Blok M in South Jakarta was once a busy shopping area and a popular hangout spot for young people from all over the capital city. Two hit songs from the '80s, Jalan-Jalan Sore (Afternoon Stroll) by Denny Malik and Lintas Melawai (Crossing Melawai — one of the main streets in Blok M) by Harry Moekti, both celebrate the once youthful exuberance of the place.
But busy Blok M, which used to be choc-a-bloc with cars and crowd on weekends, seems to be dying. In the afternoon, the bright Jakarta sun fails to enliven the rows of run-down shops on its famous intersecting side streets.
It is only when the sun sets that the place comes alive as Jakarta's own "Little Tokyo." Walk down a block from Blok M Square, a mall built in the '90s on top of what was once legendary shopping center Aldiron, and find brightly lit Japanese restaurants — where salarymen slurp ramen and read manga, karaoke bars with young girls in kimono (called "nona" — literally, "miss") standing outside on the pavement beckoning people in, and even a Japanese supermarket and small artisanal Japanese bakeries selling cakes and snacks you normally find on the streets of Harajuku.
Legend has it that Little Tokyo started in 1990 with the opening of Wisma Aldiron, a mess hall for Japanese salarymen working in Jakarta. To cater to the growing Japanese population, Japanese-themed restaurants, nightclubs, karaoke bars, massage parlors, supermarkets and bakeries started opening around the area.
For a moment during a typical Blok M evening, the bright neon lights and Japanese characters everywhere can make you feel like you're in a corner of the real Tokyo — until your ears catch the loud shrieks of parking inspectors or a mess of low-hanging power lines come into your line of vision.
One of the most authentic Japanese restaurants in the area is Kashiwa. The tiny, cramped restaurant is located on the second floor of another restaurant building. You can easily miss its entrance on the ground floor. Kashiwa serves Japanese food with authentic Japanese flavors, very different from the Japanese fast food commonly sold in Indonesian malls.
Going into Kashiwa can feel like entering the "anywhere door" from popular Japanese cartoon Doraemon and being transported straight into a Japanese dining room: menus in kanji, J-Pop blaring out of the speakers, Japanese reality show on TV and manga books lining the shelves.
Blok M may be dying, but Little Tokyo keeps its old spirit of fun and games alive, even if only at night.