By Ada Smith
I remember when I first came to Japan and heard stories of wild and crazy things that would happen to JETs; unexpected adventures that would happen or strange gifts that they were given just for the fact that they were one of the sole representatives of a different nation in their town. They were the kinds of stories that were hard to believe because they sounded so extreme, so they must be rare or non-existent.
Oh how young and naive I was.
Now that I am one of the only people in my town of ten thousand that has both blond hair and blue eyes, I seem to attract attention like flies to honey. I’ve gotten used to it, and I actually don’t mind it for the most part; I’ve made a lot of friends that way and I now have an almost guaranteed supply of vegetables and oranges because of it.
But sometimes it can be too much.
And sometimes I still can’t believe that it actually happened to me.
This time is one of the later.
I was traveling around Shikoku with my family and we had stopped in my town for a few days. Now, Kihoku, Ehime is a beautiful town and I am so delighted to live here with all of these wonderful people. But unless you really like fishing, there isn’t much to come and see. Unless you come on the second weekend of October for the biggest festival of the year; Dechikonka. Of course I wanted my family to see my town at its best and busiest, but I also was in a taiko performance and running a stall for the festival, so I kind of had to be there anyways.
Unfortunately though, due to some misunderstandings of how time and obligations work, I ended up spending all three days of our time in Kihoku setting up for the performance and festival or participating in it, leaving my family with nothing to do but wander around my town lost or watch me be busy.
I felt guilty about this, of course; my family hadn’t flown across the ocean to twiddle their thumbs for three days, but I felt especially bad for my dad. I had really hoped to spend more time with him on this trip than I had, and I could tell we were both frustrated with how the past couple days had gone.
So, after dinner the night of the festival, I asked him to go for a walk with me. My plan was to surprise him with a drink at my favorite bar, and hope that the one on one time would mend the rift between us that had appeared over the past couple of days.
We made our way up to the quaint little restaurant, just across from the post office. Evidently it was a slow night; there was just one couple finishing dinner when we walked in, and no one sitting at the bar. We sat down and each ordered a Japanese whiskey (neat, water back), and settled into how we normally spend quality time; sitting in a comfortable silence, occasionally making passing comments about this and that. I could feel the rift between us mending, being set right with the help of a neutral setting and a decent drink.
And then two men walked into the bar. This was clearly not the first (nor the second, I would wager) of the bars they had visited that night. They stumbled their way to the bar and ordered their drinks. I did my best to turn away and hide my face, but unfortunately my very existence (blond hair and blue eyes) was invitation enough for them to interrupt my night and start talking to me.
They recognized me, both from my taiko performance as well as from my stand at the festival. They asked the usual question about my job, where I’m from, how long I’ve been in Japan, etc. Then they asked about my dad, and his job (a retired police officer). As it turns out, one of the guys (the drunker of the two) also happened to be a retired police officer. From then on out, as far as This Guy was concerned, the three of us were now the very best of friends.
This Guy gets up and stands between my dad and I, and asks what we are drinking. I name the whiskey, and This Guy protests mightily. If we are in Japan, then we should be drinking Japanese booze, for heaven’s sake. So he waves over the bartender and demands two glasses of sake. The bartender does so, but he pours it with ice, which is apparently a huge mistake, according to This Guy. He tries to argue with the bartender about it, but his friend steps in and says since we are foreigners and are just trying sake (a gross underestimation on his part, but I wasn’t about to argue) the ice is warranted.
So drinks poured and tasted, This Guy asks my dad how the sake is. My dad, being the purest he is and not picking up at all what just happened, answers that it tastes fine, but he would probably know the taste better if he had it without ice. I foolishly translate this to This Guy, who is now vindicated and turns to his friend and the bartenders to say as much. He then reaches out quick as a whip and grabs my dads glass, drains it in one shot, and slams it back down on the bar, saying;
‘One more. No ice.’
My dad and I are shocked, but the bartender is unfazed and get a new glass for my dad. He fills it with sake, no ice. My dad says that he likes it better, which makes This Guy basically glow. He then tells the bartenders to call him a taxi, and that he’s going to get a present. Then he says to me (in even more slurred Japanese) something about the taxi, a present, and five to ten minutes. And then he leaves the bar.
I translated what I could for my dad, and we both began panicking. Was this guy getting my dad and I a taxi home as a gift? As far as my mediocre Japanese could tell, that was what was happening, but I couldn’t understand why. My dad and I both had our drinks left, and besides, we had walked there. It seemed wasteful to try and finish our drinks in five minutes only to go home before we were ready.
Then This Guy’s friend leaned over and explained to me directly that his friend was taking a taxi to his house to get a present for the both of us, and that he was going to return in about five or ten minutes.
This made more sense, but didn’t put our minds at ease. We knew we had to get out of there soon, but we couldn’t decide if now was the right time to do it or not. We still hadn’t finished our drinks, and we knew it would be rude to leave This Guy hanging, especially since he was bringing a present for us; though we were wary to find out what it was.
So we did our best to enjoy the few moments of peace we had, and tried to drink our drinks as fast as we could while still enjoying them safely. At the end of the promised five minutes, however, This Guy came stumbling back into the bar, present in tow.
Turns out, in honor of my dad enjoying his recommended sake, This Guy had gone all the way home and picked out his second best bottle of sake. This was one of the huge ones, the tall brown glass bottle gently tapering to the top, with an indiscernible label in scratchy calligraphy, the whole thing wrapped in a whisper thin sheet of rice paper. It was impossible for me to tell how much it was worth, but the appearance spoke of some significant amount of money.
