It’s 9 p.m. on a Saturday night in Tokyo, and I’ve just heard what can only be categorized as a unicorn statement for an American traveling abroad: Someone professing their love of the United States.
“I love, love, love America!” Natsuco Grace gushes as she hugs me, stutter-steps backward, then hugs me again. She’s wearing a flashy black T-shirt that says “Made in Texas” and a belt buckle packed with rhinestones. Hugging isn’t a thing in Japan, so her enthusiasm for both human touch and Uncle Sam catch me off-guard.
But perhaps I should’ve expected it. Founded over a decade ago, Little Texas—the matchbox-sized, basement bar Grace operates with her husband, Takeshi Yoshino—is perhaps the most famous in a handful of honky-tonks and bluegrass clubs scattered across Japan. The honky-tonk trend gained steam initially in the late 1970s, when the post-World World II interest in all things American slid into trucker culture territory among the general Japanese public and, in turn, country music. (Convoy, anyone?)
From Kyoto to Chiba City, all of the honky-tonks provide a kind of antidote to the quietude and calm that dominates Japanese culture, instead allowing folks to go full-on cowpoke for a night. One of oldest bars of the kind, Rocky Top, is a bluegrass joint deep in the folds of Ginza that’s been hosting fiddle players and guitar pickers since 1980. Another in Osaka called Nashville West has guitar-lined walls and regular acts that are particularly fond of wranglers and pearl snap shirts. At Little Texas, everyone is seemingly overjoyed to have a real, live, flesh-and-blood American in the room.
“The Japanese, we’re so terribly reserved, we don’t like to get out there,” says Grace. A former jewelry designer, she’s the foremost line-dancing teacher in the country, having learned the moves, she tells me, at a stockyard in Arlington, Texas. “Here at Little Texas, though … you can let loose. It might be little, little here,” she says, referencing the diminutive size of her bar, “but it has big, big Texas heart!” She hugs me again as we turn to take a selfie.
Every single last bit of the flair at Little Texas shrieks of Lone Star pride. After you’re greeted by a wind chime made from old Busch cans and a wagon wheel chandelier as you walk through the door, it’s difficult to resist the urge to belly up to the bar on a stool fashioned from a saddle. (Sorry, fellas: It’s “for cowgirls only.”) A giant air duct is polka-dotted with empty cans of chewing tobacco, and behind the dance floor, a rodeo bloopers video from 1995 screens on a continuous loop. The only thing that could make the place more surreal is a life-sized replica of the Texas troubadour himself, George Strait.
On my night as American-in-Residence, I watch a man dressed head-to-toe as a cow eat a chicken-fried steak with a pair of chopsticks as his wife—a rodeo clown with Budweiser patched on her baggy overalls—shuffled her feet, mouthing dance counts as she traced over hitch-kicks in her head. And when the latest Kenny Chesney hit kicked on, it was go time.
I’ve watched a lot of line dancing in my day, most notably a deliciously cheesy ‘90s show on The Nashville Network called Club Dance, which (along with a giant bag of Funyuns) was part of my after-school ritual for years. But the moves at Little Texas were more elaborate than I’d remembered, and seemed to reflect the kind of Japanese attention to detail that’s found in everything from sushi preparation to intricately designed washi tape. What’s more, the music was primarily from the modern bro-country canon (think Blake Shelton, not Alan Jackson), and the dancers seemed to be hell-bent on making it work even when the songs didn’t quite lend themselves to two-stepping. Moving as a happy herd, the look on the faces of dancers as they twirled and ball-changed was one of singular focus and intensity. For these people, honky-tonking isn’t just a hobby.
While I can boot scootin’ boogie with the best of them and will watermelon crawl circles around anyone at a wedding, I remained a spectator, opting instead to explore the menu. On the cusp of ordering a Dallas Dog—which, from the photo, appeared to be a pico de gallo-topped hot dog—I mentioned my Louisiana origins, and was swiftly given a tower of onion rings stacked on a Texas-shaped wooden plate. This, I thought admiringly, is big. Handing it to me, Yoshino traced the Eastern border of the plate with his hand as he smiled, “Home, yes?” I nodded.