From June 15-July 3, I joined 18 other MBA students on an Asian Field Study academic immersion program that visited Tokyo, Japan; Shanghai, China; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Over the next few weeks, I will recount the best of those adventures here on Drink with Aloha. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed living them.
The following is Part 2 of the story how I learned everything I know about drinking in Japan from a ninja. You can read Part 1 here.
If you didn’t read Part 1, allow me to set the stage. My buddies, Boogie, Blondie, CodeRed, Shack, and I met some new friends in Japan who had taken us out for the evening when a ninja kicked through the wall of a building that led to the entrance of a cave and screamed that we needed to follow her, lest enemy forces attack us, before sprinting off into the darkness with the only source of light.
(No, really. That actually happened. It makes sense if you read Part 1. Well, more sense anyway. Scratch that, it still doesn’t make sense. But, it was awesome.)
Now, back to the cave…
As the ninja sprinted off into the cave with the only light, Boogie, Blondie, CodeRed and I exchanged one last “I-can’t-believe-this-is-really-happening” glance before taking off into the cave after the ninja. (For the record, yes, the fact that the four of us chased a ninja through a series of caves beneath the streets of Tokyo is still incredibly weird.)
Twenty feet ahead I caught a glimpse of the lantern, bobbing back and forth as the ninja sprinted through the abyss. I could barely make out stalactitites hanging from the cieling and the occasional glint of gold coins shining through the darkness of various passageways. Ocassionally, I caught a quick glimpse of something bizarre in the darkness.
Was that a treasure chest?
I’m going to pretend that wasn’t a skull.
There is no way I just saw a waterfall…
Up ahead I heard the vague sound of rushing water. The lantern came to an abrupt stop.
As I slowly approached the light, the pathway dropped into darkness over what appeared to be a river. The undeniable sound of rushing water filled the cave. I peered over the edge of the cliff and there it was: an actual rushing body of water, six feet across, blocking our procession further into the catacombs.
Ninjas. Treasure. Skulls. Swords. Lanterns. And now, an underground river. All that was missing was a Japanese Ashton Kutcher jumping out of the water to tell us we’d been punk’d.
While I waited for Takato Kutcher (or, would that be Shunsuke Kutcher?)to jump out of the river, the ninja turned to us and said, “The bridge is down. We need to find a way across or the enemy will surely destroy us.” (Sitting at my computer, in the safe confines of my bedroom, I can see the fanciful, somewhat comical nature of a tiny Japanese woman in black pajamas, holding an electrical candle in a lantern covering, putting the fear of God in unsuspecting visitors. However, at the time, this proclamation was life-threatening news. The enemy was almost upon us!)
With a glint in her eye, the ninja turned to us, wagged her finger and said, “But, don’t worry. I use ninja magic to bring bridge down. WAH-TAH!” Her gutteral scream coincided with a two-fisted point across the rushing torent of water. As if by (ninja) magic, a bridge descended from the opposite side of the cliff, providing a way forward.
The ninja quickly rushed across the bridge, urging us to follow. When we made it safely accross the bridge, she turned to us with an ashen look and said, “Oh no. The enemy is almost here!”. The sound of marching footsteps and oncoming soldiers filled the cave. “But, don’t worry,” our ninja guide said, the twinkle returing to her eye. “I use ninja magic to bring bridge back up. WAH-TAH!” With another violent two-fisted point accross the river, the ninja willed the bridge back into it’s orginal hidden position. Before I could ask the ninja if her magic skills worked as well at parting gridlocked traffic, she took off running again.
We followed the ninja around a turn in the cave and my jaw nearly hit the floor. The cavern opened into a giant, underground village that looked like a cross between a ninja hideout, Robin Hood’s fort, the caves from Disney’s Pirates of the Carribean ride, the Shire from Lord of the Rings, and the Ewok village. Wooden structures stood floor to cieling with rope bridges connecting the towers. Ninjas leaped between the buildings, carrying trays of food, pitchers of beer, and the occassional martini glass. Apparently, after running startled visitors through a system of underground tunnels, ninjas feel obligated to serve them haute cuisine and alcoholic beverages. This further cemented my belief that ninjas are awesome.
