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It’s late afternoon in Tokyo and Yukako Ishihara is in her sunakku (snack bar), preparing for the evening ahead. “I went to university to work in film and theatre but eventually learned that drinking and dining are the ultimate forms of entertainment,” says the 45-year-old, adjusting the cat pin on her kimono’s obi. “People arrive weary but they go home in good spirits, ready to tackle whatever tomorrow brings.”

Concealed behind a heavy sliding door, Ishihara’s eight-seat establishment (which, in true Japanese fashion, she prefers to keep unnamed) stands in a mid-century row of bars and cafés in Tokyo’s Meguro ward. Measuring all of 16 sq m, the space is wrapped in perforated plywood panels, with red stools spread along an L-shaped counter.

The sunakku first emerged in Japan in the early 1960s. While taking on various forms, drinking dens of this kind have traditionally centred on the hospitality and entertainment provided by a proprietress known as a mama-san. Early iterations featured modest interiors, single-beverage menus and simple food, and while bottle-keep services and karaoke have become synonymous with this type of bar over the years, the characters behind the counter have remained a key drawcard. For many, the presence of a seasoned mama-san with a wealth of life experience is essential to a sunakku but, in recent years, young women and men, some in their twenties, have been opening their own takes on the genre. “There are all kinds of mama-sans,” says Ishihara. “What matters most is that they do things in their own way. My customers like the fact that, for better or for worse, I’m upfront in the way that I communicate with them.”

Despite the new interest from younger people, snack-bar numbers are falling across Japan. In cities such as Tokyo, their central locations and modest setups have often left them at the mercy of urban development. But woven into the social fabric of neighbourhoods, they continue to play an important role after dark, functioning as “third places” where communities are nurtured, hidden from the view of passers-by.

As soon as Ishihara’s sunakku opens at 18.00, her skills in the art of conversation come to the fore. Drawing regulars and first-time customers alike into her orbit, she starts a sprawling discussion that spans the 1980s play­list, late-night dining tips and local folklore. Working alone, she takes orders, prepares gourmet dishes and serves a selection of natural wines, all while building a strong rapport with her customers. “I once worked at a restaurant where the highest level of service involved understanding people’s needs without them saying a word,” says Ishihara. “But at another establishment, I was taught that quality service was about creating the kinds of relationships in which customers were comfortable with casual conversation. That seemed far more feasible to me.”

The success of this approach can be seen in the mix of customers, from all walks of life, who regularly come to see Ishihara. Creating a space with the familiarity of a friend’s house and the warmth of a welcoming community, she provides a refuge in which to unwind from city life. “Some people are fussy about the definition of a ‘real’ sunakku and what that entails,” she says. “I don’t mind whether you call this a sunakku or not. My goal is to give people somewhere they can have a good time and a drink, and relieve their stress before returning home.” — L

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