers while drinking hot chocolate or something. Then one day, he stopped coming. It wasn’t like he was my best friend or anything, but it felt very weird not seeing him as he was always here, chatting with everyone. We were all worried about him. After a while, his grandson visited to tell us that he had died. After that, he too became our regular customer. Just like his grandfather, he always talks about girls. It’s easy to see that they are related.
What is unique about Shimokitazawa? What makes Shimokitazawa so special?
It’s not just this place, but many izakayas and bars in Shimokitazawa have this kind of atmosphere where people can naturally communicate with others. At this shop, I try to introduce and connect customers who don’t know each other. People make friends here. Whenever you come, you meet someone you’ve met before.
Today, there are many shisha shops across Tokyo in places like Shibuya and Shinjuku. However, we were the first to introduce this café style, and I think that other shisha bar owners were inspired by this place. My boss brought Shisha culture from Egypt to Japan. Rather than call it ‘hookah’ like in the U.S., he wanted to spread the original Egyptian name of Shisha in Japan because he wanted to bring authenticity. Indeed, he succeeded, and I really respect him for that.
Anyway, I think Shimokitazawa made it possible for us to adapt the original Egyptian shisha culture so well. In Egypt, people don’t drink alcohol, so they gather to smoke shisha after work and spend time with their friends. I think at the Shisha bars of Shinjuku and Shibuya, people probably don’t speak to strangers as much, since those areas are gigantic and people tend to come in groups. I find this socializing aspect of shisha culture very important, and Shimokitazawa enabled us to embody the authenticity of the culture. Friendliness and frankness are the nature of Shimokitazawa, and that is a key element of why this place can be everyone’s living room.
Yes, Shimokitazawa is hip, but not like a super hip place only for people in the know. It’s quite mainstream actually. However, that balance makes it a cool place. Our customers - and I - believe that this is the coolest place in the world!
- Article by Ikumi Taneya