Some people visit the Big Soosh for sightseeing and shopping, others to drink, dine, and do Odaiba or Disneyland, or simply to see what a city of fourteen million people smells, sounds, and feels like. I went to Tokyo to meet a private investigator.
It’s a long story, suffice to say that a mystery novel I’d been working on needed polishing and I had questions only a professional sleuth could answer.
So, last week I packed an overnight bag with a notebook, 6B pencils, a copy of Raymond Chandler’s Trouble Is My Business, and my Adidas Cloudfoam 2.0s for city gumshoeing, and caught the Hikari 555 to Shinagawa Station.
As the bullet train whisked me through the prefectures of Osaka, Aichi and Shizuoka, I penned my questions for the Tokyo PI:
As Mount Fuji slipped by under a cloak of late spring snow, I wondered if Tokyo still carried a whiff of what the great detective mystery writer, Seicho Matsumoto, had infused his seminal Tokyo Express (aka Points and Lines) with? The answer was likely no—but I remained hopeful. Every capital has its grimey alleys lined with seedy bars, its night crawlers, thugs, swindlers, hookers and hitmen. I was searching for atmosphere.
My doc had advised me to take it easy on the turps, but how is that possible in a city of 30,000 bars (Japan Airlines website)? Besides, what’s noir without a bar?
On my office wall in Himeji hangs a drawing of a mask-wearing geisha playing an electric guitar rendered artistically as a map of the Tokyo subway system. Thanks to long afternoons pondering this, the colour-coded ‘points and lines’ all made sense as I ducked, dived, and weaved through a warren of tunnels dividing the platforms and stations of the world’s most extensive underground transport system. I even found myself humming Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic.
At Harajuku, a man boarded with a sprig of plum blossoms in his mouth and lay across three seats staring dreamily at me. At Shinjuku, a very tall shaved-headed teenager in faux fur crowded me against an elderly woman sucking a lozenge extremely loud and incredibly close.
At Kita-Shinjuku, I lost the furball and lolly-sucker and gumshoed my way down Okubo-dori Street, a bustling strip crowded with Korean, Indian and Vietnamese restaurants, strip clubs, bars and ethnic grocery stores. The air was thick and oily with odours of gee, garlic, cheap deodoriser and bleach. A guy with double black eyes glided past on his two-wheeler. I counted five different languages screamed, spoken, or breathed by the time I reached an old block of apartments with a rusted name plaque which ended in the word ‘Heights’. Whomever had built it had high hopes and a low budget. I was early, so I messaged the PI and in a few moments received his reply: ‘I’m ready’.
The elevator trundled its way to the fifth floor, delivering me to a zig-zagged hallway lined with pale green doors. Outside #501, I pressed the buzzer and looked up at the camera.
A man opened the door, and to this day I still have difficulty describing him. He looked normal—so nondescript in height, dress, and appearance that you wouldn’t have noticed him on a crowded street. The room he ushered me into contained a desk, four chairs, a pc, and a kitchenette. That’s all I remember. In fact, the only proof that I was ever there are the scribbled answers to my questions ...
Who makes better investigators—men or women?
Men tend to handle gadgets and technology better; women are more intuitive and skilful in consulting, especially on cheating spouse cases.
What essential skills does a PI need?
The ability to read body language, driving skills, and marketing knowhow (it’s a competitive industry).
What is the popular image of PIs in Japan?
Shadowy, but somewhat cool …
Can a private investigator lose their registration?
Yes. If multiple warnings from the police are ignored. Such situations can arise if complaints are filed by suspects who feel they are being harassed.
How would you describe your clients?
Varied, all types, from companies investigating their employees, to suspicious spouses, and foreigners seeking missing family across Japan.
What percentage are cheating spouse cases?
Eighty percent, divided roughly fifty-fifty between men and women.
Is real life stranger than fiction?
(Laughs) Yes. Example: a missing persons case involving a family of squabbling siblings, one of whom had kidnapped their demented father and was trying to get him to sign a re-drafted will.
Hollywood script writers have resources that Japanese PIs don’t to research the techniques and tactics of real-life spies and detectives. ‘We can learn a lot from watching movies like The French Connection.’
