We had the most incredible luck in meeting Mari-san. It started when I asked a salaryman acquaintance of mine who lives in Ginza if he knew of any snacks. He asked a friend of his, who recommended a small shop in a part of Ginza he had never been to before. We came to a tall silver building with a long vertical sign with twenty tiny shop names on them – a building chock full of 80s era hostess and snack bars in all its Ginza glory. The building alone excited me with its shiny gleam of an era long gone and its sleek space-age looking lights. A glass elevator overlooking Ginza shot us up to the 8th floor.
When we arrived, there was a long discussion at the door, as our host for the night was only a friend of a friend of the club. They wouldn't let just anybody in and a call had to be made to confirm our entrance. Once we were let inside the small space, we realized this might not have been what we were aiming for. Girls in cute dresses slowly came on shift, bringing in old men after their dinner dates for drinks. This was a hostess bar. The owner came and sat with us, a woman who turned out to be the same age as me. We explained the situation, saying we were looking for old Ginza mamas, the classic type of snack. She understood our search. The young hostess mama-san made a snap of her fingers and a quick and obedient server kneeled by her side. She told him to go fetch a guy from another bar upstairs in the building.
Soon, another man dressed as a fancy bartender arrived to escort us. We (our friend) paid for our one (expensive) drink and thanked the young hostess mama for her help. We followed the eager bartender out of the building, down the street, across another street and into another building entirely. I couldn’t believe someone would go this far out of their way to take us somewhere else to do business.
We made our way into an unassuming retro-tiled building and followed him to the second floor. There we were invited into MARI, a snack which has been a staple in Ginza for over 50 years. We couldn’t believe our luck. This large and original untouched snack was full of personality, strangely shaped and decorated with portraits of the owner drawn by incredibly famous manga artists.
Mari-san herself emerged, a tiny funky lady with pink hair, loud clothes and cat-eyed glasses. That night we sang and drank, she pulled out a giant fan and danced while I shook the tambourine. I have never seen a tiny old lady with so much energy. Mari-san is one of the most unique and inspiring souls I have ever met, it’s a shock and wonder how she carries herself so strongly in a society that works so hard to suppress individuality.
When asked to interview her, Fiona called to request permission to set up a time to come and take photos. The woman on the line turned Fiona down, saying Mari-san rejects all interviews and hasn’t agreed to one in years. Mari-san was too busy entertaining guests to come to the phone to confirm or deny. Fiona tried again the next day, hoping to get Mari-san on the line. As luck would have it, she answered. Fiona used me as bait to jog her memory of us visiting last time, to see if she would be willing to let us talk to her about snack culture. She remembered how much fun she had with us, and how the blonde buzzcut gaijin (foreigner) sang anime songs and danced with her. She said that we could of course come by and talk to her. Her cheerful and welcoming attitude was a stark contrast to the girl who turned us down just the day before. Fiona and I were ecstatic to have an exclusive with the one and only Ginza mama of 50 years!!
AT: Alex Thomas
AT How did you start as a snack mama?
MG I started 50 years ago when this building was first built. This place used to be a different layout. I started working in mizu-shoubai when I tagged along to my friend's interview at a hostess club. I never thought I would do nightwork. I was just hanging out with my friend but they hired me instead of her. I only worked one year there, and then I met a guy at the club and we started dating so that changed my lifestyle. So I started my own place.
AT What do you like about being a snack mama?
MG I love working as a mama. I learn a lot from my clients. They show me a new world because all the clients work in different industries. They're publishers, writers, manga artists, celebrities, baseball players…you name it. I get introduced through other clients. My place is a bar, but it's how the owner creates it. I’ve had people say my place is a Bundan bar (a writer’s hang out).
AT Do you have a memorable night?
MG Every night! There are different clients everyday so everyday is different and new. It’s never the same. You can never tell when it will be busy or not. There’s no way to tell.
One night I was having so much fun drinking with clients until one of them said I was bleeding. I didn’t believe him, but when I touched the back of my head, there was blood! I thought maybe I hit my head on a bottle or something, that it wasn’t blood. Everyone made a fuss but I didn’t want to go to the hospital, I wanted to keep drinking. Eventually someone else called an ambulance to take me even though I didn’t want to go. The hospital staff tried to ask me my age but I wouldn’t tell them. They said that was the first time that a woman my age wouldn’t say haha! They had to give me stitches near my hairline and cut my hair. I told them “just make it look cool”. I was making everyone laugh. They gave me three stitches which is one less than insurance covers. It was so annoying.
