By Fred Varcoe
I always thought Okayama was a fairly industrial type of place. Still, my opinion was immaterial as it was a place I never stopped at and never thought I’d visit. It’s famous for pink peaches, a green garden, a black castle and some stupid mythical kid (Momotaro, the peach boy), but really it’s just an ordinary provincial town between Kobe and Hiroshima.
I tried to gauge the buzz of the place by engaging in conversation with two very hot schoolgirls. Both had their uniform skirts hoisted high, one had blue contacts and they were good-looking girls.
“Where you going?” I asked casually, detecting that they really wanted to get to know me.
“Station,” came the reply with a giggle. Not a schoolgirl giggle really; childish, yes, but not stupid cute.
“You just finished school?”
“No. Today’s a holiday.”
“But you’re wearing your uniforms. What have you been doing?”
“In your school uniforms?” My fantasy life flashed before me.
“Yes, we like the uniforms.” So do I, honey.
“I’m heading for Starbucks.” I didn’t want to be too pushy. Play it cool, I thought.
“OK, fuck off.”
Ah, er, OK.
Alright, they didn’t tell me to fuck off directly, but they did in that way that young girls can, and do. They wanted to talk to the gaijin for a minute; that was about as much intercourse as they needed.
They probably weren’t schoolgirl prostitutes and as I only have 1,000 yen to last me for the rest of the year, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. But as I glanced around the streets of Okayama, it seemed to be full of provocatively attired teenagers. Was this place populated entirely by teenage prostitutes or was it my imagination?
Unfortunately, it was my imagination. I mentioned the fact on my Facebook page and my “friends” demanded pictures. Next day, I was ready with my phone camera, but all the teenage prostitutes had gone. In fact, I couldn’t find any prostitutes at all at 10 a.m. Strange town.
“It’s Saturday night
And I’ve just got paid,
Gonna find a whore
And try to get laid.”
Yes, I’m sure that’s what Bill Haley sung in his famous groundbreaking rock ‘n’ roll classic “Cock Around the Clock.” But it didn’t apply to me, ‘cos it was Thursday night, I hadn’t got paid, I wasn’t trying to find a whore and I never get laid. I’ve just finished my work and I’m plodding along the streets of Okayama. The internet tells me there are two bars that might be of interest to me.
“On weekdays (nights) there is nothing to do, but there are some bars around the main street. Aussie Bar is one of them which is a ‘gaijin bar,’ literally foreigners bar. It’s a friendly Australian bar but not so crowded on weekdays (even weekends recently). Weekends you can go to Club Matador, which is a Latino dance club with English-speaking staff. Friday nights they have salsa parties, which are not crowded, but on Saturday nights every bored foreigner and Japanese ladies who are looking for foreign guys are gathering there. The musics (sic) are South American-based boring stuff, but after few drinks you may like it. The place is hard to find and not so close to the station. It’s somewhere in Tamachi area (adults area).”
Ah, a ringing endorsement in disguise – or in disgust. I hit the streets, walking away from the east side of the station where I’m staying. According to the map, there’s nothing on the west side (although a couple of people I talk to tell me their favorite eating and drinking places are on the west side). I head up the street from my hotel. It seems relatively lively. There’s a couple of late-night coffee shops (they’re even hard to find in Tokyo), some bars and izakaya. Nothing adult. No schoolgirls, not many slutty looking women – in fact, not many people at all. Five minutes up the street, I’m outside the “hard-to-find” Club Matador wondering if I should chance their tempting-looking chicken and chips. Seems surprisingly pricey. Half a chicken and chips is 1,500 yen, 600 yen more than I pay at the press club in Tokyo. Let’s walk some more.
A few yards beyond Club Matador I’m standing on a tree-lined road that is split in two by a narrow, fast-moving river. It’s really very pleasant. That and the trams make the city seem very parochial. It’s like a throwback in time. I’m tempted by the smart-looking tapas bar I see, but that would also involve spending more than I want to. I wander further up the street past a pink-signed soapland advertising some cute local gals, none of whom appear to be teenagers, schoolgirls or partial to clothing. There’s a conveniently placed hotel to the rear. I circle back towards Club Matador and opt to stroll up the road-lined river.
Here’s Skippers, obviously trying to look like an English pub – and succeeding until I look at the menu. Pizza, pilaf, chili con carne? I glimpse inside. It looks alright. I’ll check it out another night when I might be in the mood for British pilaf. (I tried; it was closed.) Cafe Gong looks tempting in a dingy kind of way, but I have my walking boots on now and can’t stop. A deluxe darts bar looks OK (they have a Guinness sign outside), as do the modern-looking Agate and Shelter, but I end up outside Club Matador again and I’m hungry. I would really like their chicken and chips – so I order the guacamole plate. It’s barely passable (for 800 yen) and the bimbo next to me insists on nicking some of my doritos. Her (cuter) bimbo friend passes, but smiles in a non-patronising way. (Japanese bimbos are masters in the art of the withering smile; I’m sure they teach it at bimbo school.)