That was food for thought.
On the way back to the station I searched for a bar on Okubo-dori Street, but there were none; at least, none without half-naked women and ten-thousand yen entry fees. So I returned to my hotel, drank a few beers, and wrote up my notes.
That night, I took the Yamanote line across the city to join an acquaintance who works in the movie industry and her comrades for dinner and drinks at a yaki-tori joint in a Yoyogi alley. Then we adjourned to a lounge bar in Daikanyama to drink gin with sprigs of rosemary and smoke Dominican cigars.
While the eight-piece latin band dished up the mambo, and the bow-tied waiters floated between tables, I wondered how many cheating spouses might be seated about me, how many company embezzlers were splurging on Merlot and Montecristos, how many runaway bicultural kids, or kidnapped demented pensioners, might be hiding in the smoky depths. I searched for faceless men and women in nondescript attire who might be watching them—but not watching.
I found none. So I ordered another gin, concluding that while life might be stranger than fiction, writing about it keeps it real.
Previous dispatch, Sounds of Home, here.
Sounds of 'Home'
In 2013, I wrote about Running Man, Drill Rider, Newspaper Dude, and Miss High Heels, in a post entitled “Life in Japan: Sounds of the Good Hood”. I’m happy (and somewhat sad) to report that their sound signatures no longer fill my waking and sleeping hours.
Since moving to a new neighborhood, a whole different set of sounds ring in and ring out my working day. To explain …
At 5 a.m., birdlife creeps down nearby Mount Hiromine, tree by tree, bush by bush, to unleash all cacophonous hell on the sleepy and sleepless of this hood. Far more preferable is to have one's eyelids raised by the temple bell at 6 a.m. — a soft, resonating peal that brings the soul gently back from Nirvana.
The bulbuls, skylarks, and wagtails are soon drowned out by the migrating crows. Their daily flight path between mountain and city lies directly over my house, so any lingering dreams I might be having of bikini girls with angel wings are dissolved by an evil, cawing din.
By this time, the distant hum of commuter traffic has risen. If the wind is blowing off the Seto Inland Sea, I might even hear the muffled roar of a shinkansen slipping through the city at 320 kilometres per hour. But these are all the sounds from beyond the hood.
At 7 a.m., our community's tannoy speaker croaks to life. From it comes the slow, measured voice of a village elder delivering a rubbish collection notice, or lost cat announcement … nothing to leap out of bed over.
Like the birds, the neighbours rise early; the truck driver next door — the dude with the smoky baritone — has already jogged his two shitsu around the block, downed his coffee, and punched the ignition on his three-tonne Hino, before I’ve even pressed my soles to the tatami.
Timeliness is next to godliness in Japan, and although punctuality means predictability (which can be a bore), in this uncertain world that’s not such a bad thing.
At 7:30 a.m. the neighbourhood kids pour from their homes with their mothers screaming blue murder and blowing sweet kisses in the same breath. With their clanking water bottles and faux-leather backpacks, they shuffle off to join their platoons, which join other platoons, until a regimental-strength river of white caps, the laughing and shouting foot soldiers of the Ministry of Education, wends its way into the distance, fading into other sounds of Good Morning Japan.
These might be the distinctive call of the camion driver who cruises the streets asking for your bundles of old newspapers in exchange for rolls of toilet paper, or the guy who sells warabi-mochi (sweet cakes made from mountain fern starch), or on dark winter nights, the faceless driver who tempts with roast sweet potatoes right off the coals.
But it is now mid-May and all else is drowned out by the incessant drumming of rain on tiled roofs. The wet season has arrived two weeks early. Soon the rice paddy at the end of my street will be flooded in preparation for rice planting, and once topped up by rain, the biggest swimming school for amphibians will again be open for business. By June, the frog noise builds to a wall of sound, nauseating, disorientating ... and oddly quadraphonic, so that on hot summer nights when my balcony doors are open, I think I hear them popping, croaking and chirping beneath my bed, behind my bookshelf Buddha, inside my smalls drawer ...
