This is probably a theme that I’ll often return to, hopefully not to an excess. Ah how do I begin on this particular story? It’s certainly not helping my distracted focus that a pair of foreigners are sitting at the table next to me, engrossed in an interview-style conversation, the subject of which I would name “language and sexuality,” though I can’t be sure seeing as I drowned out all but 3 intriguing minutes with classical music.
The first time I went to the Ruby Room was back in October. My slightly more musically-inclined and vastly more musically-talented friend suggested trying to find an open mic in Tokyo, and a quick Google search landed us at the Ruby Room, a small, scarlet-tinted bar/live house tucked away in the Shibuya Red Light district, surrounded by love hotels. Every Tuesday starting around 7pm (but really closer to 8) the Ruby Room hosts an open mic night, modestly famous in the underground Tokyo live house world. The acts vary somewhat enormously in style and talent, but I’d have to think long and carefully to come up with an act that I decidedly didn’t enjoy. Some of the acts are so mesmerizingly good, the performers so hypnotically talented, that the dark red walls of the Ruby Room kind of fade away, the sounds emanate around the brick walls and floating chandeliers and engulf you, and you forget your surroundings, forget the tiny stage before you with the roof that slants over the drum kit so taller drummers have to hunch their backs while they play. I can think of one performer in particular, a Ruby Room legend, whose guitar playing could silence the entire room instantly. His fingers just flew up and down the neck like feathers. And you got this peculiar, powerful sensation that he was somehow straining against boredom– the instrument was just too easy for him, he was almost battling with it to challenge him, and would sometimes snake his arm back and forth around the neck mid-riff, or abandon the guitar body and set both his hands to work up and down the frets, just to keep himself interested…
Our first four or five visits followed a pretty simple, but nonetheless enjoyable routine: walk in and greet the only foreign bartender (whose name we grasped around visit 3, though our names probably didn’t come to him until visit 8 or 9), exchange our drink tickets for gin&tonics (2 included in the 1500yen entry fee), and seat ourselves at the small rectangular table facing the stage. We didn’t talk to anyone. When the music was too loud or too mesmerizing we silently observed the spectacle; during breaks or mellower songs we’d usually dissect the fascinating Japanese school culture. We quickly noticed that the little bar had a small, select group of devoted followers. Every Tuesday we’d encounter the same central characters, with a few one-time peripheral figures floating in and out of the scene. My friend and I were usually the only girls in the bar, which was enough for our presence to be noted and elicit stares, but we were never approached by anyone. We were intimidated by these stylized, talented regulars, and preferred to observe behind our low-toned rapid English, like viewers in a movie theater, naming the different characters by the different hats they wore. So for 2 months we continued this performance of tenacious isolation while our future friends wandered around us, smoked around us, and traipsed on and off the stage.
On one visit in December, we entered to find our usual rectangle table occupied, so, after a moment of frozen hesitation, we entered the vast, circular red cave placed at one corner of the bar, and took seats beside our movie characters; a collection of foreigners and Japanese folks. The friendliest of the group (unsparkly fedora-wearer) initiated introductions, extending his hand to each of us in turn, until he reached the youngest of the lot, who returned his friendly greeting with “fuck you,” much to my shock and confusion. Fedora-wearer hastened to explain that the belligerent kid was his best friend’s little brother, whom he’s known since he was a little baby (that last part he repeated several times, almost by way of revenge). (Months later this kid would ask me what my first impression of him was, and I would recount this anecdote and say I thought he was decidedly scary.)
Well since that memorable December visit, the Ruby Room has slowly formed itself into something like the center of my Tokyo life, the regulars into something like my Tokyo family. The characters have changed slightly in the past nine months, but all of those original regulars have remained our good friends. Over time, new and equally-cherished friends also drifted into the Ruby Room world for as long as their visas allowed, and then quietly exited. It really is a bit of its own world– a mysterious little den filled with deep red hues, random gold ornaments, crudlely artistic little video screens, unmatching brick exposures, and strange, stylish, grungey, warm, talented people. Sometimes I think I feel more comfortable standing in that little bar, leaning one arm against the back of my movie character friend’s high chair, the other hand clutching a gin&tonic, watching proudly as my former partner in isolation dazzles the crowd with her music, than I feel anywhere else in Tokyo.