Chotto Golden Gai
This trip has been a combination of new and old. I visited old places and experienced new things, and as a general statement, I learned a lot. One evening dipped its toe into all of the above.
I was staying at a hostel in Shinjuku. I had chosen it because of its central location, fair price, and the fact that in the listing the host explicitly said they enjoy Golden Gai, and would love to accompany any guests that go there. Oh ho, I thought when I read that last part. I *love* Golden Gai.
I don't think I ever wrote about Golden Gai when I was keeping a travel blog, in part because my first forray took place on my second night ever in Japan, in a time before I had access to wifi and when my jet lag threatened to extinguish my ability to stay lucid for more than an hour at a time let alone expend the energy to keep a journal of what was happening in my first week or so. It is a story that stands on its own and is deserving of a separate post - for now, here's the cliff notes version.
Golden Gai is an area of two square blocks in a seedy part of Shinjuku that contains somewhere around 200 ramshackle bars stacked and seemingly shoved together. Each establishment only seats (or stands) six or fewer and tend, tend to be dimly lit, and many only cater to regulars - you gotta know someone to get in or which bars are foreigner friendly to avoid great shame/expensive seating fees. Some say Golden Gai is dangerous. A history of Yakuza, prostitution, and general vice follows the small neighbourhood. It's in an area that I was explicitly told to avoid during my job orientation, apparently known for drugging foreigners and stealing from them. In other words, all the makings for a good time.
I was sitting in the kitchen of the hostel, the only common area in the place but no one seemed to want to share commonalities there. I was alone surfing the ol' net when the host, Miya, came in.
"You like beer?"
He pulled out a large ziplock bag from the fridge, full of cans. Don't ask me why they were in a ziplock.
"Have this beer from Taiwan, it tastes like honey. Seriously."
Seriously, it did. I've sipped on some honey lagers in my life, but nothing quite like this - it really tasted like liquid honey. A little too sweet for my taste, but I drank with him and hung out.
We talked about other types of beer like we were aficionados of the drink, and of travel daifuku - specifically we agreed that the best type of daifuku is ichigo (strawberry), but it's seasonal and thus rare to find; its ephemeral nature mimicking that of sakura season.
Somehow the conversation turned to Steven Seagal and his Aikido prowess, and then we watched, like, twenty minutes of Steven Seagal doing Aikido on YouTube. It was a little insane, we laughed and admired the martial art, and we seemed to be getting along rather well. Miya stepped out for a cigarette. He came back two minutes later and asked, "Chotto Golden Gai?" Or in layman's terms: Let's go to Golden Gai, but just for a little bit. It took me but a second to answer, "Sure."
I was exhausted. The day had consisted of two interviews with experts to help with my research project, and coming off of an interview that ran very late the night before - all excellent but draining. I hadn't planned on doing much that evening, but when the proposition to head to Golden Gai presented itself, I knew it had to take it; this would probably be my only chance to go there with someone I (vaguely) knew (it was). My first experience to Golden Gai lo these three years ago taught me to take risks and say 'yes' to new things - you know, within safety and reason.
Seeing as we weren't too far from Golden Gai I assumed we would be walking there. Oh, how mistaken I was. I stepped out front after gathering my things to meet Miya who was finishing another cigarette. He took a long final pull, threw it down on pavement and said, "okay, let's get on the bikes."
"You okay to bike? Sober?"
"Uh, yes." Are you?
Biking. This, I thought, was dangerous given that Miya had downed four of those sweet honey beers in an hour ("it's like juice," he had said).
But he presented me with a mini bike (something between a BMX and standard bike) and we set off. The turning radius on mine was looser than Donald Trump's lips at a female-moderated GOP debate. Yes, I was sober, but I was already driving like I was four beers deep like Miya - who had bolted ahead on his obachan (grandma) bike moving like a snake through crowds of people on the sidewalk and somehow avoiding what appeared to be impossible to avoid objects as he drifted across the street during a green light, only to look back over his shoulder at me with a "didn't see that there" kind of expression. And just as I pondered if we would make it to Golden Gai alive, we had arrived at its modest arches, our bodies intact, my nerves spastic.
"Which bar do you usually go to?" I asked, looking forward to learning about a new establishment that might be safe for me to frequent.
I don't know the name of it."
Before we left he said we were going to the bar he always visits in Golden Gai. But he didn't know the name of the place. I suspected Miya had never fully developed his observational skills or his brain was being very selective of which memories it would buoy from the ether he seemed to flood his body with.
"I just look for the smiley face."
Sure enough, there was a large lavender coloured smiley face protruding among the izakaya on the ground floor, the door adjacent open. There was no name to be seen.
We sat down in the back of the bar - or rather, three seats from the door. The Master (as the owner of the bar is called) brought us snacks while Miya went right ahead and ordered Whiskey on the rocks. He drank it like it was Taiwanese honey beer, then swiftly ordered another.
