Generally I like to celebrate my birthdays with friends and family when I can. This year, having a gathering of familiar faces was a little difficult due to the fact that on the date of my birth, my Dad and I were excitedly exploring Kanazawa, an extremely interesting town on the Sea of Japan. After a four and a half hour shinkansen ride from Hiroshima we dropped our bags off at our hotel and wandered the city, finding our bearings and simply orienting ourselves to our surroundings. After an afternoon of scouting it was decided that dinner was needed to fuel our bellies and combat the cold that was beginning to embrace us.
Of course – when you’re in Japan it’s compulsory to enjoy the country’s famously simple delicacy; guaranteed to fill you up and fight off the chill. We found a place easily enough and made our way inside. It was still reasonably early so my Dad and I were the only customers for the moment. We were greeted by an elderly woman who welcomed us in and bade us to sit, handing us menus and telling us to relax. I already knew what I wanted and soon enough, my birthday feast was placed before me:
The ramen was absolutely delicious. As we sat in the warm, quiet restaurant we toasted to another year and another adventure. I wasn’t sure how I would celebrate my birthday this year but this wasn’t far off the mark for me. A simple affair, with no big fuss. While I couldn’t be with everyone that I would have liked to share the occasion with, I had one of the most important people in my life with me and that was a big deal. We finished our meals and made our “arigatō”s (thank-yous) and headed back toward our hotel.
One thing you need to know is that if you ever travel with my father, getting from one place to another is never as simple as that. His curiosity is enormous and his knack for finding distraction is unparalleled. Naturally, his desire for memorable experiences brought us to a backstreet near our hotel, where after brief discussion we started up a thin flight of stairs that started below a sign indicating a swinging night spot. The jingling of a bell signalled our arrival as we opened the door and found ourselves in a quaint little bar where a number of patrons were engaged in friendly conversation.
Second glances were cast our way as we sat at the bar and ordered our first drink. As the barmaid did her best to converse with us in English, I too tried to relay information in what little Japanese I could remember from high school. The owner introduced herself and before long we had found ourselves in the company of a number of new friends. It turned out that this izakaya, like so many across Japan, had a dedicated group of patrons and they were all in attendance tonight.
And so, on a cold night in an exciting and different land, my Dad and I made some new friends. There was the very stylish and sophisticated Yoshiko, whose son was studying in Australia and whose command of English made the evening so much more interesting; the 82-year old retired couple who had dedicated the remainder of their lives to travelling whenever the mood struck them, the humble and suave businessman friend of Yoshiko’s, the young and nervous barmaid, the brash but kind bar owner Momo-chan and the doctor, a man of great character and heart. Once my Dad had revealed that it was my birthday, celebratory wine flowed and we all shared stories about ourselves into the night.
As the hour grew late, Momo-chan reached below the bar and presented what appeared to be a bag of fish. Let me set your imagination straight – this bag didn’t look like the kind of bag you might bring home from the fishmongers; it resembled the kind of bag that you would bring home from the pet store. It would be almost the length of your arm and it was half-filled with a swarm of small, black, writhing fish! She spoke excitedly in Japanese and I caught not a single word but there was no translation necessary. Grabbing a glass, Momo-chan opened the bag and proceeded to pour a shot of the fish into the vessel, to which she then added what appeared to be either dark red wine or soy sauce. I can’t be entirely certain.
The glass was then offered to me and regrettably, I declined to down the concoction of still thrashing fish in a display of manliness bordering on stupidity. To my rescue came the retired couple with the husband taking the first half of the shot and his wife finishing off the remainder. Cheers rang out in the small room and I’m fairly sure that I was mocked for my cowardice.
After much celebration and camaraderie, our good doctor made a toast. For having just met us, he had taken us into his heart with great enthusiasm and treated us as though we had been family for years. He toasted our health and success in life, voicing his gratitude to the universe for bringing us all together. His best friend had died in December and it warmed his heart that he had been able to share my birthday after such a terrible loss; he wished everyone, but particularly my Dad and I, safety in our travels and happiness always. He finished his wine, shook our hands and embraced us, thanking us again for the laughter and the companionship and with that, disappeared through the door and into the night. Yoshiko followed shortly afterwards to make sure that he got home safely and shortly after that my Dad and I headed back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep after an amazing day.
The next night, while I was sat at the laundromat washing our clothes, my Dad found another izakaya – and a woman he decided should be my wife. But that’s a story for another time!