Met my old friend Ono-san in the local yorozuya (‘shop of ten thousand things’) the other day. We had both stepped in from a downpour without seeing each other and met over the tofu tub.
“Wet season’s here,” she said, fishing out a brick of bean curd. “Good for the hydrangeas.”
“Good for the slugs."
"You got problems?"
"My bathroom’s a mold palace, the rice paper doors have more ripples than a Seto low tide and my tatami mats are so fat, the slugs think they’re water beds.”
“You’ve got a way with words.”
“If I could sell some I wouldn’t eat tofu everyday.”
The ancient cashier flick-flacked her abacus beads, devised a sum — how the hell does she do that? Out in the street, rain drops big enough to fill a sake cup smashed on the bald heads of old men too slow or forgetful to have brought an umbrella.
Wet season, or tsuyu, has arrived. From now until early July it will wrap the Good Hood in a hot, damp fug; some days a steamy downpour, sometimes days a long, warm drizzle whose moisture and dimness will conspire to turn my old townhouse into a Welcome Inn for terrestrial gastropods.
Some light reading in preparation for this onslaught: “Like most gastropods, a slug moves by rhythmic waves of muscular contraction on the underside of its foot. It simultaneously secretes a layer of mucus that it travels on, which helps prevent damage to the foot tissues.” (Denny, M. W.; Gosline, J. M. (1980). "The physical properties of the pedal mucus of the terrestrial slug, Ariolimax columbianus"). At first, I thought these were instructions on how to Moonwalk. Then I remembered — zoologists don’t dance.
Ono-san’s hydrangeas will burst into giant volleyballs of pastel hues and nod their big dripping heads. Neighbors will admire them. My slugs will loll about growing wise and fat on mold and tasty titbits dropped by my kids.
Can’t blame the kids so I blame the gods: the collision of two giant weather systems — warm, moist air pushing up from the Philippines smashing into the last of the cold northerlies drifting down from Siberia — gives us what the Japan Meteorological Agency calls with professional dourness: a “relatively stable bad weather front over Japan which lasts several weeks.”
Tsuyu sounds nicer. It means “plum rain,” with no hint of slime, and though I have no idea why the fruity innuendo, I guess it has something to do with the size of the raindrops. In the dead of night a cloudburst can sound like ten million pickled plums being machine-gunned onto the roofs of the Good Hood. On nights of such drama, I curl up beneath my bed sheet, happy to know that between me and nature’s wrath lie roof tiles made by men who knew how to make a roof tile.
Alas, 100-year-old houses don’t chill well. They were built to ‘breathe’ with clay-mud walls and paper doors that absorbed, filtered and circulated air, light and moisture. Modern household clutter nullifies this effect; it turns a large, breezy house into an Amazon riverboat full of empty wine bottles with a cabin fever that turns sane men into serial killers.
Yet the people of the Good Hood, and of greater Himeji city, endure. They have done for centuries. They sling bamboo shades from their windows, hang wind chimes from their eaves, flap uchiwa and sensu hand fans against their streaming faces and flock to the rooftop beer gardens downtown, hopeful for a salty breeze off the Seto Inland Sea.
“There are people who complain about the wet season,” says Ono-san. “But look at the positives. The city is cleansed, the cedar pollen and Gobi sand flushed away. AND it’s good for the..."
I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman so adept at turning black into white.
Days later we were inundated. The Good Hood turned riverine in minutes. My courtyard flooded, the runoff by-passed the roof guttering and overflowed the storm water drains. The Semba River became a superhighway for lost volleyballs, Coke bottles, milk cartons, baseballs and beer cans, all of them racing towards the Seto Inland Sea. Snakes, frogs and turtle evacuated the river en masse and the great herons and crows feasted on them. One crow whip-snapped a paddy snake three times its length, the turtles fared better.
I took the train west to Ako the next day. The rain had flooded the rice paddies making the land look like one huge broken mirror, reflecting the blue sky and towering white thunderheads. Farm hamlets clutch the fringes of these mirror fields, nestled beneath green mountains as lumpy as a crocodile's back. Green. Lumpy.
I reminded myself to stop by the yorozuya and pick up a sack of salt for my new house guests.
‘The problem with the world is that everyone is a few drinks behind.’
