And then somehow I ended up in Fukuoka for Golden Week, eating at this yatai along the river. It all had something to do with a Japanese girl and way too much sake, as I recall. I mean, assuming I could recall, which actually I can’t. But anyway, Golden Week is a great holiday time in Japan, since everyone has Friday and Monday off from work, and those two days magically add up to being called “a week.” That’s some Japanese math for you. Anyway, it was golden.
Unfortunately, there’s no English word for yatai, probably because no Westerner ever dreamed of serving steaming bowls of ramen noodles or chicken skewers from half a shack cobbled together out of old doors and tattered plastic sheets. But Fukuoka’s got a string of these little rickety stalls on the banks of its black river, lit up at night with bare lightbulbs and red paper lanterns, full of wobbly customers sitting on folding chairs drinking beer and sake. And since the night was lovely and warm, I picked a yatai with a friendly orange sign, where folks were being welcomed with small plates of edamame and fish eggs mixed with chopped green onions. So hospitable, the Japanese.
What’s Japan Really Like?
So last week someone asked me what Japan’s like “once the mystical halo around kanji characters disappears?” Ah, the halo . . . how I miss mine. Where’d I put that damn thing, anyway? Probably under the pile of beer cans on my balcony, along with my last paycheck, is where. But anyway, yeah, the more of the language you know, the more you understand how Japan works. That’s like when Adam bit the apple. I mean, it was great, because he got to eat this delicious apple and all, but also not good because, well hell, I dunno, but there was this snake and some big problem ensued, and some chick got involved too. There’s always a woman in the middle of things, for some reason. Remind me to Wikipedia this.
Yeah, now looking back, when I first got to Japan, everything was fabulous, hilarious, marvelous, and if I could think of another word ending in -ous, I’d add that too. My coworkers liked me, girls wanted to date me, and people on the street couldn’t wait to be my friend. I was utterly clueless and believed all of it. What a great time. And I took pictures of everything. Look how small my hotel room is! Where’s my camera? Look, an old Buddhist temple! Definitely getting a photo of that. Whoa, a woman in a kimono. Freaking geisha. Geisha, meet my photo album.
But now, well, it’s not easy to take pictures, since all the temples have become as interesting as churches and a kimono is less remarkable than a cool pair of jeans. I mean, who takes a picture of something they see every day? It’s all just so insanely normal. Don’t worry, I know I’m jaded, but it’s only when I’m sober, so you can rest easy.
And maybe that’s the most surprising thing about Japan after all these years: just how un-surprising it really is. Once all the stuff you don’t understand wears off, it’s kind of, well, an average place. Not bad, I mean, but not so different from anywhere else. Japanese people, for their part, try hard to boost it up, with constant reminders like, You know we eat raw fish—you subsist on hot dogs. We drink green tea—you like coffee, right? We’re subtle—you’re not. Yeah, about that. Anyway, it’s practically a Japanese hobby to convince people how different they are from you.
And then There’s Kanji
Kanji is the final bastion of Japanese resistance, since it’s the one thing foreigners are almost guaranteed not to understand. It’s like when I was ten and wanted to write messages in secret code or invisible ink or something. I didn’t even have anything secret to write—I mean, I was freaking ten—but for some reason it seemed like the best idea ever. Until I was, uh, eleven. But sometimes it feels like Japanese people are still at it. Like, would it kill you to put some furigana over things? Oh right, your secret language, I forgot.
Anyway, I used to take lots of pictures of Japanese signs. I was like, Who cares what they say—look at all that kanji! But now, having studied a bit of Japanese, I’ve been looking back at those photos. Here’s a sampling, now that I can read them:
“Please don’t spit your gum into the toilet.”
“Let’s not throw our garbage in the river.”
“Please don’t dry your hands on the dish towel.”
“Beware of strangers with sweet words after dark.”
“Don’t abandon your pets by the lake.”
Somehow I thought Japan was way more zen than that, like all the signs would be something profound, or at least interesting, but mostly it’s the same stuff you’d find anywhere, prohibitions and warnings, telling you not to do whatever you were just about to do. Japan’s a lot less Karate Kid than it seems at first, is what I mean. Guess I’ll have to do something else with my puppy.
Japan’s Pretty Okay
There’s a lot of good stuff about Japan. It’s generally clean, the trains run on time, and the food’s fantastic. Plus you’re probably not going to get shot to death, so that’s a small plus. Although you could get nuclear bombed my North Korea, so okay, let’s just call it even. So there’s some stuff that’s not so great, but whatever. That’s anywhere. Water finds its own level. That is the right aphorism, isn’t it? I’ll take your silence as a yes.
Anyway, the yatai with the orange sign was going off, with people pouring in and out. I mean, as much as a wooden shack can “go off” without toppling over. I watched this wrinkly old couple behind the counter shout a Japanese “Welcome!” as a businessman walked in. Then “Welcome!” they sang out as a couple walked in. A pair of girls went in, and—“Welcome!” Just my kind of spot, so in I went. The wrinkly old man looked up. The whole place fell silent. “No English menu,” he said.
Bit of a rough start, but whatever. “Japanese is fine,” I said in Japanese. He pointed to a folding chair, and I sat down. People started talking again, but a bit quieter than before.
“Beer, please,” I said, “and a grilled sardine.”
He stared at me. Then said, in English, “Fish okay?”
“Uhhh, fish okay,” I replied.
The wrinkly woman handed me a bottle of beer and a diminutive glass that might have been clean about a decade ago. But then this random chick to my left toasted with me, and we launched into a conversation in Japanese and I felt considerably better. Beer helps. She had on a brightly colored shawl and over-sized glasses that made her face look like a squirrel. It turned out she’d just come down from Tokyo, where she worked in a boutique. “Me too,” I said. I meant about Tokyo, not the boutique, and so we laughed. I’m funny like that. Then she noticed I didn’t have an appetizer, so she pointed this out to the wrinkly woman. That’s when I noticed all the other customers had small plates of edamame and fish eggs with green onions.
“We don’t give them to foreigners,” said Wrinkly Woman to Woman-like-Squirrel.
“Oh,” said the squirrel.
“This happens,” I explained. “Foreigners come, have one beer, and leave. Then when they get the bill, they complain that they only ordered a beer. It’s okay.”
“They don’t understand the system,” said Wrinkles to the squirrel, without looking at me.
“That’s true,” I said. “The appetizer is an extra charge. But for Japanese people, who typically stay for a while, it works out fine.”
“But foreigners don’t get appetizers?” Asked the squirrel to Wrinkles. She glanced over at me.
“They complain about the charge, the foreigners,” said Wrinkles.
“It’s okay with me,” I said. “I actually like fish eggs, and edamame.”
Wrinkles walked to the other end of the counter. I thought maybe she was going to get my appetizers, but they never materialized.
“I’m sorry,” said the squirrel.
“That’s okay” I said. “Happens all the time.”
We sat there and chatted for a couple hours, had a bunch more beer, then some sake, a few skewers of grilled shrimp and mushrooms, and then some more beer. And some more sake, until the squirrel suddenly started to look a whole lot more attractive. The night was warm and pleasant. More customers came in, were welcomed, got appetizers, and pretty soon we were all drinking together, almost as though I fit in.
And that’s kind of the way it is. Nice people, and not-so-nice people. Stuff that’s fun, and stuff that’s not. When I first got to Japan, it felt like I’d left real life behind. But it was here all along, just below the surface. It just didn’t get it. But then, I don’t get a lot of things.