It was Wednesday night and I was hungry. All I’d eaten that day was French Toast and a slice of cake, so I dug out my guide book and looked up Akiba-area eateries. It seemed that all the restaurants were clustered together in the south, towards the Imperial Palace, so I picked out a cheap place and headed in that direction. Though I had a destination, I figured if I found someplace inviting along the way, I’d eat there instead. Taking a turn down a small, dim and narrow street, I stumbled a upon an amazing Edo-era house. The rice-paper walls were lit softly from within, and the building gave off an aura of authenticity. The smoke pouring out of the chimney filled the whole alley with the smell of burnt soy sauce.
To the best of my knowledge, the kanji on the door said something about eating, so I headed inside. A chance at something surprising was more interesting to me than anything pre-described in a tourist book.
When I entered, I immediately got the impression that very few gaijin had ever set foot inside the place. A woman in a yukata stared at me with such surprise that you’d think I had walked in wearing only a diaper.
Politely and in Japanese, I asked, "Is this a restaurant?"
The Yukata-woman’s mouth remained agape, so the young man beside her said, "Yes."
Cautiously I said, "Hitatsu," and confirmed that I was a party of one.
Another woman arrived, in a kimono, and rushed to get me out of my shoes. She gestured to the hallway, and whisked to my own private room in the back. I sat down on my knees behind a table that was more like a six-inch bench, and waited.
Finally, a third woman entered my room and asked, "How did you find this place?"
I didn’t have enough vocabulary to answer properly, so I did my best to convey the idea of wandering past. She nodded with wide eyes, and seemed in a state complete disbelief. I asked if they had an English menu, and she said they didn’t have any menus. There was Only One Item to Eat.
Now I was nervous. Remembering that I only had 4000 Yen on me (~50 Euro), I asked if they took Credit, and the kimono-woman said, "No," but she then indicated that there was an ATM across the street; after dinner, I could just head over and withdraw what I needed.
Though I didn’t like the plan, Kimono-Woman was now warming up to me, and was very disappointed when I said, "Maybe I’ll go somewhere else." She shook her head and fired off rapidly -- No, no, no, no, it would be fine, it wasn’t a problem, it’s not that expensive, how much money did I have on me, it would be ok, ATM After, ATM After.
With a shrug, I said, "’I guess I'll order your dinner, then."
With a smile, she rushed out of my room, and I was alone for ten minutes.
Finally she reentered and asked, "Tamago ga sukidesuka?" (Do you like Egg?)
I replied, "Hai hai!"
She handed me an egg and a bowl, and gestured vaguely. I broke the egg open; it was raw, and poured it into the bowl. Then I put the bowl in the center of my six-inch-bench.
Blinking, I stared at my bowl of raw egg and wondered if this was The Only Item To Eat. Before long, Kimono returned with a metal basket of hot charcoals, an iron dish atop it. She filled the dish with some sort of dark, sour smelling liquid, and it began to boil. Then she left.
Egg in the dish? What was I supposed to do with the Egg!? When I was sure no one was going to come back, I gently brought my bowl of raw egg towards the pot of boiling brown, when suddenly Kimono returned and admonished me with a flurry of "Ieieieie! Ieie! Ieieie!"
She took my egg-bowl away from me, placed it back on my table, handed me chopsticks and took off again.
With no one else in my room to watch, I was at a loss as to what I was supposed to do. Certainly I couldn’t eat the raw egg with chopsticks.
Finally, Kimono entered again, and brought with her a gigantic plate of raw chicken and vegetables. She unloaded it into the boiling pot, stirred it about, and then told me when it was done cooking, I should eat it. I asked her what to do with the bowl of egg. She answered with something I didn’t understand at all.
But when my chicken was done cooking, she grabbed my raw-egg-bowl, took a piece of chicken from the pot, dipped it in the egg, and held it in the air as the egg cooked on the chicken.
Oh thank god, I thought. I don’t have to eat raw egg.
Kimono left, and for a few moments I enjoyed my dinner even as I worried about the ATM across the street taking an international Visa card. Five minutes later, things got really strange.
Happily munching on my Chicken-Egg-Vegetable dish (which was extraordinary), I looked up as the most expensive looking Japanese man I had ever seen walked into my room. His hair was silver like the rim of euro coins, and his suit was so black it seemed sewn from coal.
In perfect English, he said, "So ... I hear you have a problem with money."
