Popeye’s has a character behind the bar
January 11, 2007
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Takanori Nakata asks me if this review is going to make him a movie star.
He’s much better looking than Tom Cruise, he says. And why stop at movie star? Why doesn’t Tak-san, as everyone calls him, run for president of the United States?
“You don’t have to speak good English for that job,” he says. “Just look at the president and the governor of California.”
People don’t come to Popeye’s for the food: There is none. And they don’t come for fancy treatment. Tak has been known to turn up the volume of the heavy metal videos or put in his earphones rather than listen to his customers’ babble.
People come to Popeye’s for Tak’s dry wit, the put-hair-on-your-chest cocktails, and to soak in what’s left of the Honch’s Navy history in one of its oldest watering holes-in-the-wall.
If you want grit, Popeye’s is it. The bar’s scattered seats were torn out of old cars and scavenged from a scrap-yard. Every available space in the place is covered in a patina of expletives written by Navy hands. Tak doesn’t approve of hearts and “I love so-and-so’s.”
Popeye’s didn’t used to be this way, Tak says. In 1978, it was the “cleanest bar in the Honch,” he says.
“I put in this nice carpet, but it started smelling like beer,” Tak said. “When I took it out to have it cleaned, the sailors said they liked it that way. And I used to have nice chairs, but they were too heavy for the cleaning lady to move.”
Popeye’s also was the first bar in the Honch without bar girls or pickpockets. Tak wanted an honest bar where sailors and Marines could have a raucous good time — and it’s still that kind of place, even though the Navy has changed a lot, Tak said.
“I just figured the sailors could fight in here — better here than out on the street where they can bother Japanese people,” Tak says, grinning. “We used to have a really wild time.”
Now, Tak says, Popeye’s draws four types: Japanese and American sailors, American civilians and old Japanese men. One sailor told me that Popeye’s hefty habusake shot was a “rite of passage,” as you get a playing card from the bar that proves you’ve survived it.
I go for the “Green Eyes” — Tak’s tasty green coconut concoction — and delight in drinking something so frou-frou in such a stripped-down place.
Even though Popeye’s closes up earlier than it used to and Tak doesn’t drink as much behind the bar (he is 60 now, though he’ll tell you “24,”), the music is still angry and loud. And the conversation is true to life.
“After 28 years, this is my job, my bar,” says Tak. “I guess it’s better than watching TV at home.”
See previous After Hours reviews here.
Drink prices: Most drinks are 500 or 600 yen, and you will get your money’s worth.
Cover charge: None.
Entertainment: Pool and foosball tables.
Clientele: Nonpretentious heavy metal types from all walks of life.
Dress: Leave the white gloves at home.
Location: In the Honch, just behind Shioiri Station.
Web site: None.