Bimbo 2 works in a dentist’s or is a dentist, or maybe she just likes teeth. Or perhaps she’s offering to clamp her teeth around my …. I really should learn more Japanese. Such faux pas could prove embarrassing. Anyway, it’s Thursday night and the two are out enjoying themselves, which seems to involve trying every cocktail on the menu.
“What’s that?” I inquire of the pink monstrosity in front of B2.
“It’s pink,” she replies.
“OK, but what flavor is it?”
I take a sniff.
She smells nice.
I sniff the drink.
Oh my god.
“It’s strawberry. It’s like a milkshake.”
“It’s got vodka in it,” Ippei, the English-speaking barman tells me.
Ippei is a handsome young chap who looks like he knows the bimbo sisters, or at least wants to undress them. His English isn’t perfect, but he’s very friendly and happy to talk. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much to say. I tell him I was looking for the Aussie Bar, but was told it had closed down. I had asked three women I was working with in Okayama where the best places in town were, in particular the Aussie Bar. It was closed they said. So I asked them where I could go instead.
“To drink, you know, a bar.”
Clueless. I’m not sure they even knew there was an east side to the station.
Luckily (a relative term in this context), I met Ippei.
“I’m working there tomorrow night,” he says. “Come along.”
Bimbo 1 has a headache, is whining and has decided to fall asleep in her food. I’d asked her what she does for a living.
What do you do all day?
What do you do at night?
“Are you a whore?” I imagined a brave version of me asking her.
“Of course I’m a fucking whore, you idiot. Do you think a normal person would dress like this?” I imagined her reply.
“Where’s the Aussie Bar?” I ask Ippei.
“I’ll draw you a map.”
Fifteen minutes later he presents me with a map on a small but detailed piece of paper. He’s even colored in the river. If I’d had the time, I think he would have built me a three-dimensional mock-up of the area. It’s a very intricate map for something that only needs a few swift strokes of the pen. It turns out all he had to do was say: Go outside, turn left at the river and walk for three minutes.
How to get to Aussie Bar
The bimbos are becoming boring. The foxy barmaid is anything but – but she ignores me. Barman No. 2 grudgingly says hello. He says he’s Mexican. All his buddies speak Spanish. One plonks himself down beside me (I think to avoid sitting next to the black guy a few stools up.) I look at him; he looks at his drink. I look at my drink. I look at him again. He looks at his drink. I look at the barmaid. She looks at his drink. Time to leave.
“It’s Saturday night and…” I grab Ippei’s map and go in search of the Aussie Bar, which, of course, is just around the corner from everything else.
I cross the main street that leads from the station to the castle.
Everything goes dark. It was like someone had turned off a light switch. If there was actually anything there, I would call it the sleazy part of town. But it was just gloomy. There’s one place near the main street called the ORZ Bar. Is that it? I didn’t actually check what the Aussie Bar was called. You’d expect Waltzing Matilda or Ned Kelly’s Last Stand or the XXXX Bar or the Where the Bloody Hell Are You Bar. I decide the ORZ Bar isn’t it. Shame, it looks quite decent. As I venture further into the gloom, a dull yellow sign appears.
It says: “Aussie Bar.”
I lower my expectations.
But it looks like a bar, a British bar really. Ippei is sitting next to the fridge and offers me a stool. He introduces me to the owner, Jason. Pleasant enough.
“What’s on the menu, Ippei?”
Not much, as it turns out. Mexican pilaf, chicken and rice, a dog turd and sausages.
The dog turd sounds tempting.
“What kind of sausages do you have, Jason?”
“Are they Japanese, or English style or German frankfurters, or what?”
“Errr… I don’t know. I think they’re Japanese.”
“Yes, I think they’re frankfurters,” Ippei chips in unhelpfully.
“What flavor is the dog turd?”
I need an alternative to unspecified sausages. Rice. You can’t go wrong with rice.
“What’s the Mexican pilaf like? Has it got beans? Is it hot and spicy?”
“It’s rice,” Ippei explains. “And Mexican.”
“And maybe a little bit spicy, but it’s good.”
“Can you put a dog turd on it?”
Mexican it is, then.
The Mexican chef tosses rice from the rice cooker into the pan, sprinkles chopped chilis on top and adds some home-spiced chili beans. In a few minutes of crazed flambé culinary magic, he has conjured up a healthy helping of home-cooked soul food to warm my stomach and my heart…
Ippei takes the plastic bag out of the microwave and cuts it open. The brown contents ooze onto a plate, which Ippei serves to me with his ever-cheery smile.
“Mexican pilaf,” he reminds me. It tastes good, but I was so hungry even my toenails would have tasted good.
Nice but Tim
“Here’s another Englishman,” Jason exclaims. “It’s Tim.”
Why, so it is. Never met him before, and within minutes I’m thinking he’s a complete twat. Might be marginally tolerable when he’s not pissed. Drunk, he comes at me with all barrels blazing.
“Writer? I’m a writer, too.”
“What do you write?”
“Oh, everything. You know…”
Er, nope; haven’t got a clue. No matter, he’ll keep talking.
