2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Excellent Advice From a Drunk Former Geisha

Excellent Advice From a Drunk Former Geisha

Sake and Lager in Atami

“How does anyone get drunk in this town?”

Three of us were wandering around the eerily quiet bar district in Atami, a medium-sized seaside town on the Izu Peninsula south of Tokyo. I had been in the country for only a few weeks at that point. For company, I had Jeff, a fluent Japanese speaker originally from the U.S., and local resident Yugo. We were on a mission to cause shenanigans, but Atami was doing her best to thwart us.

“I think I heard something,” Yugo put his hand up to pause us in front of a little shop. A hoarse laugh burped out of the ancient restaurant, and Yugo looked back at us with a shrug before sliding the door open tentatively. Excited voices squawked out of the tiny establishment as he stuck his head in, happy greetings that required no translation.

Yugo looked back again, clearly reluctant to commit to whatever he saw inside, but far too polite to decline the enthusiastic welcome. He ducked his head and went in. We followed.

Just inside the entrance to the smoky restaurant, a small, ancient woman was warmly patting Yugo on the hand and waving at Jeff to come closer for a better look. When I stood up inside, she stopped and looked way up while a four-tooth grin spread across her face, then pushed the others out of the way to wrap her arms around my waist in a hug. I laughed and hugged her delicate shoulders.

The proprietor pulled us further into her shop and directed us to one of only two tables. Jeff, Yugo, and our host, who insisted we call her Aa-chan, fired off an exchange in Japanese that resulted in the table becoming covered in whisky, sake and beer bottles, followed by plates of local food.

Jeff and Yugo worked on the sake while Aa-chan drank whisky and I had a few classic-looking pint bottles of Sapporo lager. The conversation was mostly in Japanese and Aa-chan didn’t have time to wait for translations before moving on to the next question, but I was beerily content.

When our bottles emptied, Aa-chan got up to bring more, not asking for our input. She slid over to my side of the table and hooked her arm into mine, resting her head on my shoulder as she told stories. In her 20s, Aa-chan had been a nurse, before getting divorced at 26. Afterwards, she had become a geisha, and she gestured proudly around the restaurant to various mementos from her entertainment career.

Later, as we paid our much-too-low bill, Aa-chan became serious and asked if we were driving. We assured her no. So she smiled, and said something in Japanese that made Jeff blush and Yugo roar with laughter.

“What did she say?” I asked. Jeff just shook his head, unwilling to answer.

“She said,” Yugo chuckled, “Good. When you drink, you shouldn’t get in a car, you should get in a woman!”

With that piece of advice, she patted my hand with a toothy smile and shooed us out into the night.

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