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Sunday, April 1, 2001

BEST BAR NONE

Misunderstanding in the shadows, five flights up


Like many, I initially confused Gokai with Go, another fifth-floor hideout on Meiji-dori going toward Shibuya. Having ascertained that it is in the building next to the crepe shop on the corner of Takeshita and Meiji-dori, I then thought people meant Bar Poor, another cavelike perch with hobbit-sized seating on the fourth floor.

But no: Gokai is one floor up from Bar Poor's white door, which bears the word "tattooing" and a chain wrapped around its handle. Sometimes you will find a sign on the mid-floor landing above, saying Five (in kanji) F (as in, floor). Other times, illumination drops suddenly three stairs beyond. There is nothing to indicate you have arrived and often nothing to indicate it is open.

Beyond this enigmatic portal is another world. Brian Eno's was green; this one is swathed in shadow. Candles flicker along the bar and a sky of egg-shaped incandescent bulbs glow, rather than throw light, above an odd assortment of low-set tables and cushions. Each area is vaguely defined by tresses of black rope, which spew forth from the egg-spangled heavens. Bits of straw and twig lie scattered underfoot. A tree trunk leans into the bar.

The nether region at the back is a chill-out space lifted straight from the '60s. A mattress fills one corner and cushions cluster either side of a small fountain. Thus seated on the floor, unadorned plate-glass windows offer an unobscured view of the night sky. Music, which ranges from frog calls to Miles Davis, is heard incidentally from the front, but the main form of entertainment is the gentle trickle of water. Very soothing . . . Yuichi, the master, worked in a members' club for five years -- enough to give any drink jockey some cred -- but it wasn't until he discovered after-hours parties that he found the inspiration to open a bar. The people he met were more open, more down-to-earth. Some tinkered with art and carpentry, and he soon found himself involved in various projects, including building the original deck above Las Chicas and -- as it happens -- the interior of the afore-mentioned Go.

Yet even in the fine counterpoint of the world he has created, he is quiet, reserved and wary -- as if checking the perimeter with 360-degree vision. Customers are noted rather than greeted and left to choose their own table. Creative types in baggies slouch into huddles on zabuton, while couples quietly slip into corners to sip cocktails. Friends draw a smile and a stool at the bar.

Despite Gokai's spiritual, earthy feel, Yuichi exudes a deep cynicism. For a start, he sees bartenders as "alcohol pushers." He notes that many people who have flung open his door have done it by mistake.

"Even you," he says to me, "mistook my bar for somewhere else."

After receiving his name card I realized that Gokai doesn't even mean "fifth floor." In kanji it reads as "misunderstanding," something which he leaves you to discover.

Take the Takeshita exit from JR Harajuku Station. Walk down Takeshita-dori till it hits Meiji-dori and turn right. Gokai is in the second building on the right. Phone number withheld.


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