The picture window at dusk has a magnetic pull, enough to make you double back on the bicycle. Is this a bar or an exhibition space? A shop? Stick your head in and ask. But there’s nothing on show. A solitary proprietor, typing on a laptop at the counter.

It is a place to drink alcohol, says Kazuki Ota. It’s as if he has just thought about an answer to this.

Inside, the lighting is flat and even, not like a bar, the sort of thick glow you see in films like, say, Blue Velvet.

Some people may be disconcerted by its defiance of ready labeling. It’s not really a bar. Ota says, I couldn’t make a cocktail if I tried.

It’s not dangerous. The most sinister thing may be Mick Jagger’s voice from an old Stones record, or some devilish blues that Ota puts on afterward.

Some people may be disconcerted by its defiance of ready labeling. It’s not really a bar. Ota says, I couldn’t make a cocktail if I tried. We have whisky and beer. And ginger ale. I could do a highball. And I think there’s some gin. Maybe I could do gin and tonic. But it’s better if people drink straight. He laughs, a smoker’s laugh.

Nighthawks Ota laugh
Nighthawks counter wood

Customers are from the Asakusabashi neighbourhood. For some of them, says Ota, it’s not like home, it is home. He says, They’ll say, I’m just going up to the convenience store – then return later to their seats. Some people at the end of the night realise they have no money. It often happens. Some even try to pay in CDs. You can’t trust people once they get drinking!

His wife is a dancer and makes elegant metal jewelry under the name Zaculo. On weekends the space becomes a shop. Sometimes it spills onto the street and they sell antique clothes. The bar also doubles as a restaurant (Ota’s mother serves Japanese homestyle lunches on weekdays), and a live music space. The events aren’t actively promoted. Maybe there are some flyers on the counter. You never get the sense this place is in any way structured toward making money.

Yofuke no Hito Bito (Nighthawks) is named after the Edward Hopper painting. Ota and his childhood schoolmate Hirofumi Watanabe built it about four years ago. Watanabe studied architecture and makes shop and house interiors. The countertop he found at his relative’s timberyard is a spectacular piece of tochinoki, Japanese horse chestnut. Or rather, two pieces. By a stroke of luck, both are from the same tree. Also serendipitous is how the planks form an angle that was exactly what Watanabe and Ota had imagined.

Nighthawks counter to door

Nighthawks Ota long

Watanabe says they wanted a welcoming place that automatically filtered its customers. So not just anyone is going to walk in, but nor does one feel excluded, if one wants to find it. Hence the customer at the counter for Mrs Ota’s lunch is as likely to be an elderly neighbour discussing his health as it is Rieko, the owner of the trendy cafe Sol’s a few doors up.

The cast of characters suits Ota. I write fiction, he says. I thought this place would give me some good material for stories. That’s what I was doing when you came in. When it’s quiet, I can concentrate. The laptop is not online; there is no wi-fi here.

Nighthawks cd

Nighthawks frame