It was a pleasant early summer evening. I was wandering in the bustling Nishiki market area of Kyoto. It was dinner time, the busiest time of the day. The historical fish market sprawled and spawned all kinds of food-related businesses. The light and neon signs from the restaurants enlivened every corner of the neighbourhood.
I had no dinner plan. As with most other solo travels I did in cities, I had only planned ahead for the last evening to try out a special restaurant, a fancier one, as my own way of bidding farewell to a city. For the rest of the time, I preferred to play by ear, and let my mood and feel do the choosing. As usual, decent restaurants make no appeal to me. Just to picture a night of dressing up, sitting upright and minding manners is tiring enough after a long day out. Small joints with casual and relaxing vibes are far more pleasant places to hang outto end a day.
Here in this area, I contemplated no difficulty in finding a place that I took a fancy to. Eateries and bistros sprouted everywhere in the alleys at the back of the main streets. I rambled through the back streets packed with restaurants for almost an hour. As it turned out, I peeked in through the shopfronts, pondered a while, and gave them all a pass. I could not tell exactly what it was, but there was some little thing not right in all these places that kept me from diving in.
It was almost nine. I turned aimlessly into the corner of a dimly-lit alley. Nobody was seen around. I should have been hesitant to walk deeper into the alley if it were not for the strange light that threw out in the middle. It came from a building with a balcony fenced with wooden railing on the first floor. Traditional Japanese paper lanterns of pure white adorned with red trimmings hung above. Through the lanterns, the glow was soft and mellow. Like a moth, my instinct followed, and buzzed towards the warm light.
Closer, the faint swing music became more audible, and vibrated the air. My strides moved in sync with the rhythm.
I looked up at the balcony. It was a bar. A high table set right next to the railing. I pictured myself sitting there watching the quiet alley from above, a fizzy drink in hand. The food items on the blackboard at the door front looked enticing too.
Now I was here, I knew what I had been looking for all this evening – a place that was snug but not crowded, cheerful but not noisy. I needed a place that felt private; I wanted to withdraw myself from the crowd.
I climbed the stairs. An L-shaped kitchen station stretched right at the corner next to the landing. A bar counter set across, partitioning the kitchen from the dining area. A very lean man in a black vest and a straw hat, back to me, was working in front of the countertop. He jumped just when he turned and found me standing at the landing.
There were no other customers in the bar.
I made a gesture to the high table at the far end next to the railing, asking to sit there. Pointing on the menu, I ordered a bottle of sake and a dish of steamed egg rolls. There was one recommended dish in the menu which I could not decipher in Japanese, so I asked to know what it was in English. The lean man made some efforts to search for the word, tilting his head and considering a little while, then uttered the word ‘ribs’ at last. As if he could not be sure if I got what he said, he motioned his hand up and down around his chest. His bony chest did look like a cut of spare ribs. I quickly moved my eyes away, trying not to crack a laugh.
Looking around, the bar was a long and narrow shoebox. Four small high tables run the length from the balcony to the kitchen station, in an almost corridor-like space. Placards handwritten with various food items were tagged freely on the walls. Little triangles of colourful flags dangling from a cotton string trimmed the ceiling. Nautical-themed bric-a-bracs scattered at different corners. Turning to the street side, a red flag with a skull and two bones crossed beneath lolled out of the balcony.
This bar looked like a cute pirate ship.
Soon the skinny man brought over the dish. I tried to strike a conversation. Perhaps it was the language barrier,or else it was just that he was not the chatty type, he did not talk much. He busied himself back again at the kitchen station, while I started enjoying my cool sake and steaming egg rolls, feet tapping with the loosening swing music.
Watching him work from afar, back-facing, his lean figure, black vest and straw hat suddenly rang a bell on me – he was playing Monkey D “Straw Hat” Luffy in the Japanese manga ‘One Piece’ – the boy who proclaims himself the King of the Pirates and takes a crew of straw hat pirates to a sea adventure looking for treasure.
I delved into my dinner quietly all to myself for half an hour at this pirate ship bar, until two pretty ladies, like out of nowhere, materialised at the landing. They greeted “Straw Hat Luffy” cheerily and started jabbering. Digging from their handbags, they tugged a few thin glittering tinsels, fiddling and swinging around, then seated themselves comfortably at the bar counter like at home. They looked like good friends with “Luffy”. I watched the three from a distance. The two girls kept chattering while “Luffy” did his work in the kitchen, muttering only one or two short remarks once in a while.
It was time for me to go. I walked over to the kitchen, checked the bill, and told “Luffy” that his food was great. Before I turned around, I nodded to the girls and they smiled back. One of the girls pouted her mouth, lips pointing to “Luffy”. ‘Today is this guy’s birthday,’ she said. ‘We come here to celebrate with him.’
