When Shōkichi first opened for business about eighteen years ago, Taishō had a policy of taking ten days off a month. If it looked like it was going to rain or if there was a K-1 kickboxing match on TV, you could be fairly certain that Shōkichi would not be open for the night. Over the years, however, Shōkichi’s business hours have grown terribly erratic. Taishō claims Shōkichi is now open twice a week, but I’ll be damned if I ever see his yatai on the corner anymore. In those astrologically rare occasions that I do find that he is open, I am usually overcome by a sense of urgency, an imperative almost, to go: there’s no saying when I’ll find him open again. It could even end up being six months later, as was the case last night when on my way home from my wife’s parents’ place, I saw Taishō assembling his yatai. I hadn’t been feeling well that day—I had almost passed out while shopping earlier—but there was his yatai beckoning me. My wife, who would have otherwise poo-pooed my going out for a drink in my condition, agreed. Why, she was even envious. Since the birth of our son almost two years ago, she has only been to Shōkichi a handful of times.
“I’ll bring some oden home for you,” I offered.
When I peaked under the noren curtain, Taishō smiled at me and said, “Long time no see!”
“And whose fault might that be?” I shot back. The customers sitting at the counter laughed.
I took my customary seat in front of the oden tub and warmed my hands on it. Then, recognizing the woman to my left, I said, “O-hisashi-buri desu ne.”
The nice thing about Shōkichi is that most of the customers are regulars, motivated by that very same imperative to go to the yatai whenever they find it open. I’ve recommended that he use Twitter or Facebook to inform people when he’s open—I would be more than happy to help him set up an account—but Taishō is so hopelessly analog in his ways that he can’t be bothered.
“You realize how long it takes me to just answer your text-messages?” he says. “Takes me more than ten minutes just to reply to you that, no, I am not open for the night.”
“How about sending up a flare or some fireworks just before you open?”
You might get the impression that Taishō is an old fart, but he is in fact only a year older than me. When he first opened his yatai for business he was about 29 years old and had a full head of hair. (He now hides his balding head with a towel; and his beard has more salt than pepper in it.)
I was living and working in the neighborhood then and would pop into Shōkichi for dinner and drinks once or twice a week. And though I was studying Japanese at the Y in those days, my real classroom was the yatai. It’s where I learned the local dialect, Hakata-ben. It’s also where I learned how to talk to Japanese men (though, I still have trouble catching everything Taishō says.)
Over the years, Taishō and I have become friends. I think he’s been living vicariously through my romantic escapades. He often jokes to the other customers that it’s not fair that he is still a bachelor while I’ve already been married twice.
The best time to be at Shōkichi is when there aren’t any other customers to interrupt our conversation. It’s when I can be truly honest with him. He has been critical of the things I have done, such as my womanizing past, but he has never allowed it to come between our friendship. In that sense, he’s been a tolerant observer of the vicissitudes of my life. Perhaps that’s because he, like myself, was raised Catholic, and he has managed to retain the positive aspects of that faith—tolerance, love, charity, honesty, mutual respect, and so on—while ridding himself of the baggage—guilt, sexual repression, rigid conservatism, mindless religious formalism, etc.
Speaking of Catholicism, Taishō once told me a funny story about the time he had to serve as an altar boy. He was assisting at Christmas Mass and was dressed in the flowing altar boy vestments of a long black cassock under a crisp white surplice, the same kind of kit I had to wear when I was a naughty little Catholic schoolboy. During what I suspect was a special extended service for the holiday, he was standing next to the altar, holding a large candle in his hands.
As he was standing there with that big candle in his hands he dozed off for a few seconds and the burning end of the candle touched his surplice. It must have had some flammable chemicals in it keeping it so stiff because it suddenly went up in flames.
“I was a ball of fire when I woke up,” Taishō recalled. “The priest took the decanter of water off the altar and threw it at me, then tackled me to the ground and rolled me over and over until the flames were out. It’s a miracle that I wasn’t burnt.”
Taishō added that he was never asked to serve as an altar boy again after that.
