The following is not actually a single narrative of one continuous evening, but a composite of many. It’s written as a representative summary of my average night out in Kyoto. Nothing is exaggerated.
It’s Saturday evening, dusk. I’m standing alone on the Sanjo bridge in Downtown Kyoto looking out over the Kamo river. To my left stands a Buddhist monk silently holding a collection plate, his face hidden by an enormous straw hat. To my right is the Lawson’s convenience store, illuminating the street with its fluorescent glow. Inside nearly a hundred young students hurry to stock up on beer and fireworks to keep them entertained throughout the warm Summer night that lie ahead. I pop in for a single can of Lemon Chu-Hai. The familiar staff greets me in the usual way, with a bow and an energetic shout of “いらっしゃいませ今晩は!” I pay for my drink with a 5000 yen bill and the clerk counts the change twice in front of me, passing it carefully with both hands and bowing once more before thanking me politely: “ありがとうございます、またお越し下さいませ.” As I head towards the door I can hear the same phrases echoing from each and every employee like perfect clockwork.
Just as I step outside and turn to approach the river, a quick gust of wind engulfs me in a cloud of smoke from below. It’s smoke of three different kinds: from a set of fireworks popping off somewhere in the distance, from the torches of a group of fire dancers who’ve come to please the cheering crowds, and from the Salaryman beside me, quietly sleeping with a cigarette still suspended from his tired fingers.
Coughing ever so slightly, the Salaryman staggers to his feet and begins walking towards Kawaramachi Doori, one of Kyoto’s two main boulevards. The urgency of his gait hints at an impending restroom emergency, an emergency which gets delayed when he looses his footing and knocks over a row of parked bicycles. The bikes go tumbling over like dominoes. For a moment I worry that he’ll be arrested by a nearby policeman for public intoxication, but then I remember – this is Japan. The policeman kindly helps him to his feet and begins tidying the bicycles before returning to his post supervising the hundreds of underage drinkers laughing and cheering all around him.
Then I hear my name. “Justin! Man, don’t you ever go home??”
It’s “M.”, sitting at our regular table outside of Starbuck’s. If I were asked how many hours I’ve spent chatting, peoplewatching, studying, and programming at that table, I couldn’t even begin to fathom a response. I wait a few seconds for a gap in the traffic and dash across the street between a passing bus and taxi. My friend greets my approach with a warm smile, subtly adjusting his casted leg to open up a space for one more chair.
We sit and catch up on how things have been since our last chance meeting – probably only a day or two earlier – until a pair of young women walk by. Their long slender legs, short skirts, flawless makeup, and top-end designer clothing insists they must be professional runway models. No, wait…this is Japan. The couple are nothing more than two young college students out to meet some friends from their language circle for drinks in one of the many izakaya that line the alleys sprawling all around me.
Noticing the couple, my always-social friend doesn’t hesitate for an instant before calling out in perfect Japanese – “You two are gorgeous! Why don’t you come hang out over here with us!”
They respond with a cute giggle and two flirtatious smiles. “You’re so good at Japanese! We have to go meet our friends, but definitely say hi if you see us again!”
Before we can even respond they’re speeding across the street, high-heels clicking on the pavement with each little step. Apparently their friends noticed them at the exact same moment as us, as indicated by the uproar of giggles and shouts of まさみちゃん、来た! めっちゃ久しぶり! 元気??
I reveal a slight grin, amused at my friend’s fearlessness towards approaching anyone and everyone who happens by. Sometimes he’ll be ignored, sometimes he’ll be joined, and sometimes he’ll let loose a barrage of jokes that literally knocks our neighbors to the floor with laughter. Sometimes the conversation will even shift to Arabic or Turkish if a foreign acquaintance should happen to drop by and join in. A Japanese Starbuck’s is a land of international and boundaryless friendships. Ethnicity and age no longer matter; one table will be occupied by a 50-year-old Japanese man and a 20-year-old student from Kenya, and at the next will sit three English teachers from Egypt.
