COVID Japan: Venturing Into a Japanese Dive Bar

I eventually made my way to the counter and ordered a beer, plus some cabbage with miso from the pickled Japanese geezer behind the clear curtain. His mask was pulled down into a decorative chinstrap.

“What?” he yelled into the plastic.

“What?” I yelled back.

So we stood and yelled “what” a few more times before he handed me a glass of potato shochu and a plate of grilled flounder. Well, those were my second choices, so good enough. I returned to my assigned space between two tall, translucent dividers.

A young Japanese woman from a nearby table leaned around a roll of plastic descending from the ceiling and announced in slurred English, “I’m a golf club.”

She had a massive head of red hair and the body of a teenage boy beneath an orange sweater. “Mmm, yeah,” I said, “I can kinda see that.” Nothing in this nation surprises me anymore.

100 Push-ups a Day

Recently, I learned it takes thirty days for a new habit to stick. The internet’s a wellspring of life-altering wisdom. Thus I wound up in this ratty Japanese bar as a result of my latest self-improvement plan, where for a month, I’d do one hundred push-ups a day. I still had hopes of qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics, in whatever sport involved push-ups.

That lasted all of three days, as my rotator cuffs quit rotating and I gained a new appreciation for how dirty my floor was. After which I spent a full ten minutes dusting and vacuuming. God, housework sucks. I don’t know why Japanese folks are so crazy about it.

I clearly needed something more meaningful to do while waiting for the dark clouds of COVID in Japan to lift. Walking, I concluded, now there’s a worthwhile habit. Enjoy some fresh air, or at least bus exhaust and the chance to glimpse a limbless tree or maybe a crow. Japan, so full of nature. So at sunset, I ventured out in the Land of the Rising Sun, which in practice meant weaving concentric circles through my neighborhood searching for dive bars. Although Japan never completely shut down, most folks were avoiding nightlife like, well, the plague, so to speak. I hadn’t been out in months. You can never be too paranoid.

Wandering Through COVID Japan

Until now, I’d been safely celebrating Fridays at home by enjoying three tall beers and two miniature bags of peanut snacks. Actually, I do that every other day too, but because Ken Seeroi’s the kind of guy who makes a plan and sticks with it, I set out walking, after the three tall beers and two peanut snacks, of course. It didn’t take long to find a tattered yellow paper lantern hanging over a faded, handwritten menu and a sticker in English that said “Locals Only.” Hey, glad I moved here, since that makes me a local. But would it be virus-free? I paused. Mmm, what’s the worst that could happen? It’s not like a little pandemic’s gonna kill you, right? Hey, don’t look to me for good decisions. I slid open the wooden door and a motley collection of Showa Era drunks squinted, hissed, and shrank from the light. Which was weird, considering it was night.

Eh, nothing to be concerned about—just saunter casually up to the bar and order a beer. So I strode in confidently and promptly smacked into a vinyl sheet. Off balance, I spun left and came face to face with a plexiglass partition. Another left took me into what appeared to be a shower curtain. Everyone stopped talking and stared at the giant white mouse frantically trying to navigate his invisible maze to receive a liquid reward. Probably shouldn’t have had those three beers, all things considered. Then to my right, more plastic. Christ, where was it all coming from? It’s like those dreams where you’re bound in Saran wrap. I assume I’m not the only one who has those. Whoever’s manufacturing see-through sheets and dividers in Japan is making a killing. Centuries of carefully crafted shogi screens, tatami mats, and zen-like atmosphere washed to hell in one quick plastic tsunami.

Japanese Communication

An elderly man at the bar pointed to a brick wall in the back. “What’s there?” I asked in Japanese. All I could see were decorative strings of Asahi beer cans nailed to the bathroom door and some scaffolding holding up a crumbling roof.

He just kept pointing. I was impressed he could keep his arm horizontal for so long. That takes a lot of rotator cuff strength. Finally, he got up, grabbed a rusty barstool from in front of the wall, and ceremoniously set it before of me with a flourish of Ta-da, a chair!

“Thanks,” I said, and sat down. Japanese people have some really shit communication skills.

