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Monday, August 22, 2011

Sangenjaya: a Tokyo Attic to Revisit

三軒茶屋

Sangenjaya


It had been a long time since I'd gone out eating and drinking in Tokyo a la japonaise. Having married and settled down with my partner a couple of years ago, eating out has become a luxury that we forego in favor of home cooking and saving for our next overseas trip, and drinking has become a luxury that I have virtually sacrificed to my partner's near teetotal status.

So it was with a hint of excitement - even a hint of which doesn't come so often in middle age, that I responded eagerly to my longest Japanese friend's invitation to go out for dinner, our first time since spring. There was an added element that added a touch of alacrity to my hint of excitement: would it be OK if my friend's recently acquired partner came along? Of course!

We arranged to meet at the unheard of hour of 6pm at Sangenjaya station. Sangenjaya, especially in the somewhat darkened Tokyo of post-Fukushima, is like an old attic of Tokyo: in other words something of a ramshackle remnant of what much of Tokyo must have looked like up until about 30 or 40 years ago. The name itself is charming: "Three Teahouses." The facades along the streets undulate more, are a bit grimier, the pavements aren't as smooth and uniform, and, all in all, walking around it seems to involve more meandering than is typical of Tokyo.

Sangenjaya is more than old quaintness, though. It is animus and life. The crowd is a mix of regular local and trendy alternative, and the shops and restaurants reflect that in a mix of homeliness and adventurousness.

We headed first for a small, Japanese-style restaurant with rather taciturn staff that specializes in lightly cooked, often raw, vegetables. We had been there before, and the owner probably doesn't like me, because the very first time, last year, when I rang up to reserve a seat for two, he could tell I was a foreigner by my accent and, of course, my name, and, once I'd finished making the reservation, asked me if the other person was a foreigner, because, he said "We're a small establishment." I hate that kind of thing. I refuse to get used to it. So I replied kankei nai ("That's irrelevant.") in a way that could have been a little politer if I'd tried, and hung up. I didn't even look at him when I turned up with my Japanese friend, because I was a little ashamed of the tone of voice I'd used, and anyway the last thing I wanted to be seen as was "triumphant."

Anyway, the food there is great - especially the beer: partly because it's roasting hot in Tokyo right now, and partly because it's served in chilled glasses with loads of head - the latter being somewhat uncommon in Japan. The most memorable thing both last time and this time was the sweet corn, completely raw, and super sweet.

Having my friend's young partner there added something special to the old routine. My friend had a sharp haircut and a new shine in his eye to match. The young partner was very adult for his age (mid-20s), had done a lot and seemed to know what he wanted in general.

When you're a long-time foreigner in Japan who "did the Japan thing" in his younger days and has become jaded with it, it is very good for you to dive back into Japan now and then. Japan looks very samey on the surface, and the Japanese ideology is to assert the uniformity and shared characteristics of what it means to be Japanese.

It is therefore good for you as a foreigner when the conversation gets around to talk about roots. Regional differences in the Japanese language are a favorite topic in Japan, and things got animated talking about the peculiarities of Japanese in Kyushu, western Honshu, and Kansai. Without have time, space or, most importantly, the memory capacity, to relate the full scope of the conversation, the result was to shake up, again, my image of Japan and reintroduce to me its variety, disparities, disjunctions, and the prejudices and fixed ideas Japanese have about each other - not just foreigners. It brings you back to the fold when you are reminded that the fold is not the monolith it appears to be.

Because we'd begun so early we went to a pub later to bring things up to the next level. Akaoni ("Red Devil") is an occasional haunt, that we were back at that evening. It was time to leave the beer behind and get into the sake. Having spent my first three years in Niigata prefecture: Sado Island to be precise, I habitually have at least something of a tipple on sake from that region.

The woman who served us was a very intense person who gave the impression of trying to deliver the encyclopedia article she has memorized as quickly as possible to get onto the next thing on her agenda. However, you quickly realize after a couple of her visits to the table that that is uncharitable. She truly does have an encyclopedic knowledge of not only every sake on the menu, but of the whole universe of alcoholic beverages. Humming and hahing over the menu, I was abruptly asked by her what wine I liked. I said Chablis, and she expertly pointed out a few sakes for me that had Chablis-like qualities and rattled off the slight differences between them. She was actually unstinting of her time and knowledge, and out the info would come, like a volley of champagne corks.

The woman's eloquence soon caught on after a few of those expertly commentated drafts. Things don't usually get animated with my friend, but things were different that evening with the new young acquaintance there, and the conversation got imbued with unusual passion. Just one extra presence and our old binary grunts in black, white and gray had changed and gone a touch rhythmic, kaleidoscopic.

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