Tsutsujigaoka is a little suburb of Kanazawa, a collection of maybe a hundred or so houses pinched between a very large cemetery uphill and another suburb downhill. It’s not a particularly affluent area, but in my meanderings around Kanazawa I haven’t come across any that seem that way. Each neighborhood seems to be a mix of modern and traditional architecture, beautifully maintained larger properties with ornate gardens next to smaller places with weedy patches of dirt out front. Wealthier and poorer live together, it seems. And Tsutsujigaoka is like this. The five houses on the block where I live range from ultra-modern concrete with circular windows and a Mini parked out front to a ramshackle house with a traditional ceramic tile roof and cracked vinyl siding. Apparently there is no building code for style in Tsutsujigaoka.
In the middle is a community center, an unassuming concrete one-story concrete building with a large room, a small room, a bathroom and a big glass case in the entry hall where a number of dusty trophies sit, probably won by local kids in their high and middle school sports. The big room has a drop ceiling and awful fluorescent lights, some kind of vinyl flooring. The windows are really leaky, covered by the flimsiest of polyester curtains. Formica-topped folding tables are stacked against one wall. And there’s no heating. I’ve discovered that most homes and such community areas are damn cold as central heating seems to be against the law.
The Community Center hosts karate on Tuesday nights, a reading group on Wednesdays and a knitting group on Mondays. I’ve sat in on the karate lessons, taught by a balding older guy with a huge beer gut. He looks all the world like a slow-moving beach ball wrapped in his dogi. But then he demonstrates a palm punch – and holy cow is he fast! Instant respect. You bow when you come in to observe, and bow when you go out. I meant that parting bow.
Last night the Community Center hosted a community dinner for neighbors get together and have some fun, catered by my friend’s next door neighbor who owns an excellent hotel in the downtown. It started at 6:30, but we arrived closer to 7:30, as we had to teach late (teaching English is an afterschool and evening profession). As we came in, all eyes were on us and the conversation lulled. And we were the last to sit down. Gaijin. A bit awkward, but soon the conversation went back to normal.
To my left was a guy with a buzzcut and worn hands, my friend on the other side. The table had a huge spread of sushi, odd pickled vegetables, unidentifiable godknowswhats, breaded pork cutlets, tofu balls, octopus balls, chicken nuggets, cherry tomatoes and dip, and beer. Lots of beer. The guy in charge of the evening put two cans of beer in front of me as I sat down. Well, off to a good start anyway.
The guy to my left was totally silent and avoided eye contact, largely pounding his beer as he apparently had finished eating. His hands showed he worked with them. Maybe a woodworker I thought. My friend asked him but got a noncommittal answer to his line of work, except that he worked in town.
The guy on my friend’s right turned out to be a corporate chauffeur. He trotted out the five words of English he knew and I trotted out mine. Then he says “shochu?” And I say “sukoshi,” or a little.
Now, shochu is one of those local drinks that doesn’t translate out of the country the way rice sake does. It can be made from a number of things, such as potatoes and yams, but apparently doesn’t entail refining or distilling it particularly well as the odor and taste suggest otherwise. Now, all you shochu lovers out there, please don’t get your panties in a twist. I’m sure it has its merits. I just haven’t discovered them yet.
So the chauffuer wanders over to an aluminum kettle resting on a portable kerosene heater, brought in to make the room bearable for the evening (it’s just below 0 centigrade outside and patches of snow from last week’s storm are still around), pours out a large water glass of very warm clear liquid and brings it back to the table. I thank the chauffeur as my friend mutters “that’s not water…” and put the plastic cup to my nose. It has all the charm of root cellar potatoes on the turn, moldy socks and the burn of low-grade alcohol. The chauffeur smiles brightly at me. I smile brightly back and take a goodly sip. From years of training in Czechoslovakia drinking cheap and warm Slovnaft distillates in a school with despairing fellow teachers and students, I was able to drink several gulps of the shochu down without spitting them right back up, but the mild headache and nausea were instant.
“Domo arigato gozaimas. Oishi desu.” Thanks very much. It’s delicious, I smiled at the chauffeur, wondering if I could find out which car his was so as to let the air out his tires when I left.
Luckily, I had two cans of very cold Asahi Dry, a Budweiser equivalent, in front of me to wash out the taste of the shochu.
The food was excellent and I munched my way through many plates, mostly identifiable, but some not.
The guy to my left pounded down several more beers while I ate and became alarmingly red in the face. He then asked me what I did for a living, which I sussed by recognizing “shigoto,” the word for workplace. I did my best to explain I was a woodworker, but he just went back to pounding beers. The chauffeur meanwhile had really warmed up to us and was engaging my friend in a deep conversation on god-knows-what as it was all in rapid Japanese. I focused on eating more ocotopus balls.
“Let’s go meet people” my friend suggested, “bring your beer.” So we got up and talked our way around the room. I noted nearly everyone’s face had turned bright red, the laughter grown raucus, the hugs and gestures plentiful. It was a really merry room after about two to seven beers each, and god knows how much warm shochu.