We sit and socialize this way until I finally decide it’s time I get some studying done, so I reluctantly say goodbye and tote my backpack downstairs. I take a corner seat by the power outlet, across from a woman messaging on her cell phone and a student perusing an English textbook. The familiar soundtrack of “Girl from Ipanema” is drowned out by the multilingual chatter of the crowd around me. But before I can even open my laptop and look at the first of a hundred kanji I plan to learn, Mike walks in. He’s not here to teach his regular evening lesson; he’s just popped in to drop off his guitar and backpack before going out for some drinks of his own. A guitar is too large to fit in most train station lockers, but after seven years in Japan he knows there’s nothing to worry about: just as I leave my $2000 laptop out in plain view when running to the bathroom or outside to meet a friend, in Japan, theft is of little concern.
I finally start studying. But 3 or 4 words into the list, a slight vibration fills my left pocket: an E-Mail from Matt. “I’m in the city, you up for a night out?”
Alright, I give up. No Kanji studying for me today. I’ll leave that for the weekdays. I quickly gather my things and head for Kiyamachi, returning the staff’s series of courteous bows on my way out.
As I make my way South towards Shijo Hankyu, the crowds continue to thicken and the energy continues to rise. Every bar and izakaya has people spilling onto the streets; students gather in circles to cheer on whoever happens to be up for the next round of chugging, hostesses twirl their hair in revealing evening gowns, and hosts prowl the streets in search of their next patron. The sky is now completely dark, but everything is sufficiently lit by the headlights of passing taxis and neon signs boasting everything from teahouses to shot bars. Cries of 一気!一気!一気! remind me of the awe and wonder that I felt the first time I laid eyes on Kiyamachi during a warm Summer night. Of all the things I’ve grown accustomed to, for as normal and familiar as Japan has become, this is one thing that I’ve never ceased to appreciate. Each and every time I can’t help but look around and think “Wow, this place is just amazing.”
With a quick 10-second detour I decide to turn left in front of El Coyote, a popular underground Salsa club, and proceed down Pontocho for a slight change of scenery. Even though it rests just one block East of Kiyamachi the crowd here is noticeably different: raucous students are replaced by groups of salarymen supporting each other as they drag their briefcases from place to place, and buzzing neon signs offering “5000 yen for 30 minutes” are replaced by overpriced menus written in traditional Chinese characters. Every so often a geisha – one of only a couple hundred in the world – will slide open an old wooden door and glide daintily to the next teahouse just several yards away. From behind the teahouses I can hear the rush of water in the Kamogawa and the periodic pop of a firework or two.
Suddenly I emerge from the 500-year-old alley onto Shijo Doori, the glowing heart of Kyoto, and begin to negotiate my way through the immense crowds. I don’t stop to notice the towering Kabuki theater to my left – it, like the impressive Nijo Castle just three blocks from my apartment, have become as normal as any Ralphs supermarket might be back in Los Angeles. I continue past Sukiya, one of my three favorite Japanese fast-food restaurants, before finally spotting Matt up ahead.
“Hey man, good to see you…I was thinking of heading over to A-Bar, what do you say?”
So we turn around and proceed right back up Kiyamachi before breaking off to the left and heading down a tiny, seedy-looking alley. The typically spotless city hints ever so slightly at its dirty underbelly via an opened dumpster, several abandoned bicycles, and countless soapland signs. No one could guess that such a fun and active bar lies hidden in this dark little alley, but thus is Japan: the best places are invariably the hardest to find.
We toss open the doors and are greeted by the manager, predictably sporting his oversized T-Shirt with a bikini-clad female body printed across the front. He seats us in the most isolated corner table, but this matters little – it’s only a minute before the two Kosuke’s, who probably spend about as much time in A-Bar as I spend at work, shout “‘Eyyyyy, Justin!” and offer a seat at the rowdy center-table. Before we’ve finished moving our things two frothy glasses have already been filled and placed in front of us; it’s Japanese custom to make sure no one around ever runs out of beer.