Ostracism by fire.
“What’ll you have?”
“Shōchū, o-yu-wari de.”
Shōkichi was serving Satsuma Shiranami Kuro that night. Why? Because it’s cheap and tastes okay. The food at Shōkichi, on the other hand, while dirt cheap—you can enjoy a satisfying meal and a couple of drinks for less than ¥1,000 ($12)—is damn good, so much so I’ve given up eating yakitorianywhere else.
After warming myself up with the shōchū, I ordered some oden for starters, then skewers of yotsumi, butabara, aspara maki, ume shiso maki, jaga batah . . .
“That’s a lot of food. Have you eaten?”
“No, I haven’t,” I replied. “I’m going to take half of it back for my wife.”
“She isn’t expecting again, is she?”
“No. We’ve been trying, but no luck.”
“Need me to pinch hit?”
The oden, as always, was served first. I’ve tried my fair share of oden over the years and nothing quite compares to Taishō's. In the bottom of the tub, he’s usually got an egg that’s been simmering for several days and has become nice and brown. He’ll usually fish around for one of these and give it to me. (This reminds me of a comic strip my wife drew after we had been to Shōkichi a couple years back.)
The skewers of grilled meats and veggies came about twenty minutes later, along with a second glass of Shiranami Kuro.
Like the oden at Shōkichi, the yakitori can’t be beat. And nothing is better than the butabara. Order butabara at any other yakitori-ya or robatayaki-ya and you’ll be served a half-cooked slab of pork, but not here. Taishō always grills to perfection—nice and crispy. A niece of mine once stayed with me a few years ago and every now and then she mails me to say that she’s hungry for that “pork thing” she used to eat at Shôkichi.
“The butabara?” I ask.
“Yes! Butabara! I could kill for it right now.”
I’ve mentioned already that most of the customers are regulars and that seems to be the way Taishō likes it. He can’t quite relax whenever a new customers sits down at the counter and you can see the relief in Taishō’s face when after a few dishes the stranger leaves. Nothing is worse than when a wet blanket comes around and lingers on for longer than he is welcome.
One time a dreadfully nerdy man in his early thirties sat down between my wife and me in our usual spot and a group of customers with whom we had been yukking it up. The guy tried in vane to strike up a conversation with Taishō but the normally loquacious master of the yatai became tight-lipped. An awkward silence descended upon the food stall.
The guy ordered a beer and asked for a second glass so he could share it with Taishō.
“I don’t drink,” was the brusque answer.
It was a lie, of course. Taishō did drink from time to time, but with the punishment for drunk driving having become so severe of late, he can’t indulge the way he used to.
When the guy tried to share some of his food with the others, there were no takers. And later, when he went to pay, he offered Taishō a tip. This in a country where tipping is a rarity.
Taishō refused outright.
“Well, then, give it to your wife.”
“I’m not married!”
As I ate, I ordered a third glass of shōchū with hot water.
There are a number of ways to drink shōchū, o-yuwari being one of the most popular. Hot water has a way of bringing out the sweet fruitiness of the potatoes and as I write this I can’t help but wonder if the same is true of vodka. I tend to drink my shōchū o-yuwari in the wintertime to warm me up on cold nights, and on the rocks the rest of the year rather than mizu wari, like so many people prefer it. Shōchū can also be mixed with beer, called bīru wari, coffee, or even with tomato juice, a drink I have christened the “Bloody Hanako”. (Try it, you might like it.) One thing I have never seen is a person drinking shōchū straight the way vodka of is drunk in Russia. I don’t even think I, Boozer of the Hill, have ever had shōchū straight, which makes me kind of curious right now.
When the alcohol is flowing and the atmosphere in the yatai has become convivial, the conversation can be frank and downright hilarious.
I remember once bullshitting with two men in their fifties. One of them was going on and on about how his friend beside him was a womanizer and refused to settle down.
“Fifty-five years old and he’s still chasing girls in their twenties!” the man chided. “Can you believe that?”
