The Snack Bar: Japan’s Eccentric Underground Bar Scene

From kyabakura to karaoke, Japan’s nightlife is unparalleled in diversity. The backbone of this after-dark economy is the enigmatic “snack bar,” whose secretive, windowless storefronts forever intrigue curious bar-hoppers. But before mustering the courage to step inside, it’s vital to understand the unspoken rules, manners, and customs unique to this underground culture. We visited a 40-year-old snack bar in one of Japan’s geisha districts to find out the facts from the “Mama-san” herself!

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What Is a Snack Bar?

Unlike the name suggests, snack bars, commonly called “sunakku” in Japanese, are not catered towards those feeling peckish. While finger food is served, snack bars are havens of drinking and socializing. The snack bar menu will depend on the joint, with some having “all-you-can-drink,” and others selling spirits by the bottle. Most famous is the latter, with rows of whiskey bottles lining the back shelf emblazoned by the name of a regular, indicating the owner of each. This ownership weaves together a sense of familiarity - a home away from home. No matter the stresses of work, domestic life, or the strife of the world, your drink always awaits.

Snack bars speckle the alleyways of business and entertainment districts - all the way from the bustling neon streets of Shinjuku to tiny, rural towns. In smaller populations, they are often the sole place for locals to drink, cherished as a community bedrock.

While some are youthful and trendy, snack bars are largely a leftover of the Showa period (1926-1989), and the average customer is male and middle-aged. The proprietress, called a “Mama-san,” likely matches the age of patrons, while the part-time bartenders under her wing veer to the younger side. Some also have male owners called “masters,” who typically employ female staff. Drinks are far from fancy - expect your standard Japanese beers, whiskeys, and shochu.

Customers patronize snack bars to drink, chat, and laugh. Despite their presence around red-light districts, they do not offer anything in the way of sexual service, and staff are strict about keeping their distance behind the counter. While not at all related, snack bars are often mistaken for the seedier “kyabakura” (portmanteau of “cabaret” and “club”), where staff sit with patrons and go out privately after business hours.

The History of Snack Bars

While the origins are murky, snack bars prospered after WWII as a byproduct of reeling in adult entertainment. Sex work has a long history in Japan, and in the post-war chaos, prostitution ran rampant. In order to align itself with the morals of the Allies and the United Nations, Japan amended its laws to make prostitution illegal. This was supercharged by laws implemented in preparation for the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which prohibited establishments providing intimate services (like sitting together, chatting, singing karaoke duets) from opening past midnight.

While bars, which are limited to the basic transaction of money for drinks, were free to operate late, others had to find loopholes to keep running during prime nightlife hours. To counter this, some started serving light food to become legally redefined as “eateries,” even if drinks and friendly service were the main attraction. Now free to open as they pleased, these so-called “snack bars” thrived, with most simply making a cursory effort at some rice crackers on the table to keep running their business legitimately.

A Night at Cham Neko

Seeking an authentic encounter, we popped into “Cham Neko,” a tiny snack bar tucked in the alleyways of Niigata’s historic “Furumachi” geisha district. Cham Neko has been a part of Furumachi for 40 years, and its Mama-san has diligently stood behind the counter the entire time. Seating only five, she runs the joint alone, and offers both all-you-can-drink and full-bottle service.

As mentioned, a sizable portion of the appeal behind snack bars is the homely, offbeat character. Cham Neko ramps this up to the extreme, monopolized by a hoard of nostalgic Showa era paraphernalia, from Godzilla figurines to rotary telephones and more, inviting a new discovery at every glance. It feels less like a place of business, and more like being invited into someone’s living room.

The Mama-san of Cham Neko is the embodiment of old-school Japanese sophistication. Plainspoken and amiable, each of her actions are carefully measured and performed with purpose. Her posture is impeccable, as is her attention to the  customers, warming up fresh hand towels after each trip to the bathroom and topping up drinks the moment they are emptied. She turns conversation into a fine art, allowing customers to vent and boast while contributing her own perfectly-timed replies and jabs. While easier and far cheaper to pick up a beer at a convenience store, it was clear to us that drinking is only at the surface of a snack bar’s appeal.

How to Visit a Snack Bar in Japan

With 40 years in the business, the Mama-san of Cham Neko knows a thing or two about snack bars. She insists that, despite the intimidating appearance from the outside, one shouldn’t hesitate to enter. However, she wants first-timers to understand that there is a very real chance they’ll be rejected, as customer acceptance is entirely at the discretion of the Mama-san. Luckily, I was guaranteed a rare inside peek, as the Mama-san of Cham Neko is actually my wife’s aunt!

Many snack bars are regulars only, requiring an invite from a patron, while others have official membership systems. Sometimes, you’ll simply be rejected for your looks - and not necessarily because you’re foreign. Once a customer enters, several things rush through the Mama-san’s mind: Can they pay? Will they be respectful? Do they match the vibe? If you’re a disheveled backpacker traveling Japan on a budget, you’ll more than likely be shown the door. If you’re looking smart, fresh, and armed with a wad of cash, then the chances of being welcomed by warm smiles increases significantly.

While seemingly superficial, snack bars run on thin margins, and a mama needs to protect her business. It’s not only about a quick buck - regulars who feel annoyed by new customers or let down by the Mama-san may never return, resulting in huge financial losses. In fact, many snack bars survive owing to the patronage of just a handful of people, so they need to be respected and prioritized over newcomers.

The Mama-san tells us not to be discouraged if rejected. Simply nod politely, exit, and try the next one. Exploring the scene and finding the right snack bar for you is half the fun!

