We flew back, and I mean right back. Across the tropics, all the way from Capricorn to Cancer, and across half the world to arrive back in winter. Time and space reverted again. It’s cold in the north, February proper, and walking out of the plane was like walking into a fridge.
Welcome back to the real world. And dammit, it’s chilly out here. But tonight I wasn’t disgusted by the stale warm air blowing out of the doorways—rather than the cool refreshment of air conditioning—because, tonight, we were in Japan.
Narita, 30th January 2007 I ruined a perfectly good evening by getting myself thrown out of a bar.
I wasn’t even drunk and disorderly. And yet, the woman serving the punters came rushing up to the entrance, waving her hands frantically to stop me from entering the establishment while uttering a barrage of rapid-fire Japanese which I clearly understood as an invitation to leave. I shrugged, smiled sheepishly and retreated.
Could it be because I am a woman?
She didn’t look at my jeans, so it couldn’t have been the dress code; she looked directly at my face. So, either it’s because I’m female, or because I’m a gaijin, or—worse—because I’m a female gaijin. However, we had just emerged from a friendly dive across the road where we were served without problem, although the local patrons were clearly amused by our presence.
I loved that dive. Traditional-style lanterns hung in front of the curtained entrance—as is the case with many bars and restaurants here—the counter running around the tiny room was packed with men who talked and drank and picked at various dishes, and thick clouds of smoke hung in the air. Behind the counter, two men and a woman—looking like mom and pop plus son—were busily dispensing drinks, washing glasses and cutting sashimi. Everything on the ‘Happy Drinks Menu’ cost just ¥300 and the dishes served there looked extremely interesting, although they were only described in Japanese. Seeing that the drinks menu was in English, it could hardly have been xenophobia that kept us out of the second bar, but some of the locals had given me funny looks. Maybe women are not supposed to enter bars unless they work there.
The evening had turned from icy to nice after our hunt for an ATM got us directed to Narita ‘Village’, right next to the station but on the other side from the entrance where the bus had deposited us. As is often the case, as soon as we had money in our pockets, we no longer needed it. The ¥3000 which we’d left easily paid for dinner from a hole in the wall serving excellent seafood noodles and squid omelette, followed by drinks in the adjoining bar.
Now we decided to compensate for the rejection by looking for a place closer to the bus stop. We ended up having beer in a late night restaurant—fittingly labelled ‘BOOZE CAFE’—that served up coffee, beer and a collection of manga comics alongside the noodles.
However, the evening turned to ice again when John discovered that the bar back at the hotel doesn’t serve tea. That blew my romantic notion of using the discount voucher the hotel had provided us with to consume two drinks and a selection of Japanese appetisers for ¥1,500 while looking out over the airport lights. Dammit, I was going to do it anyway. The bar reminded me of Tom Hanks drinking in ‘Lost in Translation’—despite the 23:20 last orders. By now, I was in a similar bleary-eyed state, resulting from sleep deprivation. I couldn’t relax on the flight over (sitting upstairs in a jumbo jet makes you feel that the plane is too big for the sky, but that’s another story). Perhaps, I too would meet someone glamorous or interesting sitting under the spotlights which shone down on the individual settings along the polished wooden counter. But in the end I was alone, consuming an illicit second Asahi. Where the last guest had just left, a single seat was out of place in the neat row along the counter which stretched so far that it gave a sense of perspective.
The staff were busy cleaning up around me. I studiously ignored them. My short time in Japan had taught me that being apologetic about causing an inconvenience only makes the situation worse, so to rush my drink would be counter-productive. Besides, the bar wasn’t due to shut until midnight, and I was in no hurry to face John’s grumpiness. Perhaps watching CNN in Japanese from his bath would have calmed his frazzled temper—yes, there is a monitor sunk into the tiles right above the tub—but I was still paying him back for setting the water pressure to ‘full’ when experimenting with the loo’s spray feature and not telling me about it
The triumphs of Japanese plumbing don’t just extent to the high-tech toilet (which, contrary to my expectations, didn’t play music when sitting on it), although that is the most obviously impressive item. The shower is regulated by two levers, but there isn’t the usual arrangement of one for hot and the other for cold: temperature is controlled—almost instantaneously—by one lever while the other siphons the water either to the shower or to the bath tap. When in neutral, no drops, not a single one, emerge from either unit.
After a restful night, we had breakfast in the garden restaurant. The modern comforts of the four-star Hotel Nikko Narita mixed effortlessly with Japanese culture, as next to the Western-style buffet there was a traditional Japanese breakfast buffet. I tried a bit of everything, although that was almost certainly not the proper manner of doing it.
What stood out for me was the okayu, or rice porridge. Congee never did it for me—especially after they added a raw egg to it after I asked for the special with egg in a food court in Kuching—but this was good. Following the example of a Japanese lady, I topped it with condiments: a bit of everything including the mouth-puckering umeboshi (tiny red pickled plums) and every mouthful was different.
I like Japanese food. Even the fermented soy beans weren’t bad, despite leaving long, sticky strings when lifting them out of the bowl—just like cheese fondue, only stickier.
I can hardly wait until Worldcon! Tags: Japan without a Clue, Travel, Travel tales, Tag Index