I took a sip of what must have been my sixth or seventh glass of shōchū and declared, “As long as a man still has hair on his head, it is his Moral Duty to fool around with young women!”
The man elbowed his friend in the ribs and said, “But this guy’s got no hair!”
Looking up from my glass, I noticed for the first time that his friend was wearing an awful toupee. How I failed to notice it earlier is a testament to how much I had been drinking.
Last night, I stopped at three drinks. Ordered some more oden to take home to my wife and paid the ¥2,000 bill.
As I was leaving, I turned around and said, “See you again, soon.”
Update: it’s been years since I last went to Shōkichi, but rumor has it he still on very rare occasions opens. The last time I know for certain that he opened for business was in February of this year. The last time before that was a year and a half earlier. There probably isn’t another yatai, or any business period, that operates like that. All the more reason to love Shōkichi.
さつま白波黒 (Satsuma Shiranami Kuro)
A very, very nice surprise this morning. My latest work, Kampai, has managed to break the top ten in Japan.
 Shōkichi (小吉, literally “little lucky”) is one of the fortunes you’ll find on o-mikuji (お神籤, sacred lot, written oracle) at shrines. Daikichi (大吉, lit. “big lucky” is the best fortune you can get. Many people prefer shōkichi or chūkichi (中吉, lit. “middle lucky”) as it leaves room for improvement. With daikichi, there’s nowhere to go but down. It’s always better to be at the beginning of a lucky streak than near the end of one.
 Taishō, which literally means “general” or “admiral”, is what customers often call the owner of a Japanese style restaurant. Even though I know his real name, I always call him Taishō.
 K-1 is a kickboxing promotion based in Japan. It combines techniques from Muay Thai, Karate, Taekwondo, and so on.
 Yatai (屋台), food wagons or mobile food stalls which were once common throughout Japan, are something of a rarity nowadays. Fukuoka City, however, still has about 200 or so licensed yatai. While most yatai in the city serve yakitori and ramen, some specialize in Chinese, Italian and Okinawan dishes. The City of Fukuoka has an incomprehensibly schizophrenic policy towards the food stalls: promoting them as a tourist attraction on the one hand and, on the other hand, ensuring their eventual demise by putting strict limits on who is eligible for the licenses. It would be a crying shame if they allowed the yatai to die out.
 The yatai are usually hauled out by hand or towed to their regular spot and assembled a few hours before opening. Because Shōkichi opens for business at eight in the evening, Taishō can usually be found setting up his stall as early as five-thirty.
 Oden is a Japanese winter dish made with boiled eggs, Japanese radish, bamboo shoots, thick slices of deep-fried tōfu, kon’nyaku, and so on, stewed in a broth flavored with dashi and soy sauce. It is usually served with a mustard spicy enough to singe your nosehairs.
 Japanese for, “Been a long time, hasn’t it?” Remember this phrase, you will use it.
 Yes, the YMCA. I also studied Japanese for several years at the YWCA.
 O-yuwari (お湯割り) means mixed with hot water.
 Imo means potato and refers to the sweet potato variety of shōchū that I like as opposed to the other types (rice, barely, sugarcane).
 That is, small cuts of chicken, fatty boneless pork ribs, asparagus wrapped in pork, thin slices of chicken with pickled plums and beefsteak leaf, and potatoes with butter.
 A robatayaki-ya (炉端焼き屋) is a restaurant which serves fish or meat and vegetables grilled over a sunken hearth as opposed to a yakitori-ya (焼き鳥屋) where skewers of (predominately) chicken are grilled over a charcoal fire. Incidentally, Fukuoka (and possibly Kyūshū) is unique in that you can find pork dishes, such as butabara and bēkon maki, served at yakitori-ya.
 Mizu wari (水割り), mixed with water.
 A relative’s 90-something-year old grandfather drinks his shōchū this way.
 Yes, coffee.
 Bloody Hanako © 2011 Aonghas Crowe. All rights reserved. No unauthorized use of any kind.
 About twenty-four bucks.