‘He is thirty-seven, an old guy already!’ the other girl added jokingly and giggled.
“Luffy” looked like he did not know what to do. He just stood there, looking awkward in an embarrassed smile.
The girl’s announcement was a real surprise.
I dived into this desolate bar by sheer coincidence. All evening was quiet, calm and peaceful in this place, not an inkling of anything celebratory or special. How could I imagine that I, a random traveler, a complete stranger, had been spending all this evening on the birthday of a solitary bar owner?
It was a birthday with no crowd, no noise and no fun, a day like any other; but perhaps it was just the way “Luffy” wanted his birthday to be like.
‘Look at him, he grows so fat. He gotta shed some pounds.’ The girl kept teasing the birthday guy. They must be great buddies.
A friend of mine once told me that there are just three things you need to make a good life: a roof over your head, food in your stomach, and people who keep you company.
That day, on “Straw Hat” Luffy’s thirty-seventh birthday, he had the company of two great friends, and a stranger who had nothing to do with him, but was brought to his place by fate from a long way away.
A few days had passed. I decided to spend the last evening in Kyoto walking around the Nishiki neighbourhood one last time before flying back home. I planned to take a bath at the old public bathhouse just opposite Luffy’s Pirate Ship Bar.
It was towards midnight when I finished bathing. It would be nice to walk over to say goodbye to “Luffy”, but it was getting late. I had to head back to my hostel straight.
Five steps away from the instant I raised the old bathhouse curtain and walked out, “Luffy”, like a bullet, rushed down from the stairs of his bar, apparently in a hurry. Seeing me, he braked abruptly in front of me.
He was wearing the same black vest, straw hat on his head. I told him I would be leaving Kyoto the next morning to fly home. ‘Why don’t you come over for a farewell drink then?’ he said earnestly. ‘Please go up to the bar first. I will be right back.’, and he vanished like a puff of black smoke.
‘Isn’t that fate at work again? Sounds not good to work against it.‘ I thought for a second, and walked up the stairs.
The bar was like another place from the one I visited a few days ago. Today was a Friday. People wrapped in office outfits gathered around the few high tables.
I picked the same table by the railing. The table next to mine was crowded by four, two men and two ladies. Apart from a young-looking lady, the rest were in their mid-forties. They chatted airily, laughing hard sometimes. It was their happy Friday. I knew it from the Japanese dramas – office workers always got drunk after work on Fridays.
“Luffy” came back to bring me sake. The people looked at us curiously, as they heard us speak a different language.
A while later, the young lady came over and greeted me in a friendly way. She was beautiful and elegant. She spoke good English in a soft feminine tone that could only flow from the lips of a delicate Japanese woman. She said she had worked in London for two years, and told me many other things about herself. I found her exceptionally frank and candid when she talked about her personal life, and reckoned that she might be a young girl who had yet grown to have the wariness to protect herself from people she barely knew. So I was utterly surprised when she told me that she had well past her mid-thirties. I felt amazed to find a person who can stay so good-natured and simple-minded amidst a world full of deceit and calculations.
We exchanged contacts, and she had to run with the other woman to catch the last train home. I was about to finish my last sip and go when the two guys left in the party invited me to join them for some dishes they just ordered. They filled my glass, and with a mischievous look, pointed to another table next to theirs. The table was spilled with at least half a dozen empty bottles that they had finished off earlier. From the way they looked and talked, though, they did not look even half drunk yet. They made a silly joke or a two, and laughed to themselves heartily, but they were sober.
In the Japanese dramas, office guys like these two have a lot to grumble – problems in their families, at work, and all kinds of dejection while going through their mid-life crisis. I wanted to know how far did these dramas depict the truth. So I asked them why they were still not home. They answered in knitted brows, not providing a reason but proclaiming that they preferred to stay here drinking, and they would not head home until dawn. Soon they realised that they might have blurted out in a too plainspoken way to a foreigner, and laughed to themselves in a silly way. It was a pity, though, that I could not understand more of their troubled lives because of the language; and in any case, I had to go. So I bid this funny duo farewell, and ended my last night in Kyoto with an interesting episode as in a Japanese drama.
As I left, I walked to the kitchen, saying the last goodbye to “Straw Hat” Luffy. He was still the same shy guy, awkwardly accepting a hug from me, and asked me to take care.
Recalling the way he was teased by his friends on his birthday, I jokingly scanned him up and down, ‘Look, you have some extra fat. Go start a diet!’
He stroked his lean ribs, a goofy grin to me.