Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on July 2009

Photos By James Hadfield

Photos By James Hadfield

A group of belly dancers shows up while we’re photographing the interior of Gamuso early on a Saturday evening. “Ooh, can you take our pictures too?” they ask, and begin to strike poses.

If we were anywhere else, we might feel taken aback by such behavior—but not here. Gamuso has earned a reputation over the past few years for a genuinely anything-goes attitude that’s all too rare in Tokyo. Sure, it’s a foreigner-friendly watering hole, but depending on when you turn up, you might also catch an acoustic jam session, a rakugo comedy performance or an improvised noise gig.

The bar occupies the second and third floors above a lively tachinomiya on one of the narrow lanes to the north of Asagaya station, an area that has clung stubbornly to a very Showa kind of counterculture cool while the rest of Tokyo marched on. The Laputa cinema/theater complex, a popular haunt for the avant-garde crowd, is just up the road, and the buildings along the street are plastered with posters for obscure plays and vintage black-and-white movies.

Gamuso fits into this scene surprisingly well. I say “surprisingly” because, at first blush, it seems pretty ordinary—not unlike the foreign-run places you could find in just about any neighborhood of Tokyo. The main bar on the second floor is intimate and dimly lit, with a large window at one end that stops things getting too claustrophobic. Upstairs is a marginally larger exhibition and performance space, complete with stage, DJ booth and a respectably beefy sound system. The exhibitions change frequently; when we go, the walls are decorated with enormous colored numbers, the profundity of which is somewhat lost on us. They look pretty cool, though.

There are events and performances most weekends, and these comprise a key part of Gamuso’s appeal. The bar’s manager, Herman, is a gifted percussionist who will sometimes take to the stage himself, and he pursues an enlightened policy when it comes to bookings. The aforementioned noiseniks have had to rein things in a little after a month’s worth of ear-bleeding gigs during March drew complaints from neighbors, but otherwise pretty much anything is deemed fair game.

If you’re just there to drink, you’ll find no shortage of options. Yebisu and Guinness are available on tap (¥600 and ¥700, respectively), complemented by a well chosen line-up of bottled beers, including Samuel Adams (¥700), Chimay Red (¥800) and Hobgoblin (¥750). Cocktails range in price from ¥500 for a gin & tonic to ¥800 for a potent Long Island Iced Tea, while the selection of spirits includes such fine tipples as Ron Zacapa rum and Jose Cuervo 1800 tequila (both ¥800).

And the belly dancers? Priceless.

Photos by James Hadfield

Photos by James Hadfield