We’re travelling on the Tokyo subway system, the largest and most interconnected rapid transit system in the world: 14 lines, 282 stations and over 300 kms of track; trains run every five minutes to every corner of Tokyo; the station we’re going to is the busiest in the world: served by 12 different lines, Shinjuku station is one of the most centrally located in Tokyo. But it’s still possible to be late. We’re late. And it’s our own fault.
We’ve arranged to meet a bunch of Japanese friends we’ve not seen in a long time. Initially, Sachiko conceived a plan that we’d all meet in the Finn McCool pub in Akasaka: an Irish pub because everyone had first met each other while living in Ireland and the Finn McCool pub in tribute to the 10,000 km I had travelled to be there. It was a beautifully crafted plan, but alas it fell through because the pub was located in an office district and was closed for the weekend. There are an incredible forty-six Irish pubs in greater Tokyo and three of them alone are called Finn McCool. But the other two aren’t so conveniently located and so we decided on the Dubliner pub in Shinjuku instead.
When we arrive at Shinjuku station, the scale of Tokyo really hits me. Unlike my earlier experience of Narita airport, with its empty corridors, Shinjuku station is thronged with people. The station is a sprawling monstrosity of tunnels, escalators and platforms spread over an enormous area; on an average day, nearly four million passengers pass through the station and it’s no overestimate to call this place a labyrinth: there are 60 exits; including arcades, there are over 200. We’re looking for the “East” exit, but even with that simple task, there are a myriad of possibilities: the Central East Exit, the Southeast Exit, the New East Exit, the Northeast Exit, the Northeast Central Exit…
Eventually, after sheer bloody-minded perseverance, we succeed in escaping via the correct exit and when we come out, we’re confronted with a bewildering edifice of neon signs, shops, restaurants and flashing lights. The pub is apparently near Top Shop, but it’s almost impossible to distinguish anything as a landmark, there’s so much going on. We nose around and after we’ve found Top Shop, but before we’ve found the pub, we get a call from Natsumi who’s just arrived in Shinjuku and is nearby. Natsumi lives in Tokyo and hosted Sachiko the previous night. It’s my first time meeting her, so I bow and say, ‘Hajime-mashite’, the Japanese for ‘Pleased to meet you’ (I’ve been well schooled by Sachiko). Together we look around, and we soon find the Dubliner pub.
Inside and we see Yuko, sitting together with her husband. Normal greetings amongst friends in Japan, generally involve lots of bowing, smiling and cordialities. There’s no lack of sentiment, but to this Westerner, the absence of any physical contact tends to manifest a certain amount of restraint. With Yuko however, it is different. As soon as she sees us, she exclaims and comes bounding out of her seat; with squeals of happiness, she embraces Sachiko and then in a continuous flowing movement, gives me an exuberant bear hug. It’s wonderful to see her again.
Sachiko, Yuko and I haven’t all met since Yuko spent three months in Ireland in Spring 2009. During that time, we took a memorable road trip around Connemara and spent a great weekend together in Cork. Since returning to Japan, Yuko has married her boyfriend of many years and we’re finally introduced to the man: Katsuhiro, pleased to meet you. We’re just about to order some drinks, when Takashi arrives and there’s another flurry of greetings and introductions, all handshakes and jolly nodding.
Although it’s an Irish bar, thankfully I’m not limited to Irish drinks and so I order a Japanese beer: Sapporo. However, I’m the only one going native, everyone else (all Japanese) orders stout, either Guinness or Murphys. A few minutes later, a waiter with a tray brings the beers to our table; lifting our drinks, we all join together in a big toast, Japanese style:
Seven glasses are thrust into the centre of the table and clinked together simulataneously. It’s quite different to back in Ireland, where everybody just clinks their glasses one-to-one. But just like at home, everyone in Japan only looks at their own drink, there’s no eye-contact.
We’re not long chatting and catching up before Maya and her husband arrive. Another round of greetings, smiles and bows; this time, we’re introduced to Maya’s husband, Tsuyoshi. Maya lived in Dublin for a few years and when I last met her, she used to drink litres of beer and then effortlessly run the Dublin City Marathon.
Yuko hasn’t met Maya before and after they’re introduced to each other, Yuko, who’s sitting beside me, catches my eye and points discreetly at Maya:
‘Bijin’ she says, and then translates for me, ‘Beautiful’.
It’s a completely sincere and genuine compliment and I’m quite taken aback by how forthright Yuko is. It’s true of course, Maya is beautiful.
