Yu. Yuuu!

Sanmachi Suji District

We are in Takayama; it’s evening. We are at a bar called Torio’s, enjoying air conditioning and cold beers after a day of walking around in the intense heat. Elevator versions of popular oldies, as are now disconcertingly labeled songs I grew up with, are quietly emanating from a portal somewhere. The bar is half full of paunchy Japanese men, whose tone suggests that they are telling dirty stories and jokes. They smoke a lot and sip on mixed drinks. The room is otherwise quiet, spread out, mute, antiseptic, in the way a restaurant at a Holiday Inn might be. The combination screams late 1980s Bar Mitzvah rather than a pub you would find in a Japanese mountain town. Instead of sipping a 600 Yen beer, I feel as though I should be working up the nerve to ask Wendy Abrahms to dance and trying to sneak a screwdriver from my friend’s geri-rebellious grandfather.

It’s been a great day. Though it’s only a few streets, you can lose yourself in Takayama’s Sanmachi Suji District for a good hour or two amongst its sake breweries, restaurants, and shops. Takayama was largely isolated up here in the mountains, so a great deal of it does resemble turn of 20th century Japan. We did a tour of a museum with a wonderful guide who spoke like Mr. Bean, and we hiked up to Takayama Castle, which is now just a stone base up in the woods.

The Original ‘Box o’ wine’

As we have spent the day enduring the heat and enjoying phenomenal sites, we encourage ourselves to enjoy some local Japanese pubs. We began this endeavor in the late afternoon with a taste testing of sake at a brewery. We sipped cold sake out of little wooden boxes, and watched tourists knock over goods at the gift shop with sake-red faces. As the woman dutifully went over our sake options and then carefully poured out our portions, we are once again reminded of the Japanese pride in their work.

This has been evident all trip and in Takayama as well. The shrines complement the surrounding nature perfectly, water is channeled through the town in perfect stone aqueducts, and the bridges look as though they were erected yesterday. The people are the same, taking everything they do seriously. The waitress, using A2 English, walks us through our hida beef lunch with explicit instructions (1st third with no additives, 2nd third with mixed vegetables, last third as soup). The vendors grilling dango rice balls and sausages do so with vigilance, the people working the market offer free cups of soup and juice, nibble of pickled veggies and mystery snacks that looks as though it resided in a living thing’s groin. We are very impressed by this.

The next place after the sake brewery is a small French restaurant called Muriu’s. We sip on beers and listen to the Beatles album being played. The place is empty and we are ejected for the mid-afternoon shutdown between lunch and dinner. We leave in mild disappointment, for the first time finding a Japanese bartender who isn’t bending over backwards to please us. This is how we found our way to Torio’s and its rhapsody in mitzvah atmosphere. After a beer, we decide a change in scenery is needed and so we end up wandering around the red light district.

There’s something fascinating about a red light district. In Amsterdam its women behind glass overtly hawking their genital-based wares. In Japan, it’s more reserved. Love hotels, where you can stay for the night or rest for an hour. Here, in the mountain village of Takayama, the places are tucked discreetly behind plain doors with not so discreet names. One to One. Lovejoy. Hey Tiger. Passion Snack (wtf?). Erotic Massage.

We walk through the red light briskly and with no intention of going in, for no other reason than we can’t figure out how to say herpes in Japanese. We find our way to another small pub, push through an inviting heavy door that looks as though its last entrant was Bilbo Baggins. On the other side we are met by a wide smile and pleasant eyes, unfortunately, twelve seconds after those eyes take us in, the attached mouth tells us to leave, that gaijin are not welcome, and he offers an apology. We leave.

“You can’t help but feel a little rejected,” I say to Mark.

“Let’s go to Yu’s Pub,” he counters.

Yu’s Pub: seconds before whoopie-gate

Yu’s Pub is on the main street, a low-lying room whose front doors are open to the street. We head in, are greeted by the effusive greetings of Yu, standing behind the bar. He pours us beers and we take up short round stools near the open front doors. Yu is friendly, Yu speaks about 30 words in English, which is about 22 more than we speak in Japanese. The atmosphere is pleasant and we try two of Japan’s mountain whiskeys to make it more so. The couple next to us is made up of a Japanese woman and a cardboard cutout white guy who answers her in one word shots.

Yu keeps telling people that it’s time to close, but more people keep coming in to order beers and so he just stays open. He never ever stops smiling and, though it’s part of his cultural duty to do that and serve us, he never shows a hint of this. When Mark goes to the toilet, Yu runs to his seat and raises the padding to reveal a whoopie cushion. He then blows it up and replaces it under Mark’s seat. He then dashes to another table, sits with his legs crossed, rests his elbow on the table and his chin in his hand, and observes the ceiling in a caricature of casual indifference. Mark returns and sits.

After the initial blast, Yu leaps to his feet, points, and bursts into a deep laughter the likes of which I haven’t heard since the last time I tried to play basketball in front of people. Yu then immediately bows and apologizes for his impish behavior, and no doubt begs for the return of the honor for him and fourteen generations of his ancestry. We grant this wish. Though I do believe Mark misses the opportunity to play Robert De Niro and saying “Yu! Yuuu!”

We leave in a good mood, the no gaijin guy and the Bar Mitzvah bar are out of our memory. We are tired and looking forward to a good night’s rest, which will unfortunately mostly take place on the porch of the hostel, since we came back after curfew. The weather was mild and the ants minimal, but we did consider learning the word for herpes and seeing what Passion Snack is all about.

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