Once I’d gotten my shochu and grilled fish, the young lady with red hair staggered in my direction again and spoke into the plastic sheet behind to me.

“We’re all,” she said, gesturing to a group of unmasked men in the corner, “a golf club.”

“All of you?” I replied with some bewilderment. “Oh, in a golf club.” I actually liked her better without the preposition. One of the members was wearing a black hoodie emblazoned with “Straight Outta Compton.” That seemed unlikely. He shouted in English across the room, “Can you eat Jerusalem artichoke?”

“Absolutely,” I yelled back in Japanese. I’d never heard of such a thing, but I have a lot of confidence, particularly when it comes to vegetables.

“What color are pigs in America?” he shouted again.

“Pink,” I replied, “but sometimes gray.” I know a lot of trivia.

How to Debone a Fish

Suddenly a Japanese guy with scraggly blonde locks was pulling at my sleeve. Literally nobody in this country has normal-colored hair any more. Then he wordlessly picked up my chopsticks and began deboning my flounder.

I thought for a moment he was doing Here’s-how-we-use-chopsticks. That’s a fun game people play with me on account of my overpowering whiteness, despite the fact I grew up using the things. But instead, he turned out to be delivering a master class in animal dissection. He had an astonishing grasp of fish anatomy, and in about ten seconds had removed the spine, severed the head and tail, and popped out the eyeballs.

“That’s truly amazing,” I remarked.

“I’m a fisherman,” he said proudly.

“It was either that or a science teacher.”

“I’ll take the tail for my troubles.”

“Oh please,” I insisted, “take an eyeball too, as a tip.”

“I couldn’t,” he said. “That’s the best part.”

There is no Free Lunch, Only Dinner

Then Straight Outta Compton appeared on my other side in a puff of smoke. Literally, he had a cigarette glued to his lip that shrouded him in a cloud of nicotine. He handed me a small dish, about the size of a cat bowl.

“Black pig and Jerusalem artichoke,” he announced.

“Seems somehow racist,” I said, “but thanks.” I didn’t mention my dietary proclivities, as there’s actually no word for pescatarian in Japanese.

I really couldn’t see what good it did to have all the pulled-down masks and plastic sheets if everyone kept violating my airspace, but I drank my shochu and ate my fish eyeballs with pieces of Jerusalem artichoke—a mouthful of bitter, squishy, and nutty, like everything else in this country. After which I succeeded in ordering the beer I’d come for in the first place, and went to the bathroom.

Using a Japanese Bathroom

“Men,” read a sign over the commode in Japanese, “sit when you pee.” I guess women can stand. I’m really not okay with sexism, but I sat down anyway, since I now consider myself Japanese and we like to obey rules. Plus it was relaxing. Although I guess all that relaxation took longer than expected, because when I emerged, half the customers had vanished.

“Closing at eight,” said the scraggly blonde fisherman from around his partition.

“Right,” I echoed, checking my watch. Seven-fifty. Damn COVID Japan. Will things ever be normal again? That’s a rhetorical question.

“See you,” chirped the red golf club, staggering toward the door.

“Where you heading?” I asked.

“To work,” she replied, swaying with booze. “I’m a nail salon!” I could only imagine the ten colorful extensions she’d attach, all protruding at various angles.

The Long Walk Home

I downed my beer, mumbled a goodbye to the bartender, who grumbled something in return, then orienteered back to my one-room apartment using my last known latitude, what appeared to be stars, and Google Maps. Once home with my shoes off, I peered into the fridge: two cans of malt liquor, a Tupperware of desiccated edamame, and a leftover pot of curry. All set for the apocalypse.

Small as my place was, it felt comfortable. If your idea of comfort is a tent. Anyhow, the floors were clean. That’s not nothing. Between the risk of dying from COVID in Japan and the awkwardness of interacting with strangers through plastic, maybe a month of stumbling to and from pubs wasn’t the greatest of ideas. But hey, you gotta stick with the program, and there’s still twenty-nine days left to go. So I cracked open a malt liquor, ate a few cold soybeans, and gazed out the window at the hopeful bars and restaurants holding out for our return, their signs still brightly lit.

