Continuing from my previous post Japan Day 4 –
The adrenaline rush from the previous night (Japan Day 3) still coursed through my veins and I was geared to explore the “red-light district” aka Shinjuku’s notorious Kabukichō.
Kabukichō is an entertainment and red-light district in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Filled with a number of host and hostess clubs, bars and love hotels, everyone is sure to find some fun for the night.
Oh the sights and sounds one can expect – such a thrill!
Making my way down, it was an interesting sight. Salaried men were starting to knock off and people were swarming into izakayas for dinner. Friends and co-workers gathered around small tables eating and drinking and smoking their night away.
By this time, the gyozas had been digested and I was ready for more delectable Japanese cuisine.
I decided then and there that I would randomly walk down quiet streets and reclusive alleys to find the most shadiest of izakaya for a meal.
It was dangerous and reckless of me. But it also turned out to be one of the best decisions I’d made.
I think it was pure luck that I stumbled onto 萬太郎. Walking aimlessly and peering down every dark alley, no izakaya could fit the bill. And then out of nowhere, a red signboard in a dark and quiet alley caught my eye.
I walked forward and craned my neck. Squinting my eyes to get a proper look inside, I did want to make sure I was entering a safe place. Still feeling rather apprehensive, I said a silent “fuck it” and marched right on in.
萬太郎 (Mantarou) is one of the many izakayas found along the streets of Shinjuku. Izakaya (居酒屋) is a type of informal drinking establishment that serves food to accompany the drinks. They are casual places for after-work drinking (Wikipedia).
Like all typical izakayas, 萬太郎 provides a range of yakitori skewers and side dishes such as potato salad and/or agedashi tofu. Beer and sake are also available.
Potato salad (Pic grabbed from 萬太郎)
The first thing I noticed besides the lack of customers was the fact that I was the only female customer. Still, I refused to budge as there were 2 ladies manning the counter.
My limited knowledge of Japanese earned me an English menu. Using a mix of basic English and Japanese, I successfully placed my order after some slight confusion. It must have been an interesting sight for not long after, a man seated behind me chatted me up.
I wish I could share all the conversations I’d had over this entire trip but there is only one mouth and too many experiences to speak of.
My favourite sentence by the man was the way he’d described me.
He said, “you’re a Challenger!”
And by “challenger” he meant someone who dared take risks, a fighter who is always out to compete.
It tickled me, the way he thought of me. Little things in life – so simple yet impactful.
Soon, others joined and we launched into an intense conversation. It was a surreal moment as we shared our experiences and travels around the world.
Imagine this – a young lady in her twenties engaged in a conversation with foreign men in their mid-forties. Looking back now, it will be one of the most unforgettable moments of my life.
I think it is wonderful how all I need to simply say is –
“I’m from Singapore!”
and immediately everyone gets real excited and compliments how wonderful my country is.
It is indeed a blessing to have been born a Singaporean and I am truly grateful for our ancestors who helped shape and make Singapore what she is today.
In time, people started to trickle into the izakaya and it was filled to the brim!
It was then I’d learnt that this was one of the best izakayas in Tokyo and that NO FEMALES ever patronise the shop on their own due to its infamous location.
Which was what earned me my “challenger” title, for I waltzed in without a care in the world.
Sake set (Pic grabbed from Pinterest)
Our conversation soon flowed to Nihonshu, or sake as it is known in English.
We all know sake as Japanese rice wine. But in the Japanese language, “sake” refers to all alcoholic beverages in general like beer, wine, liquor, etc.
And the “sake” that we speak of in English, is known and articulated as “nihonshu” to the Japanese. In the Japanese language, nihonshu is directly translated as “Japanese alcohol”.
Nihonshu is made by fermenting rice that has been polished. Its brewing process is different from that of beer and wine, and the result is that of higher alcohol content. It is a popular alcoholic drink in Japan and is widely found in almost all eateries.