Things to Be Aware of at Japanese Snack Bars

Bred from a deep, underground culture, snack bar etiquette is a sophisticated art unto itself.

First up, the Mama-san of Cham Neko tells us that, after opening the door and peeking inside, greet the mama and ask “Ii desuka?” (Is it alright?). Simply taking a seat without permission is disrespectful, and will start the night off on the wrong foot.

If permission is granted, before sitting, inquire about the drinks system upfront. For her, this is vital and not at all rude, as many people become annoyed once a higher-than-expected bill arrives, souring the experience. Those on a budget, steer clear. You are likely expected to buy a bottle of spirits, or pay for all-you-can-drink, which can run anywhere between 4,000-10,000 yen or more. Better to be safe than sorry, and feel free to leave if it’s not for you. (Tabs are generally settled just before leaving, and it’s largely a cash-in-hand world.)

Once seated and settled, allow the Mama-san to pour you drinks. While the bottle will likely be sitting on the counter, handling it yourself may be taken as an insult, suggesting she isn’t paying attention. When socializing, don’t be overconfident and domineering. Feel the tone of the bar, and do your best to blend in.

Visitors should also be aware that smoking is the norm in many snack bars, so those sensitive to smoke should keep their distance. Often lacking windows, ventilation is poor. Instead, fresh air is replaced by potent perfumes and incense. Again, find an alternative if you have a sensitive nose. Snack bars are also catered towards individuals, so if you’re going out in a group of more than two, then a regular bar, izakaya, or karaoke are better choices.

Since snack bars normally cater to locals, they generally aren’t known for international language support. In fact, while the Mama-san of Cham Neko welcomes customers from across the globe, she worries that she can’t put her full talents on display if you don’t speak Japanese. Her fee includes her time and service, and she admits she feels guilty about charging if she can’t converse with you. For those that do speak the language to some degree, snack bars are fantastic places to improve your conversational skills!

Other Ways to Have Fun at Japanese Snack Bars

When wandering the streets of Japan, you’ve more than likely heard the echo of a middle-aged man belting out tunes. This is snack bar karaoke, a far cry from the sound-proof, private karaoke boxes many associate with Japan. While not all snack bars offer karaoke, many do, making for a smooth ice breaker. Just keep in mind that you may need to pay extra for karaoke, sometimes even per song.

Also, while downplayed, snack bars do have snacks! From the standard nuts, chips, and rice crackers to more substantial dishes like miso soup, mashed potato, and edamame beans, if you’re a fan of Japanese snacks or appetizers, then there’s a lot to love.

Cham Neko also entertained us with some extra fun, like having our fortunes read, calling a friend on a rotary pay phone, and winning a bouncy ball in a lucky draw. Like the name “Neko” suggests, there is also a resident cat, although it disappeared before we could snap a photo! While Cham Neko is admittedly far more offbeat than most, it gave us great insight into this one-of-a-kind culture.

The Future of Snack Bars in Japan

During her 40 years in the field, the Mama-san of Cham Neko has seen competition increase dramatically, with drinking trends drawing youths away from snack bars and into shot bars, pubs, clubs, and more. Furthermore, Mama-sans that opened during the boom of the Showa period are retiring, and like many traditional Japanese arts, successors are few.

Despite all this, she is adamant that snack bars are an integral part of Japan’s nightlife culture, and will continue passing the test of time. While the streets of the once-bustling Furumachi seem eerily quiet in the pandemic era, the community sticks together, letting the trends of the time pass them by. In contrast, Bandai, on the opposite side of Niigata’s Shinagawa River, is constantly reinvented to serve the latest fad, once tapioca outlets, now spiced curry restaurants or ddungcaron from Korea. Bars are the same, yet Cham Neko has remained unfazed for 40 years - entrepreneurs would do well to take note.

The Mama-san does grumple that customers have grown remarkably frugal throughout the decades, particularly after the bubble economy burst in the 1990s. She fondly recalls times when customers would treat everyone in the bar, or phone order platters of lavish sushi to divvy up without hesitation. They would race to outspend each other, something now unseen outside the highest of high-end establishments.

Though snack bars were fashioned in the wake of the pioneering Tokyo Olympics, the industry saw devastation as the Games returned amidst the global pandemic. According to one estimate, at least 8,000 of the 70-80,000 snack bars in Japan went out of business in spring of 2020 alone. Furthermore, a 2021 study by the Nikkei financial newspaper with NTT shows that 45,000 restaurants have closed since COVID-19, a whopping 10% of the total in Japan. Tight restrictions, along with criticism of Japan’s nightlife after the emergence of clusters in bars, dealt the industry an irreparable blow.

During the state of emergency, like many others in the nightlife industry, Cham Neko shortened its hours dramatically, and the Mama-san did her best to reshape her business in line with government regulations. With her entire life dedicated to the role, she had no other option but to fight to stay afloat.

The streets of Japan are slowly returning to life, but many of the establishments locals once frequented are gone for good. Fortunately, while Cham Neko had to relocate to a building with cheaper rent, it successfully survived, and Niigata City’s COVID-19 restrictions were fully lifted in February of 2022. The Mama-san is now excitedly planning for the bar’s 40th anniversary party.

The Hidden Side of Japan’s Nightlife

To night-owls who have enjoyed their fill of karaoke, izakaya, and “tachinomi-ya” standing bars, snack bars are the final frontier in Japan’s after-dark culture. Those brave enough to enter will be rewarded with pleasant drinks, hearty conversation, and a wealth of local advice. You never quite know what exactly lurks inside, but that’s just part of the charm. You’ll doubtlessly have a few stories to tell after visiting a Japanese snack bar!

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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Steve
Steve Csorgo

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