In Tokyo, where the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult released lethal sarin fumes on the subway in 1995, there is a chain of bars called Gas Panic. It's like one of the big breweries courting London's drinkers with fun pubs trading under the name "Oh Shit, It's Semtex!". The Gas Panic outlets are located in the throbbing Roppongi district of the Japanese capital, where the tenements run pennants up their sides like ships messaging each other. I'm told that this semaphore would scandalise the saltiest sea dog. But the nightspots with the nerve-agent theme have contrived to lower the tone of the neighbourhood, according to the hard-to-shock people at Time Out Guides. In a rare note of censure (or perhaps it's a whistle of admiration), they refer to the franchise as an "institution of depravity".
When my friends and I climbed a staircase to one of the Gas Panic clubs, we were ready to cast off occidental notions about Nipponese reserve. As if the name of the joint wasn't enough, there was the fact that we had come by way of the Paranoia Cafe, not to mention another venue, perhaps complementary to Gas Panic, where the crush of the Tokyo rush hour is convincingly recreated in a converted metro carriage. There was also the eye-rolling write-up in the guidebook: "more like an American frat party than a bar . . . an excellent place for men to meet young Japanese women looking for foreigners". Before the Press Complaints Commission hauls me off to a step programme for inappropriate behaviour, I would like to say that I was accompanied by a married couple, and so stupefied with jet lag that it was all I could do to keep my Biro cocked.
If anything, I felt, it was the naive and well-meaning stranger such as myself who was in need of protection. Japanese commentators have been lamenting the country's unruly young people. Traditional coming-of-age festivities have been disrupted. Teens have been caught running a police roadblock with an illicit barrel of sake, letting off firecrackers during the national anthem, even throwing mayonnaise at one another from a ceremonial dais.
Inside Gas Panic, a couple of kinpatsus, or blondes, were vamping it up on the dance floor, but otherwise it seemed as though we had picked a slow night. Hardly had our drinks arrived, however, before there was a polite cough from over our shoulders. A young woman in tortoiseshells and an ankle-length skirt introduced herself. "I speak English. I speak four languages and I make my own clothes," she said. An older woman was looking on from a bar stool. "She is my mother," the young woman explained.
"I thought you must be sisters," I said, bowing to Mum. It was a feeble return of serve after such a courtly, and above all informative, chat-up line. If I ever return to the club, or to another "institution of depravity" in the Gas Panic empire, I must look the young woman up. Provided, that is, we can find a chaperone.