It’s safe to say that both of our jaws dropped at the sight of it. This was our present? We knew it was too much, but neither of us knew what to do in the situation. I did my best to express our gratitude in Japanese, and my dad did what seemed appropriate, which was to shake This Guy’s hand.
For the next twenty minutes, This Guy had my dad in what was surely the world’s longest handshake. He went on and on about the appropriate situations for drinking the sake (my wedding, apparently), his profession, and a myriad of other things. Through it all, he held my dad’s hand captive, while his other hand was clapped firmly on my dad’s shoulder. And if my dad made the mistake of putting down his glass and freeing his other hand, This Guy would grab it as well, holding both hands in a firm and vigorous handshake.
An important note: my understanding of Japanese is very basic. I excel at butchering text book Japanese, and I really only understand slow, easy Japanese. My dad knows absolutely no Japanese. So I had my work cut out for me listening and translating to the drunken, slurred, rapid dialect heavy Japanese that was being thrown at my dad. I had to ask several times for This Guy to slow down, repeat himself, or say it again. Sometimes This Guy’s friend or the bartender would step in and help me, but more often than not they would say that I shouldn’t translate what This Guy just said because it was inappropriate.
At one point however, This Guy got fed up with my apparent meddling. He waved away my explanation that my dad doesn’t understand Japanese (for the fifth time) so he should speak to me. He said, pounding on his own chest;
‘No! It’s ok! He understands me here.’ He pounded on his chest once more for emphasis.
I informed my dad that he does, in fact, understand what This Guy was saying, despite all the evidence to the contrary. We were so far beyond bewildered by this strange situation that, by this point, that we just shrugged our shoulders and soldiered on.
Eventually the topic switched to sports, and I said that my dad and I both enjoyed watching baseball together. This Guy seemed very excited about this, and saying that if we liked baseball then we would love this. He backed away from the bar, turned around, and hooked his thumbs in the waistband of his pants. I quickly turned my attention back to the TV. When I did so, I saw that every other person in the bar had also turned away; not a single person witnessed what happened next, and I doubt This Guy could recall it either. Whatever This Guy’s bottom had to do with baseball will forever remain a mystery, and one that I’m happy to leave that way.
Soon after, This Guy’s friend waved down the bartender for the bill, and both dad and I knew that there was no way these guys were paying the tab, not with the giant bottle of sake we were taking home pro bono. We both tried to intercept the bill, which drove This Guy to a near frenzy. After a scuffle for the receipt between my dad, the bartender, and This Guy, his friend explained to me that he was just paying for their own drinks, not ours as well. I called off my dad and This Guy emerged victorious. Money changed hands, and my dad and I both heaved a sigh of relief, ready to finish our drinks in peace.
And then the friend left.
Leaving behind This Guy.
Never before nor since have I been so terribly betrayed. My dad and I spent another twenty minutes or so at that bar, finishing our drinks and fending off This Guy as he rambled on and on, invading our personal space and defying all efforts to be understood. I think we hoped that he would leave, and a few times I suggested that it was late and maybe he should go home?
It’s hard to know whether the alcohol or my lack of language is at fault, but This Guy got it into his head that he was going to leave with us, and do us the great honor of walking us home.
I may not have understood half of what had happened that night, but I knew one thing for certain: This Guy was going to find out where I lived over my dead body.
If he insisted that he was going to walk us home, then the only thing to be done was to up the ante and insist that we walk him home instead.
I waved over the bartender and started another fiasco with paying the bill (we won out, but only through the sympathetic efforts of the bartender), but eventually our rag tag group left, my dad hefting the gifted sake.
This Guy stumbling between my dad and I, keeping up a steady stream of dialogue. My patience had finally wore out, so I told my dad to just say whatever he wanted, it wouldn’t matter anyway. What followed was one of my favorite cultural exchanges yet; a drunk Japanese man waxing poetic about whatever wisdom his inebriated brain felt inclined to tell us, and my dad filling in the gaps with the lyrics of ‘Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog.’
I stayed diligent. At every street corner and house I stopped and asked This Guy if this was his house? Where did he live? How much farther. Each time he waved me off, saying it was just a little further, not to worry.
Infuriatingly, the way to his house was the same way to my house. I was just beginning to get suspicious when This Guy stopped and gestured to a house that I pass by nearly every day on the way to work and declared with gusto that this was where he lived.
My dad and I both stop, not needing to communicate between us that we weren’t going any further with This Guy. However, it took another ten minutes of back and forth, of me saying thank you and goodnight and goodbye, and This Guy waving me off and rambling on. Finally, he seemed to strike on an idea, and told us to wait just a moment, and he ran into his house.
Inexplicably, my dad and I waited. He returned a moment later with a plastic bag, which he thrust into my hands, and finally left us alone on the street.
Inside the bag were ten whole frozen fish, river trout he had undoubtedly caught himself.
My dad got the better end of that deal without a doubt, but we both got a good story to tell.
Ada Smith is a second year JET living and working in the small country town of Kihoku-cho, Ehime. In college she worked as a journalist for the school newspaper and was published in the campus literary journal Cross Currents. Though her time outside the classroom is spent cooking, knitting, and traveling; she still loves to write about her experiences.