‘Hai’, I say, in agreement, ‘Yes’.
Yuko then indicates Natsumi.
‘Kawaii’ she says, ‘Cute’.
‘Kawaii’, I repeat, in agreement.
The Sapporo beer is delicious. Out of curiosity, I try the two stouts, Guinness and Murphys. As a drinker of the black stuff and a resident of Cork, I know, and am familiar with the different tastes of the three main stouts: Guinness, Murphys and Beamish. So before I try the two stouts the Dubliner pub is offering, I’ve enough confidence in my tasting abilities, to be able to notice a difference between the two – if there is a difference. I taste them both.
‘They’re the same drink’, I say. ‘Tastes most like Murphys’
Unfazed and unbothered by my scorn, the stout drinkers go on drinking.
The evening rolls on and there’s a lovely atmosphere of warmth and friendship; some folks are meeting for the first time and many others are just catching up. We chat away. Takashi has a new job interviewing asylum seeker applicants and he tells us a little about that. Both Maya and Yuko have recently gotten married and so they tell us about that too. After a short time, Sachiko and I decide it’s time to give Yuko her present that I’ve brought from Ireland.
But first, some context:
Like most Japanese we know, Yuko came to Ireland to learn English and for those three months she lived and dined with a host family in Dublin. The differences in the diet between Ireland and Japan are significant: in Ireland there’s more bread and potatoes and very little rice and noodles, the portions are larger and the generosity of the host is far more tenacious (You’ll have some more, go on, go on, go on, go on). The differences in social drinking are also significant and for an English language student in a class with lots of other international students, the social life tends to be extremely active, especially when you’re in Dublin which styles itself as such a going-out-friendly town and so the result is far more beer drinking than normal.
After three months of all this, it’s little wonder that Yuko, like nearly every other Japanese we know who spent some time in Ireland, put on some weight. For a visitor, it’s nothing to be ashamed of – it’s simply part of the experience of living in Ireland. Yuko used to joke about it openly and she even took to calling herself ‘Muffin’. And so when I present her with a chocolate muffin, all the way from Tesco, she cracks up and guffaws loudly!
After everyone has finished their first drink, we decide to leave the Dubliner and go somewhere else. I’m glad of this, the Dubliner isn’t a bad pub, but I’m in Tokyo after all and I want to see something local. Katsuhiro is working the following day so we bid him goodbye and he goes home early.
Maya and Tsuyoshi know a place nearby, so we follow them through the hectic streets of Shinjuku. It’s prime going out time now, numerous vendors stroll around inviting us into their venue but we happily ignore their solicitations. We arrive at the Tori Yoshi Izakaya Bar and deposit our umbrellas at the locker device for umbrellas.
We’re shown to our seats. I’ve never been to an ‘Izakaya bar’ before and my first impressions, since we get a table to ourselves, is that it’s more like a restaurant, than a bar. Izakaya bars are an institution of Japanese going-out life and Sachiko briefly explains the culture to me:
‘It’s like a tapas bar’ she says, ‘Bit of food, bit of drink, and so on’.
Ireland has a strict division of labour between drinking and eating. One follows the other, which comes first is not important, but the ordering principle is strictly chronological. Occasionally nibbles accompany the drinking, but these are little more than mere fidgets: the crisps and peanuts are nearly always salty and as such serve only to exacerbate one’s thirst. An excess in the drinking department, tends to lead to an excess in the eating department, and so a ‘feed of pints’ is typically followed by a ‘feed of chips’. Moreover, eating is often postponed until the following morning with the consumption of the ‘traditional Irish breakfast’, a meal of such quantity, that there’s no need for another meal for the entire day.
The Izakaya bar is completely different: after perusing the extensive food and drinks menu, we press a call-button at our table and some attendant staff come over. Food and drink are ordered, items such as: beer, sushi, shoju, sake, chips, tempura, yaki-tori (grilled skewered chicked), garlic pastries, chicken drumsticks, chicken gizzards, grilled chicken skin, a few salads, tofu, edamame beans and onigiri (rice ball). Numerous orders are placed throughout the evening and the food and drink always arrives promptly. There are no distinct courses, you just order what you want, when you want. And it’s hard to stop, for everything’s delicious.
In between all the eating and drinking, we chat some more about the recent weddings: Maya is no longer Takebayashi (literally: bamboo forest), she’s now Noguchi (something like: field entrance) and the Yuko Hasegawa we once knew is now Yuko Sato. Yuko actually has some pictures of her wedding and she shows them off. Sachiko is the first to see them and she immediately bursts into gales of laughter.
