Sometimes things are so perfect that they feel like they belong in the pages of a book rather than in reality. This was one of those times. It was perfect. Scarily perfect.
I was sat at a bar in Kumamoto, in the south west of Japan. We’d quickly learnt that few tourists make it as far as Kumamoto and most locals’ English seemed as poor as my Japanese. The bar owner, Yoshinari, was a exception. A rare conversation in English went down as well as the Suntory whiskey we were sipping. Although, with Yoshinari’s liberal swearing, the chat wasn’t quite as refined as the amber liquid.
Yoshinari, his bartending daughter and the local salarymen next to us were recounting the destruction of the Kumamoto earthquake. Almost exactly a year ago, here in the city where we were sat, the earth shook so badly that at least 50 people died, 3,000 were injured and 44,000 were evacuated from their homes.
Yoshinari pointed at the bottles of spirits behind the bar - “all smashed.” He told us he had a big tank filled with expensive fish - “fucking dead.” He pointed to his daughter and told us he was worried she was dead too. The daughter, so cutesy she was almost beyond Japanese self-parody, made a sad face and pretended to wipe away tears with her paw-like hands.
Then, as the tales of destruction from the earthquake sank in, the room shook. The salarymen sat there in their suits; the daughter continued to pour out a drink. Yoshinari stared off into the middle distance, lost in memory and the haze of alcohol. Maybe nothing had happened. Maybe a train had hurtled past just outside. Except we knew there was no train line.
But no, there it was again - the ground moved and the glass bottles clinked. Yoshinari turned to us and, almost as a lazy afterthought, mentioned that was a tremor from the earth we’d just felt.
There we were, sat in a bar in Japan, the locals telling us about the earthquake that ripped up this very city a year before, and the earth was shaking. It was too poetic to be real, and too unreal to be scary.
Yoshinari asked us if we had felt an earthquake before. Wide-eyed, we told him no and he roared with laughter. And with that, the conversation moved on.
Yoshinari could speak English because he’d spent five years in California when he was much younger. His English was good, but a little worn with rust. You had to strain your ears and squint at his lips to understand him sometimes. Earthquake became ‘ass cake’.
He had a voice deeply marinated for years in whiskey and cigarettes, the Japanese vocal chords wrapping haphazardly around Americanisms and English swear words learnt decades ago. It was irresistible, that voice.
Yoshinari was the literal personification of the phrase ‘walking around like you own the place.’ He did own the place, and he waltzed around as if to show that fact. At one point, he helped himself to my glass, took a sip to see what I was drinking and then told his daughter to pour me another whiskey. On the house, of course.
He was clearly drunk, his conversation veering loosely around like a faulty wheel on a shopping trolley. He was warm to us, but the words coming from his mouth were occasionally jarring. ‘She’s fat hahahaha,’ he said about his daughter. She wasn’t. ‘Are you going to watch them fuck?’ he asked me in reference to my two friends. I wasn’t.
As jazz music drifted through the bar like the smoke from the cigarettes he was occasionally smoking, Yoshinari flipped from topic to topic. Some of it was lost in whiskey and translation, like when he said something garbled about us white people and christian crusades. Some of it was flattering, like when he called us handsome or ‘super cute’ - which is translated from the Japanese word kawai. And some of it felt like a trap, like when he asked me if I’d like to marry his daughter. She possessed Pikachu or Hello Kitty levels of kawai, but it felt like any response I gave to marrying her could end in a night of free drinks or a sinister one-way trip down a darkened alley.
He sat there, gazing at us proudly. At one point he said he felt like we were his children. His children from a land far away.
For some reason Yoshinari gave me a 1000 Yen note. At first it seemed like a joke so I could go pick up a prostitute. Then it seemed he was rewarding me for winning at cards - even though I’d lost. Although the motive was left ambiguous, he made me take the money. Yoshinari and his daughter also gave us a souvenir to take home (a Japanese money envelope) and took a picture with us. He even begged me to stay and ‘fucking drink with me, man’ but with an early start the next day, we had to politely decline and bow our way out of the door.
This wasn’t the Japan of straight-backed introverts floating serenely across the room issuing polite bows. This was the Japan of whiskey, swearing and ‘ass cake’. Of tremors and laughter.
By Gavin Williams