Ten years on my friend
We are the same but older
Sakura in bloom
- Camel-san, 2007
This trip has been made very special as D and I spend a whole day with M (and his wife) after not seeing each other for ten years.
Ten years ago, I turned 21 in
We did so much together during those six-months, grocery shopped, cooked (M makes a mean katsu-don), partied hard (where crazy Japanese drinking games M taught me will remain forever etched in memory, like it or not), played chess at cafes, exchanged languages, cultures and had very enlightening late night conversations about what each other was taught in high school about world war two.
Ten years may seem like a long time, but in reality the last decade has whizzed by for me. Sporadic email exchanges when we were both living in different countries (M worked in Taiwan for 4 years while I worked in New Zealand for 5), photos of our respective weddings, honeymoons, random party shots exchanged. Infrequent but intense bursts of communication.
So how do you capture what’s happened the last ten years of your life when you only have 12 hours to hang out together? Well, you don’t really. You go out, see some sights, experience amazing food, and in between all that, you exchange little nuggets of existence that somehow make up a rather complete picture of your life.
So this account is a tribute to my favourite city in the world and to friendships that weather time, change and geography.
Like the perfect opening credits to a movie, D and I wake up early on Saturday to the full pastel glory of early cherry blossoms at neighbouring Zojoji temple. We are not the only ones, with many people getting their cameras out and clicking away excitedly. At nearby
It’s true, Sakura fever has hit
National Park, Atsugi
M and wife come by to pick us up at the hotel all the way from where they live in
We brave the bumper to bumper traffic, with the original intention of heading to popular day-trip destination Hakone, where views of Mt Fuji can be glimpsed on a clear day. However, considering that the day is neither fine nor the traffic situation optimistic, we change our plans and head for nearer by Atsugi and its surrounding national park.
We seem to drive from highway to highway, then through many nameless suburbs, then smaller towns, and finally we hit the country side. No apartments in sight, just small houses with some farmland, forests, winding roads, and in the middle of it all, Zund Bar.
Zund Bar, in the middle of the foothills of Atsugi
From the outside, Zund Bar looks like a house – but the 30 or so people waiting in line to get into this ramen noodle house give us a clue as to its popularity and renown. The fact that there is an unobtrusive wicker basket with many fleece blankets tells me we’re in for a long wait. Indeed, we look at the self-penned reservations list outside the bar and we’re number 12 on the list.
We go for a short drive to kill time, then wait a bit more, visiting the adjacent traditional Japanese gift shop (man I dig those kimono toed socks)!
When our number is finally called, we enter the sliding doors, and what greets me is rather surreal. Here, in the middle of the rural foothills, is a bar that wouldn’t be out of place in central
The staff also look like they’ve stepped right out of Harajuku - blonde-streaked pigtails, glitter eye make-up, kawaii in every sense. In the loo, I see a recruitment ad for bar staff : 950 yen per hour. Not bad at all…
Late lunch over, we decide that traffic is just too bad to attempt driving back to the city, so we park at M and A’s apartment and walk to the station. M’s apartment is cosy and makes me think of getting rid of clutter in our own place. Suddenly, the idea of sleeping on tatami mats seems very appealing.
We catch the train from Kanagawa to Akihabara, where M shows us the way confidently to the top floor of an 8-storey store dedicated to anime and manga. I’m on a mission to find some souvenirs for friends at work – but the selection is overwhelming, and when I show the staff there my list of anime picks, they shake their head and show me to a rather miserable collection of Naruto t-shirts and one plastic head band (for a whopping 4000 yen). I decide against buying the head band but take a picture so my friends will know I tried.
It’s a Saturday night and it’s really interesting the different species of male that inhabit these stores. I feel like I’m in National Geographic video and at a watering hole at dusk. M totally goes with the vibe and asks all of us, “So, do you want to go to a Maid Café?”
Basement walkway to the Studio Cafe Strawberry, Akihabara
Ok. Before that moment, I had never heard of a Maid Café. I must admit it, at that moment, all sorts of thoughts were racing through my mind. Almost involuntarily, I go, “sure why not?” D is a lot more enthusiastic (men!).
So we head to Studio Cafe Strawberry. It’s located in the basement of a small building off a side street in Akihabara. A gorgeous young girl opens the door dressed in (no prizes here), a maid’s outfit. She points us to the spare tables in the café. M heads for a picnic table and bench set-up. The menu offers drinks, food and an interesting item for 300 yen called “Experience”. M asks the cute maid waitress what we get if we order “Experience” and she replies in Japanese, “Magic trick!” For 500 yen, customers (ladies only) can try on the numerous maid outfits and have a go in the café (!!). M and D ask me one too many times if I’m keen.
Two young men order an "experience" from the maid, in the form of magic tricks.
We decide to go for just drinks at the moment.
It’s only after we order our tea that the surroundings begin to register. The rest order cold Cokes and Ginger Ales, which come in stainless steel tumblers. My green tea comes in a plastic cup with rubber coaster. We’re all a bit perplexed. Then like a moment straight out of the Da Vinci Code, D hits the jackpot.
D: “It’s themed!”
D: “Look, in the corner, those guys are sitting at a school table next to blackboard. Then there’s a doctor’s corner with eye chart.”
We look more closely at our table and realise there’s a simulated “gas lantern” and all our cups and crockery are of the outdoor picnic variety. Then we see that the wall next to our table is painted with blue sky and green fields. Ahhh… so. Man, I love
By the way, as the cafe charged an extra 500 yen for photos,
By the way, as the cafe charged an extra 500 yen for photos,the photos taken here are taken by M James Bond style.
A suit who walks in sits at what can only be described as a “lady’s parlour” theme and is served his tea in Royal Doulton. Then as if on cue, the two young guys in the corner order an “Experience” – one of the maids goes over, and chats with them cheerily while doing a series of magic tricks. The middle-aged loner with the comb-over in the table next to them, carries on, absorbed in his Gameboy.
Suit at the 'lady's parlour' interacting with maid
Good clean fun? I ask M. “Looks like,” is his reply.
We finish up our drinks, and as we walk back up the stairway to the real world, we see a large flat screen showing the public what is going on in the café in real-time. A plasma glimpse behind the looking glass if you will. Intrigued, we stare as middle-aged loner guy seizes on the opportunity to start up a conversation with one of the maids, his gameboy abandoned. I wonder if he’ll pay the 300 yen for the “Experience” or move to the doctor’s rooms.
All this role play makes for tough work, so we head back to Asakusa (which D still hasn’t seen) for a walk and dinner. Tempura is the order of the day, and I’m really relieved after my experiences with pig parts and fish mince.
We end of the night in
Tea and cakes at Cafe de Miyuki Kan, Ginza
It’s 11:30pm and we rush to catch the late trains back to the hotel in time for our 7am shuttle the next morning. M and A see us through two changes of subway lines and we finally end up at the platform for the Oedo line back to our hotel. Trains come every six minutes in
Hurried hugs, and promises that the next meeting will be sooner than the ten years just passed. More hugs, waves, air kisses and our train speeds us away, M and A very quickly disappearing from view. Sayonara in Sakura season. A farewell in a time of rebirth.
I’m wistful but not sad. I’m certain the next time we meet, we’ll be able to resume the easy banter and conversation that has always existed between us. Who knows? There just might be more gray hairs and a few screaming children in tow.
ps: Back in Singapore now. I wrote most of this on the plane which accounts for the rather epic length. Thank you readers, for making it thus far. I'm watching on telly now about the earthquake that struck Central Japan. So sad.