At 5:30 p.m. the tannoy system sounds again — this time to remind all kids playing outside to go home for dinner. It might also be followed by a miscellaneous announcement, like one from the nearby Japanese Self Defense Force base to say that Howitzer 155mm (blank) firing drills will take place the following morning at 9:30 hrs. It’s good to know this because the percussive booms and rattling window panes can make you choke on your cornflakes. A few years ago, there was a broadcast to say that a bear had been sighted wandering the neighbouring machi (town), though this was later downgraded to a large wild boar just snooping about.
At 6 p.m. the crows drift back to their mountain roosts and the temple bell bongs three times. Another day, another fistful of yen for the workers. The weary denizens of the hood settle at their kitchen tables, turn up the TV baseball, tip down their low-malt beer, and tune out to the worries of the world.
By 7 p.m. the last piano students have left the music teacher’s house down the street. Beethoven and Bach have been retired and a new nocturne, known and loved by all, fills the humid night air. Not even the frogs can dampen the enthusiasm of the piano teacher when she plays The Tequila Song.
Blog post: “Life in Japan: Sounds of the Good Hood”
Where the Streets Have No Name
Moving to a new hood means having to learn the names of your neighbours. Done! (see previous blog post). It also means having to learn to write your new address in kanji and memorising the seven-digit postcode — another set of numbers to add to that sea of PINs and passwords sloshing about inside your head.
Which brings me to the idiosyncratic nature of addresses in Japan. With the exception of Kyoto and Sapporo, where their city fathers actually named their streets, the rest of the archipelago still grapples with an archaic numbering system to find its way about town and city.
This system can be a tough nut to crack, one that only highly-caffeinated postal workers and taxi drivers over the age of 75 seem able to decipher with ease. The call-out repairmen, pizza delivery kids, dinner guests, and most taxi drivers under the age of 75, are left to muddle through the labyrinthine streets of my hood as best they can.
The only types who don’t have any problems finding me are the NHK TV subscription collectors and the nice ladies in sensible shoes from Jehovah’s Witness.
Unlike in the West, where addresses are written smallest to biggest (apartment/house number, street name, town, state/prefecture/province), Japanese ones start with the prefecture in which you live, and cascade down to the number on the door of your house or apartment.
Take the Royal Barber Shop (see blog post: ‘Life on the Razor’s Edge’) which lies across the rice paddy at the end of my street. Its address is: Hyogo-ken, Himeji-shi, 2 Chome-10-24. This means that the shop is located on the 24th lot (of land), in the tenth block, of the second neighbourhood in the town of Kitahirano, in the city of Himeji, Hyogo prefecture, Japan. Now imagine there are apartments above this shop, and that you live in #103; then your address becomes 2-10-24-103. You are almost an ISBN.
But what makes the address of the Royal Barber Shop so much easier to find is that it includes the town name — Kitahirano. Many old towns (machi) have been absorbed into the ever expanding city (shi) of Himeji, and while on a map they resemble suburbs, at ground level they’re still a thriving, noisy cluster of shops, houses and rice paddies squeezed between schools, temples and shrines, with a clutch of restaurants and bars, a barber, a bicycle repair shop, and a convenience store. A machi is much easier to find.
So, you now know that the Royal Barber Shop is located in the town of Kitahirano — but where exactly? The street on which it sits has no name or number. Google Maps will pinpoint the neighbourhood (chome) and give you the block (banchi), but it won’t reveal the number (go) of this exact location. This is because residences and businesses rise and fall, year after year, old for new, dividing and subdividing and so on. The streetscape may change, but the banchi rarely does. In which case, a very commonsensical approach works wonders: the use of landmarks.
I would tell it like this: “Get the number 3 bus from Himeji Station to Kitahirano. Get off at the Inoue Cake Shop, walk past the Feinkost butchery, past the 7-Eleven and the Windsor Tea House. You’ll find the Royal Barber Shop on the left-hand side, just before the Sumigo izakaya. Ask for Tada-san, the big guy with the gap-tooth and calloused knuckles. He gives the closest shave. Closed Mondays.”
Call the address system sophisticated, can call it ancient, call it head-banging and neuron-numbing even. I just call it the way to my home.
