I was chatting to a German guy on Tuesday morning as we shambled into town in the sunshine. We were holding forth on music, videogames, the merits of our various hometowns, the strange chaos of Japanese cities, and particularly on history. We spoke about the Berlin Wall, and how it created and still shapes the modern city. It arguably stopped Berlin from dominating Germany the way London does the United Kingdom, or Paris does France.
It came to me that all cities have a Berlin Wall, a dividing line that separates the city into two types of governance, two personalities, two essences. All cities have work attire and evening gear. All cities are transformed, lycanthropic and howling, at night, and wake up naked in the woods at dawn under the fading moon, with blood on their teeth. All cities are mixed metaphors. All cities are two cities*.
And why should here be any different?
So I want to collect my thoughts about my long weekend, and about nightlife in Hiroshima, and in doing so, talk a bit about the people I’ve met along the way. At the same time, I want to weave some thoughts together to ask what it is that makes a city ‘Home’.
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My friend Louis came to visit last Sunday, in the midst of a family holiday. He was fresh to Japan, and slightly bowled over by culture shock. We took a walk along Nagarekawa, drinking in the raucous neon signs and billboards, watching people flirting animatedly outside bars, listening to the formerly polite cars suddenly beeping their horns with impatience. And we headed for a local music bar.
The first thing that strikes you about going out in Hiroshima is the lack of space. I’ve fought for oxygen in enough ‘cosy’ music pubs in England before, but some of the bars here put them to shame. This place was miniscule, a basement with a few stools and two square black metal tables. A DJ booth and ‘dancefloor’ that might fit five, depending on their moves. It’s not an anomaly, either- one of my favourite haunts is Tropical Bar Revolucion, a Latin-themed bar on the eighth floor of a tower block, with barely twenty metres square of floor space but a good view of rooftops at night. Nobu, the longtime patron, is a good host to new faces.
Then, inevitably, we wound up at The Shack.
The Shack reminds me of the island in the final A Series of Unfortunate Events book, The End, if anyone got that far. People don’t exactly plan to go there, but everyone washes up there at some point on their journey. Some more often than others. I can only say my pool skills have improved. The Shack is a misfit little community of foreign travellers, immigrants and generally unconventional Japanese twentysomethings. It’s kind of its own little ecosystem, for better or for worse.
I’m a big fan of the iPad jukebox: democracy by means of Youtube playlist. At least as effective as most other forms of democracy right now. You hear a discombobulated jumble of hip hop, ska, rock, and the worst kind of international R &B, but at least it tends to be a j-pop free zone. As such, I’m forever… indebted to The Shack because I’m now aware of the existence of Japanese and Korean trap music.
(Somehow, this is the second song I recently heard where KILLER WHALES, KILLER WHALES, KILLER WHALES is a key refrain. Points for the other one)
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Monday swung round and I lay in bed with a spinning head. The Red Bull, man. It’s always the fucking Red Bull. Eventually I roused myself for some ramen at Ichiran. We met up with Louis’ parents and squeezed into a comically small booth to scoff some lifegiving noodle broth.
Then it was out again. The Englishman’s duty to drink even when it’s injurious to his health is an unforgiving burden, I often think. At least I hadn’t been sightseeing all day. Louis was still going strong though, and ramen cures all that ails you. So we assembled with a little crew of teachers and couchsurfers, and hit up an izakaya.
For those of you not in the know, izakaya are something akin to tapas bars, with cheap beer and many small plates of food ordered to share. They essentially evolved out of alcohol stores that figured you can make an easy extra buck feeding drunk people. That said, people will go to an izakaya just to drink, depending on the hour and the spot. I had my first taste of shōchū, a sweet and slightly earthy vodka equivalent distilled from sweet potatoes and rice.
Finally, we shuffled over to Ondo, a music bar which came highly recommended by a record shop owner. Ondo is undoubtedly my top night spot in Hiroshima so far. The décor hits the sweet spot between trendy café, pointedly quirky artspace and hippy rec room- if that sounds a bit like Bristol to you, you wouldn’t be far wrong, I guess. The music took in jazz and deep house and much else besides; I gesticulated and shouted about cities and Brexit and the Carolingian Empire, and slipped into Japanese with all the grace of a small hoover falling down the stairs.
We were virtually the only people in the bar, but I guess it was a Monday night. The owners, Satoshi and Ayumi, know how to run an establishment, and the DJ is open to suggestions if they fit the vibe. All in all, I can’t recommend the place highly enough.
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As you might have gathered, October has been a resurgence for me so far. I started properly taking Japanese lessons, which I had been dreading, but they’re far more fun than I expected. I have a social circle, which is small but surely gathering momentum as it grows, like a Katamari. Hiroshima isn’t home yet. But it’s closer than it was before.
Part of that is down to the city’s twin personalities. You can live in a city by day, and a whole other city will live beside you, unseen. But I’ve started to explore the city at night, and suddenly I feel more welcome. Strangers by day can be friends by night- that’s how it’s always been. Night is life’s beer garden**.
I might have inched my way closer to unravelling a contradiction, too. How can a person be perma-restless but also homesick? Well, it’s possible that what I enjoy is creating new homes. Certainly, as Hiroshima has started to feel like a place of belonging, the satogokoro has shrunk. Bristol, Leeds and St. Albans are all replete with good times, but I’ll persevere, because it’d be nice to add another one to the collection.
* Except Welwyn Garden City, which is barely one.
** I am the glittering demigod of pseudo-profundity. I ride the skies atop a unicorn of lightning and nonsense. I should be one of those people who writes inspirational messages for tea-towels.