The first guy we talked to had a gray ponytail down to the middle of his back. He and his wife had just come back from Paris and Nancy a few days earlier. Turns out Kanazawa’s sister city is Nancy. We talked in French about the Art Nouveau museum in Nancy, whether French food was too heavy on sauces, the desserts too sugary for his Japanese tastes, and why I was in Japan. We avoided Trump.
The next guy couple we sat down was “mixed,” in that he was Japanese but his wife was Chinese. They were very friendly, not too drunk, but spoke no English whatsoever.
I trotted out the few words of Chinese I remembered for the occasion and wished her “Gong shi fa cai,” Happy New Year.
She looked at me puzzled.
I tried again.
She looked to my friend and asked him what I was trying to say.
“What are you trying to say?” he asked me.
“I’m trying wish her Happy Lunar New Year in Chinese, but I guess I’ve forgotten how to say it. It’s ‘gong shi fa cai’, I think.” My friend speaks English, French and Japanese, not a word of Chinese, but he turns to her and tries the same.
“Gong shi fa cai” he says, and her eyes light up.
“Oh! Gong shi fa cai!” she shouts back at him, and at me. That’s what you were trying to say!.... Happy New Year too!
I puzzled for a bit over this. Was it my friend’s Japanese-English accent that made it work? Did he fake a Chinese accent better? But he doesn’t speak any Chinese…. Maybe I was slurring due to the rather drastic intake of alcohol I had willingly been subjected to…. The moment was utterly brilliant in how little sense it made.
Then we moved over to talk to a very tall Japanese woman, nearly 5 ft. 10 in., wearing a pair of parachute pants and a hand-knit red sweater. She was a professional carver and part-time hippie. We traded pictures of woodworking on our cell phones. Her husband was a full-time aging hippie and at that moment very drunk. He introduced himself by shouting “I rove Bob Deeran! And Cosbee Stirrs ahd Naaaash!” He hugged me, then shouted “Take it Easy! Great Song!” So we sang together, rather too loudly, as it just so happens I knew the song.
Well I’m a-runnin’ down the road, tryin’ to loosen my load
I’ve got seven women on my mind
Four that want to own me, two that want to stone me
One says she’s a friend of mine
Take it easy, take it easy
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
Don’t even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand, and take it easy
How appropriate it all seemed. Just outside, above the clay-tiled roof of the Tsutsujigaoka community center, was a dark night sky with stars looking down on everything, the roofs as far as the eye could see, mixed with trees and hills and roads, quiet at this time of night, the same stars that looked down on Glen Frey, standing on that corner in Winslow Arizona, waiting for that Ford to slow down, the same that looked down on my missed friends and family in London, Montreal, Connecticut, so many places, too many to name, all trying and hoping for the same damn things in life. Swap out the shochu for Jagermeister, and the octopus balls for baked ziti and I could have been at a community dinner in the Firehouse in Bridgewater: just a bunch of socially awkward people made socially open by alcohol, sharing what they do with people they’ve never met, fascinated to learn about each other, making their way with that mix of successes and failures written in the lines on our faces. And I figure much the same is going on in a community center in Basra tonight, while I write this.
And after we finished, he staggered off, probably to look for his guitar and a clean-cut doctor sat next to me, looked at photos of my furniture, and wanted me to come to his house, any time. He loved working with his hands as a surgeon, appreciated craftsmanship, and wanted to learn woodworking. We avoided Trump.
No evening like this would be complete without a trip to the toilet. Here, I had to remove my big-room slippers to use bathroom slippers, so at to minimize the tracking of liquids back into the clean big room. The problem was that Japanese men are not any more adept at relieving themselves accurately when drunk than American men are. So neither the bathroom nor the bathroom slippers were particularly, um, dry. Still, when in Rome....
I then sat with an Architect and looked at pictures of the semi-traditional temple architecture he had designed across Kanazawa, really beautiful stuff He wore a strange kind of hat that became a scarf, hiding all his hair.
Another guy who kind of looked like the Japanese equivalent of Tony Soprano slept upright in his chair, nearly a dozen beer cans in front of him. The night was getting long.
Some started separating the plastic garbage from the metal and the food, and bagging everything, the good food into bags to take home.
As we headed for the door, the French-speaking fellow offered us a cup of espresso from a Bialetti sitting on a propane camping stove he had brought in. The coffee was excellent. And we stayed to talk longer.
The Chinese woman came up to us at the door.
“She says you’re kind of thin for an American,” my friend translated. “Also, in fairness, she admits she’s kind of fat for a Chinese.” I doubled over in laughter. She smiled back and looked satisfied that she had made an important point.
On the short walk back to my friend’s house, I looked up into a heavily overcast sky. Man does it rain and snow in Kanazawa! And more snow on its way tomorrow! But I knew those common stars were right above. Just hard to see them sometimes.
And here's a gratuitous photo of Godzilla and Ultraman. I think.