Life on the Razor's Edge: https://www.mightytales.net/seaweed-salad-days/notes-from-himeji-japan-life-on-the-razors-edge
Colour of the Hood
A traditional Japanese neighbourhood is a lot like a small fiefdom; it rolls with its own rules and rosters, elects its own committees, demands that its denizens perform seasonal duties such as river cleaning and shouldering a portable Shinto shrine at festival time, and is usually presided over by a big kahuna and his/her sidekick, a treasurer.
Acceptance to the ‘fief’ requires of newcomers only two things: that they don’t behave strangely and that they abide by the rules. This means paying your annual festival fees, taking your turn with the orange flag at the school crosswalk, supervising the garbage corner, not playing Meatloaf up loud on hot summer nights or UB40 (with a woofer) when the red wine goes to your head.
Having lived in Himeji for over two decades now, I’ve come to realise the value of rules and systems; not only do they create a clean and secure environment in which to live, but they encourage neighbours to connect with one another.
When I first arrived in the Good Hood, I knew not a soul. Now, eighteen months later, I have this to report:
To the south of me lives the Truckie: a small, bow legged man with a smoky baritone voice who trots his two shitsu dogs around the block each morning at dawn; then, at seven a.m., revs his four-tonne Hino with its rice harvester mounted on the back, bids me a gravelly good morning and departs for the paddylands upcountry. His wife is nice too; she comes and goes on her 50cc Honda scooter, tends to her azaleas, and passes over the fence seasonal goodies such as bamboo shoots in autumn, leeks in winter, and bitter melon (goya) in summer.
Next to the Truckie resides the Tinkerer, a man who believes seven a.m. on a Sunday is the best time to fix something--anything! Then, as the morning eases into lunch hour, the whine of his power tools fades into the sounds of SuperTramp, Janis Joplin, David Bowie et al, and he steps from his shed to ponder his fig trees for as long as it takes to smoke a cigarette. He gave me a clump of moss as a welcome present.
Behind my house lives the Gardener, an elderly man whose bonsai scissors snip back and forth across vines of jasmine and clematis all summer long. Around dinner time, when I’m still looking out my rear window for writing inspiration, I glimpse an arm reach from his window to pluck a few fingers of red okra. He has inspired me to turn my own front yard into a kitchen garden, to weed it and reap!
To the north, facing the rice field at the end of the street, lives the Launderer, an elderly woman whose house has withstood many a typhoon and earthquake--but only just. Through its cracks and gaps waft the aromas of sandalwood incense and mosquito coil. She appears in the mornings to hang out her laundry, then retreats to a darkened living room from behind whose curtains will come jolly laughter and the white noise of the TV variety shows for the rest of the day. I gave her a bagful of tomatoes from my garden this summer, and the next day she delivered a dozen onsen-tamago (hot spring boiled eggs) to my door.
Across the road live the Spinsters, two elderly sisters who sleep upstairs with their lights on--or perhaps they don’t sleep. A Black Cat delivery truck stops outside their house every afternoon and the driver passes a mysterious package to waiting hands inside. It all seems very Hitchcockian, but I’m sure there’s a logical reason--medicine, foodstuffs, bandsaws, bleach, chisels … I might borrow my son’s binoculars, wait till midnight.
Every neighbourhood has its teachers; mine has an abacus teacher, an ikebana (flower arrangement) teacher and an English tutor. But by far the busiest sensei on the block is the woman (also the neighbourhood big kahuna) who teaches violin and piano. She lives in an expansive wood and tiled-roof house on the corner of my street. Throughout the hot summer months, I have watched the moon rise over her rooftop, hoping to hear Flight of the Valkyries or something from Carmen, but getting only off-key Debussy or a little wobbly Chopin to go with my Kirin lager. Unlike the Spinsters, her deliveries are not suspicious--they’re mostly kids with Coke bottle glasses in private school uniforms, packing violin cases and satchels of sheet music who are delivered in Mercedes 4WDs and black Lexus town cars.
