Mystery Men

The daily route from my apartment in Ikebukuro to the school where I taught in Shinjuku was quite unremarkable. The walk to the station every day was probably a little under a mile, most of it through small neighborhood streets lined with commonplace homes, ordinary shops and generic office buildings. But after a few months of walking the same path from home to the train station to the office and back again, I came to know every streetlamp and manhole cover. The faces of the neighborhood proprietors grew familiar and each day as I passed them, I would say Ohayo to Ohara-san, the lady whose family owned the convenience market, and to the butcher on the corner whose name I never learned, and to Ka-chan, the chef of a little neighborhood restaurant called Ganbe.

There was one place in particular, however, that remained a mystery. It was a building in the middle of the block, the entrance of which was always secured by a heavy gray roll-down door. In all the times I’d passed by, it was never open and there was never a soul to be seen. So imagine my surprise one Saturday evening when I rounded the corner to find that the mystery door had been lifted and there was a party going on inside. Not just an ordinary party, mind you, but a decidedly Japanese, male-only, sake-drinking party. The interior of the building was one big, empty tatami room that had been decorated for the occasion with floral wreaths, and colorful paper lanterns and streamers. About two dozen old men, dressed in traditional Japanese robes, were sitting around on cushions talking and singing and drinking; and although it was raining buckets outside, I couldn’t help but stop to stare at them. As I stood there under my umbrella, feet soaking in puddles of rain, wondering what the cause for celebration was, one of the old men gestured for me to come inside and join them. I was overcome with curiosity, and it certainly looked like a lot more fun than trudging back home to an empty apartment, so I did.

I closed my umbrella, took off my shoes and sat down on the tatami floor. The old man who had invited me in grinned at me and filled my cup with hot sake. I soon discovered that nobody in the entire group spoke a word of English, so I fished my pocket dictionary out of my bag and made an attempt to communicate with them in Japanese. By this time, I’d been in Japan long enough to have mastered the basics of the language and could carry on simple conversations, although I never did become fluent enough to say anything intelligent or profound.

For the next couple of hours, I enjoyed the revelry and hospitality of those old men, and managed to convey to them that I was an English teacher from California. They all seemed rather impressed with that, and I became the subject of much head nodding and many an, “Asoka.” and a “Honto ni?” But try as I might, I never learned who those old men were and what they were celebrating. I still wonder to this day.