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 is, it’s quite comfortable. If your idea of comfort is a tent. Anyhow, the floors are 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.

39 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.

  6. It’s been a year since I left Japan and I found myself often missing the bars (eating while you drink, socially acceptable to go alone, maybe have a chat with someone). I needed to read this to remember that maybe It’s better I am not there right now. Thanks and good luck navigating through this!

    1. Yeah, it’s a different world now, like B.C. to A.D. “Before Corona” and “After…” well, whatever cleverly begins with “D.” I wonder if things will ever be the way they were. With all the plastic, masks, and sanitizer, Japan’s just not fun anymore. Before, you’d worry about getting sick if you had unprotected sex with a stranger. Now you can die just by talking to them. Kind of hard to enjoy chatting up new people when you gotta worry if they might inadvertently kill you.

      Still, I’m hopeful things will improve. Maybe by next spring? Let’s hold out for that.

  7. In my more selfish moments, I say, “Thirty-five years, I’ve lived without a pandemic, then I move to Japan, and THAT’S when the world decides to host a global pandemic.” “You want to live out your dream in Japan?! Go ahead! Enjoy THIS curve ball! Bwa ha ha!!” (I hate that guy.)

    At least I had 2019. My ‘kouhai’ ALTs didn’t even have that! I still enjoy what I can here, but it’s a challenge. My original plan was to stay here for 3 years, and I’m in the middle of my 3rd year now. If I can, I will stay for a 4th year cuz I sacrificed a lot to get here. My original dream didn’t include living here during a pandemic. Still, I’m better off here than back in the US, it seems. As for a hopeful next year, I’m eager to experience the summer festivals I enjoyed so much in my first year here.

  8. Why couldn’t the “two weeks in quarranteen” be two weeks in your own flat? Why be forced to pay a hotel?

    1. Unless you live at Narita airport, you’re almost certainly going to ride a minimum of a couple of packed trains, and quite possibly a local flight. That pretty much wrecks the idea of a quarantine.

  9. Hi Ken,

    I love your writing. I’m never going to visit Japan, but you sure have a way with words. The modern Jerome K. Jerome, that’s you.

    I came here by chance after “Spike Japan” stopped posting (that was my “rust porn” period), really enjoyed your slice-of-life posts, and stayed for the housework tips.

    Those are revolutionary. I bought the book. Thank you for writing it! And hang in there.

    1. Thanks, Greg. That’s very encouraging. In the future, I’ll try to include more housework tips, assuming I ever do any.

  10. Hi Ken,

    Thank you for the personalised “thank you” emails! It’s a rare thing these days, writing “thank you” notes. I’m touched by your old-fashioned manners. It’s worth hitting that “Donate” button for those alone!

    OK, nerding time. I’m a New Zealander. First generation, from Dutch immigrant parents. There’s this guy, Geert Hofstede, and he has a theory of “cultural dimensions”. It’s like Myers-Briggs personality types, but for whole countries instead of individuals. It’s on Wikipedia if you want to look it up.

    One of those cultural dimensions is “power distance”: the degree to which people are willing to expect and obey commands from on high, versus wanting to be involved in the decision-making.

    Japan and the Philippines score high in power distance. I don’t know, but I’m guessing you’d agree about Japan at least. The boss says jump, and you don’t even ask “how high?”. You jump.

    NZ scores low on power distance. Very low.* I score low on power distance even by NZ standards, I think. The Dutch also score low, so I have a double dose. From what I know about Japan (partly thanks to you!), I probably wouldn’t make it out of Narita airport alive.

    If I did somehow make it out of Narita, I’d probably enjoy the pointless bureaucracy…for a while. I loved “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” when it was on TV in my youth. And Kafka. Absurdity is my thing. But yeah, I know my limits now.

    All the best, Ken. I hope you and your coterie of comrades-in-shochu are doing well, and that those clear plastic curtains aren’t giving you too much grief. (Or the stray golf clubs! Lol.)

    —-
    * An example of how this works: Croquet is a…minority sport, shall we say? In the small town in which I live (10,000 people, of whom maybe 50 – 70 play croquet), there was once a croquet club. All was fine for a number of years…on the surface, at least.

    Underneath the surface, some members increasingly felt that they were being excluded from decisions about tournaments and lawn management.

    So now, of course, there are two croquet clubs.

    Somehow, I don’t see this happening in Japan.