When they’ve gone, and the evening calm has crept back, a tall, knobby-kneed white man might be seen standing outside her door. He holds a small bag of cherry tomatoes in his hand--a peace offering for the previous night's Meatloaf up loud--because, he says apologetically, the red wine went to his head again.
The Good Hood returns!
Seaweed Salad Days is back in the house! After an eighteen month hiatus I'm pleased to say I'm still alive, and contrary to the premise of this blog that ‘nothing lasts forever', so is the Good Hood.
Only, it's a new hood.
A year and a half ago I gave up documenting the slow death spiral of the Himeji neighbourhood in which I had been resident for 22 years. The paving over of its rice paddies, the felling of shade trees, and pulling down of its old mud-walled and tiled-roof homesteads to make way for seas of 7-Eleven asphalt and spruiked real estate, was a story only growing darker by the day (I typed one of my last dispatches on a shaking table as a Caterpillar crunched Mrs Fukumizu's house like breakfast cereal next door).
Then something fortuitous happened. A real estate leaflet dropped through my mail slot: a large, airy home on the mountainside overlooking the city was up for sale.
I consulted with my tribe, counted my beans, found a clean collar and paid the real estate man a visit. He looked at my salary stubs and told me I'd need a jitsuin*. He said we'd pay the bankers a visit. The bankers were nice, like the smiling regulars at my standing bar near Himeji train station, only sartorial. Soon I was pressing the business end of my black buffalo horn jitsuin onto a flurry of IOUs and joking that I'd be Himeji’s oldest 7-Eleven clerk by the time I’d paid off their loan. They smiled politely and took my signed papers.
Now the view is truly grand. From the window of my new abode I look onto a mountain side where a lush forest of giant bamboo, cypress, and ancient camphor trees grows; I hear birdlife—swallows, blue rock thrushes, warbling white-eyes, bulbuls and herons--and the tolling of a temple bell three times at dawn. My new neighbours are quieter, more polite than the lowlanders I left behind and they come bearing cucumbers and green peppers, sweet potato and bamboo shoots. In the old Good Hood I got gifted onions and seaweed.
I won't miss eating wakame for breakfast (soup), lunch (salad) and dinner (side dish). Neither will I miss those hot July nights lying awake listening to the old hood blow its rivets: the husband-and-wife warfare across the street, the ferret chasing a bottle cap in my roof cavity, the midnight newspaper man on his farting Honda, and the solo drunk singing in the dawn as he cycles home from Fish Town** on Saturday mornings.
The new Good Hood has a different set of sights, sounds, smells and personalities to fuel this blog over the coming months. I have been listening, watching, sniffing the air and making notes. I've seen four seasons come and go, and with them ceremonies, celebrations and rituals which make a Japanese neighbourhood a unique and stimulating place to live--a place worth writing about.
Nearby my home, Hiromine mountain rises in a steep verdant wave. A trail leads up through the forest to an ancient Shinto Shrine where babies are blessed and fortunes dispensed and to climb through the mist during tsuyu, the rainy season, and find a couple shoulder to shoulder before the robed priest receiving their wedding blessings is a thing worth celebrating. On hikes like these, I make a point to pack a can of Kirin 'road soda' in my rucksack to privately toast the newlyweds, drink to their gods, and on a clear day, admire the view of Himeji city all the way to shores of the Seto Inland Sea and beyond.
On the west side of my new neighbourhood the Ono river rushes by quickly. Above it lie the terraced fields of Kamiono town, once famed for their strawberry farms, but now swallowed by creeping subdivisions. In the east stands Koryo Junior High School where Kenzo Takata studied on his way to becoming an international Paris-based fashion designer. And to the south, Himeji Castle stands sentinel over the city, as it has done for more than 500 years.
'Nothing lasts forever' has been the common thread of the Seaweed Salad Days blog: be it the seasons passing, the vanishing rice fields, the destruction of traditional abodes and the passing of their aged denizens. Peace-of-mind ebbs away, too, if you stay too long in one place. Change is a good thing. A new Good Hood brings a new perspective--one I'll be happy to share with you.