Every so often during our journey through Robin Hood’s Pirates of the ShireWok ninja village bar and grill, we would pass a screen hanging over the entrance to a cave. Through the gap between the edge of the screen and the mouth of the cave, we could barely make out groups of people sitting around a dining table, eating, talking, and laughing. A few rounds of sake seemed to have abated their fears about the enemy lurking on the other side of the bridge.
We followed our diminuitive ninja guide for a few minutes as we wandered through the labyrinthian village. Eventually, she reached a staircase leading to a hollowed out cave with a bird’s eye view of the village. She pointed up the stairs and said, “Welcome to the Dragon cave. If you need to use the bathroom, please ask for directions. Otherwise, you will wander the ninja caves forever.”
With that, she spun around and disappeared into the crowd of ninja waiters. I was a little surprised she didn’t vanish in a cloud of smoke.
Stunned silent with looks of bewilderment and smiles on our faces, CodeRed, Blondie, Boogie and I climed the stairs and took our seats at the long table in the Dragon Cave.
Five minutes later the rest of the group arrived. Our Japanese hosts, joined by two new friends, Keisuke and Akiko, are visibly laughing as Shack sports the same look of stupified wonder we’ve finally managed to wipe from our faces. Apparently, the evening has begun according to plan.
Me: “That was awesome!”
Takato (with a huge smile on his face): “I’m glad you liked it. This is our favorite place to take people from out of town.”
We spend a few minutes recounting the madness – ninjas, lanterns, skulls, rivers, treasure – and eventually decided that our hosts have taken us to the Japanese equivalent of the Paradise Cove luau. You would never visit the place on your own, but the experience of watching visitors faces when a ninja kicks down a door to a cave (or a fire dancer whips a flaming knife fifty feet in the air) is priceless. God bless the kitchy madness of the tourist trap.
A waiter hands us menus printed on ninja scrolls. We pick out an entree from a list of five choices and our hosts tell us that they’ll handle the rest of the ordering.
Within a minute, two pitchers of beer arrive. This was to become a common occurance. Every time I looked up a ninja was taking away an empty pitcher and replacing it with a full one. (Let me tell you, the childlike excitement that comes from a ninja handing you a full, icy pitcher of Kirin never gets old). Either this place specializes in serving pitchers of beer in large quantities or they are still telling stories about the crazy assholes who made them cart pitchers of Kirin up a flight of stairs to the Dragon Cave for the better part of four hours. I would put the over/under for number of pitchers we put down that night at 34 between ten people.
We did some drinking that night.
Before this evening, I had heard stories of drinking with Japanese people for the first time. My uncle is a pilot and spent considerable time working for Japan Airlines. During this time, he had numerous co-workers take him out for dinner for “a few drinks”. In Japan, “a few drinks” is code for “I’m going to get you so hammered you can barely stand and your speach consists of monosyllabic utterances to verify that, at your absolute drunkest, I can trust in your character.” You don’t drink to get drunk. You drink to establish trust. Drinking with a group of Japanese people is equal parts introduction and rite of passage. It is also a staggering amount of fun, emphasis on the staggering.
At this point, our first course arrived. Black ninja star crackers, haninging from a tree of breadsticks, with a matching dipping sauce shaped into a ninja star. Game on.
The courses came in waves. Seven? Eleven? Seventeen? I would beleive any number between seven and twenty four courses of food. Drinking from a neverending beer glass has a way of altering your perception.
Typically, during a night of heavy drinking, I channel my inner Phil Jackson and take a mid-dinner timeout to assess how much I’ve had to drink, slow things down a bit, and determine how to pace myself for the rest of the evening. Tonight? By the time I stumbled my way to the bathroom with the help of a ninja guide – without her help I would probably still be wandering through the ninja cave – I was toast. Completely floored. At this point, there was no turning back. I threw some water on my face, slapped my cheeks, put my big-girl drinking-panties on and went back to the table, ready to imbibe like a champ.
I arrive back at the table to hear Blondie make the fatal mistake of mentioning sake.
