Many Westerners have already heard inflated stories about Tokyoites, gagging on smoggy urban air, being driven into “air bars” to buy a gasp of fresh O2. So now enter the Aqua Bar, the only bar in Tokyo where customers line up to pay for a glass of water.
The bartender boasts that he has over a hundred customers a day. But he also points out that it is the only water bar in Tokyo, so perhaps going out for water is not becoming a new trend. In fact, the Aqua Bar doesn’t claim to be anything more than a gimmick to grab some attention for its sponsors, and also to showcase new products in a booming multi-billion yen market for natural waters.
An ordinary serving usually runs from 200 to 500 yen ($2.00 to $5.00), or the equivalent of a medium-to-low priced cup of Tokyo coffee. The bar stocks over 20 different natural water brand names from America, Canada, England, France, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, and Norway. And not all the water is drunk straight. There is a little creativity at work here: the water bar will serve up hot mineral teas, or for some color, mineral waters flavored with lemon, lime, orange, or grapefruit, as well as fragranced mineral water, featuring kiwi, lemon, cassis, peach, cherry, raspberry, and strawberry.
Water comes with bubbles, or without. Overwhelmed customers can consult with the bartender, who will recommend some nice Canadian glacier water, or perhaps concoct a mixture of different natural waters. But since the establishment deals strictly with water, the average customer doesn’t linger long. The bar does not serve any food, except perhaps an occasional mineral water-based fruit cocktail.
So is the Aqua Bar just fashion? Definitely. Located in a tiny cool dark enclosure just off the kitchenwares section of the Seibu Ikebukuro Department Store, the minature bar is decorated entirely in black, with the cramped ambience of a small glacial cave. Rows of crystal glasses hang upside down over the bar like icicles. A Japanese taste for the zany and eclectic helps explain the two huge tanks at both ends of the bar displaying expensive tropical fish, also for sale (tanks must be purchased from the pet department). Customers, who range from uniformed high-school students to senior citizens, drift into the bar between shopping runs to investigate the scene, and may often only be one-time visitors. But once they have tasted the waters, the bartender begins a sales routine that he hopes may convince them to order a case or two, of course for free delivery.
As Japan contemplates the downward slide of its post-bubble economy, the Aqua Bar may lose some of its clientele — especially those who fancied the slightly frivolous feeling of sipping a fragranced mineral-water fruit cocktail enough to pay for it. But sellers of natural water have continued to profit from a double image that appeals to trendy types in search of small luxuries as well as to the health-conscious. Indeed, it is the image of good health and good sense which keeps the Aqua Bar thriving. What other bar in Tokyo would dare to ban customers from smoking?
How far is the Aqua Bar willing to go? Yes, of course the ice-cubes are made from mineral water. But no, they wash the glasses with ordinary tap. Don’t bother asking about the water in the tropical fish tanks.
[Special thanks to Bento.com, for preserving my review in its “Deep Freeze” archives – long after the Aqua Bar itself has vanished]