*Jitsuin is a Japanese name seal used for large financial transactions and/or weighty legal matters in Japan
**Fish Town (Uomachi) is Himeji's wonderfully raucous nightlife precinct
Previous dispatches from Seaweed Salad Days can be read here:
Stormy with a chance of tofu
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," I said.
"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. Neighbours 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..."
“Hydrangeas,” I said.
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.'
So comfortable has life in an old Japanese neighborhood become that after twenty years it is now the single greatest threat to my sense of adventure.
Truth be told, the Good Hood will ruin a man; make him give up shopping to exist on gifts of onions, egg plants and sweet potato from the local gardeners, weaken his resolve to spend money on a meal downtown because the delicious aromas of close-quarters cooking remind him that dining local is where soul food really is. Or make him just stay in, because the sound of the neighbors’ TV game shows, screaming tots and husband-vs-wife arguments gives him that cozy, safe feeling of humanity pressing in on all sides.
No need even to wander far for entertainment in the Good Hood. At the Poodle Bar, three alleys up, you can drink for one coin and sing "Take It Easy" for a sitting ovation.
And yet I feel the slow creep of the uchi-muki phenomenon, the ‘inward-looking’ mindset, which the media says is sucking Japanese youth of their adventurous spirit.
So I did something about it. I found a clean collar, some sensible shoes, packed some copies of my self-published book, and bought a ticket to the Capital—the Big Soosh—city of insomniacs, home of the neon tan and the suited, chain-smoking millions who sing “Under Pressure” on Mondays and scream “Let me out!” on Fridays.
All trains lead to the Capital. In the olden days, feudal lords from across the archipelago left their fiefs to make the mandatory pilgrimage to meet with the Shogun in Edo (Tokyo) each year. From Himeji, it would have been a three-day butt-buster in an express palanquin. Now you can do it in three hours aboard a N700-series Nozomi express with salted peanuts and a six pack of Kirin road soda.
Granted, the heaving concourses of Tokyo’s Shinagawa Station are just as fast. An old canoeing mate of mine once said: “Always paddle faster than the current, dude”. Scott, if you are reading this, nothing paddles faster than the current in Shinagawa Station because the current is electrified, the drum of footsteps louder than any downpour on the Glenelg River and the smell of humanity, well, let’s just say it’s better than yours after a week on the river. But I digress...
Exit 27C is where I came up for air. Fortunately, I wasn’t in Shingawa anymore. I was in Shinjuku, and like a feudal lord (hauling his own baggage) I headed straight for the palace door. Kinokuniya Shinjuku is the royalty of bookstores in Japan; eleven floors of literature, a million books in the offing, and I was cold-calling on the most powerful person an indie writer could request an audience with—the Merchandising Manager.
Back in the Good Hood, door-to-door salespersons are as common as cat fights on garbage night; you can get anything from rice cakes to roast sweet potatoes, term deposits to the teachings of Jehovah, so I didn’t think twice about fronting up to the counter unannounced. But the Merchandising Manager was amazed. ‘You came all the way to Tokyo to deliver a sample of your book personally?’ he said incredulously. ‘Like a lord,’ I replied (though I think my quip went unappreciated).
A self-published author has approximately sixty seconds to deliver his spiel; there’s no time for nervous sweats or tongue-tied sales pitches, the Manager is a busy person. He watched, he listened, he felt the texture of the book’s pages, ran his pianist’s fingers down the spine, the barcode, the ISBN...then he spoke: ‘Look around you, almost all of our stock comes through a few American and British distributors. It simplifies out paperwork…’
I looked around at the big fish—the literary prize winners, represented authors—which swam gracefully by to the cash registers. Yes, I was a minnow in a salmon race. A minnow on a mission. With naught to lose and everything to gain. So I offered free shipping. The Manager listened. I offered to pay for return delivery of unsold books. The Manager smiled.
For the rest of that afternoon, I felt like a cork on a storm water drain; a cork with a paddle, and I did paddle faster than the current, through the neon canyons of Shinjuku to Shibuya and on to Ginza where the buying managers of other big bookstores greeted me and listened and took my samples with smiling faces and nods of appreciation. The experience became the adventure; the near empty suitcase, my sense of achievement.
