My Favorite Drinking Place

Ian Rogers

© Copyright 2020 by Ian Rogers

Photo of Kufu back street.

Living abroad, one encounters more than a few challenges and surprises on a daily basis, and Japan is no exception. Social norms, particularly those involving drinking, differ greatly here, and some of what's acceptable on a night out in Japan would never fly back in America. It's not always easy to know how to handle a strange encounter, but when something unexpected happens, I try my best...

I’ve finished my evening shift at the Japanese conversation school and am almost home when a tall, slovenly man lurches toward me on the street. He’s wearing a white dress shirt and jacket but no tie, and his dark, thinning hair is tousled with sweat despite the cool night air. He points an accusing finger in my direction and cries out “You!” with a gleeful, inviting laugh.

I’ve been living in Japan for just over a year, in a small city west of Tokyo famous for its grapes and wine. Every day I put on my suit and dress shoes and walk to my workplace, a tiny, six-room school on the fifth floor of an office building above a real estate office and below another school for troubled Japanese teens. I teach English to adults who come in after work or on their days off; many of them also wear suits and speak in formal, reserved tones when the Japanese manager is watching. When the classroom door is closed, though, and we’re alone in my three-meter-by-three-meter windowless classroom, their postures relax and their smiles become brighter as they start to tell me their real feelings in a foreign language. This divide between honesty and performance is how Japan functions.

When I hear the man call out I laugh too because in Japan it’s okay to yell strange things at night on the street when the alcohol’s been flowing; I’ve done it many times in English during nights out with my coworkers. Like the classroom with its closed doors, the bars of Japan are places of honesty where everyone is free to say anything, and such honesty regularly spills into the street when the drinking’s over. I tell the man, “Konbanwa,” with a smile and keep walking.

But the man’s still grinning madly and coming closer with a cheerful, insistent look. He lurches unsteadily as if he might fall, then laughs again and points toward my apartment building. “I live,” he says with his mad grin, then balls his fist and makes a banging motion at the air above.

I know now who this man is—I’ve never met him, but I know him. He’s the neighbor of mine who, weeks before, complained to our landlord about my playing late-night music through the speakers I picked up in Akihabara. The landlord in turn called my manager, who manages the company lease on my apartment, and my manager then pulled me aside for a very serious work chat during which I bowed my head in proper Japanese fashion and assured her that I was in the wrong and that the problem would never, ever happen again.

I’m still wearing my suit and tie from work and the man across from me is still smiling madly. I know that he knows who I am because I’m the only gaijin in our building, on our street, and in our entire neighborhood, and we’ve surely passed each other dozens of times in the bright gleam of the morning without saying Konnichiwa. I’m also the only person in our neighborhood thoughtless enough to play Save Ferris and Tragically Hip albums late at night while dancing around my apartment, because when you teach at an after-hours eikaiwa in Japan you need the nights to release the stress of the workday after all the lessons and paperwork and overtime are finally finished. I don’t know what to say to this strange, exhilarated man who’s caused me so much trouble at work, so I again bow very deeply in proper Japanese fashion and say “Gomen nasai” with great humility.

The man bows too, though not as deeply, and smiles again, still laughing as he waves his hand from side to side. “Okay,” he says, then opens his mouth to say something but gives up and raises his hand to his mouth in a drinking motion. “Together,” he says, swiveling his finger between his nose and mine, then pointing to an alley behind the bakery where the owner sometimes gives me extra rolls. “Drinking place. Favorite.”

This man wants to drink with me in some secret back alley izakaya but I’m feeling embarrassed. I imagine how awkward it must have been for him to call the landlord and how many weeks of late-night ceiling pounding he must have suffered through before finally picking up the phone. I remember my manager’s stern, uncomfortable face when she approached me in the teacher’s room with great hesitation (Ian-sensei, do you sometimes play your music late at night?) and think about how hard it must have been for her to have that talk, how embarrassed she must have felt when the landlord called her, and how my late-night dancing has caused so much shame and trouble for so many people just because I needed a little release.

Now, though, that time has passed. This man wants to show me there are no hard feelings by bringing me to his favorite drinking place to munch edamame over a warm shōchū that he’s probably going to pay for while we converse in broken English and Japanese. After that I know everything will be all better, so that after our frenzied, unrestrained night of fun we’ll be able to nod and unabashedly say Konnichiwa in the bright gleam of the morning without ever mentioning that night of drinking again.

But I know that I just can’t shrug off the embarrassment of what I’ve done because a stranger offered me a drink. If I were Japanese, maybe I could, but I’m not, so I can’t.

I wave my hand and say, “Iie, kekkō desu,” because I’m still not sure how the Japanese turn down invitations. “Arigatō gozaimasu.

I worry that this strange, already drunken man will be hurt and offended by my refusal, but instead he smiles and laughs again; were I standing closer, I’m certain he’d have placed his hand on my shoulder. He says something I can’t understand and then gives me a smart salute, adding, “See you” with another chortling smile.

I turn away and feel the quiet stillness of the night surround me, the night I’ve come to know and feel safe in, and realize I’ve done the man no wrong by turning down his invitation because he also knows I’m not Japanese.

Ian Rogers grew up in New Hampshire and studied at Bennington College and the University of Nebraska. He's taught English to Japanese adults and children, first in Yamanashi, and currently in Toyama. His short fiction chapbook, "Eikaiwa Bums," was published in 2018 by Blue Cubicle Press, and covers the English-teaching experience more in depth. You can follow him on Instagram at Ianmrogers [] or read his blog at

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