‘A Christmas tree!’ she says, in between paroxysms of laughter. The photo is passed around and we all get a look.
Yuko explains that the kimono was one she wore for her Seijin no hi party, a debs type ball when you’re twenty. But she herself designed the headpiece especially for the wedding. Her sources of inspiration were diverse: a course in European flower arranging and a Lady Gaga concert in Tokyo. The other girls are all impressed; I evade direct judgement by telling Yuko that she has a great vision. Amusingly this gets misheard as ‘bijin’, the Japanese for ‘beautiful’.
‘Thank you so much!’ she says.
Shortly after, this lost-in-translation moment is cleared up and Yuko laughs anyway. She also has a photo of the more traditional dress that she also wore at her wedding.
Later on Maya tells us about her husband, Tsuyoshi, who when they met, knew almost nothing about Ireland. He also barely believed that Maya was fluent in the English language but during our conversation, he couldn’t but witness Maya’s fluency. The evening then took a bizarre turn, for Tsuyoshi, while it is true that he knew almost nothing about Ireland, as a rugby fan, he did know the Irish Rugby Anthem: Ireland’s Call. Without warning he began singing:
And now I was singing too:
‘Together, standing tall,
Shoulder, to shoulder,
We’ll answer Ireland’s call!’
Tsuyoshi seemed very happy it have found someone to sing Ireland’s Call with. I enjoyed it too, especially since it was the last thing I expected to be doing that evening.
Towards the end of the night, I take a group photo using the time-delay function on my camera. This photo turns out well: it captures everyone, we’re all smiling and in focus.
As far as I’m concerned it’s a perfectly successful time-delay picture but I’m prevented from putting away my camera by the persuasions of everyone else: I am coached on how to say ‘Photograph please’ in Japanese and pointed to our neighbouring table.
‘Go on, go on, go on, go on’, they all cry together.
Sufficiently encouraged, I approach the table beside us and speak to the cool young man who is sitting with his girlfriend.
‘Sha-sing, onegai-shimasu?’ I say, holding up my camera.
Frozen to the spot, the young man seems to not understand me, but suddenly the penny drops and he rapidly nods his head in agreement.
‘Hai, hai, hai, hai, hai’, he erupts.
I give him my camera, out of habit indicating the shoot button, but with absolutely no doubt that he is up to the task – this is Japan after all. I run back to my seat, we all gather into the shot, smile at the camera, the young man clicks the shoot button – but no photo is taken. Only then do I realise I‘ve left the camera in time-delay mode and so it merely starts counting down from ten.
Our young photographer man panics, unsure of what to do. Our table reassures him, all is fine, we say, just hold the camera, all of us mentally willing him on to just keep the camera suspended. Alhtough it seems like an age, he hangs on and the camera shoots a picture. The resulting photograph bears the signs of how it was taken: it is slightly blurred due to the nervous shaking of the young man’s hand, and Sachiko is in a helpless fit of total laughter.
It’s near the end of the night and I am coming close to fading out of consciousness. My earlier power nap has long since been used up and the 36 hours since I’ve properly slept are beginning to weigh on me. But I hold on and the evening comes to a natural end; at around 11:00 we ask for the bill. When it comes, Maya and Tsuyoshi snatch it up and insist on paying for everyone. We protest, but they prevail, saying that when they visit Ireland in the future, it’ll be my turn and that they’d love to go an Ireland rugby game. An excellent offer and I agree.
We gather up all our stuff, and go outside. In the prolonged good-byes in the stormy weather, Takashi losses his ¥500 umbrella, I brandish my ¥100 umbrella which survives the windy deluge. Amazingly Maya and Tsuyoshi announce they are going to a ramen bar to get some ramen noodles. I don’t know how they aren’t stuffed to the gills after the gluttonies of the Izakaya bar. Late ramen is it seems the Japanese equivalent of going to the chippie after the pub. We part, saying we’ll meet in Kamakura in a week.
Natsumi, Yuko, Takashi, Sachiko and I go to the train station where we say good bye. The weather is particularly squally as we pass through the lobby of the station. Yuko is staying in the same guesthouse as us, a loyal friend. She is also more acquainted with the metro system than us and helps us navigate it more smoothly than earlier. On the platform, we wait for the train at the precise point where the train doors open.
We get the train, make it to our station Tawaramachi, call into the 7/11 to get some water and then finally arrive back to our guesthouse, exhausted and exhilarated.