23 Square Meters of Happiness: Café & Bar Yamauchi Tsuruko

Though it may sound like one, Yamauchi Tsuruko is not another Japanese high fashion brand, but a tiny music bar on Ishigaki island, run by Okinawan musician Yoshitoo! (yes, with exclamation mark, and the pronunciation is Yo-shi-to. I’ll refer to him as Yoshito-san here, the way I call him all the time.)

You won’t see the signboard of Yamauchi Tsuruko lit up often, as Yoshito-san is often on tour all over Japan. On the rare occasion that he is back, the bar is only opened from 19:00 to 23:00 –only four hours a day, pretty much like another bar Get Happy not far away—so it requires a bit of luck to meet this young musician.

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Ishigaki is a small community, so small that everyone seems to relate in one way or another. The current site of Yamauchi Tsuruko used to be the house of my friend, whose son is also a popular local musician. Yoshito-san kept the old furniture and the post box that belonged to my friend, and the rest of the space of this 23-square-meter bar is packed with posters, records, music instruments (acoustic guitars, Sanshin[three-stringed Okinawan traditional instrument] and a new instrument that’s a cross-breed of Sanshin and guitar ) and all sorts of quirky items collected by Yoshito San, who tried to convince me that everything is useful.

Guests are welcomed to play with the instrument, and Yoshito-san will also join them. Local musicians also frequent the bar – sometimes with the price of one drink (500 Yen) you can enjoy an impromptu jamming session. Local awamori, Shochu from Kyushu, draft beer, ginger ale and hand-dripped coffee are offered in the bar at a one-coin price. Food choices are limited to appetizer such as roasted nuts, be sure to have dinner before you visit.

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The music style of Yoshito-san could be described as indie-folk/blues/rock with obvious influence from Okinawan traditional music. He sings about family, life, traveling, Okinawan and his passion with infectious emotion and a unique sense of humor. He performs solo under the name Yoshitoo!,but he is also a member of the band Yaeyama Monkey with Ryosa and Yasshi, which celebrates 16-year-anniversary this year.

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Though watching him perform live is the best way to know his music, to give you a feeling of who he is, check out these youtube videos. “Asatoya-samba”— this Bossa nova rendition of famous folk song of Taketomi Island “Asatoya-yunta” will make you dance happily on your feet, and another song dedicating to his family and all new-born lives “Happy Birthday Daddy & Mammy” will make you feel as if you just witness the birth of new life and wanna call your dad and mum to thank them for everything.

Straightforward as they may seem, his songs are positively infectious, leaving all listeners – no matter how cynical they are – with much more energy to move on. Some musicians give out all their best on the stage, so when they are off-stage, they are taciturn and distant. But Yoshito-san is anything but that, his role as a singer is only a natural extension of his real life. Even when he is not performing, he still radiates with energy and humor.

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Raised in a family with music background –Yoshito san’s mom and late grandma, after whom the bar was named, used to be Jazz singers near the US base of Chatan, Okinawa mainland –he started to imitate grandma when she practices Sanshin at age 3. Yoshito san, half-jokingly complained to me that collaborating with his grandma and mother on songs are stressful because they will meticulously correct his pronunciation and singing voice: “I am forever an amateur in front of these two ladies.”

Music has always been central to his life, but to rely only on music for a living had been difficult until he formed the music group Yaeyama Monkey. Before becoming a full-time musician, he had followed the footstep of his dad to work on cruises for years, later working in a shop specializing in Okinawan products in Fukuoka. While working in Fukuoka, he encountered many musicians from Yaeyama and was surprised to discover that the music scene in Yaeyama is very vibrant – more than 50 music bars of different genre strive on the tiny downtown area of Ishigaki and Ishigaki-based musicians such as music band BEGIN and singer Natsukawa Rimi were making their names on national stage. Attracted by such environment, he moved to Ishigaki island some 16 years ago, where he started his music career.

It was also in Ishigaki that he met his talented wife, Miss Kushiken Yoko, who is also a singer-songwriter. Recalling an experience of touring with his wife, Yoshito-san complained, not without amusement: “It’s really a blessing to have a talented wife who shares my love of music, but she is better than me sometimes. I remembered that once we were on tour and she followed us. I asked her to play bass for the group, but when we rehearse she changed our original arrangement to her liking, I had a hard time following up. ”

When I asked him why he named this place after his late grandma, Yoshito-san was quiet for a while, before he went on to explain: “My grandma was an extraordinary person. Her time, with WWII in Okinawa, US occupation and all that, was extremely hard, but she never stopped giving, not for a second. Wherever she was, there are always lots of people who surrounded her. I want to create a space that makes people feel happy and warm, just like how it felt to be around her.”

And I think his grandma would be proud, for this 23-square-meter bar is certainly offering much more than its space allows.

Yamauchi Tsuruko 山内ツルコ

Opened from

19:00~23:00

Closed on

Irregularly, depending on Yoshito san’s live schedule.

(better call before visiting to avoid disappointment)

Recommendation

Local Awamori (600 yen)

Contact

070-5271-4066

yoshitoolive@icloud.com

Website

Facebook Page

Address

沖縄県石垣市大川269-6

Okawa 269-6 (Near Banana Café)

  • Food options are limited so it’s suggested that you dine before visiting.
  • The maximum occupancy of the bar is only around 10-12 people.

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