It is 84 degrees currently. I’m sitting in a room with an oscillating floor fan.
The fan has 4 distinct settings: 1, 2, 4, and 6.
All of the settings are the same and the thing I am most acutely aware of is that this fan and I don’t understand each other. It is going to do what it wants to do and no amount of charm, tact, or cleverness is going to get it to act otherwise.
This fan is a perfect representation of my first day here in suburban Tokyo.
The day began with an 11 hour plane ride followed by an 8 hour ride in an elevator at Shibuya Terminal. We simply couldn’t find the ground floor. It wasn’t 1. It wasn’t B1. It wasn’t F or F1 or G2. Eventually, a nice woman asked us if we wanted to take a bus and she guided us like blind dogs to the ground floor and deposited our corpses with a policeman who pointed us towards a taxi stand with a friendly smile. Poor you, he thought. You look terrible.
Our apartment here is very nice. We have beds and floors and tables and it’s more than we could ever need. Famished, we started walking down our unnamed street (the streets here have no signs) until we came upon what looked like a quaint little restaurant. We walked in and were immediately seated, as we were the only patrons. Eight seats around a charcoal grill and that was pretty much it.
No one there spoke any English. Not a word. Even sign language failed, but eventually the woman behind the bar just pointed at something on the menu and we just nodded, feeling pretty confident that anything here would be good. It was an all eel restaurant. All eel, all the time. You can have grilled eel or you can have your eel grilled. How would you like your eel? Grilled? Great. You’re in the right place. Welcome to the Minato Unagiya.
Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck are playing loudly in the background and everything feels like a Woody Allen movie. A 16 year old boy comes and sits right next to us. He order a cup of tea and rests his head in his hands as if he has just shamed his family. He makes no eye contact with anyone.
Freshwater eel (Unagi), lightly dipped in a homemade sweet soy sauce and dusted with sansho, prickly ash pepper, is cooked slowly over a charcoal grill and fanned by a small boy wearing a grey onesie. This is plopped on top of a pile of rice, fresh seaweed, and accompanied by wasabi, pickled scallions, and a soup made of toasted tea leaves and chicken broth, and finished with a boiled eel liver.
We ask if the tea is made with the stems of the green tea leaf which we believe it is and we try to explain the meaning of the word ‘stem’ by using a toothpick. At this point she laughs because she thinks that we think that the tea is made of toothpicks. She explains how to properly use a toothpick.
We feel satisfied and endlessly stupid as we make our way to a nearby market to get some supplies for the apartment. We get all the essentials: loquats, marinated octopus in a bag, green beans, and a bottle of whiskey.
We haven’t slept in a really long time but we wander a few blocks for a nightcap and end up at the aptly named Drunkard’s. It’s an open air bar with a Hawaiian and Cuban combo as their theme. The bartender immediately suggests a mojito. There is no way in frosty hell that we are having a mojito so we inspect the bar behind him and discover a new gem: the 3 of Hearts. It’s a 120 proof single malt out of Midorigaoka. Things will soon either get better or decline immediately.
The place is decorated with a pineapple lamp, an entire smoked pork leg on the counter, and a portrait of what I’m assuming is the deceased father of the current owner.
Next to us is a thin guy who looks like the Japanese lovechild of Tom Petty and John Lennon, complete with little round spectacles. He chainsmokes Marlboro Menthols but when he isn’t smoking he puts a medical mask over his mouth. You know? To protect from germs.
Side note: When you are surrounded by people wearing medical masks you begin to feel like you are the enemy because you are not wearing one. You are the carrier. If it wasn’t for you, they could breathe normally. It’s a very humbling feeling.
A very strange techno version of “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons is playing on the radio as I take my first sip of this fiery deathsauce. I saw them exactly one week ago in Los Angeles and the idea that this song has also crossed the Pacific with me, but now is almost unrecognizable makes me feel even more disconnected from the culture in which I can communicate and make a difference.
Karin, a Kyoto resident who lived in San Francisco for eight years, has a very strange English accent, kind of going back and forth between Nicole Kidman and Sporty Spice. Her language and understanding though, are flawless. How well we can communicate with her only amplifies our inability to make headway here.
Maki, a 50 something year old manager at a frozen fish company tries to make small talk but is mostly focused on scrolling through his Facebook feed while smoking Kools and playing along to the music with a homemade maraca made of an empty pomade canister and uncooked rice.
The bartenders take great care with each drink, using a baseball sized ice cube to cool down each side of the glass before dropping in our second tasting, the 12 year Yamazaki, a cooler, calmer and more familiar flavor. No one has ever taken this much care with anything. They give a shit. That’s cool.
But when we try to explain how much we appreciate it, it is to no avail.
Again, here I am in a room with a floor fan with settings I do not understand.
But now, the room is considerably cooler. The fan is doing it’s job. The fan is correct, even though I do not understand it, and here I am, still confused.
That’s what Japan will be like for a while. A well oiled and perfect machine that I simply do not understand, but I will just trust that those blades will spin and I will reap the rewards, as stupid and helpless as I am.