The Cowboys and Royalty of a Shinjuku Jazz Bar

Japan Train Station

We’re drunk again. I’ve reached a point of diminishing returns with the whiskey and club soda I’m using as cough syrup. Grant and I are at a jazz bar just outside Shinjuku, one we’ve made many friends at. I pull my stash of ibuprofen from my pocket and pop the little white pill from its sleeve, washing it down with the ice water at the bottom of the empty glass.

The joint is a dim room, couldn’t be more than 400 square feet, crowded by the owner’s collection of vinyl jazz records. The bar portion is sectioned off at the back of the room and narrow enough to drive the most seasoned bartender insane. Rie, the dark haired, bespectacled, artist girl that tends to the place makes it work. An entire corner is cluttered with a drum set that’s been packed away into it’s dozen or so cases, shrinking the room even more. It only sits 7 people, 9 if you can squeeze into the bar stools. Dust gathers on everything except the record player, the row of alcohol bottles, and the benches that line the perimeter wall. The sound system is pushing 15 years old, and the entire place is a smoking section. With the whiskey and beer and jazz and rice snacks, it’s as close to a heaven as I’m likely going to get.

Our friend, Yuko, is the owner of the occupying force that is the drum set in the corner. He’s the drummer in the house band at this particular bar, they play American blues rock and it’s damn good. One side of his head is buzzed short, while the longer, perfectly gelled hair on top of his head swoops to the unshaven side. Yuko isn’t the typical Japanese guy you hear about, he’s not the salary-man that works 14 hour days and goes to the bar to get drunk to unwind and loathe his life quietly. His Hawaiian shirt and leopard print sneakers help make sure you’d never confuse him for a company man. When he drinks, he drinks because he wants to not because he’s driven to. Sadly, Yuko’s been in the hospital for the past few days.

I’ve noticed that in Japan you may meet a stranger and they’ll be polite and respectful, but there’s a remoteness to the conversation. It’s not a lack of warmth or detachment so much as it appears to be a need to seem humble, like they don’t want to burden you. With a few drinks the shyness goes away and you’re dealing with a more open person, but even drunk there’s still a modesty to them. It’s completely un-American (in a good way) and the humility takes getting used to.

The people also have a way of giving answers that aren’t really answers at all. When Grant and I asked how Yuko was doing in the hospital they told us he reached out to us with a message. All it said was, “The weather is very nice out today.” Now, as far as I can gather, it’s his way of saying he’s doing well without directly referring to the less-than-stellar situation and without outright lying. They do this type of riddle answer a lot. I think it serves as a way to preserve both parties’ dignity: I don’t let on about a painful situation, and you don’t have to listen to it.

Kyoshi, another local, is sitting on one of the bar stools, close to Rie. He negotiates rights to old Japanese films for his TV station to air late nights. Kyoshi’s blue blazer and slim jeans give away his young age, as older professionals I’ve seen wear slacks or khakis to work. I’ve noticed he’s sat near Rie every night this week. There’s a lit cigarette cradled in his forefingers and it seems out of place as he doesn’t strike me as a smoker. I’d say he picked up smoking from her, or maybe for her.

Kyoshi leans into Rie’s space. Her face is down, a bright spot in the dim room, lit by her new smart phone. She just bought it today, it’s her first non-flip phone. Her fingers are scrolling, taking to the new device like a natural. Kyoshi speaks to her in Japanese, situated over her phone as well, playing tutor. Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is spinning on the record player.

The cowbell on the front door rattles over the soundtrack of the bar when an older couple walks in. The Woman is still laughing at something the man said in the alley before they walked through the door when she notices that we’re all looking up. They both bow to the room, a courteous entrance, and an acknowledgement that they may have been too loud. They’re inebriated, drunk on alcohol and the feeling you get from a first date going well. The Gentleman hangs her coat on the rack before doing the same with his own. Rie drops her new phone and offers the guests a drink. They respond in Japanese and walk past our table to the only bench left, the one across from Yuko’s stowed drum set.

Rie notices my empty glass and pounces, the angel. With a few motions behind the bar she’s making her way around again to hand me and the new guests our drinks. I’m doing my best impression of not being sick, but you’d still boo me off stage at The Apollo. You would misconstrue my dark circles as black eyes. Grant, with bright eyes and chipper attitude asks how I’m doing. This place brings out his best moods. I’m doing well enough, nothing a few more drinks can’t mask.

