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Photo: Courtesy of Tezuka Maki

In This Tokyo Bar, People Don’t Talk. They Write.

Staff stand by the entrance to welcome guests with a pencil and paper in hand.
September 4, 2020, 7:32am

The pandemic has gotten many of us cautious about being too close to other people. After all, not all face masks are created equal, and wearing one while talking to friends could still hold some risk of spreading germs. With more people staying at home to avoid infection, places that used to thrive on crowds and face-to-face interactions, like bars and restaurants, are now coming up with new ways to bring customers in, while staying safe.

Just like Decameron, a book cafe and bar in Tokyo where customers can choose to communicate not by talking, but by writing on a piece of paper. Even staff who welcome guests by the entrance scribble instead of talk. In Japanese, these types of bars are called “Hitsudan Bar” which means “writing bar,” and Decameron is the only one of its kind in the entertainment and red-light district Kabukicho.

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A conversation on paper. ​Photo: Courtesy of Tezuka Maki

The bar’s name was inspired by the collection of novellas The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, which contains hundreds of tales from the point of view of men and women who sheltered in a village outside of Florence to escape the Black Death in the 14th century. Very appropriate for the times we’re living in.

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​Photo: Courtesy of Tezuka Maki

It opened in late July, serving beer, wine, cocktails, and hard liquors, including welcome and goodbye drinks for customers.

“It is Kabukicho tradition to do this so that the customers aren’t feeling ‘in-between’,” Tezuka Maki, the owner of Decameron, told VICE. “We want to make sure customers are feeling good when they enter and leave our store.”

The bar also serves food from nearby spots Tezuka runs.

In the bar, people are required to masks except for when they are drinking. They also have the option to talk with their friends normally but most customers tend to enjoy the unique atmosphere that writing gives them, Tezuka said.

When customers order their drinks or food, they write them on a piece of paper the bar provides. Staff reply to them on the same note.

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Photo: Courtesy of Tezuka Maki

Despite its novel and COVID-appropriate concept, business has been tough for Decameron. They’ve had customers but, like other establishments in Kabukicho, not nearly enough. The area is known for its host and hostess clubs and love hotels, which the pandemic has been particularly hard on.

“Shinjuku’s Kabukicho area has been severely affected by the coronavirus. When Japan entered the state of emergency, fields such as sex work, host and hostess clubs, basically everything in Kabukicho was neglected,” Tezuka said.

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Photo: Courtesy of Tezuka Maki

Businesses in the area were forced to close during Japan’s lockdown in April. And as they reopened in May, a host club quickly became a coronavirus cluster. Reports of an outbreak in Kabukicho sparked worry among many in Tokyo, emptying its once-bustling streets.

This is a shame, Tezuka lamented, claiming that most establishments in the area are actually quite responsible.

“Many people working in Kabukicho were tested even before [it became a coronavirus cluster], to ensure no one was infected. In Kabukicho’s culture, trust and honesty is extremely important. Workers always reported to their boss about who they met, and always took the test. Fortunately, a lot of them were asymptomatic because they are young,” he said.

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Bar staff. Photo: Courtesy of Tezuka Maki

“The news didn’t report that Kabukicho was constantly testing and ensuring people are safe there. We’ve been perceived as monsters.”

Many businesses in the area feel that they’ve been demonized as coronavirus spreaders. Tezuka said he opened Decameron to revive Kabukicho’s reputation and show people that it’s still a safe place to grab a drink. In response to outbreaks in nightlife districts, the government established guidelines for clubs, which includes avoiding speaking loudly — something Tezuka’s bar is uniquely suited for.

“I hope more people will visit Kabukicho, and Decameron, and don’t perceive people in this district as a bunch of uneducated people. Our number one priority is for customers and staff to be safe,” he said.

“At Decameron, we have the option for people to communicate with their friends by just writing. I want to also make a space where customers can write about thoughts in their minds during this pandemic.”

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