In Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’, he called the Big Apple the ‘city that never sleeps’. But while NYC is a relatively insomniac city, with many neighbourhoods that are buzzing at two or three in the morning, it’s not ‘A Number One’ when it comes to late night activities. Because any night of the week, you can hear Ol Blue Eyes’ famous lyric being sung at dawn in hundreds of private karaoke rooms in the city that truly never sleeps – Tokyo.
Across Japan’s capital city, you’ll find bars that open until 5am every night in every neighbourhood, and what’s more, you’ll find people in them. This is partly thanks to the train system, which shuts down shortly after midnight to give the residents who live next to the tracks a few hours of respite. Since cabs are expensive and many residents have long commutes, those who stay out past the last train are generally in for the long haul. But it’s also clear that Tokyo’s residents love staying up late.
In other cities, the all-night businesses are clustered in the centre of town, but in Tokyo, they’re everywhere.
The city is packed with cheap 24 hour restaurants that will cook you a cheap bowl of ramen or grill you some yakitori chicken sticks at 4am. There are all-night internet and manga cafés, bowling alleys, laser darts (however that works) and karaoke palaces like Karaoke Kan, whose enormous Shibuya branch featured in Lost In Translation. There’s even an eccentric chain called Don Quijote that sells everything from groceries to hardware items to bizarre cosplay outfits, 24/7.
In other cities, the all-night businesses are clustered in the centre of town, but in Tokyo, they’re everywhere. My favourite is in the student neighbourhood of Takadanobaba, where a raggle-taggle collection of hardcore jazz musicians gathers every weekend at Jazz Spot Intro, a tiny basement bar that has somehow squeezed a grand piano, drum kit and double bass into a space half the size of a train carriage. Their jam sessions run 5pm-5am every Saturday night, and they’re so popular that you have to wait several hours before your number comes up.
The bartender, a genial fellow known as Inoue-san, serves up the drink of your choice for a mere 500yen ($7) and then strolls over to the piano to tear off a blistering sax solo, before wandering back to serve another customer. No wonder he’s known as ‘God’ to the regulars.
I’ve loved places that were open ridiculously late ever since my teens, when since I discovered a quirky cafe called Dean’s (RIP) nestled amongst the more unsavoury establishments in a relatively quiet corner of Sydney’s Kings Cross. Its quirky Bohemian staff served toasted sandwiches and nachos until the sun began to lighten the night sky, and you could linger and talk rubbish for hours, a favourite pastime in my 20s.
In those days, I knew every 24 hour cafe, from nearby Hernandez to Maisy’s in Cremorne to the legendary City Extra, and I loved nothing more than heading out for a 3am coffee as a precursor to finishing an essay.
I can’t help wishing that a few more of us would stay out late and support those businesses willing to look after us insomniacs.
In recent years, the lockout laws have transformed Kings Cross’ late-night scene, for a mixture of better and worse. I live at the other end of the lockout area, and have welcomed the reduction in noisy drunks screaming at dawn like inebriated roosters, but regretted the newfound difficulty of going for a quiet drink when I finish work – which is currently 2am.
Even before the current regime in Sydney, though, Melbourne had the edge as Australia’s late night capital. The CBD is full of bars and restaurants that close near dawn, and some of the best, such as Hairy Canary and the legendary Supper Club, keep things classy even at a messy hour of the night. Melbourne’s cinemas often have late sessions, and the whole city has an all-nighter once a year for the arts extravaganza that is White Night.
Most Australian cities have a few legendary late night establishments, and we can’t really compare ourselves to Greater Tokyo, which is more populous than the whole of Australia. But I can’t help wishing that a few more of us would stay out late and support those businesses willing to look after us insomniacs. There seems to be less on offer nowadays than when I was in my 20s.
There’s something special about the pre-dawn hours. They're the domain of those determined to stay out to prolong an excellent night or avoid a cab fare, of strangely perky shift workers, curious eccentrics and insomniacs who've decided that since they're awake, they may as well be sociable. Somehow the best conversations happen when we are simultaneously at our most sincere and ridiculous.
It's a magical time to be out - and if you sleep through the pre-dawn hours like a sensible person, you'll just have to take my word for it.
Image courtesy of Flickr/ Richard Schneider.
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