It’s about 7pm in Shibuya, Tokyo and we’ve navigated to a recommended Izakaya, a Japanese-style pub. We take our shoes off at the door. Deliciously cool air conditioning asserts itself over the humid heat lingering by the door. The indistinguishable hum of a handful of conversations emanates from the next room. Glasses clink somewhere inside.
A slight Japanese woman welcomes us, smiling, and I hold up two fingers, saying “for two?”
“Hai,” she says, “dozou,” holding her palm out. Please come in.
We step up on the tatami mats, down a short hallway and around a corner and the Izakaya opens up.
Delicious smells waft over from our left, where there’s a an open kitchen sunken in the floor, bordered by a blonde wooden bar with Japanese style seating around it. A chorus erupts from the kitchen: “Irasshaimasen!” — Welcome!
Our host leads us across the room and we follow. The first tables we pass are japanese style – people sit cross legged, on cushions at knee high tables. I look up, past the mats and down a couple stairs, there’s western seating, standard tables and chairs.
I scan the faces of the groups of diners to our right sitting cross legged on the floor, then the faces of the people around the bar. No obvious foreigners, yet, and at least four dates in progress. That’s a win – we might be in a local haunt and a date spot. Definitely not a tourist trap.
We follow the waitress across the mats and down three steps into the western-style seating are and turn left, following the line of the bar. The waitress indicates our table, and Neesh and I sit down facing each other.
I look across at the chefs at work. One of them looks up and catches my eye, smiles and nods. I look around and note that every customer, when seated, is roughly eye level with the chefs. Whoever designed this room was careful of the proportions. An eye for detail.
Neesh leans across the table and pitches her voice low. “The group to my left, they’re a bit ‘sex and the city,’ don’t you think?”
I glance over my right shoulder.
“Which one is Samantha?” I ask, smiling.
“Not sure. The one closest to us definitely thinks she’s Carrie.”
“And did you see?” I tilt my head toward the bar, “there’s at least four dates going on in here?”
Neesh nods slowly, smiling. I guess she’s thinking what I’m thinking.
“Good rec by Blake!” She says.
“I think that girl’s still waiting for her date.” I incline my head towards a girl sitting at the bar, the cushion next to her conspicuously empty. As if on cue, she looks at her watch. Just past the girl, a woman lights up a cigarette. She takes a puff, then transfers the cigarette to her left hand, picks up her chopsticks and starts eating, chewing, swallowing, quaffs her drink, puffs again.
A slight Japanese woman arrives to take our order. She young and smiley, and we smile back as we point at the menu, ordering a beer and a colorful sochu drink to start. She asks us a question about the Sochu drink. We assume she’s giving us are options but we have no idea what they mean. She tries for a few minutes to explain, patiently, speaking a little more slowly. I appreciate her effort.
“Gomenasai,“ I say, pulling a sad face, “wakarimasen.” I smile hopefully.
I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
She taps her chin momentarily, then thrusts her hand in the air as she calls over the room to a large, matronly waitress, beckoning. The woman strides over. Close up, her face is round and friendly, and she has powerful arms. I imagine her making bread – and kicking out the drunks.
“Hello!” She says happily, a kind smile splitting her face. Her colleague shoots away to serve less troublesome customers.
“For the Sochu, Do you want the drink with soda or water?”
We look at each other, thinking the same thing – so that’s what she was asking!
“Water, please,” says Neesh.
A little later, she comes back to take food orders. We point at items, starting with the cured mackerel.
“Good choice! Very good.” She gives us the thumbs up and nods, pursing her lips in faux-seriousness. She lifts her face toward the kitchen and hollers in Japanese across the room. I jump a little in my seat, surprised by the noise, then smile sheepishly. Our waitress pretends not to notice but I see the corners of her mouth twitch a little.
We order more, and to each item she says “Hai” assertively before loudly and happily hollering the item across the room to the team of chefs. The chefs holler back with gusto: “HAI!”
I am aware that the whole rooms knows what we’ve ordered. I’m not sure how I feel about this. Did we order correctly? Are they judging the baka gaijin?
A short while later, our friendly English speaker returns. In her left hand she’s carrying our mackerel order. In her right she has a blowtorch. She tells us the plan.
“OK,” she looks at Neesh, “You hold lemon. I say squeeze, you squeeze all over!” She points at the fish. “Ok? Ready?”
We’re more excited about this than we should be. Blowtorches and Lemons.
The blowtorch comes to life with a muted, hollow roar and she chars the mackerel in front of us. The silver skin chars and crisps and curls and the fat sizzles as it renders.
She looks at Neesha and starts counting down: “Three!”
Neesh holds up the lemon.
I realize I’m holding my breath.
She stops the blowtorch. “Threeeeee!”
Neesh squeezes the lemon on the fish. The juice sizzles as it meets the hot charred skin.
The matron cheers and claps. We clap too, and we’re not alone. As I look around, I see Carrie looking over at us and clapping. No — the whole sex and the city table is clapping.
The girl who is waiting for her date starts to clap, then stops herself. Maybe she doesn’t feel good about clapping without a date.
Wide grins split our faces.
I think we ordered right.