Through a friend of Fiona’s we were directed to check out a small patch of snacks in an area called Mozen-nakacho on the eastside of Tokyo, a historical area with preserved homes of samurai from the edo period as well as an area through time that has been laden with sketchy gossip. There is no better place to develop a snack community than a town like this.
Right next to a main street and station exit, yet tucked away enough to miss it if you aren’t looking for it, we found a cobblestone street full of tiny lit up signs. Hearing drunken wails coming from tiny wooden shops, we knew it must be the place. Right in the middle of the small street was a dilapidated wooden corner shop with a bright sign that had only one kanji (Chinese characters) on it.
We slid open the wood and glass shuttered door and were already face-to-face with the mama of the shop. The snack fit about five people, with no room for anything else but the counter and chairs, the tiniest snack I’d seen so far. The mama seemed confused but not too perturbed at us coming in. We were the only customers that first night, and she freely told us all the history – and dirt – we ever needed to know about this snack neighborhood.
When we returned a second time for permission to take photos and to ask for an interview, there were three customers in the five seated shop, a full house! Despite the “crowd”, Misa gave attention to everyone at Azusa and was easy to talk to.
Misa-san (not her real name but the name she used as a hostess in her Ginza days) had her hair done up and an emerald green dress on with matching velvet bolero top, bedazzled with a few well-placed rhinestones. She looked out of place behind the counter at her small wooden snack commenting that dressing up is a habit she learned from Ginza because the rules were so strict. She offhandedly mentioned still owning quite a few kimono, and shrugged off our compliments to her fancy dress as if it were only brown paper bag.
AT: Alex Thomas
MA: Misa A
AT How did you become a snack mama and what motivates you to do this job?
MA I started in the mizu-shoubai (nightwork) industry because I got a divorce. I had my own snack back home in the countryside of Japan, but at the time being divorced was not considered appropriate so I moved to Tokyo. I was a hostess in Ginza for a few years. I got hooked on Pachinko (pinball-like gambling) which a client introduced me to, so I was broke. I saw the "for rent" poster on this place, and started this snack. I’ve been here at AZUSA for about 16 years.
AT What does the name AZUSA mean?
MA AZUSA is the wood from a Japanese cherry birch tree that’s used to make a sacred musical bow that shinto shrine maidens used to pluck to coerce people to come pray at the shrines. They would also use the bow in poetry and to ward off evil.
AT What’s this area like with the other snacks?
MA The area this snack is built on is a historical area called Tatsumi-Shindo (now famous as a cheap area for drinks and food at night). The other snack mamas do not like the fact that I have tinted windows so they can’t peek in! They also used to give me a hard time when I first started because I used to be open for lunch and had a sushi chef here. Also, because I came from Ginza, I always dress up in fancy clothes unlike the other mamas around here, so they harass me. I’ve been harassed by them in many ways. Others used to tape papers to my door with nasty words written on them.
If I wasn't this stubborn and strong, I would have quit doing this a long time ago.
AT How has snack culture changed?
MA Back in the days, snacks were on the first floor and the second floor was used as the “playroom” with just a futon. Some girls at the snacks would charge $200-$300 for sex. It was hard for them to climb up the stairs in kimono at that time. Some of the mama-sans that work in this neighborhood have confessed that they used to do that.
AT What are your clients like?
MA My clients are regulars from the neighborhood, politicians who I knew back from when I worked in Ginza, I’ve had all sorts of cultured people as regulars. Writers, artists, actors, singers. A singer recently filmed his music video at this snack! (She then pulled up the karaoke song on the screen to show us the video).
My clients are getting older and it’s difficult to bring younger customers in. Snack culture is not popular. Men don’t go out with their bosses after work anymore.
AT Do you have any hobbies?
MA I don’t have my own time because I need to get up early to prepare food. I don’t have time for a hobby. I have a daughter in her 30s.
It would be amazing to meet someone that can be a good partner. I wish I could just find someone rich! Women like us who put work first, powerful men are scared of that. But you have to know, you need to keep an open mind because you never know when you will meet that special person.