By Sam Lee, Hida RPA
I knew the next grey clay bottle of hot Takayama sake would be enough to send me over the edge. But the hand that held the bottle, rough and wrinkled, worn raw from a day of steady harvest in the field, began to pour before I could offer any polite dissuasion. And so, not wanting to offend this most generous of local drinking hall denizens, I did my best to present a look of calm ambivalence despite the creeping sense that my head would be thrumming like a taiko drum when I woke up the next next morning. I resigned myself to my fate. My newfound farmer friend poured tiny cup after tiny cup of hot sweet sake until every last drop had been drained and drunk, by which point I was feeling exceptionally drained and drunk.
I had come to Takayama in Japan’s mountainous Gifu prefecture to teach English. I knew no one in the city, knew no Japanese and had next to no clue about practical boots-on-the-ground Japanese culture and custom. The one thing I did know was I needed a crash course on it all and what better place for a tongue-tied and shy foreigner to learn than at the local drinking den.
You'll find Izakaya all over Japan. From the lantern light soaked streets of Kyoto to the humming neon paradise of Tokyo, or, in my case, on a mountain town crossroad beside a used pick-up truck dealership. Originally Sake shops where the patrons could drink on the premises, they have evolved rather quickly into a hub the local neighbourhood very often revolves around. Izakaya offer a place for locals to share meals, swap gossip, drink, watch sporting games, drink, gripe about politics, drink, dodge significant others and drink. Imagine my good fortune when I discovered one not five hundred metres from my front door.
I strode in off the street and would have been met with dead silence had the TV above the bar not been blaring out baseball game coverage. The appearance of a blonde haired blue eyed foreigner at the door wrenched the five elderly patrons seated at the bar from their well worn runnel of conversation to a state of drop-jawed, wide-eyed shock.
What the hell had brought some young foreigner to this little Izakaya beside a pick up truck dealership was, I imagine, what the five old farmers at the bar were pondering as I appeared in the door way. Well, that and one other question. No sooner had I slid the door closed behind me did the nearest farmer look up, pull out the chair beside him and with a twinkle in his eye ask in broken English:
“You drink Sake?”
So if you haven't yet, I urge you to escape the claustrophobic comfort of your Japanese apartment and take to the streets of your neighbourhood to find your own local bar. So often on JET we rub shoulders with the respectable members of Japanese society; students, senseis, bureaucratic officials of every shape and colour, but this is only one side of the coin. Put yourself out there, go drink in a grubby dive bar with some ornery Ojii and Obaa sans. If not for the conversation, then at least for the free drinks you're bound to score from the gaijin curious patrons keen to prove just how delicious the local Sake is.