Sunday, January 23, 2005


It was around this time last year when I first learned the word mastaa. I had just started dating a girl who lived about 50 minutes away by train. She had trekked out to the cafe I was working in, and I returned the favor by heading out to the place she part timed at. I wandered through the throng of bars, pachinko parlors and food stands that clustered around Omiya station until I found it: a yakitori joint, red lantern swinging proudly.

Two or three balding salarymen were scattered around the 10 or so stools at the bar, talking about the sumo tournament over beers and bottles of warmed sake. There was a lean guy roasting chicken over coals, and my girlfriend, hair back and in a blue apron, making conversation with the regulars. When she introduced her boss to me as mastaa (master) I nodded and asked his name. He looked uncomfortable. "Just call him mastaa," she whispered to me. I made conversation with the regulars, and it turned out we had a lot in common. I was born in New York and two of them had been to New York. My girlfriend poured beers when asked, but mostly just stood around and talked with the customers. Her job is known informally as kamban musume, "signboard girl", a young girl who is hired to brighten up an otherwise dreary little hole in the wall, to commisserate with the salarymen as they pour out their frustrations over a few drinks before heading home.

For all it's world dominating companies, small businesses still thrive in Japan. Entrepeneurs flock to every major train hub, grabbing up available space and scraping out a living selling weary Japanese commuters food, drink and love. In contrast to the massive formal structure of most Japanese organizations, these tiny bars and pubs are an extension of the personality of the owner, who is invariably charismatic and welcoming, and often well travelled. These small bar proprietors run everything from working class chouchin (red lantern pubs) to trendy upscale wine bars. It is precisely this individuality that makes these places attractive: to the working stiffs who frequent these places the mastaa is living the dream, free of the corporate structure, every day a party, free to display their lifelong obsession with Beatles memorabalia or South-East Asian artwork.

With seating rarely exceeding 10 stools around a bar, these places are for the most part the domain of customers who have been coming for years, and the ichigen kyaku-san, or customers who spot the sign and walk in off the street, are extremely rare. You're introduced into the fraternity (these places are overwhelmingly male) by friends or work colleagues. While I have been taken to dozens of these places by Japanese friends and colleagues, I tend to frequent the larger izakaya (Japanese style restaurant-bars) with their fleets of young staff echoing out WELCOME!'s and THANK YOU!'s in loud and rapid succession. But in all their noise, enthusiasm and good cheer, izakaya are mostly for groups going out with a flock of friends, not the kind of place you go by yourself for a warm drink on a cold night and a chat with the mastaa. But the idea of spending my nights with a bunch of exhausted salarymen cracking misogynistic jokes and kamban musume smiling through them doesn't exactly get me all excited.

So, finding the Good News Cafe was a bit of a revelation. In many ways it follows the same pattern as your average mastaa joint, with the theme (American hippy rock), the regular clientele and the charismatic mastaa, but it's also light years apart. The regulars are about 50-50 male-female, the place is run by a young couple, and the closest thing to a kamban musume is the Joni Mitchell poster on the wall. It's the first small bar I've walked into where they didn't ask what country I was from or where I learned Japanese within the first 10 minutes. We just talked about music, shared a few beers, and listened to records and the hum of the space heater that valiantly warmed the room against the January air.

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