Within a 24 hour period
Shingza! Shingza! Shingza! The voices said as I struggled to open my eyes and get my bearings. (Shingza is probably not what it said but it’s what I heard). I looked at my phone, it was 7am and I was as hungover as you’d expect me to be after spending the night karaoke-ing away at a Japanese biker bar called Iron boneds (actual spelling).
As my mind came into focus I noticed that my entire house was shaking violently. The North Korean-style loud town speakers outside were shouting out warnings in Japanese that I clearly didn’t understand. My work phone was having a seizure on the floor where I left it, also shouting Japanese unpleasantries at me. It was an earthquake.
I remember two things going through my mind. 1. Wow, this is an earthquake. 2. If I die I won’t have to work today with this hangover. I wasn’t really fussed with either thought. Not knowing if my roof was going to fall on me or not, or if I should run into the street, I just stayed in bed waiting for the giant earthquake to end like it was just an annoying fire alarm. And then it did end. Back to sleep.
Later at work when I broke through the door with my fresh new earthquake exuberance I was greeted with great apathy by my unamused colleagues.
“Oh right, I forgot about that,” she said.
“Oh earthquake. Yes, there was one this morning, that’s right,” said another.
Now I knew that earthquakes were common in Japan but this one felt like kind of a big deal. I looked it up online and it was a 5.6 which isn’t tiny. There were no deaths but there was some damage to a few houses and a couple of older people were injured in the ordeal. And my house was shaking beyond belief for Christ’s sake!
But people here are so used to earthquakes that they don’t even remember them five hours later. Jesus Christ. It’s one of the craziest sensations you can ever experience, but to these people, it’s the same old cheese and crackers. Some of my staff later confessed that it was “definitely stronger” than normal. In fact, the warnings and alarms don’t even go off unless it is of 5.0 magnitude or stronger. So this was kind of a big deal. But lesson learned. If an earthquake happens in Japan, act like you’ve been there before. God damn.
Back to Iron Boneds. A real rag-tag joint. As a creature of habit I wouldn’t have normally been there. I’ve been to the same izakaya every single Saturday since I arrived in my town. The food is delicious, the beer is cold and the staff is friendly. But on this Saturday the popular joint was already full by the time I got there. I was turned away by the friendly 75 year old owner who was inexplicably wearing matching green and yellow headband and wristbands. It was confusing but I didn’t speak enough Japanese to explore the situation further, unfortunately.
Dying of thirst and fully wound after a long work week, I walked down unknown streets looking for somewhere I could hang my hat. I came across an intriguing joint with Harley Davidson everything outside. It looked dark and mysterious so I popped my head in. The door was open but it was only seven o’clock and there was not one other person in there. I was trying to decide whether or not to stay or go when the owner popped up out of nowhere to welcome me.
He was probably early fourties wearing a backwards cap. He greeted me like a son and shook my hand like a gangster. I think he was a gangster. Or definitely an outsider. I wasn’t going anywhere else at this point.
I sat at the bar and ordered an Asahi from his right-hand-man bartender, Shintaro. Dude looked like Suzuki Ichiro and was a great guy. Minutes later the owner came back to me and shook my hand like a gangster again and pointed to himself and said “Boss!”
I didn’t disagree.
Minutes after that he had a cook bring me an insanely spectacular version of filet-o-fish, for no reasons at all. It’s moments like these that make me happy I’m not a vegetarian. What would I have done if when in the confines of a dark, dingy, gangster Japanese biker bar, I had to refuse the free food that I didn’t ask for? I will never be a vegetarian for this reason alone.
The food was delicious. It was a tiny rat’s nest of a pub with no windows. A place you could really lose your soul in. Soon the people started to pour in.
First, the gangster owner had a few thick-necked friends that came in and sat with him on some black leather couches at what I assume is the VIP table. He’d call over to me from time to time through a haze of cigarette smoke to make sure I was okay. I was even if I wasn’t. There were pictures all over the bar of menacing looking bikers. I asked the bartender about this and he said the owner was in every single photo.
Next popped in a 75 year old man with a ruined face and a smile that looked like it was cut with scissors by a three year old. He slapped me on the shoulder without speaking, sat down beside me and was served a bottle of sake with a bowl of ice without asking for it. He also seemed like a bit of a big deal and would continue to call me “Lion!” the rest of the night. The Japanese struggle with Rs and Ls of course.
Soon later the cavalry arrived to assist with helping the patrons get shitfaced. A few nice Japanese women ranging from 25–40 years of age jumped behind the bar. Now, I’m not one to not fall in love with bartenders and waitresses often but this one felt special. It seemed like we had a real connection. She had multi-coloured hair, seemed like a rocker. She was the antithesis to all the other Japanese girls I’d met so far. I was after all in what I deemed an outsider bar. This girl had edge.
We talked through google translate and smiles. Things were going well. I had hit the big time. I was going to play the long game and court her every weekend at a slow drip pace with George Clooney nonchalance until she finally begged me to take her out.
Then she asked me if I was single. My heart sang. I am indeed, I said with too much enthusiasm.
“Great!,” she said.
And then she pointed to a less than desirable woman across the bar and said “Wife candidate?”
The homely woman smiled coyly, giving me half bedroom eyes and half wife eyes.
My world crumbled.
I got really drunk after this and got chummy with some of my mates sitting at the wood. At this point I felt well-liked at the bar. The karaoke was flowing and I had been turning down requests to perform all night long. I’m not a karaoke kind of guy. But everyone was singing. Young and old. There was a tiny man, must have been 91 with the voice of an angel. I’ve never seen someone take karaoke more seriously and my heart melted.
Gimme the mic.
The crowd roared (in my mind), the bartenders applauded that I was finally going to grace them with my pipes.
“Dirty Diana,” I said, as if it was a tiny-town-Nagano classic. Confusing them of course and then having to explain that Dirty Diana was an old Michael Jackson song that they definitely hadn’t heard of.
But they found it. And played it. I sang it.
I learned a valuable lesson in Japanese karaoke that night. First, pick a song that you actually know all of the words to. Second, stick to the hits. If you’re doing Michael Jackson, you’re doing thriller. Don’t get cute.
The next memory I have after my dumpster fire performance was being woken up by an earthquake. It was an interesting 12 hours.