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.
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.