AT You have an autograph from Harrison Ford from the 70s! Please tell us that story!
MG 20th Century Fox brought Star Wars to Japan for the first time and Harrison Ford came to Japan. He wasn’t that famous at the time. They were selling t-shirts and I went to buy one. He came here to drink with the staff and that's when I got the autograph. He was very handsome.
AT Do you think snack culture changing? Do you chat to other snack mamas much?
MG It’s different if a man owns and runs it. It’s just different. My place is not too sexy in that sense.
Different generations in nightwork have changed. Women did not bartend back in the day. I work solo. If hostesses come here and seek advice, I will talk to them, but I’m not proactive about reaching out to the other mamas.
AT Do you have concerns for Japan’s future?
MG I will be dead! I don’t care. Politics is pretty bad though. I think other countries might take this unstable country over at one point. The children will suffer.
AT What was Ginza like in the bubble-era?
MG During the bubble-era I was here, but it didn’t feel any different. I used to go to Juliana Tokyo (a famous club) to dance after work. I wore very unique and flashy dresses and nothing that anyone else was wearing so I would stand out in a crowd.
My mother was in Takarazuka (the famous all-women theater troupe). She was a very unique and flashy person. So it makes sense that I am who I am. I listened to my mother sing on the radio. I never wanted to be a performer. My mother secretly wanted me to but I didn’t know it at the time. My parents were very modern.
AT What was your childhood like?
MG I’m from Tokyo. (Shimotakaido) That’s on the Keio line. But I’ve never taken the train. I had a driver growing up. My father was a CEO so we had that lifestyle. I was in Nagoya for a while because of the war. My family had to move around quite a bit so I never saw the war.
My mother entered me in a beauty pageant and I came in second. After that I had a number of agencies come up to me. I asked my father if I could go to Tokyo to become an actress and he gave me a lecture about “I did not raise you to become a working girl.” I needed to get away from my father because he was so strict. My mother was smart, so she sent me to school in Tokyo to go to Bunka University (famous fashion school). I learned to design clothes.
When I was in high school, I used to be an outcast or rebel. I stole my tuition for high school and spent it all at the kissatten (cafe). We didn’t have wire transfer back in the day. I never went to school. My parents were obviously furious when they found out. I didn’t graduate high school.
AT Do you have any hobbies?
MG Tennis, Skiing… I had a cruiser at one point. I have a boat license. A client I had was drunk one night and he said “If you can get a license, you can have my cruiser,” so I secretly went and got it. So that’s how I ended up with it. The cruiser was 36 feet. Fully equipped with a kitchen and everything. I used to take the girls out on it around Tokyo bay.
I still dance at home when the music comes drifting from the TV. I started listening to Jazz. But for dancing I can waltz and tango too. I love dancing.
AT What do you like to cook?
MG I learned to cook from my mother. I don’t cook much these days because I’m single and I don’t have a guy. When I was dating of course I cooked everyday. I’m getting older and I don’t eat as much. My favorite food is gari gari kun (a classic Japanese blue popsicle you can buy at any convenience store). I eat three a day. Eight during the summer. My favorite flavour is soda. But I always try all the new flavors. I’ve cut back because my sister won’t let me eat them. I skip meals and just eat that. I stock up all the time. I keep some here too.
AT You’re so unique, I love the beads in your hair. What is your inspiration?
M I am my inspiration. After my man passed away 40 years ago, I started dressing like this. I want to be myself. I do get compliments all the time “You’re unique,” no other mama in Ginza would dress like this. My mother used to make my clothes. Always flashier than other kids.
AT What would you be doing if you had another chance to live life over?
MG The same thing. I want to be born as a woman and myself. I look back on life and I’m happy. I’ve done everything I wanted to do, the way I wanted to do it.
AT What would be your life advice?
MG Challenge everything! Failure is success! You have to experience everything! My new challenge is I don’t have enough concentration. I don’t have enough will to start anything new. I’ve tried so many things in life. Also never let anyone come in your way. Always be yourself. You need to pave your own road. And I live by that.