Dedicated to my wife Michele, to whom I have been married for 15 years as of today, and who lived and inspired this story and so many others in my heart’s yet unwritten library…
The old timers had been going there for over one hundred years, and I was finally back after more than twenty.
It was Kamiya Bar, in the Asakusa part of Tokyo, and in 2008 it was the oldest western-style bar in the city. Western as in high ceilings, with wood-veneer wall panels, chrome light fixtures and those patterned tin ceiling tiles you see in old saloons in Tombstone, Arizona or Virginia City, Nevada.
But I don’t mean it also had brass spittoons and buffalo horns on the walls. Kamiya Bar is western in contrast to the small izakayas and tatami-mat sake parlors scattered all throughout Tokyo. The main drinking room is more like a European beer hall, with elongated tables often shared by strangers. Condiment stations and menu holders are placed on the tables the way they would be in a typical American diner. Everyone wears Western clothing, and foreigners are not only a common sight, the Japanese welcome them quite warmly.
Sometimes in unexpected ways.
I had been dreaming of returning to Tokyo for many years. I was a bachelor here, fresh out of university, working for an American company for a few months shy of two years. During the course of our relationship I had told my wife many stories of the happiness I had found here. So we had decided, six months before this day, to pool our resources and use her frequent-flier miles to take a grand 11-day trip to Tokyo and my old haunts.
Which included, of course, Kamiya Bar.
And actually, this was our second visit to the place. We had come to Asakusa a few days before to see the temple and do some shopping. My wife was utterly charmed with Asakusa and its more traditional appearance and overall feel. Before leaving Asakusa that day, I wanted to show her Kamiya Bar, where we had many drinks and several plates of excellent fried potatoes. Most of the food in the drinking rooms is western-style. Most of the drinks are large mugs of Asahi Beer and small, elegant glasses of denki bran, a luscious, fragrant brandy made and served exclusively by the bar.
On our first visit, my wife and I had a smaller table to ourselves along the wall of the main drinking room. This visit I wanted to go to the bar before she was done with her shopping. When I got there, the place was very crowded and I ended up sitting at a table with an elderly Japanese man in the smaller front drinking room. Our table touched another where a middle-aged Japanese couple were seated.
At first I thought all three of them were together, from the way they were talking and being friendly to each other. Empty food plates on the seam between the two tables made it look like these had been shared. Because of my perception, I used my poor Japanese to defer to the elderly man when asking if I could sit at his table with all three people.
It turned out the middle-aged couple spoke some English. So while the old man waved me to a chair without batting an eye, he spoke through the middle-aged lady who told me I was welcome to sit with them. There were many empty beer mugs and denki bran glasses on the tables, and I have often wondered since how much of a factor they played in the wonderful hour which was to come.
When you first enter Kamiya Bar, you have to buy drink tickets at the front counter before taking a seat. In addition to the shopping bags which were now tucked behind my chair, I had tickets for two large beers and two denki brans, which I placed on the table in front of me. That’s how it works: the waitress comes by, takes the tickets you’ve put out, and then comes back with your drinks. For subsequent rounds, you just put your cash on the table, and the waitress replaces the drinks you’ve had with fresh ones.
I had just gotten my beer and brandy when the middle-aged couple asked me some of the standard questions. Where was I from? How did I like Japan? I told them that I used to come to Kamiya Bar when I was a young man many years ago, and this made them delightfully surprised. The old man asked the lady what I had said, and when she told him he nodded approvingly at me and raised his glass to the one I had just picked up. When our glasses clinked, we drank and he nodded again. Then he put another bite of fried potato and croquette into his mouth.
For the next few minutes, the middle-aged couple and I talked, with the lady translating for the old man and I when we had questions for each other. Although far better than my Japanese, her English was not that great, but here is what I learned:
The couple were married, but lived separately during most of the month because he had to stay in a company dorm for his job in Tokyo. The lady and their children stayed at the family home far outside the city. The couple and the old man did not know each other, had only met that very afternoon at the tables we now occupied. I had thought the old man was a father or elderly uncle, but the lady said no. And the old man was a veteran of World War II. He had served the emperor.
By this time my wife had arrived, and I tucked her packages and shopping bags behind my chair with mine. In busted English and broken Japanese, my wife, the married couple, and the old man managed to introduce themselves. The lady and I further summarized for my wife the conversation she had missed before arriving. My wife was very taken by the fact that the old man had served in the war.
