This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of CONNECT.
Knox Yoder (Saga)
Adult life is filled to the brim with stressors. Bills, taxes, long work hours, tedious jobs, family drama; the list seems never-ending. Thus, when the work day ends and we all get some free time, we want to relax, forget about the day, and go somewhere where the troubles melt away. For many, this escape is found within a dimly lit room smelling of smoke where strangers become family within the span of one night: the dive bar.
For those that enjoy an alcoholic beverage and the company of others from time to time, it can be difficult finding the perfect bar. After all, as the legendary 1980s sitcom Cheers put it, “Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name.” Now, it is impossible for one bar to be THE perfect bar for all people. Some people enjoy a drink alone with quiet jazz playing in the background. Some prefer loud music and droves of people. Others prefer classy bars with expensive cocktails and impressive views of the city. As for me, all I need are good vibes, good drinks, and good people.
As someone who enjoys exploring every city they find themselves in, I can give you good dive bar recommendations for just about anywhere I have visited. However, I had never found myself in what I would call my “perfect bar.” I had become a regular at lots of places in the United States and Japan, but nowhere had screamed “home”—until recently.
It was a sunny afternoon in August 2022, soon after I had begun my time teaching English in Japan. Arriving in the middle of summer vacation, I was given a few days by my employers to explore. Instead of exploring my new home, I found myself on a bullet train headed towards Kanazawa City in Ishikawa Prefecture. Heavy storms impeded my transfer from Kyoto to Kanazawa, however, so I found myself stuck in Kyoto overnight, booking a last minute Airbnb and wondering what to do with myself.
As usual, the first thing I did in a new city was try and find a place to drink for the night. I headed towards Gion, one of Kyoto’s popular nightlife districts, and googled “punk bar Kyoto.” Nothing came up that screamed “punk,” but one place caught my eye: a basement dive called “JOKER.”
JOKER stands out among the many bars littering Gion. The entrance doesn’t immediately feature a sign decaling the bar’s name but instead features black letters with red backing that read “OPEN ME UP,” which lead into a fairly steep staircase into a basement. If the name JOKER doesn’t catch your attention, surely this sign will.
The bar itself is fairly large as far as most Japanese bars go, with faux brick walls and decor ranging from guitars to slightly creepy mannequins to signs in English that read things such as “bad sex is better than a good day at work.” Most nights, the music is some form of punk rock, ranging from Sum 41 to The Offspring to Bad Religion. The menu is filled with English expletives recommending lemon sours, the draft beer is served from a saxophone, and the wall next to the bar is filled with handwritten doodles of everything from bar staff to anime characters. All of this creates an atmosphere that makes guests (or, at the very least, me) feel comfortable and ready for a night of drinking.
The first time you enter JOKER, you’ll be greeted with a traditional “いらっしゃいませ” (read irasshaimase, welcome). Entering by myself, I was offered a seat at the bar, right in front of the saxophone of beer. Having been in Japan a total of maybe 20 days, my Japanese was (and still is) not the best, so I fumbled through ordering a beer. The bartender, Jose, asked if Japanese was okay, to which I responded that I wasn’t very good at it but would try my best. Imagine my shock when he fluently responded, “Oh, well I speak English.”
Turns out Jose had spent a number of his younger years living in Texas (hence the nickname Jose, as his classmates thought he looked hispanic . . . gotta love America) and thus was completely fluent in English. We went on to talk for the rest of the night, and (as would become commonplace in JOKER) I even befriended the woman sitting next to me, who also spoke a great deal of English. After a night of beer, shots, and laughter, I bid my new friends goodnight and assured them I would be back. Due to the aforementioned weather issues, my friends from Kanazawa decided to join me in Kyoto for the rest of my trip, and while we went to many bars that weekend, I ensured that we always made a stop at JOKER.
Many memories were made that weekend in that basement bar, from birthday shots to learning inappropriate Japanese words from another one of the bar’s staff, Kouhei. When I left Kyoto, I knew there was something special about that bar, and I knew I would be back.
I don’t know exactly how many months it was until my next trip to Kyoto, but when I finally returned to JOKER, I was immediately remembered and welcomed back. Each time I entered that bar, I met someone new that immediately felt like family, whether it was the warm owner Shouko, a group of foreign exchange students from all over the world, tourists from Australia, or a punk rocker from Osaka. This place seemed to draw in the best people in the city. One thing was certain; after a night drinking together in JOKER, you were more than just strangers or bartender and patron; you were family, at least for that one night.
All of my friends know about JOKER, and I basically won’t shut up about it, but I know that my love for the place isn’t unique: everyone I’ve brought there or met there comments about how special it is and how happy they are that they ended up there. Whenever I end up in JOKER these days, it truly feels like returning home, as I’m greeted with a hug from Shouko, huge smiles and laughs from Jose or Kouhei, or a surprised face from a Kyoto local that hasn’t seen me in a while.
This article isn’t meant to simply be a fluff piece for JOKER or to convince you to go there (though you should, and tell them Knox sent you). It’s meant to inspire you to get out of your comfort zone and explore whatever city you find yourself in. Don’t just go into the popular bar that everyone you know goes to; do some research, go somewhere new, and make conversation with those around you. If you’re lucky, you might find yourself a new home away from home—your own JOKER.
Knox Yoder (they/them) is a first-year JET living and working in Ureshino, Saga. They have too many hobbies, including but not limited to binging horror movies, playing new and old video games, reading manga, and nerding out over My Chemical Romance. They spend too much money on travels across Japan, and drinking in bars such as JOKER.