Photo: Wuttisit Somtui/Shutterstock

Behind the Scenes: A White Boy's Initiation at a Japanese Izakaya

by Andrew Welsh Apr 4, 2013

When the man seated next to me ordered that I take off my shirt, it wasn’t clear what direction the evening was taking.

I’d dropped into the izakaya for a drink after work, and until that moment things had been subdued in a typical murmuring Japanese way. The place was called Kaze to Matsu, meaning “Wind and Pines,” a title with the characteristic poetry of most Japanese pub (izakaya) names. I’d only mentioned my studies of Japanese cuisine, that I had a mackerel fillet marinating in vinegar in my refrigerator, and now the man’s shirt was coming off, revealing a shoulder hugged by tribal tattoos, something decidedly atypical for Japan.

“Let’s switch.” He thrust his shirt at me, a black polo with two baggy pockets stitched to the front. I tugged at my tie and fumbled down the trail of buttons. The man had introduced himself as Matsumia. I guessed that he was the owner, based on the deference paid him by the guests and staff. When my head emerged through the neck of the polo shirt, he had just buttoned the collar of mine.

“Very cool,” he said. “So this is how an English teacher feels.” I smoothed the polo shirt pockets nervously. He turned to me. “You’re on the clock. Go, go!”

“The first rule of being an izakaya chef: Get yourself a drink!”

I’d been teaching English in Japan for about six months, but the day job was incidental. I was there to learn to cook. Since restaurant apprenticeships tend not to grant work visas, I’d smuggled myself over in a suit and tie to work for an English conversation school in Shizuoka City. Up to that point, the closest I’d come to infiltrating a restaurant kitchen was occupying a barstool and converting my paychecks into food and alcohol. I dreamed of piloting one of the tight cockpit kitchens tucked behind the bar. The cooks were heroic figures, parrying bursts of flame with an iron sauté pan in one hand and mixing highballs in the other.

The kitchen in my apartment was designed to facilitate survival on cup ramen, but little else. In fact, it was so guarded against any real cooking that the electric burner would turn off after 20 minutes and refuse service for another 40 — or until it was satisfied the apartment wasn’t in flames. Still, I did the best I could in small spasms of activity, grilling fish, simmering root vegetables, translating cookbooks and learning the fundamentals. I drew from two years’ experience behind a sushi bar in the States, and despite my apartment kitchen’s limitations, I now had deliriously profound access to previously unknown fresh fish and Japanese produce. Every trip to the supermarket had the existential glow of joy and possibility of a child in a candy shop.

Before I could really take stock of the situation, Matsumia pitched me around behind the bar. Standing there under the dimmed pendants with the whole host at the bar staring at me, I blinked back like a frog under a spotlight.

Matsumia rose, now wearing my suit jacket and having gagged his way out of the top collar button of the shirt. He flung open an imaginary orator’s cape — the getup had inspired the pedagogue in him. “The first rule of being an izakaya chef: Get yourself a drink!” He turned toward the resident bartender, a mustached kid fresh out of his teens, lolling as though he lacked a rigid bone structure. “Tomi, show him.”

Tomi lit off his countertop perch and called to me from the opposite end of the bar, “Hey, come on gaijin.” Gaijin literally means “outside person,” and is the Japanese word for foreigner. Tomi waved me toward a tall box that housed the beer tap. While bars in the States have anywhere from three to a hundred beer taps, most in Japan install only one. Guests simply say, “nama,” which means “fresh,” and the bartender brings a pint of whatever’s on tap in house.

The wall behind the beer tap was a mosaic of glassware. Tomi’s hands made seemingly autonomous movements, snatching a pint glass from a high shelf and opening a cascade of beer into it. All the while he fixed me with a deadpan stare, as though saying, “What could be easier than this?” I don’t have any hard proof, but I suspect that Japanese draft systems inject a lot more carbonation than they do in the US. No matter what gyrations Tomi performed on the glass, it would only filly halfway before erupting into foam. Unperturbed, he sloshed out the head and resumed the pour. After two or three times he had a pint with a perfect one-inch foam head.

I let the tap go into my own glass, but had to spill about two pints of foam before getting a drinkable beer. The waste didn’t bother Matsumia. He cheered me on with such encouraging words as, “You can’t drink foam, gaijin. Try again!”

I finally got it right, and immediately drowned in a chorus of “Nama!” from the bar guests. I filled pint after pint, glancing frequently at Tomi thrashing away at food orders. The narrow aisle behind the bar had all the charisma of a theater stage, set with props such as the beer tap, oven range, deep fryer, and the toothless, grinning salamander that hung in the corner. Similarly, the back wall could have been a painted set for how tightly packed were the pots and pans, bags of rice and sesame seeds, soy sauce and sake bottles, and canisters of seasonings. Even the bar counter was artfully set with woven baskets of the day’s produce — gem-like colors of tomatoes, peppers, burdock and ginger roots, daikon, and mushrooms. The barstool audience drank in the spectacle, shouting orders and plying me with small talk despite the beads of nervous sweat collecting around my face.

— What’s fresh today?
— How long have you lived in Japan?
— Why can you speak Japanese?
— Shizuoka’s weather is good, huh?
— Are your eyes really blue, or are those color contacts?

