Presents received – book
Presents given – several beers
Having availed myself of the Field Middles’ futon, food, drink, shower, bath, washing machine and computer, I boarded a train from Shibuya that I used to use as a commuter, and it was sheer bliss to be a tourist instead. I had travelled around Tokyo on autopilot the previous year, head down and oblivious to my surroundings, but today the Inokashira Line looked charming, its chrome-plated carriages swaying gracefully through cuttings thick with foliage, and over each level crossing to the monotonous ring of the warning bell. The best place to stand was at the front of the first carriage, where I could see through the driver’s window, and watch as his white-gloved hands pointed out every signal, sign and speed limit between stations (train drivers in Japan all seem to do this, a routine that is apparently designed to keep them alert and aware of potential danger).
I was on my way to meet Mrs Front Field, the teacher who had guided me to a pass mark in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (Level Four, the easiest available at the time) the previous December. Through no fault of her own, my studies with Mrs Front Field had been a rather tortuous experience, because despite her intricate knowledge of what was required for the test and her ability to keep things ticking along with exercises and activities, I was invariably exhausted, and knew that as each lesson came to an end I still had a full day’s work ahead of me. As always, we had arranged to meet at the Ogikubo branch of Denny’s, where our main concern was to find a seat in the non-smoking section, and in the eight months since we last met, both my mood and my ability to hold a conversation had changed for the better. Mrs Front Field was elegant and articulate, a fluent English speaker who regularly travelled to the States with her husband to indulge their passion for baseball. Today, however, we stuck to Japanese, and the usual language lesson mantras of ‘Mr Jones is a lawyer for ABC Company. He gets up at seven a.m. He has coffee and toast for breakfast. He goes to work by train. His hobbies are jogging and ski-ing,’ were noticeable by their absence.
My next stop was Bondi Books in Kichijoji, whose tiny premises were stacked from floor to ceiling with a lovingly maintained selection of everything from plastic-wrapped first editions to well-thumbed paperbacks. The Mr Bondi of Bondi Books was one of the first people I got to know upon arriving in Tokyo, and the kind of shopkeeper who remembered the names of his customers and always made them feel at home. He seemed surprised when I told him that Ibaraki was a vast improvement on Tokyo, and said that he had always been under the impression I enjoyed living in the capital. Perhaps I had managed to conceal my disenchantment, but then again, Mr Bondi had only ever seen me browsing for literary bargains, or attending one of Bondi Books’ legendary anniversary parties [editor's note: since I wrote this - and along with one or two other notable secondhand English bookshops in Tokyo - Bondi has sadly closed its doors].
As it happened, the regional office of my former employers was also in Kichijoji, and I was reminded as I walked past of just how much I had always wanted to firebomb the place. At least once a month, I would climb the stairs to the first floor like a condemned man, first to collect my pay slip, but more importantly to discover just how arduous the coming month’s overtime schedule was to be. The management were never going to win any prizes for labour relations – they once made sure that only one of two teachers whose best friend had been killed in a car accident flew home for the funeral – but as well as a penchant for dishing out six-day weeks to their already overworked teachers, some of their business practices were in fact illegal. To give an example, any employee who called in sick not only had the relevant day’s pay docked from their wages, but also the cost of bringing in a cover teacher, who in turn was given less than half the usual amount for the privilege of giving up one of their own days off. The trouble was, because most of us had neither the money nor the language skills to hire a lawyer or join a union, the school was in little danger of being found out, and as far as I am aware, a similarly unreasonable set of working conditions is still being enforced there today. Waiting on the platform at Kichijoji Station, I half expected a phone call or a hand on my shoulder, accompanied by the order to get back to work, and being in Tokyo at the end of a six-week holiday somehow seemed like cheating.
From Kichijoji, I caught the Chuo Line to Nakano and the bus to Nogata, where I had lived for nine months in my compact and bijou apartment. Nogata may be just twenty minutes from Shinjuku by bicycle, but it could not be more different. Hardly any cars pass along its maze of narrow streets, which are crammed with shop signs, banners and billboards that advertise a twenty-four-hour internet café, a twenty-four-hour video shop, a twenty-four hour curry house, a twenty-four-hour McDonald’s, and numerous twenty-four-hour izakaya and convenience stores. I was on my way to the Ogiya yakitori restaurant, which may not have been open twenty-four hours a day but was still my favourite place in Nogata, if not the whole of Tokyo.
The previous year, Ogiya had served as a refuge from the drudgery of work, and the venue for many a diatribe against our employers, either by myself, or my colleagues Mr Cambridge and Mr Iran. As part of a new intake of teachers, the three of us had flown into Narita together on the same plane, and while Mr Iran was now back in the UK, Mr Cambridge had renewed his contract and was part way through a second year in Tokyo. Tonight happened to be his thirtieth birthday, so a table had been reserved, and several more old friends and workmates were due to make an appearance. Upon ducking through the sliding front door, I was greeted with a chorus of ‘Irasshaimasé!’s, ‘Konbanwa!’s and ‘Hisashiburi!’s (‘Welcome to our shop!’ ‘Good evening!’ and ‘Long time no see!’), which had always been particularly loud at Ogiya, and would be followed by an equally energetic conveyance of one’s food and drink order to the relevant member of staff, so that a typical exchange might be translated as follows:
(Shouting at customer)
WELCOME TO OUR SHOP!
