Urata Mika runs a small bar in downtown Tokyo called aeru. It's a cosy space where customers usually sit close together on sofas to drink, talk and sing karaoke. It's a style of bar known in Japan as a "snack."
"If we have ten people, we're full," she says. "It's the allure of snack bars. Sitting together creates a bond and a sense of community."
She's been in business since 2004, and before the coronavirus outbreak, her place was packed almost every night.
Urata had to temporarily close the doors in April when the government declared a state of emergency. But she didn't shutter the business altogether. She signed up for a website that connects snack bars and visitors through teleconferencing. It's called "Online Snack Yokocho."
Guests can browse a selection of snack bars online, and join the room they like. Each visit costs between 20 and 40 dollars an hour. And unlike in the real bar, they're not paying for food or drink — they prepare all that themselves at home. They are simply paying for the chance to chat in a virtual snack bar.
For many of the participants, it's a good enough approximation of the real experience.
"I join in because I enjoy talking with Urata," says one.
"It's a place to just show up, relax and have fun. That's what snack bars are," says another.
Those impressions define why snack bars exist. Since they emerged in the 1960s, they have become popular more as communication hubs than as places to go for food and drink.
And that's why Igarashi Mayuko, the founder of the website, had the feeling that this system would work. She's a PR consultant who also writes about the snack bar world. She saw the crisis unfold with the pandemic, affecting all the tens of thousands of these businesses across the country. In some areas, more than 10 percent of the snack bars have closed or are planning to do so.
Igarashi had a hunch that, while the cosy nightspots will struggle in an era of social distancing, the personalities of their proprietors make them ideal for online meetups.
"I knew the profound communication skills of snack bar owners would be a big draw," she says. "And at that time, people didn't have much chance to interact socially. I thought the essentials of snack bars would function perfectly to meet those needs. The profit may not be much, but it's important to at least keep the connection alive."
Urata says the money she makes from the sessions is barely enough to cover her basic costs, but at least it's a way for her to keep in touch with her regulars.
In fact, many owners who've signed up for Online Snack Yokocho find they're meeting far more than the usual faces. Some people are joining in from afar, virtually visiting their hometowns or exploring places they've never been. And some of the regulars have brought their children into the chats, which is something they could never do physically.
Igarashi says more than half of the guests have never set foot in a real snack bar. Yamazaki Takehiro is one example. He says he was always too intimidated to enter one, but it's less nerve-racking to join an online session.
"I found they're welcoming and I've had so much fun. Now that I got to know the owner, I want to go there in person."
But it may be some time before people can cram into tiny snack bars again, and though Urata is preparing to reopen aeru with precautions in place, she's worried about whether it will work. "All the elements of snack bars are against social distancing measures," she says. "I'm afraid once guests feel reluctant, they may not come back as often." So even when she swings the doors open again, she says she'll keep running the online sessions.
Igarashi says she has a waiting list of snack bars wanting to join her platform, and says she's confident this isn't a temporary trend. Both she and Urata hope this time of social distancing will also be remembered as a pivotal moment for snack bars, when it created a whole new community.