Sometimes things are so perfect that they feel like they belong in the pages of a book rather than in reality. This was one of those times. It was perfect. Scarily perfect.
I was sat at a bar in Kumamoto, in the south west of Japan. We’d quickly learnt that few tourists make it as far as Kumamoto and most locals’ English seemed as poor as my Japanese. The bar owner, Yoshinari, was a exception. A rare conversation in English went down as well as the Suntory whiskey we were sipping. Although, with Yoshinari’s liberal swearing, the chat wasn’t quite as refined as the amber liquid.
Yoshinari, his bartending daughter and the local salarymen next to us were recounting the destruction of the Kumamoto earthquake. Almost exactly a year ago, here in the city where we were sat, the earth shook so badly that at least 50 people died, 3,000 were injured and 44,000 were evacuated from their homes.
Yoshinari pointed at the bottles of spirits behind the bar – “all smashed.” He told us he had a big tank filled with expensive fish – “fucking dead.” He pointed to his daughter and told us he was worried she was dead too. The daughter, so cutesy she was almost beyond Japanese self-parody, made a sad face and pretended to wipe away tears with her paw-like hands.
“Maybe nothing had happened…”
Then, as the tales of destruction from the earthquake sank in, the room shook. The salarymen sat there in their suits; the daughter continued to pour out a drink. Yoshinari stared off into the middle distance, lost in memory and the haze of alcohol. Maybe nothing had happened. Maybe a train had hurtled past just outside. Except we knew there was no train line.
But no, there it was again – the ground moved and the glass bottles clinked. Yoshinari turned to us and, almost as a lazy afterthought, mentioned that was a tremor from the earth we’d just felt.
There we were, sat in a bar in Japan, the locals telling us about the earthquake that ripped up this very city a year before, and the earth was shaking. It was too poetic to be real, and too unreal to be scary.
Yoshinari asked us if we had felt an earthquake before. Wide-eyed, we told him no and he roared with laughter. And with that, the conversation moved on.
“Earthquake became ‘ass cake’ ”
Yoshinari could speak English because he’d spent five years in California when he was much younger. His English was good, but a little worn with rust. You had to strain your ears and squint at his lips to understand him sometimes. Earthquake became ‘ass cake’.
He had a voice deeply marinated for years in whiskey and cigarettes, the Japanese vocal chords wrapping haphazardly around Americanisms and English swear words learnt decades ago. It was irresistible, that voice.