I nearly gagged on my chicken.
Gingerly, I replied, "Umm .. not really. I just need to go to the ATM after dinner; I didn’t have enough cash on me"
The Silver Man laughed -- this would be the way he ended every exchange; with laughter. Casually, he stroked his blood-red tie and said, "How did you find this place?"
Now I was scared. My own room, no other patrons, and then this smiling, charming Japanese villain. Was this a Yakuza restaurant?
I explained that I wandered past, and since it smelled great I came in.
Silver Man laughed, and asked, "Are you here alone?"
"No, no ... I’m here tonight by myself, but I’m visiting friends in Tokyo. I’m meeting up with them after dinner, because they’re working late."
More laughter. At least he was happy. He continued, "Only Japanese come here. You’re very lucky. After dinner, I’ll escort you to the ATM." He chuckled, meaning that this exchange was over.
Still, I protested, "It’s not a problem ... I’m just gonna run across the street; I’ll leave my camera or something."
"No, no, it’s fine. I ... or one of my subordinates," he actually said subordinates, "will bring you to the ATM. Enjoy your dinner."
He laughed and added as he exited, "Wandered past!"
I wasn’t hungry any more.
Kimono poked her head in and said, "He’ll bring you to the ATM. Eat eat eat eat!"
Dizzy and nervous, I attempted to finish my meal when another man tiptoed into my room. Obviously the aforementioned subordinate, he introduced himself as Akira and didn’t speak a word of English. Akira bowed a lot and stammered out, "I’ll be escorting you to the ATM."
He then promptly knelt beside me and waited.
After a long silence, he asked, "How did you find this place?"
I set my chopsticks down and said, "You know what, I’m finished, yeah, I'm done. Let's go now."
As if listening in (maybe she was), Kimono burst into the room and said, "No no no no! Eat eat! Eat!" I declared that I was full to the point of having a stomach and head-ache, and Kimono let me leave.
The entire staff of the restaurant was at the front door, with my shoes. I slipped them on, and Akira and I went outside after Kimono said that I needed 3000 more yen.
On my way to the convenience store, I asked Akira who he and Silver Man were, and he said something about a Group Party. So they didn’t work at the restaurant, but they could still be Yakuza. Finally, we arrived at the ATM. And ...
Neither my Amsterdam ATM card nor my American Visa Card worked in the machine. Oh Jesus.
Akira got on his stylish cell-phone and asked for directions to another ATM. I pulled out my guide book and found one in Akihabara. All in all, Akira and I went to five different ATMs, none of which accepted international cards. Another subordinate joined us and we relayed to a sixth and final cash machine.
Result: a receipt saying, No International Cards Allowed.
At this point, I was on the edge of panic, but I knew that if worse came to worst, I could leave my camera, my ID and my hotel name with the restaurant and return with the 30 bucks the next day. It shouldn’t be a problem, I convinced myself. They’ll understand. Or the Yakuza would make me shoot porn to pay off my debt. Either way, at least I’d already eaten, so it wasn’t like they could take away my meal. Ha ha! Ah .... ha .... uh ... Unless I threw it up. Oh Christ.
We walked back to the restaurant, and I took off my shoes and got ready to explain the situation to Kimono et al. Before I could, Akira rapid-fired with her, and the Silver Man came into the lobby with his party. Everyone stood behind him as he declared:
"We’ll cover her meal. It’s no problem." And then he laughed.
I objected, declaring my plan to Kimono; I was only 2300 short, certainly they could hang on to my camera for a day, I promised I to return! But Silver Man smiled and gently brushed me aside to pay for my meal. I bowed a thousand times and begged to pay him back: How could I get in touch with him?
At this, he handed me his Business Card. It was crisp, white, and neat, and read:
Sachio Kamiguchi President and Ceo IBM Japan
Oh my god, I was being covered by the CEO of IBM!? Kamiguchi laughed again, and told me that I could email him at the address on the card and he’d tell me how I could pay him back.
My heart was racing in both fear and embarrassment, but I managed to force out another round of thank-you’s to everyone around, and then grabbed by shoes and took off towards the lights and familiarity of Akihabara again, clutching the business card in my pocket.
That night, in an Akiba Arcade, I lost 30 rounds to the most gifted Street Fighter III player I’ve ever come across. After that, I took a train home and immediately wrote an email to Kamiguchi, full of praise and gratitude.
To Be Continued ...