A couple of years ago, the prefectural government launched a tongue in cheek media campaign to boost domestic tourism to the area. Sharp-tongued comedian Hiroiki Ariyoshi played the prefecture’s tourism ambassador who launched PR campaign under the slogan Oshii! Hiroshima-ken, which can be translated as something like, “Hiroshima Prefecture: Almost Famous!”
I’m not sure how effective the Oshii! campaign was, but where international visitors are concerned, Hiroshima is lucky to have a real, if unofficial, tourism ambassador working nightly in the center of the city. Rock fan, Tsuyoshi “BOM” Mitsuyuki, is the proprietor of Koba, a little bar equipped with a tiny kitchen in downtown Hiroshima, which has become something of an oasis for weary Japan travelers.
BOM has no hesitation in pronouncing, Hiroshima wa saikou na machi – “Hiroshima is the best!” – with a confidence that perhaps only a non-native can muster. For many of us, it’s hard to think of Hiroshima without BOM, but he actually grew up in Kobe, moving here in the late ‘90s. He says he was struck by the interconnected nature of Hiroshima’s tightly knit music, art and activist communities – not to mention their appetite for drinking – and the ease with which he was able find like-minded people. Kobe is well known in Japan for its Western influence, but he says he always felt a divide between the international population and the locals. He was pleasantly surprised to find that divide absent in Hiroshima, where people of all nationalities were hanging out based on common interests and passions.
The thing about BOM is that he isn’t trying to do anything; he’s just being himself. That’s what has drawn people to Koba, since it opened in 2002, and kept them coming back. BOM never set out to become the a stop on Japan’s travel trail, but recommendations from local hostels, and then a coveted place in Lonely Planet’s Japan guide turned a trickle of international travelers into a steady flow.
An excellent host, BOM goes to great lengths to make new customers feel welcome and to keep his regulars entertained. Although his English has improved over the years, he has always had the uncanny ability to communicate in spite of language barriers and he is exceptionally welcoming to overseas travelers. A talented musician, BOM is a natural entertainer and he has developed quite a repertoire of party pieces that have customers in stitches. Hit it off, and he will likely give you a performance. For a real treat, ask where you can see Hiroshima Star Wars.
A warning though. It is not unusual for travelers who pop in for a quick drink and a bite to eat just after opening to find themselves still laughing at the counter at 3am. BOM’s hospitality has resulted in many extending their time in Hiroshima, either so they can return for another night at Koba, or by being incapacitated by a well-earned hangover!
Local tourism officials have been taxing their brains for years about how best to encourage overseas visitors to spend more time here in the city than it takes to view the Peace Museum. As well as how to turn one-off visitors into “repeaters”. The ”Koba effect” achieves exactly this (one customer turned friend has been back to Hiroshima 10 times in the past few years). So, what is BOM’s secret?
“You tend to get back what you put out”, he says. “Greet people in an open and friendly way and that is exactly how a new customer usually responds.” Not exactly rocket science, but it’s a message that other business owners wondering how to best receive Hiroshima’s increasing number of foreign visitors would do well to heed.
BOM is well aware that entering a new bar, hidden from the street, in Japan can be a little trepidatious. Visitors to Hiroshima in particular, may be nervous about how they will be received, as well as feeling somewhat morose after an afternoon learning about the A-bombing. If you want to get deep, he is more than willing. His main concern, however, is first to convey that the effort people make to come and visit Hiroshima is much appreciated, Second, that while the past should never be forgotten, we should take advantage of the fact that the universe has brought us together and look to the future. “If everyone in the world had the opportunity to sit down one on one to enjoy a drink or laugh together, war would be consigned to the past,” says BOM and he is providing just such an opportunity, one customer at a time.
Thanks to BOM and people like him, when visitors talk about Hiroshima after returning home, they focus not only on its tragic history, but also share tales of the vibrancy of the modern city, the positivity of its people, and of late night air guitar sessions.
Koba is officially open every day except Wednesday from 6pm to 2am serving drinks and delicious food. You may, however, find its doors open well after that, and BOM often also opens on Wednesdays for just drinks or live music.