“You from?” he said, a little slurred.

He looked like a telecoms engineer and had a bottle of Japanese whiskey, labeled with his name, sat on the counter top in front of him. The air was thick with steam and the smell of hot fat. The beer glasses were iced and hurt to pick up. Japanese babbled. If there was music I couldn’t hear it. I didn’t want to.

“England” I said. He nodded unsurely. My wife’s first degree is in Japanese and she translated “Ingurando”. The man nodded faster, the high-vis strips on his workers dungarees caught the light as he did so. He started to talk in a steam of Japanese, called something out to the man behind the bar and then laughed.

“I think he’s ordered you some food,” said my wife uncertainly. The man, wide-eyed, nodded emphatically and giggled mischievously.  I thought he’s going to hurt himself if he doesn’t slow down on the nodding.

We spent the next few minutes trying to converse in broken English, broken Japanese and – in one memorable moment – utterly smashed Mandarin Chinese.

We ordered more beer. We drank more beer.

The food arrived. It looked like squid in some kind of tomato sauce. I’d been fooled before by food in Asia. Nothing can prepare you for the cognitive dissonance experienced when popping in a steamed pork bun and discovering upon biting, that it is full of fermented fish jaw. That kind of event will ruin your whole day. Especially when hungover.

The man picked up the squid-like food, threw it in his mouth and chewed furiously. His cheeks and eyes bulged and then he swallowed theatrically, and waved his hand in front of his face.

“He keeps saying chilli over and over again” my wife said with a modicum of glee.

Great. Barely 24 hours in Kyoto and I’d somehow found myself in a chilli-off with a Japanese man.

By his reaction I assumed that the ‘squid’ was hotter than the very instant of creation. I broke apart some disposable chopsticks and nodded.

Challenge accepted.

It was squid in tomato sauce. It was zingy and tasty and not really all that spicy.

I shrugged, noticing that some of the other barflies had stopped talking to watched the spectacle.

“Did you tell him we live in Thailand and eat really hot food all the time?” I asked my wife.

She shook her head pursing her lips to stop laughing.

The man stared in amazement at my nonchalance. After pausing for a moment in silence, he clapped me on the shoulder and roared with laughter before repeatedly gripping my biceps, talking to other drinkers and pointing back at me. My Japanese is pretty rough but loosely translated it was something along the lines of: “Look at Johnny Big Balls gai jin-san over here, ate the really hot squid and didn’t even blink”.


Clearly he thought he couldn’t top that for sheer entertainment so he tossed back a whiskey, threw his hat on his head and shouted goodbye to the bar staff. He walked to the door, paused, looked back and nodded to me with a smile before trundling off into the evening laughing to himself.

The bar staff picked up his bottle of whiskey, re-corked it and put it up with a line of others, all labelled with people’s names.

We ordered more beer. We drank more beer.

Over time the patrons cycled out, to be replaced by new drinkers. The place was always busy but never crammed.

“That woman’s crying,” said my wife nodding to a Japanese lady in her mid-thirties.

It was true, there was a woman sat crying to her friend. It was, without wanting to stereotype, a very Japanese cry. Silent, with the odd resigned sigh, a tremble of the shoulders, head bowed, face mostly covered by her hair. Her friend picked up a tissue and handed it to her. The woman bowed her thanks and used it quietly.

“I need a wee and some money” I said to my wife. Timings not always been my thing.

I stood up, not realising my legs would be quite so unsteady and weaved my way to the toilets and ATM outside.

As I went I saw a European food import shop. They sold Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. The proper stuff. From Britain.

My mind was cast back to the crying woman in the izakaya. In my befuddled brain I drew the equation:

Crying Woman (CW) + Chocolate² (C²) = Less Tears (<T)

I gabbed a couple of bars, facilitated and ungracefully made my way back to the izakaya. The woman and her friend were still there; the pile of tissues had grown larger.

I tapped the crying lady on the shoulder, she looked round confused. I handed her the chocolate bars. She looked more confused. I pointed to my eyes, made a sad face, pointed to the chocolate, made a happy face and gave her a thumbs up. Her friend clearly understood because she laughed, spoke in rapid Japanese and the crying woman looked to her, looked back to me and smiled.

I put the chocolate on the bar in front of them, bowed my head and wondered back over to my wife.

“What did you do that for?” she said.

My wife’s expression was hard to read. It seemed to show annoyance that I had given chocolate to another woman and pride that I had done something kind for a stranger. I’m kind of enigmatic like that.


We ordered more beer. We drank more beer.

The women left, as they did they paid for a beer for us. They were laughing as they did. I felt all warm and glowing inside and I had more beer. This is known in the trade as a win-win situation.

The night drew late and having filled ourselves with beer and snacks we stepped out into the cold December air, meandering our way back to the hotel, laughing at our evening. Happy and ensconced in layers and an alcoholic fug we were warm.

I love places like this. They are points of connection where anecdotes and adventures are created. Local bars, the world over, where people try to drink you under the table (in China they never win) or cheat you at cards (in Dublin they always win) or get to know you without speaking your language (pretty much everywhere).

It proves what we’ve known all along. An evening of hilarious misadventure just needs is a few beers, some fried food and a willingness to go with the flow.

Doubly so when you don’t speak the language.

What’s your favourite drinking story? Did you end up in a field in Poland with ‘Gavin’ tattooed on your forehead? Were you caught molesting a squirrel? Did you get Twin Peaks? Let me know below!


4 Replies to “Izakaya”

  1. My drinking stories are as entertaining, I assure you. Maybe pathetic, but not kind and no cultural exchanges were made, either. In any case, I want you to know that I’m crying. In a very Asian American way and I don’t have a chocolate allergy…allow me to forward you my address.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ha! I’m not sure it was a cultural exchange. Probably just trying to blow the gai-jin’s head off with spice for a laugh.

      You’ll have to do better than that. In any case I’m only really kind when half-cut and it’s only one o’clock in the afternoon.


  2. Well that story makes my life feel incomplete. I wish I had a drinking story half as fun and memorable. Although I do remember a time on Bourbon Street in NOLA that was a blast up until the 5k I had to run the next morning……

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, the classic drinking before a race. I did my first 10k still drunk from the night before. I swear it’s the only reason I finished it.

      I’ve never been to the states but would love to go. New Orleans is way up on the list.

      Cheers mate.


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