She asked the lady what the old man had done in the war, something she and I both wanted to know. The lady asked the old man, but he apparently wanted to dodge the question. I watched him as he spoke, and he didn’t show any shame or embarrassment that I could see. He acted like a man who had happier things on his mind and didn’t want anything but light-hearted talk to carry our little drinking session forward. Through the lady he said, while smiling, that he preferred not to say. That settled it for me.
Then the waitress happened by and the old man ordered another round of beer and brandy for our group. The drinks arrived a minute later, and he pushed his pile of cash yen towards the waitress. I motioned for my cash, to place it with the old man’s, but he gently patted my hand down and away from his money. He was buying, and that settled that for us.
As we reached for our drinks, my wife asked the lady to tell the old man that her father had served in the U.S. Army during the war. It hadn’t occurred to me to mention that, but it did not surprise me that my wife did. After the lady spoke to the old man, he looked at my wife and seemed to beam at her. A very warm look. He then touched glasses with my wife as he had with me earlier, and toasted the rest of the table. He noticed that I was looking at his fried potato and croquette and offered me his plate. I was so full of beer by then I had no room for his kind offer. He smiled at this after the lady passed it on to him.
And as we had asked him, the old man asked my wife what her father had done in the war. Through the lady, my wife said her father had been an airplane mechanic but that he really didn’t like to talk about his role in the war very much either. The old man nodded and smiled at this. And perhaps it was the beer, but I suddenly noticed, except for the almond eyes and the lack of a mustache, my wife and I could have been sitting at this table with her father. Both men were the same age, about the same build, and favored long-sleeved dress shirts with sweater vests. At least that is what our Japanese old man was wearing, along with a grey wool driving cap.
And again maybe it was the beer and brandy but for the rest of our little drinking session I could sense real warmth between my wife and the old man. He bought another round of drinks for the table, and another plate of croquette which I agreed to share with him. He seemed pleased that no one had to suggest I put tonkatsu sauce on my food. Upon noticing, I asked the lady to tell the old man that all properly-trained gaijin know the value of tonkatsu sauce on croquette. The lady, her husband and the old man got a chuckle out of this. It made me happy to make them happy.
By this time about an hour had passed, and the old man announced that he had to go home and get some sleep. He had to spend the day with his grandchildren tomorrow. It was only six in the evening, but he got up and reached for the grey suit coat on the back of his chair. He had one arm into one sleeve, and seemed to be struggling with the rest of the process, when my wife quickly reached up and helped him into the suit coat. When the old man reached for his overcoat, my wife stood and helped him on with that.
For her help, the old man bowed to my wife and reached his hands to shake hers. My wife took the old man’s hands into both of hers and kissed them as the old man bowed a little extra bow to her. The kiss ended quickly, and my wife looked up smiling at the old man. He in turn was smiling at me as we reached out with single hands and shook. He had one of the most confident grips I have ever felt.
The drinking session had ended.
The middle-aged couple said they had to go as well. My wife and I were bone-tired and a bit tipsy. We decided to leave Kamiya Bar and head back to our vacation rental across town in Nakano to regroup before planning the rest of our evening. We ended up staying in, having a snack dinner from the local combini and good beer and sake from a store called Life. We didn’t regret staying in, for we still had a few nights left in Tokyo. And one night out in Tokyo can often be worth two or three in any major western city.
But we didn’t go back to Kamiya Bar, though we talked about it. Even if we had, there probably would have been little chance of seeing the old man or the middle-aged couple again. I did give the couple our address and phone number with instructions to call us and stay with us if they travel to the States. But it has been seven years now and my wife and I have not heard from them. That’s okay. We have already made plans to return to Tokyo this year.
But I have thought often about the old man since we returned from that trip, and I think of the bond he and my wife seemed instantly to share. I found it beautiful, but still don’t quite understand it. But I have never been a daughter, or the child of a war veteran, so perhaps real comprehension of this will always elude me.
But from my point of view it doesn’t matter, because I know this:
I don’t care what the old man did in the war, if he was a medic, a cook, a commando, or a pilot who strafed Pearl Harbor. For a short time he was our benefactor and our friend. And he was Japanese and we were Americans and it was Kamiya Bar.
(This story was written in 2010, although the photos are from 2008. Uh, except the first photo, that’s from 2013. Kamiya Bar was undergoing some changes last time I was there. I’m looking forward to seeing these changes with my wife in November, 2015. Published concurrently on Scholars and Rogues. Kampai, kids.)