While rummaging through a drawer recently I came
across a box of matches I’d been saving since 1987. It was from La Scala-za, a
café in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, and one of the most memorable café’s in
Tokyo at a time when these businesses thrived on competition to be the most
individual, eccentric and creative (all the more astounding in a culture that
denied this urge in the citizenry).
What made La Scala-za an experience was visible
even before you entered: vines clung to walls that looked as though they were
built of stone. There was a turret, and the roof along the side street was
crenellated. There was a tall and
narrow stained glass window in front that ran from the first through third
floors. The effect was of a decrepit castle.
Inside there were overdone crystal chandeliers, curiosity
cabinets filled with
odd knick knacks, a suit of armor standing in a stairwell,
and antimacassars on the red velvet chairs. Today’s Goths would feel totally at
home there, or perhaps today’s vampire fans. However, I think the intention was
to capture the 19th Romantic European sense of beauty. And in fact,
the decorative metalwork in front of the second floor window looks like the
image on their match-box cover.
When you consider that the place opened in 1954, only two
years after the end of Japan’s occupation by the Allied Powers, in an only
partially rebuilt Tokyo where,
La Scala-za must have stood as a monument to a
fantasy escape from the privations of post-war Japan. But that escape was only
partially fueled by the architecture (and caffeine). No, what made La Scala-za
so special, and what had people going there regularly was that they played Western
classical music non-stop at a time when buying records must have also seemed an
In fact, Scala-za published a schedule of what
they would be playing in advance. A program of sorts. So if you wanted to come
and hear Verdi, or Chopin (since it was not only opera, despite the name) you
knew just when to show up. Though you couldn’t be guaranteed a seat, since
regulars seemed to almost live there.
Students would be there hunched over books, smoking furiously and discussing important issues in art at politics. And young lovers made La Scala-za a meeting place for decorously romantic coffee dates. I know, because my boyfriend Hiroshi took me there for the first time when we had just started going out in 1982. So finding that box of matches was a moment of romantic memories and nostalgia for Tokyo in the go-go 80s, so different a time from La Scala’s beginning.
The image on the match-box cover, a sort of 19th
Century Romeo and Juliet on the balcony, with a dash of My Fair Lady meets
Dracula, captures the recherché spirit of the place.
La Scala-za closed after a 48-year run on
December 31st, 2002, a victim of the real estate boom. People lined
up outside to say goodbye. But recently, it has re-appeared in a new
incarnation, though in the basement of a modern building and so without the
feel of the old place.
This is the story of cities, and life. I
remember going up 6th Avenue in Manhattan with my father when I was
a boy and listening to him complain about how it had been ruined by all the new
glass and steel buildings. Now, I can’t walk through the city without being
surrounded by ghosts of people and places past.
Memories and impermanence. The
evanescence of existence — the blossom falls. The beautiful sadness of things.
So lets keep dancing. In this moment now — because really, that’s all there is