By Alec Siegel
The first sign the night would be special was when the waiter brought over a plate of chicken sashimi. Paper-thin slices of raw chicken are not on the dinner menu of just any given Tuesday.
The private dining room in the back of the restaurant was crammed with 20 or so Japanese men and women, all over 60 years old. Michael and I sat in the corner, taking in the ludicrousness of the scene we were in.
Dinner was the first step in our hashigo experience, a Japanese tradition that begins with dinner and ends with a bowl of ramen, with a visit to a yakitori bar in between. It’s like a more subdued barhopping journey, only with way more food involved.
Everyone in the room was on a soft tennis club based in Ukiha City, a small mountain town in northern Kyushu. Earlier in the day, Michael and I were guests at the club’s practice. We played a few hours of soft tennis-a game much like tennis, save for the squishy rubber ball-ate some snacks and watched the veterans play against each other.
Before heading to dinner, we stopped by a Japanese style inn called a ryokan, which was owned by one of the club members. We cleaned up in a natural spring fed bath, nibbled on some peanuts and enjoyed the surrounding scenery through giant glass windows.
The tori (chicken) restaurant-step one of the night’s festivities-was just across the street from the ryokan.
So there we were, in a room of tipsy Japanese grandmothers and grandfathers, observing the action from our corner perch.
As plates of chicken sashimi, fried chicken breast and soy marinated chicken skin were being served, each person in the room stood up and introduced him or herself. After a few minutes, the entire room did what I feared they would: they all looked at Michael and I, smiling and gesturing for us to stand up. It was our turn.
“Uhhh, I’m Alec,” I said in shaky Japanese.
“Alec!” they yelled back, or at least attempted to. It was a totally foreign name to them, so some of them pronounced my name like it were a question.
“And… I’m from Chicago. Thank you very much!” That was all I had for this crowd. They clapped like I was a visiting delegate and I sat back down. Michael gave a similar introduction, received a warm applause, and sat down next to me. The night went on.
At some point, in between bites of the chicken skin (a personal favorite) dish and sips of Coke, a man who I had not seen up to this point was suddenly propped on his knees next to us, reeking of beer and aftershave, smiling and speaking to us in Japanese.
For an hour or more this man, Ouichida, graced us with his presence. Talking to him was like having two one-sided conversations at once. He spoke to us in Japanese, so Michael and I, having no idea what he was saying, responded to what we imagined he was saying in English.
He didn’t seem to mind, and probably thought we knew exactly what he was talking about. On our side, we imagined the conversation being about Passover, the Chicago Bulls, and Kendrick Lamar.
Ouchida kept thanking us-I have no idea why-and shaking our hands. At one point he flexed his biceps, which were, given the fact that he was 78 years old, pretty impressive. He was intent on taking sake shots with us, and kept trying to sneak some into my Coke bottle.
Everybody in the room was still dressed in their tennis uniforms from practice-Yonex jumpsuits, Mizuno windbreakers and sweatpants. Ouichida was wearing a white zip-up jacket over a black and white patterned shirt. That, along with his thick framed glasses, slicked back silver hair and stocky stature, gave him the air of a mob boss, or a cowboy who lost his hat, or at the very least a regular at Caesar’s Palace.
At around 8 o’clock, the room began to empty, and it was time to leave. Hashigo must go on.
After a drawn out farewell in the parking lot, Michael and I joined a couple of others at a yakitori bar down the street. Yakitori is, traditionally, chicken parts skewered on a stick and grilled over coal. Most modern yakitori bars have the whole barn however-beef, pork, eggs-and vegetables as well.
For the next hour or so, five of us sat at a yakitori bar, stuffing our faces with skewered meat and drinking beer. It was Yoshio, our host in Ukiha, his wife Mariko, their Buddhist monk friend, Michael and myself.
The ramen spot was our final stop. By this point I could barely breathe I was so full.
I was knocked out, ready to throw in the towel, if not the contents of my stomach. A sumo-wrestling match played on the restaurant’s TV as we plowed through our pork ramen bowl.
When we were all finished, we dropped the monk off at his temple, and then headed back toward Yoshio’s farm. It seemed like all the stars were out tonight, casting their glow over the mountains that surrounded Ukiha City. Nobody spoke. Nothing needed to be said. Hashigo was complete.