(Tokyo) In a Tokyo street lined with neon signs, at the top of a narrow staircase, an uninviting door opens onto a “snack bar”, a place popular with regulars, but almost invisible to tourists until now.

These cozy, retro bars, often nestled in the upper floors of buildings, are usually run by a woman nicknamed “mama”, who chats with customers while serving them drinks, peanuts, dried squid and other small snacks.

Although “snacks” are an integral part of Japanese nightlife, their discreet and hidden nature can be intimidating, especially to those who don’t speak the country’s language.

It is for them that an agency has decided to offer guided tours of snack bars such as Kuriyakko, in the Tokyo district of Shimbashi.

Inside, dim lights reflect warmly off the red tiles, illuminating an art-deco poster while an American family sings the hits Hey Jude and Take Me Home, Country Roads.

Nora, who previously lived in Japan, explains to AFP that she booked the visit for her parents, sister, aunt and uncle after learning about it on Instagram.

“I always saw the snack signs, but I didn’t really know how to get in or what to do there,” explains this thirty-year-old, now based in San Francisco and who only wanted to give her first name.

“My family doesn’t go to Japan often, so this was a good opportunity to really experience bar culture” in a “jovial” and “intimate” way.

Snack agency guide Yokocho explains to the group how to order whiskey and plum wine “umeshu” in Japanese, and how to say “cheers” (“kanpai!”).

Dressed in an elegant pale pink kimono and wearing a traditional bun, “mama” Kuri Awaji, who has worked behind the Kuriyakko bar for 25 years, accompanies customers as they sing along to karaoke.

According to Snack Yokocho, there are about 100,000 snack bars in Japan. While most are run by women, some are run by men.

Although the atmosphere is less social than in modern host and hostess bars, with the emphasis on friendly conversation, snack bars are still historically linked to “red light districts”. from Japan.

After World War II, some women turned to sex work to survive, but anti-prostitution laws were introduced around the time of the 1964 Olympics, says Snack Yokocho representative Mayuko Igarashi.

To make money, they “put a simple wooden box on the street and started serving drinks and snacks there”, hence the name of these establishments.

Many of them were divorced and raising their children alone, hence the nickname “mama”, according to Ms. Igarashi: “It was difficult for them to work during the day, so once the children went to bed, they worked the counter.” , she explains.

According to Ms. Igarashi, there were 200,000 snack bars in Japan in the 1950s and 60s, but their numbers dwindled as “mama”s retired or sold their businesses.

Now, with record numbers of tourists visiting Japan, Snack Yokocho says interest in its tours is growing.

In addition to “classic” snacks like Kuriyakko, the company ventures into themed snack bars, one of which specializes in golf.

She also sometimes organizes guided tours for Japanese women who want to discover snack culture, but who are hesitant to open their doors alone.

For years, the clientele at these bars was almost exclusively male, Mr. Igarashi said. But with the increased presence of women in the workforce, snack bars have become a “place where they can relax or talk to mama about their problems.”

People tend to talk on social media, but after a bad day, nothing beats face-to-face communication, she says.

“In a snack bar, people can look each other in the eye and get to know each other very quickly, even strangers. »