Whiskey Shinjuku Grant

The night moves slow. When the last train to Okubo Station is at midnight instead of 2am, slow is the way you want a good night to move. Grant and I have struck up a conversation with a college student. He’s a mousey, skinny kid with a long face and a khaki jacket. He walked in the bar and I spotted a camera in his hand which immediately gives us both something to talk about. He speaks English and is studying…something I can’t remember, the alcohol/illness combination does nothing for my short term memory, but he travels a lot for school. As we make small talk, we trade pictures of our travel photos through our cell phones.

From the corner of my eye, I notice the Woman in the love corner exits and crosses the bar to use the bathroom. The Gentleman seizes this opportunity to slide a bar stool up to our table, but with a little bravado, dragging the legs across the wooden floor. When he sets his beer glass down next to ours, he sets it down with some force, like that’s where its going to stay. He begins speaking Japanese to the mousey man who is now acting as the translator. I, being the nosy drunk that I am, ask the translator to see how the Gentleman’s date is going. The Translator obliges. Gentleman cracks a smile and says something back to the translator.

“He says it’s going well. She’s an ER doctor…like George Clooney.”

I reply back with something like, “oh man, got you a doctor, trying to get taken care of. no shame in that.”

(__________) <—The Translator said nothing here because my comment was untranslatable. I think he just didn’t want to say it.

The Translator tells us that the Gentlemen asked where we’re visiting from.

In this situation, Grant and I have made it a habit to answer with “Texas.” They know Texas because we’re all  hard drinking, horse riding cowboys which is only a half truth in our case.

“He says he marched for 20 days in the United States many years ago.”

“Oh, cool, where?”

“Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. It was a march to protest Nuclear weapons around the world.”

The Gentlemen continues speaking Japanese, but he’s speaking it loud, almost boisterous, something you don’t find a lot of in Japan. It’s refreshing to see in a culture that is almost too timid at times.

I tell the Translator, “He seems important. What does he do?”

He either doesn’t hear me, or doesn’t want to ask, so I take matters into my own hands. I grab my cell phone off the water-stained table, wiping a drop of fallen condensation from the screen and open Google Translate. In the least thought-out moment of the evening I pound out the phrase, “You seem important.” That’s not weird, is it? The app translates this phrase on a blue screen with white Japanese letters. I flash it over to the Gentlemen. He lifts his head and looks down his nose, squinting, trying to read it. A half smirk appears, but that’s it. Ok…

I then ask the translator what the Gentlemen does for a living again. This time the Translator relays my question.

“He said he marched in America and really likes the Native Americans,” and then something about appreciating their history and what they went through.

It’s another one of those puzzle question deflections they like to throw out. It’s not that he didn’t understand the question, it’s not a mistranslation, it’s just the type of answer I would learn to expect. Some times —most times— they’re borderline nonsensical.

By this time the Woman has exited the bathroom and is standing near our group’s table, I don’t think she’s stopped smiling since they walked in. The Gentlemen takes a final drink and sets the empty glass back on the table, with a little less impact than the last. Bowing to the room, he shakes everyone’s hand individually. He’s got a hell of a grip.  He places his hand on his date’s shoulder, a touch that says, “let’s go back to my place.” His natural charisma worked. As a final joke, on the way out, he opens the door that leads to the restroom and plays overly confused. She laughs. He owns the situation. I take notes.

With the couple gone, we all resume conversation. Sly and the Family Stone’s track I Want To Take You Higher plays first. With a mouthful of rice snacks the Translator asks me, “That man, do you know who he was?”

I shake my head.

“He works for one of the Ministries of the Japanese Government.”

My drunken brain starts adding it all up…like Russel Crowe. The swagger, the suit, the handshake. Makes sense now.

“I knew there was something different! Why do you think he didn’t just say that?”

The Translator shrugs a passive shrug.

I’d later find out the Gentlemen was much like a U.S. Senator.

It’s time to start the process of sobering up so I order a water with the next round. Rie scuttles back behind the bar and while she’s busy Kyoshi makes his way over. He asks a question: Do either of us have girlfriend’s back in The States? We answer and repeat the question to him.

He turns around to snatch his drink from the bar, and steals a sip while faking a smile.

“No, not for a few months.”

Grant, noticeably drunk at this point, asks, “What happened?”

I clear my throat as silently as I can, I feel like this is one of those nonreciprocal questions.

Kyoshi looks up at the ceiling, buying himself time. I can tell what he’s doing before he does it. He cocks his head and says:

“She didn’t like The Beatles.”

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