~ Humphrey Bogart
The problem with Friday nights in the Good Hood is that everyone is a few drinks ahead. Which is not to say I’m a slow drinker—I’ll raise my glass to your health as fast as the next drunk—it’s just that by the time I've finished work, helped with the chores and read "Harry the Dirty Dog" or "Where The Wild Bums Are" to the little people of my household, Hana-kin is almost gone.
Hana-kin means ‘Flower Friday.’ Seasoned drinkers who survived the dancefloors and big hair of Japan’s 80s Bubble era still use the term to describe the day when a week’s worth of paper shuffling, screen-staring, drifting through meetings and endless trips to the green tea dispenser come to an end, and night and city beckon.
To Japanese youth, the term Hana-kin is archaic—like grandad’s shoestring neckties or Tahitian Lime hair tonic—and likely conjures up images of drunken businessmen singing karaoke with neck-tie bandanas while their junior female colleagues pour drinks and mop up the vomit of those who have passed out. It is true—I have borne witness. And yes, the youngbloods are right: Hana-kin does need an image upgrade.
The gap between old and young doesn’t bother me; I feel equally at ease in the raucous dive bars on Himeji's Salt Town (塩町) Street and the faux wine bars of Fish Town (魚町) Street. But in the end, there’s no place like home, and my home for the past twenty years has been the Good Hood north of Himeji Castle, an old neighborhood which survived the WWII fire bombings and still brims with community spirit. I like to drink with ‘my people.’ That’s why on Friday nights, whenever I can, I make for a place where the salt-of-the-earth gathers like a crust on the counter.
To the Poodle Bar!
The Poodle sits at the confluence of a busy street and the deathly quiet one which leads into my neighborhood. Before the roller door goes up around 6p.m., the counter has been wiped, ashtrays set at half-metre intervals, toilet scrubbed and the karaoke volume adjusted downwards from the previous night. Around 7p.m., the first customers drift in, the early birds, the oldtimers, pensioners, widowers, maybe a retired mobster or two. Later, their seats will be taken by factory workers, truck drivers, lonely single men and the odd housewife on-the-run.
Come on in, take a seat and start your night with the words, ‘Tori-aizu, biru!’ (A coldie for starters!). There’s nothing like a glass of brown bubbles to slacken the jaw and loosen tongue. But tonight, as on most Fridays, the seasoned drinkers are ahead. For the pensioner, the two grease monkeys with calloused knuckles, the huddle of smoking housewives and the jokester singing ‘Top of the World’, that first beer is a distant memory.
Bottles of Black Mist Island Shōchū (焼酎) line the counter, the ‘bottle keeps’ of these regular patrons, each bearing the name of the man or woman in front of it. This is serious drinking, Mum; the kind that makes an Irish funeral wake look like a child’s tea party.
Tonight promises to be a king tide at the Poodle Bar. Tonight all boats will be lifted, some may lose their rudders, others will flounder and sink, and the lucky ones will limp home to port and a dry dock for the rest of the weekend. The unlucky with be bundled into a taxi and driven to an address of their best pronunciation.
The Poodle Mama oversees this night-time circus with the ease of a woman who sees it every Friday night. She is a woman in her late 50s who looks like what Raymond Chandler might have called a ‘drawn-out dame.’ Her makeup is thick, I cannot tell if she is smiling or grimacing as she moves between patrons, pouring beers, working swizzle sticks, encouraging the money flow across the counter. Will she sing a song? Will she? The pensioner pleads. His cajoling ends in a sad (very sad) ballad about love lost in snowy Hokkaido.
The Poodle Mama is clapped off vigorously by the young mechanics at the end of the bar and a greasy microphone is thrust into my hand—with a song pre-selected. And so once again, the deathly quiet street which leads to my home resounds with the words, ‘On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair, warm smell of colitas rising up through the air…’
Admittedly, closing time at Poodle is an hour I seldom see; the messiness, mayhem and mumbling missing persons reach me only as sounds lost in the night, when I am safely tucked up in my futon and dreaming of water skiing bikini girls and a warm tide lapping at my toes.
Which reminds me...
If I ever open a bar here, I will call it the High Tide Bar and I will raise a neon sign over the counter which will read in atomic orange kanji, ‘If you drink to forget, please pay in advance.'
What is the essence of a small neighborhood in Japan? Writing from my home in Himeji, a castle town in western Honshu, Seaweed Salad Days distills, ferments, presents!