‘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!