When I stumbled across a restaurant serving Uighur cuisine of all things during my last visit to Tōkyō, it started to occur to me that the capital might have just about everything a person could ever want. So, I googled "Lebanese restaurant Tokyo" and, lo and behold, discovered that there were two: Sindbad in Nishi Shinjuku and My Lebanon in Ebisu Nishi. (My Lebanon has since closed and Sindbad has moved to Akasaka.)
As I was closer to Sindbad, I made my way to Shinjuku, guided mercifully by GoogleMap. It was a mistake. The food was bland, and the mood kitchy. The restaurant's only saving grace, however, was the Almaza beer they served nice and cold and the arak.
Ice cold beer might be all the rage this summer in Japan--I've even got two new shops (Kirin's Frozen Garden and Asahi Extra Cold) just down the street from my apartment--but the Lebanese have been serving their Almaza that way for years. Sometimes the bottles will even come with chucks of ice still frozen to the outside of it. When the wind stops blowing in off of the Mediterranean and the sun burns down, nothing quite fights off the heat like an Almaza.
Drinking Lebanese beer, I started itching to smoke a narghile. Although I have my own pipe at home, it's a hassle to assemble and clean it. (I also don't like to smoke in front of my son who has taken to imitating whatever Daddy does.)
So, I did another GoogleMap search of mizu tabako (水たばこ) and shisha (シーシャ) and found a promising shop in Shimo Kitazawa. When I told my friend later that day that I had spent the afternoon in that neighborhood of Setagaya Ward, she was impressed that I had come to know Tōkyō so well. I didn't and don't. It was all GoogleMap.
There weren't any customers when I arrived. But then, I hadn't been expecting the place to be packed.
I asked if it was okay to sit outside and was shown a cooler to sit down on. Not the most comfortable of seating arrangments, but since I had been walking for almost six hours that day it was nice to finally take a load off.
I ordered two-apples tobacco, possibly the most commonly smoked flavor in the Middle East, and a beer.
The cafe is located in one of the back streets of Shimo Kitazawa, a neighborhood which reminded me of my own neighborhood of Daimyō: lots of small shops, boutiques, restaurants and cafes along narrow, meandering roads. It's an area I'd definitely like to return to and explore when I have more time.
Before long, my narghile came. The manager of the shop sat down beside me and had a smoke himself.
Is it always this quiet, I asked.
Depends, he replied.
He asked me where I was from. The States, I said, but I've been living in Hakata for twenty years.
One of the funny things about Fukuoka is that many people outside of, say, the western half of Japan don't quite know where it is. I suppose that's because there are a number of other prefectures and cities with similar names--Fukushima, Fukui, Fukuyama, to name a few. But tell someone you're from Hakata, the old name of the city, and they'll know right away. So much of what makes Fukuoka famous--the food, the dialect, the festivals, the souvenirs--have Hakata before them: Hakata motsunabe (a spicy dish of stewed pork or beef offal), Hakata-ben (the local dialect), Hakata Gion Yamakasa (our summer festival held in July) and Hakata Karashi Mentai (spicy cod roe, originally from Korea), and so on.
The other thing Hakata is famous for is the Hakata Bijin, or beauty. Women from Hakata (Fukuoka, and by extension Kyūshū) have a reputation for being good-looking. Having traveled all over this country, I can say from experience that the reputation is earned. The women are better-looking than here than in any other parts of Japan. (I still haven't been to Tôhoku or Hokkaidô.)
The manager told me that his own girlfriend was from Fukuoka and he thought she was pretty darn cute the first time they met.
It's the mixing of blood, I explained. Fukuoka has long been a place where people from different parts of Asia, Kyūshū and other parts of Japan converged. All that comingling of DNA has been very good for the looks of the women. It might also be one reason why so many tarento (TV personalities and performers) hail from Fukuoka.
And speaking of beauties, two young women dropped into the shop as we were chatting. Not long after they arrived, the little cafe filled up rather quickly. Two Saudis, a father and a son, eventually took the seat besides me and we chatted for an hour. The father was a professor of engineering in Riyad, his son was studying at university in Tōkyō. Both were very nice.
After they left, the two young women came out and sat besides me and struck up a conversation. The better looking of the two (seated on the right) came from Hokkaidō originally. If she is any indication of how the women look on that northern island, I can understand how the men are able to endure the cold winters.
After about two and a half hours, it was time for me to go meet a friend. I bid my farewell to the women and to the manager, promising to visit again when I was next in Tōkyō.
Of all the places I visited during my three-day stay 1 Bangai Cafe & Shisha was the friendliest and the easiest place to meet new people. I'll be back.