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Celebrating a 21st Birthday Like Americans in Japan

JAPAN | Friday, 26 February 2016 | Views [310]

Friday was Nicole’s 21st birthday, and also a class-free day, so on Thursday, we met up to celebrate it. The planning process was a little scattered, to put it mildly.

Nicole, one week prior: “It’s my 21st birthday, so let’s celebrate! Like this by Wednesday, and I’ll try and reserve an izakaya.”

Everyone on Thursday: “So…. what’s happening?”

Nicole: “Umm… I need to make a reservation. Some place that will still take them for tonight. After I go to class…”

Indu: “Well, there’s this place.”

Molly: “Or this other place.”

Indu: “Or here.”

Taka: “That wouldn’t work. “

Indu: “Your call. Just… us know soon?”

Location and timing changed around a lot on Thursday, but around 18:00 it was established that we would be meeting at a certain train station at 19:00 so we could head to the izakaya together. It would take about 20 to 30 minutes to get there.

Although I probably could have figured out how to get there on my own, I figured it was easiest to stick by Sarah and Yuki who were also going. We ended up not leaving until 18:50, though, so I might have been better setting off on my own.

I think the lateness might be the most surprising thing I’ve found about the Japanese people I’ve interacted with. Mostly because it’s so much not a stereotype of the Japanese. But it doesn’t seem to matter what time of the day it is, I’ve had multiple of the Japanese students in the apartment set a time for when we leave… and then be about ten minutes late for that deadline, and occasionally the actual start time of what we were supposed to go to. Granted, the people who live in the apartments are all college-age students, but even so. I’d expect a greater concern for being on time when we’re headed somewhere to meet up with people. Even, or perhaps especially, the apartment “community leaders” have a tendency to show up late.

We arrived at the train station after the group had already left, which mostly seemed to mean we missed waiting outside the izakaya. Everyone was getting settled when we arrived, and so we took our seats.


The way that particular izakaya worked (and there many others that work the same way) is that for 2700 yen, we were there for two-ish hours to have several plates of food and any drinks we wanted to order. Obviously the way you get your money’s worth is not by ordering a coke and nursing it throughout the evening.

As a rough description, the izakaya was decorated like an American dive bar. It wasn’t, and it didn’t feel like that, but you could tell they were trying a bit too hard to be American. There were license plates all over which were pretty clearly whatever old American license plates they could get their hands on. They had a top shelf with boxes of cereal and jars of peanut butter that quite possibly expired before I was born. But it was clearly not meant for Americans. For one thing, we were the only ones there, and we’d only found it with the recommendation of Japanese students. For another, the English on the menu was pretty badly translated. And finally, the waiters would not recognize what you were saying unless you katakanicized the name. In other words, you need to put on a very thick, very fake Japanese accent to get your drink.

There were about six different “courses,” shared among 5 or 6 people per plate. It probably would not have been enough just by itself, but since I’d had a light dinner before going, it was about the perfect amount. The first course was edamame, then salad, then a noodle dish and a rice dish, then fries, then finally pancakes and ice cream. And then, because it was Nicole’s birthday and Maki had run out to get her a cake (literally ran out, but somehow snuck back in with the cake) and the servers had added candles and brought it out, we had cake.

As for the drinks, which was of course the reason we were there… there were a lot of them. The vast majority were cocktails, including a decent selection of ‘build-your-own cocktails. Most of them were extremely sweet and hardly tasted alcoholic. To focus on a couple:

Cassis beer: Now, as a girl who just came from France, where the program director had grown up in Dordogne, “cassis” stirs lots of nostalgia. Because every single time we’d go to Stephanie’s house, she would offer us kir, a blend of cassis (blackberry liqueur) with white wine. I think I also had that on the weekend en solo. It’s not a Parisian thing at all, but it is common for the areas Laure and Stephanie lived, and so they tend to be proud of that.

When I saw that cassis beer was an option, I considered for a moment. There was about a 20% chance it would be good (a beer that was made semi-directly from blackberries) and an 80% chance it would be terrible (a regular beer with cassis sirop added.) I had to try it.

It was terrible.

Banana milk: If you’d talked to Dan at all this semester, you’d understand this. Failing that, I’ve certainly heard him talk enough that I can provide the context.

So the Super has a banana juice that they sell in a milk carton. For 120 yen, you can get a carton of “banana milk.” The carton has neither the words juice or milk on it, so you can call it whatever you want. However, the carton also says the average cup will have a whole banana in it, and that no sugar is added. Both of these are palatably false. Essentially, this banana liquid tastes like a banana Laffy Taffy. And Dan loves it, and drinks it every day.

Now, in the build-your-own cocktail section, one of the options for the liqueur was banana. One of the options for the other part of the cocktail was milk. Dan looked at the menu and went “I have to do it.” Which was understandable enough, because he talked enough about the regular banana milk that when an alcoholic option came along, he had to try it at least once. What was less understandable was why, after he ordered it, two other immediately said “me too!” Something about Dan makes other people trust his drink orders implicitly and mimic him whenever possible. This confuses no one more than him.

Cuba Libre. Also Rum and Coke. I noticed this when I first came in, and wondered what the difference was, since a Cuba Libre’s main ingredients are rum and coke. Unless Cuba Libre was made with actual Cuban rum. Which would be legal, because Japan, and intriguing… Sadly, this was not the case. Cuba Libre was a lot of coke, and a small amount of rum that did not taste like Havana Club. Which is still better than “Rum and Coke,” which seemed to be code for “I want you to lose my drink order and never find it.” That’s at least what happened the two times I ordered it until I gave up and ordered a Cuba Libre instead.

Though losing orders was by no means restricted to orders for Rum and Coke. They kept losing orders the entire second hour. I think they were hoping we were drunk enough that we didn’t notice. We did, and after a while had passed and our drink hadn’t arrived we had to either re-order it, or decide we weren’t that invested in the name and try another one.

What made this even more suspicious was that there were less people in the izakaya the second hour than there were at the beginning. But somehow, at the beginning, when our entire group was ordering at once, they could keep track of the drinks and make them in a timely manner. But as other people left and our orders were more spaced out, they suddenly couldn’t keep track of what we were supposed to be getting. If you said “I ordered a * 15 minutes ago,” they would assure you it was being made and you’d never get it. If you ordered it again without complaining, you might actually get it the second time around.

Tags: bar, birthday, drinks, food

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