…or, Remembrance of Rats Past.
I have to emphasize just how relaxed I was on Monday evening. My lesson up in Takatsuki was finished, and had gone smoothly. I had ridden back down to Osaka and met up with Kenta to go eat some shabushabu (strips of chilled raw beef sliced very thin, swished quickly with your chopsticks in boiling water – swish-swish equals shabushabu in Japanese – then dipped in either sesame sauce or ponzu sauce) at an all-you-can-eat place in Namba. It’s a clean-looking restaurant, on the second floor of a medium-sized hotel. We were served plate after plate of beef, very delicious, and what with that and two beers (even the metallic Asahi Super Dry tasted good that night) and good conversation, I was feeling rather mellow.
So it was a bit of a jolt when I noticed, over Kenta’s shoulder, a large brown rat saunter out from under the beer cooler and scuttle under the low counter, which held plates and cutlery, near the kitchen. So unreal was it that he may as well have been a remote-control toy, or claymation. Like Basil Fawlty seeing Manuel’s pet rodent for the first time, I just stared straight ahead, at the space below the counter, about 20 feet away. Kenta noticed my rather blank look, and asked what was wrong.
“I just saw a rat.”
Pause. “Oh, I think having cockroaches is worse,” he says. “It means the place is dirty.”
It’s something I will never understand about this country which so prides itself on cleanliness: while a shoe on a kitchen floor is considered disgusting, a rat in a restaurant (as long as he’s not on your table, and you’re not in, say, the Hilton) is something you just put up with. Of course, it doesn’t happen every day, but it’s not a big issue when it does. “Well, it’s a problem everywhere, isn’t it?” they ask, as if we were talking about dandruff. At any rate, we promptly left the restaurant, and I was still too stunned to even mention the four-pawed visitor. Needless to say,though, I’ll never go there again.
It’s easy to forget what a rat-hole Namba was when I first came here in 1989. It is the old entertainment district of Osaka, full of restaurants and bars and karaoke boxes (and, increasingly, far too many pachinko parlours). It’s always been bright and flashy, but also a bit rough and dirty if you turn the wrong corner. Now,the summer of 1990 was a particularly hot one, with temperatures often hitting 37 or 38 degrees (it was nowhere near that sticky again until last year and this year). On those hot nights after work, on the way to The Pig & Whistle – then the only gaijin bar in the area – Fred, when he lived here, would amuse himself by kicking the garbage bags piled along the sidestreets, just to hear the “skreek,skreek,skreek!” of the rats inside. We did not share the same phobias, obviously: the first time he did that, I almost hopped on the plane and went back home. Taking a short-cut in the morning, you’d count the outlines of squashed rats, too slow and fat to avoid the morning delivery trucks.
Then of course (the memories flood back) there was that dark little bar near the Dotombori. Used to love that place too, until one particular night, circa 1991, when someone ordered a pizza and…
Should I go on?