First let me say that I’m listening to Susumu Yokota’s CD Grinning Cat, which is fucking unbelievable. In a good way, of course. It arrived from Amazon yesterday and I’ve listened to it maybe five times all the way through since then. It’s the best CD of September (so far), hands down. It’s weird and sublime and complex and mesmerizing all at once. And there’s a bizarre sample from a Drain CD I have that adds a certain surreal quality to the thing, somewhere around track 7.
Right. Anyway, let me say next that I’m also a little drunk. Not just on the Susumu Yokota, of course, but rather the sake that I’ve been drinking for the past couple of hours. Y’know, these are the kinds of evenings I value more than any other, living here in Tokyo. (Not the drinking part, the next bit.) An out of the blue call from a friend at seven or so to have some food and drinks, then meeting said friend at The Vagabond in Shinjuku for cocktails and other merriment.
We arrive and ask for a counter spot but there are none so we get a table. Instead it’s one of those six-seater tables that will surely fill up with others as the evening progresses, and I ask the waitress/hostess if she’ll be so kind as to sit a smallish person next to me when it becomes necessary to sit someone next to me, considering the very tight quarters and all that.
She smiles without saying anything, leaving me to wonder if my Japanese was right or not. So we talk and drink and eat, my friend and I, and after an hour or so are offered a recently-vacated spot at the bar, which we seize of course without hesitation. It’s elevated seating, which is really best in a place like the Vagabond.
The Vagabond, I should mention, is a Shinjuku institution of sorts, having occupied the same space for 26 years or so and home to a motley crew of salarymen and artists and hipsters and musicians. It’s my favorite Shinjuku bar. It’s the kind of place where a woman plays the piano and sings and dried flowers hang from the ceiling and all the staff are hot twentysomething Japanese women and Matsuoka-san (the owner) occasionally remembers to speak Japanese to you. In short, the Vagabond kicks ass. So does this Susumu Yokota CD, by the way.
So we leave after a while, warmed from drink and music and dried flowers and go for a walk, down or up or whichever way it would be into the heart of Shinjuku and the skyscrapers there. We try to name buildings and watch people and more people and still more people come out of buildings in largish clumps on their way from who knows where–the office or an izakaya or club– moving decisively toward Shinjuku station, home of cheap transportation and kept promises and mispocketed transit passes.
So we go back to our bikes and call it a night, riding off in different directions. I take the scenic route home, stumbling along the way across a yatai doing less than brisk business alongside Koshukaido (a busy thoroughfare) near my place.
I park my bicycle in front and meander over. The two customers there ignore me as I sit then order ramen from the menu of assorted fare that hangs along the upper wall of the mobile yatai cart.
I’m afforded the opportunity to wait for a moment because the fellow on my left has asked for his check, and I survey the o-den ruins. I ordered sake, so I’m thinking that ramen might not be a good idea, and I tell the “master” that I’d prefer o-den. (O-den is a lot of mysterious substances–meat and formed fish paste and vegetables and other oddities) instead. He grabs a smallish bowl, and I do my best to remember what each of the things is called. I only order what I can remember: chikuwa, o-tofu, daikon, hanpen, tamago. Then I point at some other things and order them, too.
I eat and take a break and smoke and think about the evening, which was a lot of fun, frankly. Surprisingly so, even. The remaining guy (to my right) is going on and on about horse racing. He sounds Korean, but he’s speaking in perfect Japanese. I can’t figure it out, but he’s somehow the type that you can’t interrupt and ask about his ethnicity. Or so I think. I find out later he’s from Tohoku, and I’m told that’s just the way people talk there.
Presently a fellow rides up on a compact yellow bicycle, then sits down on my left, ordering (in the military sense of the word) some sake and oden. He’s there for about two minutes before he strikes up a conversation with me.
“Hey. Where are you from, man? America? Not America, then?”
“America,” I say.
“Oh really? Whereabouts?”
“Seattle. West coast.”
“Really? I love Seattle,” he says, and then we’re talking.
We talk for an hour or better. He’s 33, and served in the Japanese Navy. He’s cool and friendly, and patiently explains words that I don’t understand (ensign, frigate, aguilette) with a matter-of-factness I find refreshing. We talk about life on a ship and hearing from old friends that you’ve not heard from in a decade or more and 9/11 and self-emplyoment, and drink sake and eat o-den and chat some more.
These chance meetings and exchanges are trifling, really, but I enjoy them more than anything, and they make me glad to be in Tokyo.
We settle our tabs and climb on bikes for the ride home. We’re in the same general direction, so we talk as we ride, in no hurry and enjoying the now-cool evening air. I remember to ask his name when we part, and he replies with a meishi before riding off into the night on his hundred dollar Yahoo! Auction foldaway bright yellow bike.
“Mata ne,” I say to myself, and weave the rest of the way home.