I went to Japan a few years ago. I arrived at my hotel at about half past ten at night, hungry and thirsty. There was nothing in the hotel to eat, and precious little to drink. So after stashing my bags in my tiny room, I decided to head off out onto the streets, which were still busy, to see if I could find somewhere to get a bite to eat and drink.
I'd walked about a quarter of a mile before I suddenly realised that I'd forgotten to bring the Japanese phrase book that was buried in one of my bags. But I decided to continue anyway, along streets lit with blazing shop signs and glittering neon lights. And eventually, in a narrow street, I came across a tiny little restaurant, its front plastered with indecipherable Japanese hieroglyphs. I peered through the little windows, and inside I could see people sat at tables. It was the only restaurant I'd encountered on my walk, so I decided that it would have to do. And I went in.
Inside there were ten or so small tables, with three or four people sat eating around each one, and a long counter with more people sat on stools along it. It looked completely chock full. A little smiling waiter came scurrying up to me and said something incomprehensible in Japanese. I pointed hopefully at my mouth. He smiled and nodded, and held up a hand, and released one, two, and three fingers. I guessed he was asking me how many of us there were. So I pointed to myself, and raised a single finger. He nodded and bowed, and signalled me to follow him, and led me to the far end of the counter, where miraculously there was just one single stool free.
I sat down and gazed around me. The Japanese man sat inches beside me paid no attention to me at all, but continued to intently read the newspaper on the formica counter underneath his plate, cigarette in one hand, spooning rice into his mouth with the other. In front of me a long glass case was filled with all sorts of little kebabs of pastry and fish and meat and peppers. On the far side, a chef toiled over an open grill, out of which rose an broad column of smoke that climbed vertically and vanished into a hole in the ceiling above. On the walls there were a few nondescript posters. There was a loud din of conversation, interspersed with calls from the chef and the waiters, and the clatter of dishes and cutlery. The air was filled with tobacco smoke. There were bright lights over the counter, but it was darker around the tables. Craning my head around, I realised that everybody in there was Japanese. There were businessmen in dark grey suits. There were women talking animatedly to each other. Some were young, and some were old. Nobody paid the slightest attention to me.
After a while, the waiter returned, and flipped open a little notepad, and held a pen against it, and looked at me quizzically. It was time to order something. And so I dug into my memory for the only Japanese word that I could recollect, and said,
He smiled and jotted on his pad, and then gestured enquiringly towards the kebabs. And so I walked along the counter, pointing into the glass case to make a series of random selections. I would have liked to have had some bread or rice with the kebabs, but there was none behind the counter to point to, so I had to do without.
The birru arrived shortly after, a welcome glass of beer foaming in the glass, along with the bottle from which it was poured. And then, not long after, a stream of little hot kebabs, each one a delightful new surprise since I hadn't a clue what any of them were. I peered around to see how people were eating their food. Some were using chopsticks, some were using forks, some were using porcelain spoons. I used the spoon.
So began my first night in Japan. And night after night thereafter I returned to the same little restaurant, to be greeted with smiles of recognition. It was always full, but I always got a seat at the counter. And I even learned how to order rice. By the time I left Japan a few days later I'd become a respected and valued regular. One evening I even got chatting in broken Japlish to a couple of girls sat beside me at the counter. We communicated in signs and words, and little slips of paper on which they wrote perfect English which they could not speak. Every time we understood each other, we'd all laugh and clap gleefully, as if we had won the lottery. And the chef reached over the counter and handed us all little chocolate lollies.
I loved the little place. It was always humming and busy and happy and welcoming. It was full of all sorts of real people, of all ages, coming and going.
One night, as part of the business I'd come to Japan to attend to, I was invited to a dinner at one of the big American hotels up the road. I arrived on foot, and found myself in a huge courtyard flanked by monumental concrete columns. Uniformed flunkeys stood here and there in the dim light. Eventually I found my way to the restaurant, which was filled with gleaming empty tables on an immaculate parquet floor. Framed Japanese prints hung on the subdued walls. There was no smoking permitted. It was slightly chilly. And the empty room was silent. Eventually, when the guests had arrived, a murmur of conversation began to fill the air. I ordered a beer, and was given a small tumbler of it, not much bigger than a thimble. The food, when it finally arrived on elaborate dishes, was almost cold. Behind us, as we ate, surly uniformed flunkeys stood in menacing attendance, watching us closely, as if one of us might let off a bomb at any moment. I spent most of the evening dying for a cigarette and a beer.
Afterwards, having settled up my portion of the gargantuan bill, I left in the company of an American woman. I was glad to get out of the place. As soon as we'd got outside the hotel complex, and were standing on the street, we both independently and spontaneously pulled out cigarettes and lit them, and then wandered slowly down the road together, with her talking about South Carolina or somewhere and her life there. It was the only genuine conversation I had the entire evening.
In retrospect, with the passage of time, the two restaurants came to symbolise for me two polar opposite cultures. One was downmarket, careworn, egalitarian, cheap, smoky, welcoming, and bustling with life. The other was upmarket, polished, hierarchical, expensive, non-smoking, unwelcoming, and lifeless. One was a place for men who wanted to the rule the world, and the other was a place for people who just wanted to live in it. I loved one of them, and I hated the other.
And if I should find myself in Puerto Rico one night, and there's a big modern hotel on one side of the road, and a little cantina on the other side with a dog curled up in its doorway, you'll know which one to find me inside.