The master was playing a loop of classic songs on the TV mounted on the wall next to the door - Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Bee Gees - the kind of jam anyone can sing along to. I checked the time on my phone. Will this evening truly be just chotto Golden Gai?
"Whoa is that your dog?" Miya liked to start sentences with exclamations.
A picture of me and Francis had flashed on my phone screen when I checked the time.
"Oh yeah, that's my doodle. He's a very good boy." He is.
"You know what I love? I love the smell of the dog's paw. You know?"
I was taken aback. I... had always loved the smell of dog paws too. But I never told anyone because I thought it was probably a pretty weird sent to enjoy. I still tried to feign indifference to Miya saying this, as if I was a person thinking of this smell for the first time.
"Man I love dogs. I want a big dog, and I want to smell his paws all the time. Snnnnnnnnifffff oooh yeah!"
Okay, let's not take this too far.
Miya took out his phone to pull up another YouTube video, but not of Steven Seagal this time. It was an unsuspecting Shiba Inu getting batted on the head by a cat, and not understanding what just happened. Miya played it four times in a row and every time laughed like it was the first time he had ever seen the video. I finally had to tell him to stop, I'm pretty sure he could have watched that happily for the rest of the evening.
"You gonna finish that?" he asked, motioning towards my drink.
"By all means, go ahead."
He quickly downed it and ordered two more whiskeys, mine mostly being for show until he was ready to drink it. Miya finished a pack of cigarettes while we laughed and talked about travel, camping, the stars, and sang along to songs on the TV. The Master's wife - her voice like well-aged leather and tobacco - enthusiastically complimented our singing abilities.
The night was definitely at this point not just a 'chotto' Golden Gai evening, and I could feel the exhaustion from my day's work weighing on me.
"Miya, I'm pretty tired. Wanna go back to the hostel soon?"
"Okay, okay, no problem." He knocked back the remainder of the drinks and we left - that bar. Miya apparently forgot I had asked to go home.
"We just need to go to one more bar," he said. "You know, for a pick-me-up drink, something to make us feel alive. A little WOW! HO! TZOO!" I couldn't argue with that logic.
He picked at bar seemingly at random, but they had exactly what he wanted - a bottle of vodka infused with at least twenty chilli peppers, used to make what I would call a watered down version of a Caesar.
"Oh yeah, that's the stuff," he said chomping it down, then ordering another beverage. Oh no, no, no.
"Miya, I really gotta go back to the hostel."
"Hm?" His head snapped up, as if he was just awaking. "Okay, okay, no problem." He got up as if forgetting he had a full drink in front of him (I think he genuinely forgot), stepped out the door and began moving down the narrow alley with the grace of a wacky waving inflatable tube man you see in front of car dealerships. I walked cautiously a few steps behind.
He stopped abruptly.
You don't say?
"Ooooooh nooooooo," he wailed staggering around. "Okay, we need to go get some food."
"How about the conbini?" I suggested, as convenience stores in Japan provide an excellent selection of drunkenly (and soberly) satisfying snacks.
"What? No. That's too cheap," he said in a "I'm above eating at a conbini" tone. I was slightly offended.
"I know a place - let's grab the bikes."
I gently suggested to Miya that perhaps riding the bike was a terrible idea and that walking with them might be better, but he jumped on his and bolted into the night so I followed suit. I figured if he died, someone would need to be a witness for the police report. I struggled to keep up with him as my knees rose up to my armpits with each push of the peddles on my ridiculously sized loaner bike. Somewhere ahead I heard a crash. Oh god no. Miya emerged into view - still on his bike and looking at me with a "nothing happened" expression next to a row of bikes all toppled over. "Almost there," he said peddling away.
We arrived at the place - a 24 hour joint that serves large set meals on the cheap - I'm not sure how above a conbini it really was, but anyway. We chose our meals from a vending machine at the front of the shop, handed the tickets to the waitress and sat down awaiting our food.
"Oh man. I am sooooo drunk. How did this happen?"
I had some ideas.
"I hope I'm not hungover tomorrow. I hate hangovers. Maybe I'll just be chotto hungover. Oh man I don't wanna be ippai hungover."
I tried to tell him that it would all be better soon, once he ate someth-
"I have to go to the toilet," he interrupted me. "Just pee not puke."
What a sentence to instill confidence in both the listener and the speaker.
And Miya did seem better after he ate - I'm sure the rice did a bang up job of soaking up all that alcohol sloshing around in his stomach. The ride back to the hostel was only moderately terrifying compared to intensely so. Miya even pointed and laughed as we rode by an obviously drunk salaryman meandering on the sidewalk, "He's not daijoubu! He'll be ippai hungover tomorrow!" He narrowly missed the side of a building as he returned his attention to the route ahead.
I didn't see Miya the next day, or again for that matter. I checked out the following afternoon after being out all day, stopping by only to pick up my bags and head to my next destination. But I did get a text message from Miya shortly after I left. It read:
"Hi, this is Miya. I am NOT hungover."
And that was my chotto time with Miya.