    Croquet? Yeah, sure. I could see that in Japan, absolutely. Playing croquet combines needing to possess the Machiavellian ruthlessness required for surviving the Tokyo subway system at rush hour, or for getting the doctor of your choice at the hospital where you work as a nurse, with weird ceremonies, rules and rituals. From what I’ve read, here and elsewhere, the Japanese would love it.

    But starting your own club because you’re frozen out of the decision-making? No. Can’t see that. But hey, I haven’t lived in Japan, so what do I know?

    1. Hi Greg,

      First of all, thank you again for the generous contribution. That was very kind of you.

      I certainly agree that Japan has a high degree of power distance. I’ve often compared it to a military unit, where the less powerful have been trained to obey orders from their superiors, no matter how senseless those demands may be.

      As for a visit, I think you’d have a great time in Japan, simply for the fact that, at first, you’ll have no earthly idea what the eff’s going on. If you like absurdity, you’ll be surrounded by it 24-7. Big cities like Tokyo and Osaka are a mass of sensory overload, where you’re awash in sights, sounds, and smells you have no way of interpreting. The less Japanese you speak and read, the more that’ll be the case, and some people manage to live here for years without ever really getting a handle on what’s occurring around them. As I’ve said many a time, it’s good to be a visitor.

      Figuring all that out is partly what kept me here for so long. Of course, it also wore off most of the shine. And now foreign countries look weird and exotic. It’s been a strange trip, and one I wonder if I can ever return from.

      1. “It’s been a strange trip, and one I wonder if I can ever return from.”

        I returned from it and it’s interesting to go back to one’s country. I may have said this before, but I recommend taking a break from Japan. I’ve found that appreciate it more having done so. I’m still back in the U.S., but am plotting my triumphant return to Tokyo. I assume that when I step off the plane at Narita, it will be like the ending scene from Titanic where all the Japanese people are waiting there to welcome me back home while clapping and smiling… or maybe not…

        1. Oh, no doubt it’ll be like that.

          Yeah, I’d dearly love to take a break from Japan. I just can’t figure out how. I’d either have to pay monthly rent to keep my apartment, furniture, appliances, and motor bike, which would cost thousands of dollars, or get rid of it all. In which case I’d have to search for a new apartment, pay the exorbitant move-in fees, and buy everything all over again.

          Then there’s the job . . . I’ve got a reasonably not-horrible job that was pretty hard to get. I’d have to give that up. While I’m in the U.S., I’d lose the monthly income for every month not worked, then have to search for a job all over again once I returned to Japan. In terms of lost income, flights, and apartment expenses, this could easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention the hassle.

          How are you dealing with this (and how much did it cost)?

  11. I was a bit lucky in that my company is U.S. based and I was able to arrange a transfer back to the U.S. HQ. The bad news is that even with a relocation package from the company, it was very expensive to move back. No matter how you slice it, starting over in a new country, even your “home” country, costs a lot. I don’t have an exact number, but tens of thousands of dollars is not an exaggeration. You have to buy a car, furniture, etc., Also, if you do it, make sure that you have credit in the U.S. Get a U.S. credit card and start using it and paying it off. Without credit you can’t rent an apartment, get a credit card or a loan. It’s key.

    Thinking about it, moving back and forth is maybe not a great idea, especially if you have a job you don’t hate over there right now. Actually moving is a massive commitment and is very stressful. Sooo, maybe I should stop recommending moving and just say take a brief vacation from Japan for a couple of weeks.

    For me, moving back to Japan will not be easy either. I’ll either have to find a new job or convince my company to move me back. Plus I have a wife to convince. She loves being in the U.S.

    1. Moving one way is challenging enough; moving back and forth is an express trip to being 引っ越し貧乏—impoverished from moving too much.

      You were indeed fortunate to have a company to aid your transition, thus avoiding the loss of income associated with being out of work for several months. It’s probably not as big a deal for folks in their twenties, who’ve likely not climbed so high that starting over would be a career killer. Plus, they still have time to recoup losses. Globe-hopping gets increasingly difficult the further you progress in your work-life. It seems like a vacation (either to or from Japan) would probably be a better option.

      I’m glad you mentioned your wife, as I omitted including the stress this imposes on relationships with one’s spouse, boy/girlfriend, family, pets, etc. As fun as it is to experience living in a different culture, it can strain, or break, the bonds tying you to the place you were born.

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