I passed several hours making drinks and chatting with customers. Matsumia urged me to shout “Irashaimase!,” the typical welcome greeting, to every person who came in. He choked with laughter when they gaped back at the pale, blue-eyed, brown-haired figure behind the bar.

Tomi showed me how to make green tea highballs with shochu, a kind of liquor similar to vodka, distilled from rice, sweet potato, or wheat. I mixed cassis with red wine, and dried chilies with sweet potato shochu. Matsumia assured newcomers that I was a competent barman, in the face of bumbling evidence to the contrary.

Toward 2am, Matsumia tugged at the shirt collar and began undoing buttons. “I’m tired of this stiff shirt. Let’s switch back.” I slid into my suit and settled down on a stool for one last drink.

I began working at Kaze to Matsu every weekend. Sunday became known as Gaijin Day.

I teetered dreamily, having consumed half a dozen pints on Matsumia’s order to keep my glass full. Kaze to Matsu was the open door I’d been looking for. Still, I didn’t feel that I’d actually passed through it; I hadn’t learned to cook anything yet. Plus, even amid the boozy haze of the evening, I was aware that I’d been propped up behind the bar as entertainment, a juggling ape sideshow act. Even surrounded by millions of people, it’s easy for a Westerner to feel isolated in Japan’s high-context culture, to feel chilled at every iron bar of the cultural gate that makes him an “outside person.” I sensed I’d found an entry, though. It helped to think of the spectacle as an interview.

I had lessons to teach the next morning, so I made my excuses and settled my tab. Matsumia walked me to the door. A light rain had begun to fall — one of the frequent ambush showers that occur in summer. Matsumia became suddenly somber and parental. He insisted I take an umbrella out of the rack by the door. “The customers are drunk. They won’t notice,” he grinned. I practiced the little bow of gratitude and farewell I’d learned, promising I’d be back to return the umbrella.

“It’s a promise, then. Take care.” He disappeared behind the long curtain draped over the doorway.

I returned that Thursday night and had a dinner of spicy fermented squid and pickled plum porridge before replaying the “switch” routine with Matsumia, who was working behind the bar with Tomi. This time I worked up more courage and asked, between nama pours, if I could learn to make something simple. Mastumia shrugged.

“Make me a potato shochu, rocks, and then Tomi will teach you.” I rattled a couple ice cubes into a glass, splashed in the liquor, and plopped it in front of him. “What’d you like to drink?” I murmured that a potato shochu sounded good, too. Matsumia’s eyes sparkled. “Shibui…” It means something between “cool” and “classic.” “Go ahead,” he said. “And Tomi, show him how to make the omelet with an.”

Tomi peered at me while I stirred shochu into a rocks glass. “You’re a strange gaijin. Isn’t potato shochu too stinky?” I said it smelled a lot like whisky. “Yeah, exactly,” he said. “Stinky.”

The dish began with two beaten eggs, into which Tomi instructed me to stir some grated ginger, scallions, and a dash of soy sauce. “Listen, gaijin.” He inflated and then tumbled through a mock classroom-style lesson, instructing me to mix soy sauce, sake, sugar, and salt into a pot of simmering water. To this we added a potato starch slurry, which turned the mixture into a goopy soup.

The finished dish was a cooked omelet submerged in an. Matsumia requested another shochu to go along with it for his dinner. I stayed at the bar until 3am, drifting gradually into intoxication with Tomi and Matsumia while our conversation roamed the vastness of America and the culinary canons of Japan.

I experienced a fleeting moment of camaraderie. For an instant I wasn’t a gaijin.

As we cleaned up the bar, wrapped fish fillets in cellophane, and scrubbed the floors, I experienced a fleeting moment of camaraderie. For an instant I wasn’t a gaijin. We had eaten together, were drinking together, and shared the piratical communion of restaurant-dwelling food lovers. Of course, I looked different and spoke with an accent, but because I would cook an, eat fermented squid, and drink potato shochu, all the cultural trappings washed out of sight.

I began working at Kaze to Matsu every weekend. Sunday became known as Gaijin Day; Matsumia would let me run the bar on my own while he drank on the other side of the counter. After a few weeks he had me accompany him to the fish market to pick out mackerel and clams and sea snails. A few weeks following that, he sent me there alone to purchase the day’s stock. He and Tomi verged on a hemorrhage when I came back with a sack of horse mackerel, ginger shoots, and bean curd for steamed tofu balls. “What a strange gaijin,” they said. “Are you sure you aren’t Japanese?”

The remark rang like the opening click of a lock. Surely they saw me differently now; the gate that both isolated me and held the culinary secrets I was after had begun to creak open. It wasn’t ready to open far, though. The first party to arrive that night was a group of young women for a birthday. Once they’d settled at a table, Matsumia took me into a conspirator’s huddle, his face dimly illuminated with mischief.

“Hey, gaijin, go sing happy birthday to those girls. In English. It’ll be a…a service!” The corners of his mouth shuddered at the hilarity of it.

There was still a long way to go before the gate would be open wide enough for a person to enter. And to go that far might not even be possible. But then again, I was still getting what I wanted, and was happy just to sit and learn at whatever opening I could manage.

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