The Legend of Big Tiger’s

The Legend of Big Tiger’s

I stumbled upon Big Tiger’s by accident.  I passed it a few times while riding bikes and thought it was a  Cafe as there was a sign advertising coffee.  There were also burlap coffee bags in view. There might as well have been a coffee grinder, a coffee machine and a guy dressed as a coffee bean — every detail about Big Tiger’s exterior confirmed my assumptions. I was quite wrong.

The first time I went was a hot, humid Sunday, maybe 2pm. My kids and I had eaten a superb bowl of ramen and were biking back to home.  We had the idea of stopping to get iced coffee and some other cold drinks. Big Tiger’s is pretty much open to the street, so ducking under the curtains I was faced with a tiny (4-seat) bar, liquor bottles lining the counter.  Every available space on the wall crowded with knick knacks from Buddha to Mickey Mouse, hand painted kites, fishing nets, a mason jar fashioned into a fish tank with tiny guppies happily swimming, film stills, boxing notices, old advertising, stacks of dishes, drink prices and god knows what else.  The bar seemed fashioned from an old door and the stools were cobbled together metal and wood and wrapped in burlap. Behind the bar, resplendent in a matching green track suit, was a thin older man, bald head waxed to a shine. At the bar, a beautiful old woman, white hair pinned back in a messy bun and a man in his 70s, crew cut, in a Hawaiian shirt – both quite drunk.  Before I knew what was happening — my Japanese really sucks — my children had handfuls of plastic toys (balls, jacks, etc.), I had an exquisitely cold beer and my son was given a bunch of change for the vending machines outside.  I tried, to no avail, to halt the kindness, to pay for a beer, something. No luck. Was there coffee?  Nope, not even tea.

The bartender announced that he was Big Tiger and this was his place and I wasn’t to pay for a thing. With my son helping to translate, I managed to introduce ourselves, to give some back story — “we recently moved here from Brooklyn, NY” — and then to be made fun of, by my son no less,  for my lack of Japanese.  The older customers lavished praise and love on my kids telling them how handsome and cute they were (and finding even more toys to give them) and telling me that my few mangled Japanese phrases were very impressive.  And I noticed what looked like a very delicious fried tofu being served up. Big Tiger’s seemed like my kind of place.

When we got home, my kids told my wife that they met “the kindest old lady in the whole world” and I got her to agree to go back to Big Tiger’s so I could learn more about it.

When we finally returned weeks later, we found Big Tiger alone at the bar and very happy that I had returned. Beers in hand, my wife unravelled the story: Big Tiger was 75.  He had dropped out of school in the 4th grade. He had been a local builder and contractor and had opened his bar 3 months earlier (an amazing fact as it looked like it had been there for a lifetime.)  He had done all the construction and decorated it himself. He opened at 6am and closed at midnight every day of the year.  “I only sleep 3 hours a night!” He exclaimed with pride.

Soon, the regulars began to arrive. The kind old lady showed up with her older sister — a renowned pachinko player (check her Youtube channel with millions of hits!). A grizzled older gentleman with skin the color of mahogany.  A somewhat younger woman who placed herself behind the bar.  With five or six people, Big Tiger’s was packed.  The sisters had lived in the neighborhood their entire lives and knew the block my wife and I lived on — they asked about the kids, my wife’s family and by their second or third beer were quite flirtatious.  Neither had any children, they spent their days in the park, playing pachinko and came to Big Tiger’s to drink and made it clear that there had been some seriously wild times in their past. We were invited, any time we liked, to come join them at their house — we needed drunken babysitters who both smoked?  We had the link.

Big Tiger pointed to the man “He is a fisherman. He was in a Siberian prison for 6 months when he was in his 20s.”  The man nodded, lit another cigarette, and sipped at his highball. Trying to gauge the time-frame, I asked if it was when Khrushchev was in power.  “Hai. Khrushchev (pronounced: Ka-Ru-Sa-Chef-O) So, so , so.”  I asked if it was bad, he shrugged in return,  “Cold.” And cackled. For those of a certain generation, the trials of the 20th century put the gulag into perspective.  “He never went to school like me,” said Big Tiger handing me a free plate of Okinawan bitter melon and onion.

Upon finding out that I had owned a store selling Jamaican music, Big Tiger rustled away behind the bar and soon the strains of  Mid-90s dancehall were billowing forth from a boombox anchored to a wooden post. So there we all were, maybe 65 teeth amongst us all, listening to Buju Banton and getting drunk on a Sunday afternoon. i was in heaven.  Yes, this was just a group of old drunks being drunk.  But, everyone was so nice and eccentric and polite and gracious.  No one was ranting in a corner about immigrants or crying silent tears into the Shochu. This was a group of people who survived the devastation of WW2 and did so with grace and determination — if they wanted to spend their retirement drinking beers and shochu and invite me to join along, invite me to their homes, well so be it!  And what the hell? My eccentricities seemed like a drop in the bucket here and Buju was singing, the weather was right, beer was cold and yes I will try that tofu dish!

“We all kind of work here,” said the younger (early 70s) woman behind the bar. “Sometimes Big Tiger needs to take a nap or help with shopping.” She handed me a fresh beer.

I have been back countless times, met the pin-permed yakuza who likes to take in his warm shochu in the back room, met some younger Japanese who appreciate the vibes.  It is like a little, weird home for me. I am always warmly welcomed, prices are insignificant and what conversation I can’t fully understand in words, I grasp in feeling.  We are all little refugees in a very large world that doesn’t often see us, see our worth, our goodness and Big Tiger is right there offering a safe haven with cold beer.

Big Tiger’s

2 chome-26-6 Kamiitabashi

Itabashi-ku Tokyo



3 Replies to “The Legend of Big Tiger’s”

  1. Nice reading this put a smile on my face great writing I felt like I was there sounds like an awesome place full of characters and character!!

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