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Sunday
Sep042011

Itchy Feet

   Sometimes when your feet itch, you just gotta scratch them. 

   One Wednesday a few weeks ago when I was running errands in town, I was overcome with the urge to head towards the beach.

   There was a pile of things that needed to be done at home, but figured I'd already put them off this long another day wouldn't hurt. And so, off I went in my usual meandering, zigzagging way towards Fukuhama, a dismal stretch of sand just beyond an equally dreary public housing project, and a stone's throw from a sewage treatment plant. (How charming.) The reason I wanted to go there was that it was the nearest "beach" where BBQs and fireworks, two essentials in the Japanese summer, were allowed. 

   On the way, I bumped into Kojima, the owner of one of my favorite izakaya, Manten Shûraku (萬天集楽). He was delivering bentôs at the time. His restaurant/bar has seen some pretty dramatic ups and downs over the years, and, in order to bolster sales during this most recent downturn, he and his staff have resoted to selling bentôs during the day. They have proven quite popular and if you don't reserve one, chances are they'll sell out by the time you pop into Manten.

   I had, by chance, just eaten one of his bentôs only thirty minutes earlier and told him that it had been delicious as always.

   Kojima thanked me and asked what I was doing in that neighborhood. 

   I'm off to the beach, I replied and continued on my way. 

   The fastest way (when walking, that is) to get to the beach from where I live is to walk past the fish market and cut through the harbor. It's also the most interesting. Across the harbor is the shipyard of Fukuoka Zôsen, a shipbuilder. It seems to be a good business to be in as they are constantly launching ships.

   A number of refueling ships are usually moored at the quayside.

   The newly painted pink building is a company which produces ice for the fishing boats. This begs the question (at least in my mind) of how ice is made. Mind you, I'm not talking about sticking a tray of water into a sub-zero compartment and a few hours later getting ice cubes. No, what I've always wondered about is how one lowers the temperature to below the freezing point, that is how refridgeration works. I understand the concept, but I doubt if I would be able to reproduce it in a jungle à la The Mosquito Coast. (My mojitos would have to be served lukewarm.)

   There are always piles and piles of palletes stacked up at the end of the pier. Freshly caught fish is placed in them and packed in ice. 

   From the harbor you can take one of three routes. Up and over Nishi Kôen (West Park), or either south or north around the smalll mountain the park is located on. If I'm heading for Momochi Hama, I tend to take the southern route which brings you to the old neighborhood of Tôjin Machi with all of its temples.

   Today I took the northern route to save time and about fifteen minutes later found myself at the entrance of Fukuhama. As expected, the beach was all but deserted, save one slim man in surfer trunks who looked somewhat familiar. 

   My iPhone started ringing.

   I thought that was you, I said, answering the phone. 

   It was Tarô, the owner of another bar and restaurant I frequent called Kona Cafe.

   I often joke that I don't have friends, only bartenders, and this day that couldn't have been closer to the truth.

   What are you doing, Tarô asked when I sat down next to him on the beach. 

   I didn't feel like working, I answered.

   Neither did I, he said back. 

   When I told him that I had tried to go to his place for lunch the other day, he apologized, explaining that he only did lunch on the weekends now. He added that business was hurting. It had been slow enough what with the Lehman shock, he said, but then the earthquake hit . . . 

   It was the same everywhere. Ever since the earthquake and tsunami, Japanese have been exhibiting jishuku (自粛), or self-restraint which has only added to Japan's woes. 

   The Economist has reported that "amid the gloom the outlook for a robust recovery has actually been brightening . . . forecasting a boom in 2012 and 2013." Be that as it may, but until people start feeling confident about Japan's prospects, they won't be willing to go out for dinner and drinks as often as they used to. In the meantime, friends like Tarô and Kojima have to do what they can to drum up business.

   Tarô said the eighth anniversary of the opening of his bar was coming up and he had doubts that he could keep it going for much longer. A friend of his was shutting down own restaurant after about ten years.

   It'd be a shame if Kona Cafe ever went bust. It's such a nice little place and his loco moco really can't be beat. (Trust me, I'm something of a connoisseur of the humble loco moco.)

   Changing the subject, Tarô suggested heading over to Momochi Hama to get some beers. Besides, he added, if we hang out together too long on this beach people will start to think we're gay. My treat.

   One of my policies is to never say No when someone offers to buy me a drink. Good things usually happen.

    So, we made our way towards Momochi, bullshitting along the way. Once there, we plopped our arses down at the counter of a kebab stand that opened up for the summer months. It was run by an Iranian who spoke faultering Japanese and zero English despite having lived in Japan for over two decades. Made me wonder how he was able to function. 

   Tarô struck up a conversation with a fellow surfer while we were there. The guy was in his late 40s but didn't have an ounce of fat on his tan body (man pictured above and on the right). I should look so good. Apparently, he had come from Chiba to work on a rock festival that was being held two weeks later in the city and had an entourage of similarly chiseled and tanned friends with him. What a life. 

   As Tarô and the guy were talking, a bevy of young girls in bikinis came up to me and asked straight off how old I was. Forty-five, I replied. Why lie? I asked one of the cuter ones how old her father was and got a surprising answer: I don't have a father. How about you, I asked her friend. Me neither, was the reply.

   Although still in high school, they were all drinking and smoking in that affected way novices smoke. One of them even had an infant with them and passed the chubby kid over to me to hold. 

   You married, they asked. 

   I am.

   I popped out my iPhone and started flipping through photos of my own son who was younger than the teen's kid. (How's that for irony?)

   I asked if the girl was still in school. She was, she replied. That's good, I said and asked where she went. 

   Dai-ichi, she answered. Do you know it? 

   I did. The Fukuoka "Number One" High School was one of the worst schools in the city. I asked if they all went to the same school to which two replied that they attended Kyûshû Girls High School. The hair on these two girls was dyed brown and both of them had pierced navels. 

   Pointing at their belly rings, I asked, Isn't that against the rules? Unlike just about everything else, the girls told me, they didn't have their belly buttons checked by their teachers.

   Naru heso, I replied.

   That, believe it or not, was the funniest thing I had said all week and the girls were rolling on the boardwalk. Naru heso is what the Japanese call an oyaji gag or a dajare (駄洒落), namely, the kind of pun an old fart might say after one too many glasses of shôchû. Naru heso is a corruption of naru hodo (成程), which means "indeed", "really", or "you don't say". Changing the hodo to heso, which means "navel", I was uttering a short phrase that had no real meaning, but was understood by all. (Sorry, humor doesn't translate very well.)

   At any rate, they all laughed and as the saying goes, make a girl laugh and you're half way up her leg. 

   Before long, it was time for the two of us to hit the road and go to work, so Tarô said good-bye to his fellow surfer and I bid a reluctant farewell to the girls.

   What had begun as a mediocre day for the two of us became, for me at least, one of the best days of summer.

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