The Bizarre Drinking Rituals of Wakayama Izakayas

This article is a guest post by Christian Thurston who works at JTB Australia in Sydney.

Wakayama is a magical place for a childhood adventure filled with lovely and bizarre delights.

Yacht Drina, right, at Tannowa Marina in Wakayama, 1994.

Yacht Drina, right, at Tannowa Marina in Wakayama, 1994.

Japan has always held a special place in my heart.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have travelled to 76 countries in my life and I can honestly say that Japan still rates at the top of my list.  I have a theory that different countries resonate with different people.  This would explain why you’ll find foreigners all over the world that love whichever country they’re in.  As an Australian you naturally meet a lot of people from other countries who feel that way about Australia.  You also meet Australians abroad who’ve found another country that resonates more with their outlook, temperament and values than their homeland.

The odd thing about my passion for Japan is that I have only been there once – mostly out of choice.  I’ve always had a fear that there’s no way a return trip could live up to the first experience.  I first visited Japan when I was 10 years-old in 1994.  My father had just completed a yacht race from Brisbane to Osaka to commemorate the opening of the Kansai International Airport.  During my school holidays that year our family flew over to join him.  I was already studying Japanese at school and I remember having a Tamagotchi around that time.  I was curious about Japan but beyond that I didn’t really know what to expect.

Jewellery & Pachinko in Osaka

We spent three weeks in Japan and every memory I have seems like it was out of a kid’s Christmas movie – random presents from strangers, everyone was friendly and pretty much nothing went wrong.  I remember being in a department store and watching with fascination as an old man in a small corner shop was creating small pieces of jewelry with gold melted/painted on them.  He smiled at me, gave a polite bow which I returned and then asked for my initials.  He then proceeded to inscribe them on a small disk the size of a guitar chit and gave it to me for free.

I also remember staring agog the first time we passed a Pachinko parlour in Osaka.  It looked like pinball on steroids.  The lights, the sounds, the fact that adults were playing it.  As we stood there an old man walked out having won a large packet of band-aids (pachinko seems to have some odd prizes).  He gave them to us as a gift.  It wasn’t quite the same as gold jewelry and we didn’t really need band-aids but it was still a pretty thoughtful gesture.

Christian Thurston in front of Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion).

Christian Thurston in front of Kinkakuji (The Golden Pavilion Temple).

Small Town Izakaya

Of course, we didn’t speak any Japanese and most of the locals spoke little, if any, English but we got by just fine. There was a small Izakaya near the train station that had a list of all the dishes up on a blackboard. There were no photos and the place was generally full of salarymen who had just finished work. Every night we’d just point at random things on the board and although we never knew what we were ordering it was always delicious. The only problem was, we could never figure out what we’d ordered the night before so we had no way of ordering it again!

Izakaya bottles

“Bottle Keep” [ボトルキープ] at an izakaya. Photo credit: Danny Choo.

The salarymen would be very stiff and formal when we walked in at first. Then, after a few drinks it was like we were old friends.  They’d begin ordering drinks for us, singing karaoke at with us and telling us jokes and long-wided anecdotes in Japanese (we guess, the fact that we didn’t understand any of what they were saying didn’t deter them in the least). The next day we’d walk into the same place, see the same people and it was like we were strangers.  Then they’d have a few drinks and the same thing would happen all over again! Of course, I was ten so me and my sister would play with the children of the family that ran the restaurant. Even without a common language we could still play and have fun like all kids do.

Still in my heart…

Our three weeks ended before we knew it.  What I took with me from Japan was a love and resonance with the culture that has stayed with me until this day.  I love my Kurosawa movies, Murakami books and Miyazaki animations (I know, I know, they’re considered more popular with westerners than with Japanese).  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I ended up working at a Japanese travel company and I look forward to booking my own ticket there in the not-too-distant future.

Write your answer in the comments: when was the first time you said to yourself: “Man, Japan is just awesome!”?

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9 comments

  1. Great article by Christian. I like his witty style and descriptive manner with which he writes. It really brings the words to life and I can really visualise what he’s writing about with great clarity. Maybe it’s because I’m about to embark on my 4th trip to Japan in as many years but nonetheless, awesome article!

  2. Wizz1

    I have visited Kyoto, Fukouka, Hiroshima and some other small towns in Japan in 2007 and really love the culture and great sites to see as well as having fun shopping. The ground hostess for JAL airlines in fukuoka carried my bag (refusing my help) outside the terminal ( not far) to get me a taxi and give directions to the driver on my destination! Amazing. No tipping either in Japan, maybe in Tokyo., though. Would like to go again.

    • Hi Wizz1,

      The Japanese people are ridiculously friendly sometimes. Great to hear you had such fun in 2007. What would you do and where would you go if you returned?

      Cheers,

      Christian

  3. jasoncuison

    Great blog. Been in japan twice. I love there culture and food. Haven’t tried any of their wines (because when we went there I’m only 12 yrs old). I’m planning to visit this december and I’m already 26. Got any suggestions on hotels there?

    • jasoncuison

      correction: I love their culture and food.

    • Hi Jason. Personally I use JAPANiCAN to book all accommodation in Japan.

      • Hi JTM,

        Yeah, they’re a JTB company as well. They’re run by our HQ in Japan whereas the web stuff I deal with is for Australia. Any favourite hotels you could recommend for Jason?

        Cheers,

        Chris

    • Hi Jason,

      Depends which part of Japan you’ll be heading to. I’d recommend staying in a ryokan for one night and a capsule hotel for another night just for the experience of both. Which cities will you be staying in?

      Cheers,

      Christian

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