And with achievement, comes rewards.
Under the Yamanote Line train track that night, I met with an old friend. We entered a tunnel and bowled out the other side into an alleyway filled with bobbing red lanterns and smoking braziers where salesfolk just like myself sat happily wedged into impossibly narrow eateries, laughing and drinking, and beckoning us to join them. And so the night passed, in drunken bonhomie with Tokyo’s hardest working, far from the Good Hood and its Poodle Bar, its husband-and wife warfare and cat fights on garbage night, until that feeling of all-good-things-must-end was suddenly thrust into my hand—the bill.
Now, I’ve always believed that a person’s story is their currency in this life, so to the manager with the grubby bandanna and sweat-stained chef’s jacket, I proposed a deal: food for fiction—the very last copy of my book, Good Night Papa: Short Stories from Japan and Elsewhere in exchange for the wings and the beer.
He didn’t buy it.
Last night I had a dream I was trapped inside a castle besieged by peasants. They were carrying pitchforks and chanting, ‘Down with the King, down with the King!’. Since I live in a house with a kitchen sink view of a 500-year-old samurai castle, this was a completely plausible dream scenario. Only it wasn’t a dream. A rowdy mob really was below my window and it was chanting, ‘River clean! River clean!’ (Kawa-soji! Kawa-soji!).
Across Japan whole communities are picking up their buckets, rakes, scythes, barrows and pitchforks, to clear their neighborhood rivers of debris and weed before the first rains of the wet season arrive in late June.
With so much clamoring there was nothing for it but to leap from my futon, slip on my best threadbare rags, and join the march towards our mighty Semba River, the waterway which wends through the Good Hood, past the samurai castle, the bars, clubs and love hotels of FishTown before sidling under the bullet train tracks and emptying into the Seto Inland Sea.
Under the direction of the Jichi-kai-cho (Hood boss) I took up my position at the floodgates. This is where the most interesting debris accumulates; not the usual flotsam like beer cans, baseballs, slippers and soccer balls—that’s for the downriver people. I mean the heavy junk. Junk with stories, like adult movie collections (owner got a girlfriend), air guns (owner’s girlfriend threw it out), electric fans (owner’s girlfriend demanded air-con) and bicycles (owner bought a motor-scooter to escape girlfriend). Regardless of who put it there, and in what state of sanity, sobriety or slovenliness they might have been at the time, all this stuff must be fished out before the wet season deluge arrives.
River north, river south, all along the Semba’s banks, folk from our neighboring neighborhoods were hard at work, scything, dredging, shovelling, hauling weed and whatnot to big stinking riverside heaps. Wheelbarrows formed queues, manned by elderly women with big forearms and sensible shoes; a man sauntered by with a cigarette hanging off his lip, a pink bucket filled with brown muck in his hand and a twinkle in his eye that said 8am is never too early for a beer. He emptied his bucket and disappeared, leaving the two teetotallers to tend the muck heap.
It’s not only the river that needs cleaning—the sluiceways also. These narrow drains which connect the rice paddies are important because they funnel away overflow after typhoons. They also provide easy escape routes for the garbage corner tomcats, ferrets and other pets-on-the-run, and in summer, hours of entertainment for kids who catch medaka (tiny fish) for their home aquariums and ‘science experiments’..
This year my job was to lean precariously over the deepest part of the river, where the rapid churns in a vertical motion, and use a garden rake to dislodge all the heavy crap that gets stuck. There were no airguns or adult movie collections this year, just a mountain of pongy-smelling weed which soaked me through and left me scented like river itself.
Which is not to say that the our Semba is dirty. In fact, a sign of a healthy river is the presence of fireflies and this year there were many. Nights in the Good Hood were filled with the shouts and squeals of kids chasing them along the river bank from late May to mid-June. Which meant that there was a certain sadness in the river cleaning, because when you cut away the grass, you’re kicking out the fireflies. Smokin Joe Matsumoto, the old kitchen gardener who lives up my street, chimed in with his two yen on the matter. He said, ‘There used to be so many fireflies here, that when we swatted them with our hand fans it was like a shower of sparks.’ I wasn’t sure if this comment was meant to cheer me up or not.