Nihonshu can be served hot (atsukan: 熱燗), cold (reishu: 冷酒) or room temperature (joon: 常温) depending on the seasonality and availability. It is served in a small porcelain bottle called a tokkuri, and sipped from a small porcelain cup called a ochoko, as seen in the above picture.
During winter, atsukan is more popular. It is gently warmed in the tokkuri to prevent it from getting cold in the ochoko. In this instance, high-grade nihonshu is not used as the flavours and aroma are lost in the process of heating.
The Japanese folks are accustomed to foreigners mispronouncing “nihonshu” as “sake”. They understand that we really meant to order Japanese alcohol aka nihonshu.
So when a foreigner orders in the proper manner i.e. nihonshu, arigatou!, it lights a smile upon their face as they appreciate your immersion into their culture.
And that was how I met Eiji Nishihara.
Eiji Nishihara and I found a common love for nihonshu. Music as it turned out, was also something that we were both passionate about. What’s more, I’d discovered to my delight that Eiji works in the music industry and also performs with his band whenever he has time.
By then, we were both done with dinner and Eiji invited to show me his “territory” – Golden Gai.
Golden Gai is a quirky little area in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Tucked away in a maze of narrow streets, it is famous for its nightlife and is crammed with more than 200 bars and eateries. It is probably one of Asia’s most unique bar neighbourhood.
We walked around and I got a glimpse of the hidden nooks and side streets of Golden Gai. I am grateful to have Eiji lead and introduce Golden Gai to me because I believe I would not have taken the streets on my own. It was much too daunting at the idea of getting lost in a strange street on a distant land.
With that, he brought me to a bar where his friend was bartending for the night. I wish I’d taken pictures and gotten the name of the place but sadly, did not.
Instead I had an amazing time socialising with Eiji, and also his friends Tomoko-chan, Koeda-chan and Sanae-chan.
Sanae-chan & Tomoko-chan!
Tomoko-chan was manning the bar for the night. She is a quirky yet kawaii lady, and was such good cheer upon introductions. Dressed out of the ordinary, it turned out that both she and her boyfriend are design students at a local university. Not long after, Koeda-chan and Sanae-chan who were Tomoko-chan’s friends, joined our party.
Koeda-chan and I shared an interesting conversaton that night. It opened my eyes in retrospect and all I can say is this,
You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.
Love wins. Love always wins.
Sanae-chan and I only got to chat for a short while but it was strange how we hit off immediatly. By then it was late and I’d had more nihonshu than my fingers could count. The alcohol might have dulled our senses but it was all fun and good vibes and made us both very happy ladies for the night.
The night slipped by in an instant and soon I was rushing off to catch my last train before it departed. Eiji raced me off to the station and afterwards, we promised to keep in contact despite the distance.
On my commute back, the strangers and I periodically rubbed shoulders each time the train rocked at a turn. Who would have thought that I would have spent my birthday in such a manner?
Sometimes our best decisions are the ones that don’t make sense at all.
I walked home poorer for the night, but rich in invaluable experiences.
Fast-forward to June 2015, I once again returned to Tokyo. As promoised, Eiji and I arranged to meet up for dinner one night. With my love for yakitori and nihonshu still fresh on his mind, he brought me to a famous izakaya in Kōenji – called Taisho.
Located in a latern-lit alleyway near Kōenji station, Taisho serves delicious yakitori. What I like about Taisho is how the stools and tables are fashioned from beer crates. Customers sit on wooden stools and kampai!! over wooden tables. It offers you an authentic glimpse of local Tokyo as you tuck into plates of sumptuous grilled food.
Through our cultural exchanges and conversations, I have learnt a lot about the Japanese culture, people, and their norms. It is fascinating and I gripple to feed my insatiabale thirst for more knowledge.
Thank you Eiji for taking time out of your busy schedule to meet me while I was in Tokyo, and I know we’ll be seeing each other again. Till then,
happy birthday to me : )