Actually the whole episode could’ve not been simpler, and if I had to put it down to some element more or less outside its direct players, I’d probably point to the mismatch between my eating habits and those of the Japanese: there, restaurants are rather for dining, and most of them–except maybe in the cities–only open after around five or six in the evening; but even the ones serving lunch close down usually for a long break shortly after noon–which is when I’m normally waking up from bed… or sort of; therefore, by the time I start getting hungry–say 3-4 p.m.–I can’t find where to go for a meal. That’s why that day I had to overcome my qualms regarding small bistros and get over the embarrassment of feeling like an ignorant alien among the other customers–who would no doutb be watchful of every move of mine–in order to get inside that particular hovel–the only one I found open–called by its small, dusty and neglected showcase, where there yawned–since years ago, I’d bet–the so common in Japan plastic replicas of four or five different dishes, labelled with their respective prices.
Right after getting in, I was welcomed (welcomed?) by the typical stale fag-ends/cold-smoke smell, which is one of the things I find most unpleasant in regular life–very specially when having meals–except perhaps for the typical lit fag smoke, which was also present in that place. This aversion of mine to tobacco truly hinders my enjoyment of many (otherwise) pleasant moments that life could–and indeed does bring me; most of all in Japan, where the smoking rate among the (male) population is rather high and where, funny enough, though it’s forbidden on the streets (!), turns out to be legal inside bars and restaurants, except for the few ones (normally more sophisticated and expensive) whose managers have willfully banned smoking. Hence the qualms I mentioned. And that’s a real pity, because it’s precisely in the more local bistros where one can–and usually does come across the more genuine experiences and people, leave aside the more affordable prices; but then you have to count on the smoke, which is twofold a problem for me, because on top of inhaling the foul air, later on I’ll have to hand wash the smelly garments in the hotel room’s sink, or send them to laundry–whichever way a chore.
As I was saying, right after opening the typical Japanese sliding door I saw myself in front of eight pairs of eyes that watched me with curiosity, two of which (eyes, I mean, not pairs) belonged to a short guy on white chef’s apron and hat; white and stained. He was the obliging owner, whom even before being addressed by me started already ousting the other customers from the two tables he would assign to me, telling them to move to the other side of the room, where there were only two more tables, so that I alone took half the restaurant whereas the six other clients took the remaining half. And he also told the cook, or the scullion, to clear and clean my tables. To his commands, the others moved away not only without a complain, but actually happy for having a foreigner among them and doing whatever they could to make him feel welcome. In that moment, I fancied thinking that had I asked them to extinguish their cigarettes, they would’ve done it immediately. But that would’ve not been fair.
I ordered the menu–mejnyu, as they say–and the chef handled me a plastified sheet of paper listing, in perfectly correct Japanese, a dozen or so dishes. But since I can’t make any sense of that language, and as I took for granted that they didn’t have an eigo mejnyu (English menu), I asked for one of those pikacha mejnyu (picture menu; mark the ethimology) which are so common in Japan. But no dice; so I finally resorted to universal gestures and, aiming towards the showcase outside, had the guy follow me so I could point to the replica I wanted him to de-replicate and make real for my lunch. Behind the glass, the available offer was sensibly less varied than on the paper menu, but since I didn’t really know any of them and all looked quite similar, I just pointed randomly to one labelled with 700 Yen (around 5.50 €).
I had only been sitting half a minute, when one of the clients, from the corner where they had been banished, asked me–in a very poor English–if I liked beer; and because it wouldn’t have been the first time in such local Japanese restaurants that someone treats me to drinks out of the blue, I deemed it more discrete to tell a little lie rather than risk an invitation and then sounding rude by refusing. But my shy negative wouldn’t dumbfound the jolly group (who, by the way, were not eating, but drinking and talking, though none of them was drunk), and another thirty seconds later someone else returned to the attack, asking me the usual social questions: where am I from, is this my first visit, what’s the purpose of my trip (business or ‘vacances’), or how long shall I stay in Japan. Unfortunately, their English–though neatly superior to my Japanese–was not only insufficient for a minimal conversation, but also hardly intelligible; and, in fact, one of them could scarcely say anything other than soca, soca, Sapein soca, while making a swing with his leg as if kicking a football (one of the topics that raptures me the most, as you well know); so, in face of the language barrier, for a few minutes I thought that the cultural interchange was over. But then, the most daring of the group went up to the bar, ordered a big bottle of beer and, without asking any questions or permissions, put a small tumbler on my table, filled it up and offered it to me: Japanese beer, for you. This time I couldn’t but accept, so I seized it, said kanpai and took a zip. Happy to see I didn’t refuse, he filled his own glas and drank with me; then left the rest of the bottle on my table an ordered another one for him (another bottle I mean, not table), so as to make clear that the first one was all for myself. Exactly the same–thought I–as we do in my hometown when a foreigner comes in: we all go out of our way for inviting him. Just the same thing.
