the nightlife ain’t no good life

I’m writing this on the Shinkansen. This makes me deliriously happy: I’ve wanted to ride on the bullet train since I found out that such a thing exists, and here I am, carving my way out through the never-ending Tokyo suburbs at something approaching 200km/h. The train moved through the Tokyo city stations like a domesticated cat, picking its way patiently down the tracks, but once we got past Nomiya station, they dropped the hammer and away we went. It’s whisper-quiet, spotlessly clean, comfortable and SWEET MOSES FAST. I want to live on this train, or maybe marry it, I’m not sure.

Of course, this means that we’re leaving Tokyo, which I’m honestly pretty sad about. Four days was barely enough to get the measure of the place, and like all of the great cities I’ve been to, what was found wanting in the end was me, and time itself. More days, more weeks, a month, a year, wouldn’t be enough to see as much of this place as I’d like to see. I’ll be back. Oh yes I will.

And also, surprisingly, Tokyo made me a little nostalgic, for a path I didn’t travel before. When I was 19, I had been studying Japanese for a year and had transferred to Temple University in Philadelphia because they had a Tokyo campus and I wanted to spend a year there. For reasons that seemed to make sense at the time, I transfered back to Simon’s Rock and never made it to Japan as a youth — never made it anywhere as a youth, really, and it’s part of why I travel obsessively as an adult — and looking back, the reasons for not doing it really boiled down to “I got nervous and distracted,” which even for a 19-year-old is pretty piss-poor especially considering how much I now know I would have loved the place then. Oh well, apparently when they say “live and learn,” neither are actually optional.

Anyway, when we left off on this travelogue, we were back at the hotel in Jimbocho, trying to gear ourselves up for a second attempt at seeing Tokyo at night. And amazingly, despite fatigue and the pulsing crowds, we managed to go out for a while. Our friend’s friend was still tending bar at a place in Koenji called “Amateur” (which turned out to be the same bar there that the Tokyo Damage guide recommended), so we braved the JR line, which was packed to the gills with young, fashionable Tokyoites on their way out, and followed the bar’s website’s directions through Koenji Central Road:

Koenji Central Road is a cute, bohemian little strip of yakitori restaurants, bars, used record and clothing stores and other mysterious (to the Japanese-illiterate) Tokyo miscellany. In retrospect, I’m a little sorry we didn’t head there earlier so we could spend some more time exploring.

Of course even though there were explicit directions and the bar was on the ground floor of a street leading directly from the JR station, we almost didn’t make it, since of course in Tokyo buildings are only haphazardly numbered from the street, and the landmarks on the map were all for places with signs in Japanese. Luckily, Amateur had an open door and a large window, and just as we were about to run out of street Miranda spotted a white guy tending bar, which seemed to be a likely sign. We walked in, made our introductions, and sure enough we were in the right place.

We spend a few hours nursing sakes and beers and chatting with the bartender about his life in Japan. After a little while, we were joined by an older, Japanese friend of the bartender, who he introduced as “the boss of this street.” This gentleman (who’s actual name I either failed to get or retain in my jetlag-and-alcohol haze) was, and I cannot think of any better word for this, an operator, in the finest sense. He’d apparently worked in high-tech for many years, but now ran, as they say, “a number of interests” which appeared to be a bit of real estate, a bit of tech consulting, possibly owning the bar we were in (it wasn’t clear) and probably a few more things on the side. He was very interested in talking about Android: apparently his future plans involve starting a cell phone company. He said that I should move to Tokyo and go into business, and while I’m not sure I see that happening I gave him my card: it never hurts to have the local operators have you in their rolodex.

At this point, hunger was beginning to make itself felt (we’d not actually managed to have any dinner, and it was now about 10pm). We’d passed any number of likely-seeming yakitori and noodle places on the way to the bar, but we asked for a recommendation and were pointed at a place with no English signage but a display of live fish out front, and were instructed to just point to a fish and ask for “omakase”, or chef’s choice.

We found the place easily enough, but what followed was one of those inevitable linguistic adventures that you just sort of have to roll with when traveling. On being seated, a scarily chipper waitress tried to take our orders, but of course there was no English either printed or spoken in the establishment. No worries, we were surrounded by hip Japanese college students enjoying some late-night snacks, and we had our instructions. So we pointed at a small dish on the next table over that appeared to be deep-fried sardines, and then I coaxed the waitress out front, pointed at what appeared to be a red snapper, and asked for ‘omakase.’ What followed was a conversation that I thought went somewhat like this:

me: that fish there, just one of them, please ask the chef to prepare however he likes.
waitress: ah, omakase! would you like some sashimi as a starter?
me: that would be fine.
waitress: excellent.

So I tromped back to our table, and a few minutes later the dish of fried sardines appeared. There were about six of the finger-sized things, and they were wonderful. Then as we were finishing that, a dish of about six pieces of sashimi, obviously from the fish out front (which was not a snapper, but some other thing that I didn’t manage to grasp) came, and we very happily tucked into that, and then we waited for the rest of the fish to appear.

And waited.

And waited.

After about 20 minutes, I ran back through my memory and came up with an ominously plausible second interpretation of my conversation with the waitress:

me: that fish there, just one of them, please ask the chef to prepare however he likes.
waitress: ah, omakase? okay, how about sashimi?
me: that would be fine.
waitress: excellent

At this point, while we were still a little hungry, we weren’t starving any more, and we were beginning to think dark thoughts about when the final JR train back to Shinjuku would be. Figuring that if we tried to settle the check while more food was being prepared we would be set straight immediately, Miranda signaled the waitress over and made the universal “check please” sign. Sadly, this was immediately assented to, which was when we found out that in addition to there being no more fish on its way to us, we were going to be charged an additional 5,000 yen cover charge for making use of the restaurant’s late-night amenities.

Oh well, the fried sardines were really good.

We hustled our way back through Koenji, perhaps looking somewhat forlornly at the multiple full and boisterous yakitori joints we were passing. There was, thankfully, a takeaway bakery still open just before the station, and we grabbed some raisin rolls to go before getting on the second-to-last train back to Shinjuku.

Shinjuku itself, sadly, will largely have to be on the “next time in Tokyo” list, but once the train pulled in we figured we had enough metro service left that we could at least take a quick stroll around the station and see the pretty lights:

This accomplished, we declared victory or at least lack-of-total-defeat over Tokyo nightlife, took the metro back to Jimbocho and collapsed.

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