Plucking up guitar bar courage

A Monday night and I was alone and exhausted in Tokyo. It had been my first day on an assignment that would the very next day have me up early and on the superfast bullet train to regional Japan. I should have gone to bed and made an early night of it - fatigue was telling me to do exactly that. But I wasn't up for wasting a night in Tokyo when I wouldn't be back until the end of the week.

I could have kept myself more than adequately amused in the hotel where I was staying. It had everything from numerous restaurants and clubs, to shops and beautifully-lit Japanese gardens (complete with waterfalls, bridges, ponds and giant goldfish).

But I broke free of its comforts to swap them for a night-time stroll along the busy streets of the Akasaka district.

It was just after 9pm with still plenty of traffic on the roads and pedestrians on the footpaths.

Shops and restaurants were open and, although I couldn't read most of the signs, I soon got the vibe that I was in a semi-trendy part of the city and it was somewhat of a nightclub precinct.

I was happy just to walk along the streets and down the little laneways to see where they led me, without actually going into any of the myriad venues. But then, after almost an hour of wandering, I saw it on the other side of the road.

It was a bright neon sign in the shape of a guitar and it was beckoning me towards it.

I rushed across the street for a closer inspection and could tell straight away that it was not a late-night musical instrument shop. There was surely something far more interesting behind the door at the top of the stairs.

Opening the door there was an adrenalin rush. What was I stepping into so late on a Monday? Another neon light told me the place was called El Camino.


Behind the door, recorded music was pumping, which stopped as soon as I stepped into the dimly-lit room.

The sole couple inside, a man and woman, got up and greeted me with a smile.

''Come in, come in,'' the man said.

''What is this place?'' I asked.

''Guitar bar,'' he said in broken English. ''Guitar bar?'' ''Yes. You pick one. You play.''

It was then that I noticed a small stage at the front of the room supporting a drum kit, microphones on stands, three electric guitars and a fine selection of amplifiers. The whole room was designed as a cosy lounge, with sofas, chairs and coffee tables arranged to draw attention to the stage.

All the walls were adorned with guitars and any patron was welcome to take one down and plug it in.

In fact, I learned later that most of the guitars were left there hanging on the walls by local musos who didn't mind them being played by strangers coming in from off the street.

If only such a trusting and collegial concept could work back home, I thought.

''Where you from?'' my host asked.

''Australia.'' ''Australia? Tommy Emmanuel, he play here. About five year ago. He good.'' My host's name was ''Kenny'' Toda and he told me he opened his club 15 years ago as a place for musicians to chill out and for players of all levels to rock on. Toda was an ageing rocker himself. He was perhaps the coolest 61-year-old I had met.

It occurred to me that I had stumbled into what might be described as a karaoke guitar club.

''You like the Ventures?'' Toda asked.

I knew the Ventures, a 1960s instrumental surf band from America akin to the Shadows from Britain.

What I didn't realise was just how huge the Ventures were in Japan - and not just in the sixties.

The Japanese still love their Ventures music and still flock to see the surviving members who keep touring there.

In fact, Toda's El Camino bar was quite a shrine to the Ventures, and in particular to guitarist Nokie Edwards, who not only appears often in the club but has also recorded live albums there.

''Yeah, I like the Ventures,'' I said, without giving away that I was much more familiar with the Shadows.

''What your favourite guitar?'' ''I like Fender electrics and Gibson and Martin acoustics,'' I said.

''I like Mosrite,'' Toda replied, adding ''Ventures play Mosrite guitars.'' But with that Toda handed me a 1965 Fender Jazzmaster he said was his own and one of his personal favourites. Then he asked me to hop up on stage.

He told me it had been a quiet night in the club. They were about to close up when I walked in, but he was keen to hear me play.

His female companion, Yajma, had already brought me out a glass of sake and a few bar nibbles.

I love this place! On stage, I started playing a blues, to no one, when Toda stepped up and plugged in a bass to play along.

After the first song, he handed the bass to Yajma, who began riffing away while Toda jumped on the drums.

This was fantastic. Another couple walked in, friends of Toda and Yajma.

The guy, Suzuki, kicked Toda off the drums and so Toda joined me front and centre on another guitar.

It was then I learned how good a guitarist Toda was.

We rocked along playing a few blues numbers and then Toda asked: ''You like Beatles?'' ''Yep.'' And so we played a few Beatles numbers, both taking turns on vocals and having a blast.

He then brought out a songbook with a lot of classic rock tunes for us to all play along to. By then, a couple of European backpackers came in. They, too, had followed the neon not knowing what it led to. They took up a comfy lounge chair and drank sake while they watched us and laughed.

I laughed, too, and told them I was pleased to be able to make a bit of a fool of myself up on the stage, knowing I was never going to see them - my entire audience - ever again.

After a few more songs, Suzuki and his companion, as well as the backpackers, said their farewells and left me there once again with just Toda and Yajma.

More sake was brought out (''This one top shelf''). And then I confessed that I needed to gain a greater appreciation for the Ventures.

Toda gave me a CD.

But I was attracted to the stack of vinyl records he had near the entrance to the bar. ''Would you sell me a Ventures LP?'' I asked.

He brought out a beautiful red vinyl copy of The Ventures in Japan live album from 1965. ''Yes,'' Toda said. ''You take this one. Original. Very rare.''

I didn't know how rare it really was. But I knew I really liked Toda and his guitar bar. And I knew I was a little drunk. So at the end of a great night I left El Camino with an LP in my hand, a few glasses of sake in my belly and the privilege of having entertained the entire room with my guitar playing.

For all of that, I was asked to pay ''only 5000 yen''. I had no idea at the time just how much that was in Australian dollars. But I didn't care. It was worth every penny.

The writer travelled to Japan as a guest of the Japanese Government.