Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Irrashaimase! - a virgin experience at an izakaya

The smoky yet sweetly delectable fumes of grilled meat wafted through the Noren curtains. Affirmative. This must be the quintessential izakaya I’ve read so much about.

Step through the threshold of the wooden sliding doors and you hear enthusiastic echoes of “Irrashaimase” amidst the cacophony of conversations from the imbibing patrons. Following the layout of the shop, the bar is laid out in a space-efficient, vertical manner, with a long counter stretching perpendicularly before me to the ends of the shop. To the left, a row of wooden bar-stool seats line up parallel to the counter and to the right tiny tables seating two spread along the length of the shop.

In luck, we found just enough freed counter seats at the front-end of the shop for my two dining companions and myself. Excited at our first dining experience at an izakaya, we plonked ourselves readily on the bar stools. A male staff appears immediately to take our orders. Then it hit us. Nobody here understands English and none of my companions nor I speak much Japanese.

The male staff looks to his female colleague and both of them launch into bullet-speed Japanese, frowning as they do so. This definitely doesn’t bode well. I looked over my shoulders to see if I could catch the eye of any sympathetic diner, who could possibly help us bridge the language barrier. But one sweeping look around and everyone is either tucking into their food with gusto or deep in raucous conversation or “kampai –ing” with their Sake cups.

The ambrosia of the grilled meats engulfs me and makes my mouth water but so do the babble of foreign tongues seem to drown out any of my feeble attempts to communicate with the staff via a combination of minimal English and wild gesticulation. My companions and I then racked our brains, trying to recall anything remotely to do with food and beverage from our limited Japanese vocabulary. We knew the word “Sake” but we weren’t up to drinking it that evening, then my companion blurted out “Asahi” one of the popular Japanese beer brands we’ve seen around. So it’s one bottle of Asahi as our choice tipple.

Satisfied with clearing the drink orders challenge, we next think of how we should go about ordering food and we were resolutely starving. Then we hit an epiphany, we were seated along a counter-top with food displayed right before us, what better way to order than to simply point at the spread before us! So two of us got up and sauntered along the counter, beckoning a staff to follow us as we gamely point out foreign-looking, yet promisingly delicious looking food items and gestured how many of the specific item we want. So, it’s point at fish and gesture 3, then point at grilled sticks of meat and gesture another 3.

Bolstered by the mildly successful attempt to get the food orders rolling, I proceeded to recall the vocabulary of Japanese food items that I’ve amassed over the years, from either ordering Japanese food back at my home town and from watching TV or reading. So I rattled off “ oden’. “tofu”, “yakitori” , ‘shisamo” till we are satisfied we have ordered enough food for three.

For the uninitiated, an izakaya (居酒屋) is essentially a Japanese-style gastro-pub, where you'll find your sakes and Asahis alongside offerings of a smorgasbord of Japanese pub grub.

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