Cultural Exchange (Travelogue)

The man sitting to the right of Neesh catches my eye and smiles. His round, friendly face is flushed pink with alcohol and sweat beads on his upper lip. I’m thankful it’s not just me that’s sweating bullets in this humidity.

I smile and nod toward him, lean forward in a micro-bow. “Konnichiwa.” Hello.

He bows in return and asks, “Konnichiwa… Nihongo?” Hello… you speak japanese? His eyebrows rise halfway up his forehead and his smile broadens.

“Iie,” I say, No, holding my thumb and forefinger close together in front of my face. “Sekoshi.” A little.

He says something else in Japanese.

“Sumimasen, Wakarimasen” Sorry, I don’t understand.

He pauses and purses his lips and falls silent.

Overhead, another train rumbles along the raised tracks leading into Ueno Station in East Tokyo. We’re seated at a long communal table at a cheerful japanese pub. Since we’ve arrived we’ve eaten six chicken skewers and drunk about a litre and a half of beer and were starting to recover. The hours of walking around the temple at Senso-ji, then across town to Ueno, we needed a break. We’d settled in this little pub under a railway arch just as the rain had set in.

“Where… are… you… from?” He asks.

I give the easiest answer. “We are from England.”

He tilts his head slightly and looks up and to the right, saying nothing.

“We’re from London,” Neesh offered.

He scratches his head and blinks. I feel bad for him and start thinking of ways to mime this one out.

“We’re from London, England,” she says slowly.

His round face is split by a huge grin of comprehension. “Eh! Lun-don! Dabu Oh Seban!”

I don’t understand. I smile in the way I do when I don’t know what else to do, then I look at Neesh to rescue me. She looks back and shakes her head.

Our flush-faced friend laces his fingers together, sticking two of his fingers straight up like a gun. He holds them next to his face and pulled his lips into a tight, serious line as he says: “Jamesu Bondo, dabu oh seban.”

I can’t help but giggle. He did it so well.

“Double-Oh-Seven! Yes! He is from London.” Neesh says.

“I… like double-oh-seven,” he says, nodding. “Sugoi.” Cool.

“Hontou Sugoi.” I say, deploying my limited baby-japanese. Very cool.

I do my best Sean Connery elbow-lean and say, “Shaken, not stirred.”

We all chuckle.

“What do you think of the Queen?” Neesha asks, tracing the shape of a crown above her head.

“Yes!” He says, “I like Queen. She very rich.”

“Harry Potter is from London too.” I say.

“Eeehhhhhhh,” he says, waving his hand, “I like…” he thinks how to say this, ”double oh seven… better.” He pulls a face and waves his hand dismissively, “magic…”

I take a sip of my beer. He turns to his left, speaking in Japanese to an old man with one tooth. His face is completely red, but he’s been avidly listening to our conversation. I hear “London” and “Double oh Seven.” The man with one tooth laughs and gives us the thumbs up.

Behind Neesha a steady flow of people moves through the underpass. Fat drops of rain are falling outside the arch, shrouding the remains of the day. A young family lingers on the edge of the pass, their kid pulling his dad’s hand to go out into the rain, but his dad holds firm.

“It’s raining pretty hard now,” I say.

“Yeah. It’s good we’re sitting in here. This is fun,” Neesha says.

I’m trying to think of more iconic British movies, or other ways to make conversation.

“It’s interesting to me that his first association of England is James Bond. Makes you think about how other countries see your country versus how you see theirs. What’s the first thing you think of when you think of Japan?”

“Sushi,” Neesha says.

“Ha! Yeah exactly. For me it’s Ramen. We both have food associations!”

I turn back to our friend, “Do you like Godzilla?”

He cocks his head to the side and frowns. This time I try to make it sound Japanese. “You like Go-Ji-Ra?” and he gets it.

“Yes yes! Everybody likes Go-ji-ra. Everybody.” He nods sagely.

“I like Shark movie,” he reaches into a satchel he has under his chair and pulls out three DVDs in plastic sleeves. “this… today,” he hands me the DVDs. “You bought these today?” I ask.

He nods. I go through them:

Zombie Shark.

Another movie whose title I can’t read, the cover sporting a scary looking shark.

Sharknado II.

“Sharknado!” I say.

“I Looooove Sharknado,” he tells me, “Sugoi.” Cool.

I pour some more beer from our last large bottle of Sapporo and into our glasses. I look over at his cartoonish face. I figure he’s in his forties, maybe.

“What do you do for work?” I ask slowly.

He taps his chin and looking skyward, before holding his hands out in front of him and waggling his fingers. “I am Salaryman,” he says, then holds his head in his hands, “very tired. Work too much.”

I say, “Oh no! which company do you work for?”

He cocks his head again, in the same “I don’t understand” way as he did earlier. Before I can figure out how to ask this in more digestible way, he takes the initiative and changes the subject.

“You… drink… Hoppy?!” He says as holds up a dark brown glass bottle he’s been pouring from. He rotates the bottle and shows us the name. It says ‘Hoppy’ in an italic flowing script.

“Hoppy good. Hoppy Happy!” He says, then chuckles at his own joke. It’s infectious and we laugh too.

“Hoppy Happy!” Neesha says.

“What is Hoppy?” I ask him.

“Tokyo special drink, mix mix” he says, holding his glass up on one hand, tipping his hoppy bottle towards the glass.

“What is in that glass,” I say, pointing.

“Ah. Shochu.” He holds up his glass, “this, called Naka,” then holds up the hoppy bottle, “this, Soto.”

I have no idea what he means.

“Together,” he continues, holding the bottle closer to the glass, “hoppy setto.”

“I think we should get one,” I say to Neesh, “shall we stick around here for a little longer?”

She looks over her right shoulder at the rain. The deluge has grown; the rain is flowing off the edge of the railway underpass onto the street like a threaded silver curtain.

“We may as well, look at that rain.”

I drain my glass of beer and call to the waiter, “sumimasen!”

“Hai!” He comes over.

I say, “Hoppy Setto Kudasai!” Hoppy set, please.

Our friend claps then gives me the thumbs up as he hears my order.

“Hai!” The waiter retreats to the bar. A few moments later he returns with a tall glass of ice with shochu in it and a black bottle of hoppy. I take a quick sip of each separately – the shochu has a mild punch to it, its flavor somewhere between sake and vodka. The hoppy has a slight bitterness, beer flavoured but not quite beer. Both liquids are clear. I poured the hoppy into the shochu glass and took a swig.

“Oishi!” I say. Delicious!

Our new friend claps his hands together. He leans over and shares the story with One-tooth, who cackles in delight.

I offer the glass to Neesha and she drinks and passes it back.

“It’s delicious. Light,” she says, nodding. “Very quaffable!”

He holds up his glass and says “Kanpai!”


We all lift our glasses, clink them together, and take another sip. I might not be learning his views on Shinzo Abe or North Korea, but I’m certainly getting into some sort of cultural exchange.

“Hoppy Happy?” he asks.

There’s only one acceptable answer. “Hoppy happy!”

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