OTHER WAITERS, WAITRESSES AND CHEFS
(Also shouting at customer)
WELCOME TO OUR SHOP!
Good evening! Long time no see!
Good evening! Long time no see!
Please sit down. Would you like to order a drink?
Yes please. Can I have a medium-sized beer?
(Shouting at barman)
ONE MEDIUM-SIZED BEER, PLEASE!
And what would you like to eat?
Two yakitori, please.
(Shouting at yakitori chef)
TWO YAKITORI, PLEASE!
I think I might have some edamamé, if that’s OK.
(Shouting at waitress)
(Shouting at next customer through the door)
WELCOME TO OUR SHOP!
And so on and so forth.
Ogiya covered an area of no more than forty square metres, with a smoking, barbecue-style yakitori grill at the window, a bar and a row of stools along the left-hand side as you entered, and two tables on a raised tatami platform at the rear, to the right of which was the kitchen, and beyond that a tiny bathroom. Like Surf In between Hagi and Hikimi, the fixtures, fittings and furniture all appeared to have been hand carved from the same tree trunk, although there was no such thing as an emergency exit, so if the grill at the front door were to catch fire, the whole place would probably go up within seconds, taking everyone inside with it. At any one time, as many as six or seven staff were on duty, despite a capacity of no more than fifteen customers – customers who were a mixture of blue-collar tradesmen and white-collar media types. Not that I would have recognised them, but several famous comedians were known to frequent Ogiya, and much of the restaurant’s success was down to its franchisee. Mr Bamboo Field looked more like a skateboarding slacker than a businessman, with his bleached hair, ripped jeans and white-trash baseball cap. Originally from Kansai, he had studied acting at university, and his trademark high-pitched giggle was as much a feature of Ogiya as the cries of ‘Irasshaimasé!’ Part of the reason that Mr Cambridge, Mr Iran and myself had started coming here was because Mr Bamboo Field spoke English, and he even commissioned his sister, who had been to university in Scotland, to produce an English-language menu for us, which thankfully contained a more diverse range of dishes than just char-grilled chicken cartilage and the like.
Ogiya is the closest I have ever come to being a regular, although compared to my once or twice a week, there were people here who really did turn up every night: people like a theatre stage manager who would never approach us without the security of his pocket-sized Japanese-English dictionary; a musician with a pink mohican who played in a punk band called Cannonball; an electrician who had once fooled me into thinking he was really a Japanese teacher; and a policeman who was famous in Nogata for being very tall (he was, in fact, no taller than either Mr Cambridge or Mr Iran), and confessed that his job involved little more than moving bicycles around. This lot were clearly not missing any enzymes, and could work their way through glass after glass of shochu, and while I would like to have understood more of what they said to me, it may not have made much sense if I had.
Mr Cambridge was presented with a tofu birthday cake (desserts were not a speciality at Ogiya), party poppers were popped, enough medium-sized beers were drunk to float a cruise ship, and both the atmosphere and the surroundings were comfortingly familiar, with the same kitsch Asahi posters of bikini girls holding foaming tankards of beer, the same tracing of Mr Iran’s mythically enormous hands on the wall, and the same sticker on the toilet cistern saying ‘BREAK YOUR FIST!’ It was, to coin a phrase, just like old times, except that tonight I felt more like the prodigal son than the put-upon salaryman. Knowing that I was also a lightweight, Mr Cambridge called things to a halt at closing time so that we could catch the last Chuo Line train back to Musashi-Sakai.
You may be wondering why on earth Mr Cambridge had chosen to continue working for such an appalling employer. Well, even before arriving in Japan, he had already spent several years at an English school in London, where he would quite happily teach three three-hour classes back-to-back without so much as a lesson plan or a lunch break. He was also far too busy having a good time to read the small print in his employment contract, and in my absence, nights out at Ogiya had often continued into the early hours, or to a pool hall, darts bar or city-centre club.
I had always been slightly in awe of Mr Cambridge’s ability to extract every last scrap of enjoyment from life while still managing to hold down a full-time job. He was the kind of person who would drink until last orders, take every drug on offer – legal or otherwise – stay up until daybreak (and sometimes beyond: in his university days, he had once only narrowly failed to stay awake for one hundred consecutive hours), work an eight-hour day, and then begin the process all over again. Not even hobbies were indulged in half-heartedly, and he would spend every last penny of his wages on gadgets, books, CDs, video games, collectables, cigarettes, guitars and holidays, or in bars, restaurants, rehearsal rooms, concert venues, barber-shops, onsen and internet cafes. So having made it back to his rented room in a gaijin house, I was shown photographs of his latest hike in the mountains, played a song he had just recorded on a four-track tape machine, and taught some Japanese idioms from a newly purchased reference book. One of his birthday presents had been a DVD of The League of Gentlemen, which he began to watch as I arranged a sleeping bag and inflatable mattress on the floor.
‘This is great,’ he said. ‘It’s really good to go to sleep to. Dark and surreal, but still funny.’
Almost before the opening credits had rolled, Mr Cambridge was snoring away, and I quietly leaned over to turn off the television before drifting off to sleep myself.