“Do you know there are three ways from which to examine life? Love, justice and pity. These three define everything in life. Take David Beckham. His love of playing for England. The just decision to drop him. And the pity we have for him. You see; love, justice and pity. It defines everything.”
God, I wish I’d met this guy before I’d had that Mexican pilaf. I sense vomit.
Tim’s faux-yakuza shirt and wicker trilby are too close – not to each other, to me. Not only is he trying to ram his cod philosophy into my brain, he’s also trying to ram it down my throat physically. He goes to hug a guy at the bar. Then he comes back to me and makes to try and hug me. I warn him to back off.
“Tell me more about your philosophy, Tim.”
He rants. He’s still too close. This guy is obviously stir crazy. Small towns can do that to you. Luckily, he goes to the bog and the girl at the bar smiles at me. I move. She’s sitting with a guy who surfs and boxes. She works in Starbucks, and makes it sound like a career. Maybe in Okayama, it is. They’re friendly, although Starbucks girl is constantly looking over my shoulder at the entrance as if she’s seeking salvation from another patron as yet unarrived. Surf dude buys me a beer and asks if he can stay at my house in Chiba. I tell him my wife might not approve. He’s a little too insistent. And I don’t want to buy him a drink.
Jason distracts me by introducing Matt, another Englishman. He’s a middle-aged northerner with unfashionable glasses. Wearing an England shirt. He reminds me of a mad, very highly strung former submariner I used to work with in Saudi Arabia. Too wound up. Too intense. But compared to Tim, he’s almost a relief.
Time for a little relief of my own. Reality returns in the bog (luckily Tim’s left it).
What the fucking hell am I doing in a craphole like this? Aussie Bar? Any Aussie Bar that calls itself Aussie Bar is desperately saying to all sane people: Stay the fuck away!
I get the fuck out.
Sunday morning. My last full day in Okayama. Time for a latte to sustain me through the afternoon’s work. It’s shopping day in Japan. Lots of girls; not a lot of fashion. Still, it makes pleasant viewing. A girl in a floral dress comes in, gives me a smile. It’s not the “Why the fuck are you looking at me” smile I usually get; it’s more a “Hello, have a nice day” kind of smile. But a genuine one.
Hot chicks in hot-pants waltz by outside the window. My peripheral vision catches a floral dress. It’s sitting next to me. It’s Erika; she’s a bank person. She’s very attractive. She speaks English.
Metal-tipped tentacles spring from her ears, she slices open the top of my head and removes my brain.
Surprisingly, this isn’t true. Erika is simply an angel sent by Bog in heaven to make me like Okayama. She lives half-an-hour out of town with her family and three dogs. She works in a bank. She likes Starbucks. She’s visited England (London, Oxford, Windsor, Canterbury, Salisbury). She wants to speak English with native speakers. She’s so pleasant I’m tempted to ask her what species she is.
She asks what I’ve done in Okayama. I tell her about the previous night’s visit to the Aussie Bar.
“An Aussie bar. Maybe I should go there.”
“NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” I suggest lightly.
Don’t you know anywhere else, I ask.
Not surprisingly, she doesn’t. She gets up at 5 a.m., gets to work before 8 a.m., finishes at 5:30 p.m., goes home, eats with her family, plays with her dogs and goes to sleep. In spite of the fact that she’s met me, she has faith in foreigners. She wants to meet her prince, she says.
“Prince Fred of Chiba?” I inquire.
As much as an angel can do it, she gives me the “fuck off” look.
So many Japanese know so little about the places where they live. I wonder if I know that little about England. Well, certainly I do now, but I’ve been out of the country for 30 years. Nevertheless, I know things. When I go to a new town – in any country – I try to walk around it. Sometimes, I walk for hours and hours. I look for restaurants or bars, nooks and crannies, history and schoolgirls. All the things a tourist needs. All the things a resident needs to know. After a two-hour walk around Okayama, I seemed to know more than all the residents I met there. And that happens all the time. I still know dick, but I know more dick than most residents.
But Erika restores my faith in the people of Okayama. I can’t judge the place on the few barflys I’ve met. She’s wholesome and genuine, not stupid and outgoing in a very demure way. I’m not sure she’ll find her prince in Okayama, but I know a few places she needn’t bother looking in.
But she wasn’t the only Erika sending out positives vibes from Okayama. Erika Araki is the captain of the Japan volleyball team and she hails from Okayama. On Saturday, she had been massive in helping Japan overcome the unbeaten Poles in the women’s World Grand Prix.
Recovering from an injury, she had come off the bench and put on a hero’s performance in front of her family, friends and fans. In fact, the whole team were awesome. They may not be giants on the international sports stage, but this particular group of players – coached by the tight-lipped, but, I suspect, very fucking good Masayoshi Manabe – is a wonderful advert for Japanese women, Japanese athletes and Japanese potential.
Hopefully, Okayama will be inspired by Erika and her teammates. Maybe all Okayama girls should be called Erika.
More likely, they’ll just be called Okayama Girls.
Don’t want to confuse the guys at Aussie Bar.