And… well, you can imagine the rest, reader.
Or maybe not?
The large bowl of meat on rice that I had apparently ordered did not come alone, but served with a miso soup plus a small side of vegetables. As long as I was eating, the other clients respected my lunch (or was it a dinner?) and somehow restrained their attempts to talk or communicate with me; but I had not yet finished the meal when a third one placed on my table one of those small bottles of sake (the customary rice liquor so popular in Japan among all sorts of people). Japanese wine, he said, for you! Thanks God, sake isn’t a very strong spirit, so I could keep a stiff upper lipe.
When I was done with the food, the cook came along with a dessert that I neither had ordered nor wished, for I culdn’t find any spare appetite. I wonder if that extra dixh belonged to the set menu I had unknowingly ‘triggered’ a while ago when pointing at that humble plastic replica in the showcase, or if it was rather a comp by the house, which is likely the case; hence gratitude obliged me to eat. It was a brick-shaped thick portion of some sweetened cake made of the ubiquitous tofu–one of the few Japanese foods I’m not particularly enthusiastic about, because of its dull taste and slimy consistence–sprinkled with mysterious herbs and seasoned with the no-less-ubiquitous soy sauce. Soya on soya, as the agreeable leader of that crew kept telling me: beans!, he’d say, shaping his hands as if to represent a cluster of beans in the shell hanging from the plant’s stalks; tophu: beans; soy sauce: beans; sweet sauce: beans; miso soup: beans; salad: beans… To wit, in Japanese cuisine soya is an even more universal ingredient than matcha, seaweed or even rice itself.
Once I ate it all, I woke up and went to them, in order to reward their enthusiasm and get more actively involved in the ‘culture interchange experiment’ they were carrying out. Next thing I knew, I was holding (and drinking) a second bottle of sake that someone had put in my hand. Well… shall I go on? New questions about me or about Spain followed suit (by the way, draws my attention the fact that many Japs know Spain’s model of government, namely that we’re a monarchy; I guess that there must be a sort of fellow-feeling because of their Emperor, which I acknowle makes Japan a monarchy too), toasts, kanpais, group pictures, and a long while trying to help my new friend have installed Line on his smartphone, so we could share those pictures.
On the other hand the scullion, not happy with having fed me a plentiful supper, gave me a lunch box with rice rolls to take away, just in case I felt hungry at the hotel. Exactly the same–thinks I–as we do in Spain with the foreigners: always treating them to desserts and take-away lunches. The very same thing.
But the best of all, reader–what I bet you might have possibly not imagined this far, was that, when asking for the bill money in hand, they wouldn’t accept a cent from me! Neither for the lunch, the dessert, the drinks nor the take-away. Nothing! And they wouldn’t let me treat them back to more drinks, either. No, no; no pay; friends invite. I spent zero yens in that bar. And mark: thouse were not your typical rich Northamericans for whom even financing a backpacker’s night stay in a road motel (which has happened to me in California, once upon a time) would barely tickle their swollen incomes, but on the contrary, they were a bunch of shabby Japs who drank beer and smoke in a small and seedy back-alley local eatery. Never before, in my travels throughout the globe, I had been the guest of such an unanimous and impromptu full invite.
It’s a superlative degree of hospitality, quite peculiar to the Japanese folk, and of which they–understandably–feel very proud. It’s called omotenashi. Nihon no omotenashi.