23 Replies to “COVID Japan: Venturing Into a Japanese Dive Bar”

    1. Yeah, I wish we had more clarity on what it takes to travel. I’d like to visit the U.S. next March, but I don’t want to be stuck in hotel quarantine for two weeks when I come back to Japan. Guess we’ll have to wait and see what rules are in place next year.

        1. Last time I traveled to the States, I transferred through DFW. Customs agents there detained me for 2 hours, searching me, my phone and PC, and all my luggage, for drugs, I presume. They may not give a shit about COVID, but they sure were het up to find something to incarcerate me for. Thanks, but next time, think I’ll transfer through another state.

      1. Rumor has it they’ll decrease that two weeks to ten days if you have proof of vaccination. So… I guess that’s progress.

        I’m in the same boat. Not that I particularly want to be home in Florida at the moment. But it’s nice to have the option.

        1. I like everything about that first sentence, except for “rumor” and “ten days.” If true, yeah, I suppose that’s something like progress. Still, who can afford the money and time to spend ten days in a hotel? That needs to be zero days, with proof of vaccination, before Ken’s gonna travel anywhere.

  1. I misquoted it. Sorry.

    “I’m a golf club”

    She bothered to include “am” there and not just “I golf club”! hahaha

  2. Ken my friend, have you ever been to a bar without some kind of hunter s Thompson episode unfolding before you?

    This is me going to a local bar

    ‘Welcome’

    ‘draft Beer please’

    Mike drinks his draft beer, in silence, enjoying the lack of any real flavor, without any interuptions or annoyances. He finishes his beer, thirst quenched.

    ‘ check please’

    ‘ here you go’

    ‘bye’

    Mike saunters home, safe in the knowledge that he will never have a ken seroi experience, ever.

    Thank God I don’t write a blog!

    1. I’ve heard of such things happening, but haven’t directly experienced them, so no. To increase your odds of having an out-of-body Ken Seeroi-esque experience, I’d recommend substantially more beers consumed in far seedier bars.

  3. “I’ll take the tail for my troubles.”

    “Oh please,” I insisted, “take an eyeball too, as a tip.”

    “I couldn’t,” he said. “That’s the best part.”

    I see what you did there ….
    Nice!

  4. Ken I really enjoyed this little slice of covid bar hopping in Japan. You’re a braver man than I. I think a lot of foreigners in Japan find their list of go-to bars and restaurants shrink to a fairly small list as they seek to avoid the awkward first meeting with the proprietors and clientele of a new establishment. The “locals only” sign in English certainly would have discouraged me. My guess is that the longer one lives in Japan, the less energy one has to power through the barriers that exist, and many people just end up going where they know the locals are used to them and friendly. I’m glad to see you’re still powering on. Or do you think because of covid options are just limited and desperate times call for desperate measures?

    1. I think you’re right that “the longer one lives in Japan, the less energy one has to power through the barriers that exist.” I guess I try to fight that tendency. I mean, what’s the point of living overseas if you’re just going to content yourself with “foreigner friendly” places?

      If a place looks interesting, I’m going in. I accept that I don’t look like everybody else. But then everybody’s a bundle of complexes and insecurities. Too fat, too tall, short, from another prefecture, didn’t finish high school, just stupid, whatever. You can either let those things limit you, or not.

      1. “… everybody’s a bundle of complexes and insecurities. Too fat, too tall, short, from another prefecture, didn’t finish high school, just stupid, whatever. You can either let those things limit you, or not.”

        Words of wisdom.

    1. Thanks much, Emma. Yeah, it’s a lonely, isolating time. We just all need to last through this apocalypse as best we can. At least we’ve got the internet to bring us together. That’s a good thing. Question mark.

  5. Well said. I think a big part of keeping up the energy to power through depends on not becoming a jaded and broken foreigner who feels trapped in Japan and ends up hunkering down in his gaijin friendly fortress.

    If you ever feel yourself going down that road, take a break from Japan for a bit. You’ll soon start to miss it. That’s what happened to me.

    1. Heh, I wish we could sort out international travel so I could take a break from Japan. Remember traveling? Ah, those were the days.

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