How much do we really listen to people these days? It’s a question our Japanese-language reporter Mr Sato has been contemplating recently, as even he admits to having his mind wander on occasion while people are talking to him.
So when he heard of a newly opened bar in Shinjuku’s Kabukicho, the city’s busiest red-light district, he was intrigued by the concept behind it. Called “Decameron“, this new establishment shares its name with a collection of novellas by 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio and bills itself as a “Book Cafe & Bar."
There are thousands of bars in Kabukicho but what drew Mr Sato’s interest to this place in particular was the fact that here, nobody speaks. That’s right — instead of chatting with the bartender and conversing with other patrons, customers at this small standing bar are required to communicate using written words.
Kabukicho has been singled out by the Japanese government as one of the worst spots in Tokyo for coronavirus infections, and establishments in the area have been doing it tough due to the steep drop in customers. It’s not the ideal time for a new bar to open, especially with the government asking businesses to shorten their operating hours due to the pandemic, but Decameron opened on July 22, with the writing system helping to alleviate customer’s concerns about speaking while drinking in a cramped, enclosed space.
A number of bars in the area have been closing their doors due to poor business, but here at Decameron business is quiet in a good way. A large light bulb welcomes visitors into the tiny bar, which has a small kitchen at the back, and a blackboard where drink options are written.
Drinks include beer, wine, coffee, Mojitos and Negronis, all priced at 1,000 yen with a 500 yen entry charge. This might sound a little steep compared to other places in Tokyo, but for a Kabukicho bar, where entry charges are commonplace, this is pretty much standard.
Unlike other bars in Kabukicho, this one comes with several notebooks on the counter, where customers can write down their orders, along with anything else they’d like to communicate. While stopping the spread of coronavirus is one primary reason for the writing system at Decameron, another reason is to provide everyone with an opportunity to rethink the ways in which they communicate.
When Mr Sato stopped by, he immediately struck up a written conversation with the bar tender, Kiyo. They each used separate notebooks and pencils to jot down their thoughts, and during this time all Mr Sato could hear was the low buzz of the refrigerator and the sound of pencil on paper.
Their conversation went something like this:
Mr Sato: “I’m sorry to bother you so suddenly (for this interview).”
Kiyo: “Would you like an alcoholic beverage? The menu is on the wall behind you.”
Mr Sato: “Well, do you have any gin?”
Upon reading Mr Sato’s request, Kiyo put down his pencil for a moment and went off to the kitchen. Returning empty-handed, he wrote:
“What articles have you written recently? About the gin…we don’t have any…”
Mr Sato: “Uh-oh…well then, I’ll have an iced coffee please. I wrote an article about a big piece of meat.”
Writing takes a considerable amount of time so it took them about 10 to 15 minutes to exchange these messages. While some might think that’s a long time to order a drink, Mr Sato found himself thoroughly enjoying the novelty of this shared experience.
Both he and Kiyo displayed patience while waiting for each other to finish writing their sentences, and the attention given to what was written made it feel like they were sharing something special. It was…deep, in a strangely comforting way, and the mood was enhanced by the low light and noticeable lack of background noise.
After finishing his iced coffee, Mr Sato asked Kiyo, by written request, if he could talk to him outside the bar for a bit. He agreed, and Mr Sato was able to ask him why he decided to implement the writing system at the bar. Kiyo-san explained:
“Naturally, it’s a coronavirus countermeasure — in a small bar like ours, it’s cramped no matter what we do, so written communication was ideal. But more than that, I thought the written word could be useful in creating new relationships under this new normal we now face in society.
I think you got a sense of this from our written conversation, but when you’re writing rather than speaking, it becomes more necessary to focus on the person with whom you’re communicating. In a spoken conversation, interjections are often used so you can pretend you’re listening even if you haven’t heard the other person’s story at all. You can’t do that when writing. The wording also becomes very polite because it’s hard to write rough language down, even though rough language would come out in spoken conversation. That’s also an interesting point.”
Kiyo summed up Mr Sato’s feelings about the experience perfectly. There were no distractions when he and Kiyo communicated using the written word, and he got to feel a sense of generosity and courtesy that’s often sadly absent in daily spoken conversations.
Decameron’s countermeasure to protect staff and customers during the coronavirus pandemic is actually a salient reminder of the importance of slowing down and appreciating the little things.
Decameron / デカメロン
Address: Tokyo-to, Shinjuku-ku, Kabukicho 1-12-4
Open 2 p.m.-10 p.m. (the bar currently operates with these shortened hours due to coronavirus)
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