I glance around at the familiar surroundings; English and Japanese obscenities scrawled on the walls in magic marker, banners for soccer teams and movies and nightclubs, photos of people and places from around the world. The long viking-style tables with wooden benches are packed with patrons both Japanese and foreign, speaking languages of every variety. People run around changing seats like one giant game of Musical Chairs, except for the man in the suit passed out on the table in front of him. We eat, drink, and be merry until 11:30 or so when Matt begrudgingly heads out to catch the last train back to his apartment in the small outskirts of Nara.
But already having a decent buzz and not wanting to end the evening quite so early, I decide to continue with my usual rounds. First I head back to the river to absorb just a bit more of that electric atmosphere that I’ve grown to love so much. The fire dancers have already gone, but in their place perform a pair of aspiring young musicians with a guitar and a microphone. A small circle watches intently, clapping between songs and cheering words of encouragement.
Often I’ll run into Patrik, Regan, and Iago on their way to Club World, or Nakanishi on his way back from a Soccer Club BBQ, but not tonight. So after one more can of Chu-Hai I turn 180 degrees and pop into The Hub, a bar known specifically for its foreign English-teacher crowd. Many long-term Kyotoites dislike the sometimes sleazy feel of the place, but I love the fact that any local who goes there is likely outgoing and social, more than willing to enjoy some conversation with a new foreign friend. Sure enough, all of the regulars are there. As I make my way towards the staircase I’m greeted by M., Wael, Amir, Brad, Ray, Ai, Masako, Masami, Asuka and a dozen other acquaintances whose names escape me. Leave it to Kyoto to always provide a fun place to hang out, even after leaving your apartment with a backpack full of textbooks and no particular plans in mind.
Here I drink slowly, shifting between the various groups until someone eventually suggests we move the party to Sam & Dave’s. I hadn’t planned on a night of clubbing, but hey, it is Saturday after all.
So off I go again, just a 2 minutes’ walk to the entrance of Kyoto’s newest premier nightclub: a fake stone staircase made up like a cave one might find children climbing through at Disneyland. I pay the 2000 yen admission, collect my two drink tickets, and order “The strongest drink you can make” from Andy, the head bartender. Downstairs the crowd is still sparse; a few couples dance in the center, but most people sit and relax on the benches lining the walls. Upstairs is a different story. It’s utterly packed and the smoke is thick, sometimes even painful. But unlike World, at Sam & Dave’s you can leave and re-enter as many times as you like so it’s easy to grab a moment of quiet if things get too overwhelming.
It’s here that I remain until morning, not ending the night until the birds have begun chirping and the nearby bar owners have started hosing down the sidewalks. Aside from the small crowd of late-night clubbers still refusing to disperse, only hints now remain of the insanity that filled these streets just several hours earlier – a man vomits into the river, a hostess covers her shoulders and hurries to a nearby taxi, and a beer can clinks to the ground as a waiter tosses it on top of an already overflowing trashcan. I’m in a daze from a long night with no sleep, but I still manage to stay awake long enough for a quick breakfast at Wendy’s with whomever I happened conclude the evening.
And after satisfying the hunger brought on by a night of drinks and dancing, I hop on my bike and begin to make my way through the still waking city towards my apartment, a mere two miles away. Through the nearly empty Teramachi, a typically bustling shopping arcade now occupied only by two garbage men and their miniature-sized truck; Past the countless karaoke parlors whose staff continues to cater to those who just refuse to end the night; Up to Oike Doori and over its wide, tiled sidewalks; By a combini where a small girl on a pink bicycle picks up some groceries for mom to make breakfast; Alongside the castle wall which once protected the mighty Tokugawa Shogun from rival feudal warlords; And at long last to my apartment’s entrance. I struggle to key in the passcode before dragging myself upstairs, chugging a large glass of water, and sliding comfortably into bed.
Just An Average Night Out in one amazing city.