Nevertheless, the technical high school on the other side of the river has developed a Healthy River program which encourages students to breed fireflies in the school’s artesian well water system. Then, at the end of May, they are released at a nighttime open-invitation event for all the surrounding neighborhoods to enjoy.
Unplugged, the Semba now runs freely. Like everything in the Good Hood, it doesn’t get done without teamwork. And though, at times, it sometimes seems futile (the river weed and junk will be back with the summer), community spirit is always stronger for it. We all now await, eyes skyward, the rainy season.
A long time ago (250 years thereabouts), a powerful dude named Sakakibara Masamune decreed that the people of his castle town slip into something more comfortable and shimmy downtown for a good time. “Do what?” his attendants asked. “Throw a party, you monkeys! I’m outta here!”
Indeed he was, off to rule another fiefdom, but not before starting a tradition that would fill the fine streets of Himeji with colourful summer kimono (ゆかた, yukata), octopus dumplings and (a little later) skyrockets and riot police for three days a year, every year thereafter.
More than just a celebration of the highly functional yukata, it’s a fashion show. Women’s yukata colours are brighter, patterns livelier, and shock! horror! hems are rising. The elderly women of the Good Hood shake their heads and click their tongues at these parading young things in mini yukata; the young fellas just nod their heads and knock themselves out with their tongues.
The Yukata Festival, held June 22-24 every year, also celebrates the rainy season. That’s right, it is the WETTEST time of the year (news just in: no rain forecast for June 22-24th) which doesn’t stop several hundred thousand people from choking the streets and alleys south of Himeji castle with coin to spend on cold beer, toys and tasty treats. There were once more than 800 stalls, erected and manned by a small army of itinerant carnivaleers called tekiya. The big hand of City Hall has nearly halved this number in recent years, in order to manage the heavy crowds. The effect, as always, has been like squeezing a tube of toothpaste - same crowds, smaller space.
Word on the street is that the tekiya are in cohorts with the local yakuza; others say that’s an unfair image and that the stall holders are just abiding by a ‘system’ which takes a nice slice of their earnings and hands it to the mob. Let’s call it a ‘licensing fee’. The City seems OK with this as it ‘stimulates’ the local economy and frees up their rubber stamps for more pressing matters. Times have changed since I tagged along with some English teachers to my first Yukata Festival 20 years ago. Then, youth gangs flocked from all over the province to wage theatrical (and sometimes violent) running pitched battles with their rivals on the city streets. Hard to believe in peace-loving Japan? Well listen to this: watching riot police get pelted with skyrockets, drag troublemakers off to paddy wagons by their orange hair, and see the odd motor scooter get barbecued, reminded me of the Costa Rican fruit vendor riots of ‘91 (Yes, I was in Costa Rica in 1991). Cheap entertainment for the masses, poor public relations for the police, not exactly a festive family affair.
That’s all gone. The police have changed their tune. They now use subterfuge and infiltration tactics, clever stuff like putting dozens of plain clothes officers into the crowds to catch troublemakers on digital camera or video. Maybe this has worked, or maybe the young punks have just gotten older, gotten married and gotten a job, because the Yukata Matsuri IS now a family affair.
‘Smokin Joe’ Matsumoto, the old kitchen gardener who lives on my street in the Good Hood, will be taking his grandchildren again this year. Those long sleeves of his faded yukata will be sure to hold a pack of cigarettes, a lighter and some coins for cotton candy. My old friend Ono-san won’t be going; she thinks it’s too crowded, too noisy, the food tasteless and too expensive. “I’m saving my yukata for the fireworks festivals,” she says.
If YOU go, be sure to drop by the Ghost House at the edge of Otemae park; it has been a going concern for years, adept at taking your money and scaring the beejeezuss out of you with the screams of other teenage patrons. They say a good ghosting chills you out during a long, hot Japanese summer. Personally I’d prefer a cold beer...
What is the essence of a traditional Japanese neighbourhood? Writing from my home in Himeji, a castle town in western Honshu, Seaweed Salad Days distills, ferments, presents!