Bars are one way to break the ice, but here there are often regular customers who treat it as an extension of their home. People will talk to strangers in these environments, but the enjoyment comes from the lack of desire on both parties to form deep connections. The girls drink alone but not with any desire to hook up. In a strange reversal of the common image of the bar scene, it’s seen as a safe environment from male predations for women, where they can have a chat with the bartender or some familiar faces in peace and comfort. – William Bradbury in The Japan Times
One of the few things I miss about Britain, other than my parents and friends, is the pub, and it is a longing that often frustrates me. In every important way, an izakaya or ‘Japanese pub’, fits the bill perfectly, there is cheap beer and if you’re with friends, good company and as the man says, two out of three ain’t bad.
You have beer and friends, so what is wrong with picture you ask? Well, nothing really, there is nothing wrong with this picture, you have beer and friends, and that is good. It is wrong but something not right. What I miss is the ability to drink beer without having to eat (sensible yes, but sometimes you’ve eaten and just want a pint or two), and if need to eat, to eat familiar foods. Why is it in Tokyo, the city of the most Michelin stars, I cannot find a single bar or restaurant that can make decent Yorkshire pudding?
When you inevitably realise that Yorkshire pudding is the most important thing in the world, you may find yourself going to the local ‘Gaijin Bar’. If you come to Japan don’t go looking for that in the Yellow Pages, it doesn’t exist. A ‘Gaijin Bar’ is a watering hole, using twenty minutes from the station nearest your home, which is frequented by a good mixture of both foreigners and locals. Such places, are usually ‘Irish Pubs’ but, near Universities, it may be an izakaya that has grown wise to its cliental. It doesn’t matter how it advertises itself, if you find a place that sells alcohol and has a good mix of both foreigner and Japanese people, that is potentially your ‘Gaijin Pub’. I recommend checking out such places. Usually though, it is a place advertised as an ‘Irish Pub’.
My first experience in such a place was the Irish Pub at Tachikawa, in Tokyo. I walked in saying konbanwa, bieru onegaishimasu! Good evening beer please. Which beer, the voice from the barmaid quickly asked me. I give her my order, which is Heineken, say arigato gozaimasu as it is presented to me and start drinking. This in Britain is what you do in pub. They are for drinking, just as libraries are for reading and cinemas are for watching films.
So it really scared me when a voice just to the left of me, but unmistakably female said You are English? Well, I say just to the left of me, to begin with I didn’t notice the voice to my shame. But I noticed the second request Sumimasen [excuse me] You are English?
I did still not quite understand the question. For one thing, people from the Britain rarely call themselves English unless they are fascists of the 1930’s. Truly, it’s that kind of word which if you use, conveys your political position, you are, at the very least, right of centre. I never respond it well or quickly, if for no other reason than I am half-Scottish. But, curious, I swivel round my barstool and face the lady. Hai, I say.
I learnt many things about Michiko for the next hour. She was twenty-four; her parents live in Shibuya and had friends in Tachikawa, and they work in the local English language. It was a pleasant way to spend an hour, but after she left, I was left with one thought, and it struck me, all of a sudden, without reflection or deliberation. That thought was this:
‘WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?’
Maybe I am simply repressed but, that seems lazy as an excuse, but in Britain, women, despite the wisdom of Lady Gaga songs, do not simply talk to you in bars, and they certainly don’t match you drink for drink. It may sound pathetic, but pubs, especially in northern England are a ‘man space’, places where men dwell, away from women folk. Now I never felt comfortable in such places, as a man who limps, I don’t fit the stereotype. Such places have few women in it, I’m sad to say, and none that initiate conversation. For someone, whether male or female, to start a linguistic exchange in that environment, might be construed (rightly or wrongly) as beginning to ‘chat-up’ or ‘come-on-to’ in Britain. Such conversations are dangerous. But there was none of that danger in the exchange between Michiko and me. It was an entirely safe conversation. Yet, just how safe it felt to me, in itself felt strange, somehow uncanny – familiar but not quite right.
And because it is strange, I welcome future conversations of this type.