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Sunday, July 8, 2001

HOUSE OF FUN

High-rise to the occasion


Staff writer

When talking about dancing at the Apollo, Americans who grew up in New York during the golden age of jazz tend to wax nostalgic. A smile might spread across their faces as they recall swinging to the sounds of Louis Armstrong and Chick Webb.

The Apollo in Osaka offers six floors of variations.

When talking about dancing at the Apollo with Osakans who grew up during the bubble economy years, however, the likely reaction is a smirk or a giggle of embarrassed laughter. It's not that the Osaka namesake of Harlem's famed nightclub doesn't swing in its own right. It's just that those gyrating to the rhythms on stage are not nattily dressed musicians but undressed ladies.

Located in south Osaka, near Sakuragawa Station on the Sennichimae subway line about 10 minutes from JR Nanba Station, the Apollo building is a collection of "show pubs" -- six floors and a basement of raunchy entertainment that pulls in a wide variety of males of all ages.

Like all successful Osaka businesses, the Apollo became famous not simply for the services it offers but because it offers them in a special package. Many other establishments in Japan's major cities feature female mud-wrestling and topless or nearly nude waitresses. But the Apollo offers them all at the same place, giving customers the choice between paying 9,000 yen for a visit to one pub or 25,000 yen for unlimited visits to all six. Although more expensive than a session at a shot bar, it's certainly more convenient for customers and cheaper than similar adult entertainment would normally cost.

So just what do punters get for their money? First, admission to bars with names like Cuties and the Pink Poodle. Second, as much as they want to drink and the occasional snack. And, third, the chance to be surrounded by beautiful young women who aren't wearing much.

At each establishment the girls are dressed, or undressed, differently. At the Pink Daiya, on the second floor of the building, they are topless. On the top floor, the Pink Poodle's waitresses are naked except for peekaboo lingerie, while the fourth-floor establishment offers an evening with topless waitresses and a nearly nude dancer. Almost all of the girls sport chapatsu (dyed brown hair) or platinum-blonde wigs.

Part of the time a customer spends in each establishment is simply spent chatting with the hostesses, and what strikes us veterans of bars and lounges where the women keep their clothes on is how similar -- that is to say banal -- the whole experience quickly becomes.

Strict rules

That's because conversations are reminiscent of countless other boring ones in snack bars or, worse, language classes at one of the chain schools -- predictable discussions on mundane topics. But talk is the closest contact you are allowed for your hard-earned yen. There are strict rules against touching the hostesses or dancers -- unless they invite you to do so or, in true Osaka fashion, unless you slip them a 1,000 yen note.

But, of course, if it were only light conversation that was being offered, the Apollo would not likely be famous. After all, who goes to a strip club for an intellectual debate? What draws customers from all over the Kansai region are the specialty shows and dancing the establishment offers.

"One of the most popular events is the mud-wrestling show, where two office ladies wearing nothing but thongs battle it out. You can also do the rock-scissors-paper game with the topless waitresses. If you win, you get to touch them," explains a 20-year-old hostess named Minami.

In an age where Internet sex is all the rage, where cheap soaplands and image clubs abound, and where telephone sex clubs offer private liaisons, the Apollo might seem something of an anachronism. But all the hostesses report that business is still very brisk.

"Many of the guys who show up are college kids. They're really shy. We also get a lot of foreigners, usually businessmen who come in with their Japanese colleagues," says Aya, a 22-year-old dancer.

While Aya is gyrating to Bon Jovi's "Runaway," a group of six disabled men in wheelchairs is brought into the pub by the hostesses. They appear to be regulars and chat easily with the women, who fuss over them like protective mothers. Then, as Aya finishes her dance, the hostesses hop on the men's laps and rub their bare breasts in their faces.

"What else is a normal guy like myself going to do? My legs are useless but the rest of me is fine. Here, the girls treat me normally," said 21-year-old Junichi Tomokawa, a student at a local computer school.

Tomokawa, and all the other male customers present, agree the Apollo is famous for the beauty and politeness of its hostesses and dancers. Many are quite tall and appear to be aspiring models. Several said they live at home and, by day, work for major companies or are university students.

They work at the Apollo for any number of reasons: to get quick money for brand-name goods, an overseas vacation or, as one girl who clearly looked uncomfortable standing around nude admitted, because of heavy credit-card debts.

"I had a really good job as a hostess at an upscale snack bar but had to quit. But I had a lot of credit-card debts, and this was the only way to get money quickly. Other hostesses are here for the same reason," said the girl, who asked not to be named.

Dancers and hostesses agree that, while the salary at the Apollo is not as good as at a high-class lounge, there is less hassle.

"Customers aren't allowed to touch us. The managers keep a strict eye out for drunks. If a customer starts hassling me, the managers will throw him out quickly," said Aya.

The lack of hassle also appeals to the male customers.

"I think the reason the Apollo is so successful is because it's a place where guys can come and have a bit of fun and see different shows for one set price. I don't see it closing down anytime soon," said Tomokawa.



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