She sat down at the bar and ordered a glass of milk. Her skin was ghostly pale and her lips were painted a berry red. She glanced in our direction and smiled, before turning back to her friend and giggling. I took a swig of my passoa and orange juice- reminiscent of teenage house party days- and wondered what had brought her here. I immediately asked myself the same question. I mean the music was good, the barman shared my love for Alt-J, Miyazaki animation and Japanese fiction, and yet it was a S&M bar. Neon pink curtains splattered with faded black polka dots blew gently in the dusky air, occasionally shielding the naked mannequins and their nipple tassels. If you ignored the giant papier mache penis painted a garish silver, you could almost believe you were just in a colourful, quirky bar as opposed to the stark sexual reality of it. The taps in the bathroom were male genitals. The bar had a basket of tenga eggs on one side. There was a shelf of naked barbies in provocative positions. And yet, I think it was the best night out we had on our travels.
The girl who ordered milk was celebrating her 21st birthday. Her friend chose the perfect moment to hand over her gift and the typical ‘oooohing’ and ‘aaaahing’ of the Japanese tongue flowed forth in exclamations of enthusiasm. I noticed the birthday girl’s friend staring intently at the giant, plastic male genitalia perched on the edge of the bar. The birthday girl gave her an encouraging look and she reached out to touch it. I laughed and looked away. When I looked back she was still clutching it tightly. For at least five minutes she didn’t put it down. The barman gave us all a shot of tequila and then they were gone. They left contented, their ice cubes a murky white from the remaining milk.
Pretty soon their spot was taken by a short man in a smart black suit. He ordered a glass of red wine from the bar girl with blue hair and the longest, most layered fake eyelashes I’ve ever seen. He seemed completely at ease and happily sat in silence. We continued to chat with the barman about music and the tiny guy next to me joined in. He used a translator on his phone to tell us that in Japan some people think Totoro is a symbol for the Grim Reaper. He asked us where our favourite place in Japan had been so far? Before I could get the word “Kyoto” out of my mouth, the barman screamed “OSAKA!!!!” and we all laughed and cheered. We ordered green tea liquor and the barman showed us photos of his 3 children dressed up in traditional Korean clothes. While his Korean wife read their children bedtime stories, he worked the late shift in the S&M bar he’d been running for more than 10 years.
We continued to sit there despite our looming tiredness and the inevitable sinking feeling that comes from knowing you will leave a special place the next morning. I felt like we’d known this small crowd of eccentric characters forever. We fitted in. From the outside this bar looked like the kind of place that only strange loners would frequent, but actually everyone there was just a normal human being enjoying a night cap, whilst discussing art, music and travel. There was nothing more to it. They didn’t ask us why we were there and we didn’t question their motives either. No judgements. We were all at peace in this kooky place.