Thursday, February 8, 2007

Sushi Time, Yakuza-Style!

That's a pretty stupid title for a post. Last night, one of our students took me to a small sushi restaurant. He's an older guy, in his early 60s, a business owner with a weight problem and hyper-tension, a low level student who works very hard but doesn't feel he's making any progress.

Still, he can be counted on to talk in class. That's always a plus. Please, please talk. That's what I want. Although some students have complained I talk too much, I really have no desire to talk at all. It's just that sometimes, if I don't then nobody will, and we'll all sit there in silence for the last 15 minutes of class.

So it's nice to have him in class, even if he tends to get frustrated.

Right at 9pm, he popped his head into my classroom and said, "Let's go!" We gave me directions as we walked, practicing his direction-giving skills: "Turn left here. Go straight. Turn right at the next corner, turn right at the next corner."

This sushi restaurant? If you didn't know exactly where it is, you'd never find it. Not with a map. Not with a handheld GPS system. Not only is it on the fabled side alley I like to call "Yakuza Street," it's hidden in a dark corner, features no signage except the kanji on its entrance curtains and I seriously doubt they've ever bothered to advertise.

Yakuza Street is still decorated for Christmas, by the way. Icicle falls of white bulbs are hanging in front of the bars and restaurants there. And there are many, many restaurants. Tiny mom-and-pop operations, and nondescript bars with terse English names. Things like "Land Bar" and "Drink Pub."

Those aren't actual names, but you get the idea.

There are no cheery open window fronts, so there's a still, a hush, a forboding quality about Yakuza Street, despite the festive lights. The doors of all the bars and restaurants are closed, no light spills out, no rousing drinking chants or songs can be heard.

And then this place, a small L-shaped sushi restaurant run by a small guy with a gray flattop and a woman I took to be his wife. The only other patron was a middle-aged guy sitting by himself. The raised tatami platform with its comfy pillows- which should've held a happy little drinking party- was empty and used to store the current newspaper and my student's overcoat.

In a real sushi restaurant, you usually sit at a bar, or a counter with a plexiglass case where you can see the day's catch on display. The chef usually cuts up your order and does it all right there in front of you, a patently transparent process that to my mind, engenders a trust between chef and patron. Unlike American restaurants where it's all done in secret and people spit in your food and stir the pasta sauce with the same hand they used to hold themselves while peeing... and then didn't wash.

To be social, I had to drink 2 big bottles of beer (I turned down the offer of sake), and my student talked to me in the best English he could muster, and I responded in a mix of really bad Japanese that delighted everyone and English that helped the student. Really, that's what it was- a chance for him to speak English with a foreigner outside the classroom setting.

I didn't mind. I was drinking some Kirin beer and eating lots of real sushi, freshly cut for us as we ordered it. The chef grimaced and smiled as he worked, chatted up my student who in turn chatted up the older woman.

They complimented me on my hashi use (that's chopsticks to you and me, Russ!), which is a fairly common thing you'll hear as a foreigner in Japan. Some people get bent out of shape about it, assuming it's condescending. Maybe it is, but a lot of people project their own stupid negativity onto others, too. I do that. Maybe I'm doing it now.

Anyway, I appreciated it. And when I ate octopus sushi and declared it to be "Oishii!" my student happily exclaimed, "You are Japanese!"

On the way to the taxis parked in front of Zaza City, we almost caught up with a couple of young dudes walking slowly along in front of us. I was about to pass by them, when my student grabbed my arm and pulled me back aside. We kept walking, but now I matched his slower pace and we both gave them a wide berth as we passed.

Then we met a group of smiling men in dark suits coming the other way.

I could've sworn one of them said, "Kombanwa" to me, so I said, "Kombanwa" back and we kept walking.

My student said, in a low voice, "They are Japanese... mafia. Do you know Japanese mafia?"

I replied, "Ah... so ka!"

Yakuza Street.

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