Haruto: “Do you guys like sake?”
Our fate has just been sealed. Within minutes, ninjas appear with ten sake cups and two large bamboo vessels filled with daiginjo. Our dignity, conincidentally, decides to leave upon the sake’s arrival. Did they take away our beer glasses? Of course not. This is Japan. You keep drinking until somone commits seppuku.
At this point in the evening, the conversation turned to what we all do for a living. Oh Lord. This is hard enough for me to do sober:
I write about alcohol in Hawaii.
I host a weekly talk radio show about University of Hawaii sports.
I do freelance web design and development.
I do freelance writing assignments.
I’m working on a few entreprenueiral ventures in the food, beverage, and media industries.
I’m training to be a bartender.
Basically, I’m doing everything but training unicorns for fun and profit, though if you can get me a unicorn, I’m game. Of course, there’s also the minor detail that I quit my job of seven and a half years developing applications for a financial institution in order to attend the Asian Field Study. (It’s a long story, but let’s just say that it’s always exciting when work tells you that they’re retroactively cancelling the approval for your three week vacation due to project constraints a week before you’re scheduled to leave. Initially, the decision to leave was jarring, however, eating an infinite course meal in Japan with new friends and discussing the subtleties and eccentricities of Japanese and American culture while drinking pitchers of beer and sake until someone pisses blood, I was pretty happy with my decision.)
After my rambling, barely coherent explanation of my haphazard collection of job related activities, I didn’t know what type of reaction to expect. What I received blew me away.
Each one of our new Japanese friends said how happy they were that I quit my job, thereby facilitating this magical evening. They extended an offer to help me in any way they could if business ever brought me to Japan. Their effortless generosity floored me. Over the course of three hours, 200+ beers, 18 bottles of sake, and a mad dash through a ninja cave, five individuals whom I had never met offered me an unconditional bond of friendship. That moment of kindness spoke volumes about Japanese culture, their spirit of collectivism, and the tight knit bonds of friendship and family. It also confirmed that I must not be too much of an asshole when I drink.
Before I could get further caught up in the sentimentality of the moment, a ninja magician flew up the flight of stairs and began performing a ninja magic show. Because how else do you cap off a night of bizarre excess than with a ninja doing card tricks?
After Ninja Houdinni wrapped up his legitimately impressive David Blaine impression, Takato asked us if we wanted any more beer or sake. We responsed with a collective “Please God, no!”, almost in unison.
Stuffed to the hilt and drunk enough to consider taking a swim in the indoor river we headed for the exit as our ninja led us through the maze of the village one last time and out a side door, which spit us out in the original room with no windows or doors. Our night had officially come full circle.
We stumbled up the stairs and out into the streets of Tokyo. As we shuffled, arm in arm down the street we heard a loud “SAYONARA!” and turned to see a ninja execute a perfect front hand spring, pop up and hold open a ninja scroll that says “Thank you for coming!”. You gotta hand it to ninjas. They know how to put the cherry on top of a sundae.
Turning around a second too late, Blondie says, “Wait. What happened? What did I miss?”.
Now, at this point, I’ve had between 12 to 15 beers and about a bottle of sake. The world isn’t spinning, so much as it is lightly rotating on no axis in particular. I am in no shape to execute any bout of physical activity, let alone a daring gymnastic move over a cement sidewalk. Of course, I’ve had 12 to 15 beers and a bottle of sake, so doing a front handspring sounds like a damn good idea.
Without a moments hesitation I execute a form perfect front hand spring, pop up and mimic the motion of opening up a scroll. Looks of amazement hang on the faces of the entire group. The ninja runs up and gives me a high five. For those of you who’ve never had the opportunity to get a flying high five from a ninja warrior, let me tell you, the experience ranks somewhere between having sex and watching your favorite team win the Super Bowl (while having sex). The night officialy acheives perfection.
Our group huddled up for a photo outside the ninja restaurant to commemorate our most memorable of evenings. We exchanged handshakes, hugs, and fond farewells and our hosts ushered us into cabs, instructing the drivers how to take us home.
We arrived at the hotel home and got out of the cab. Before entering the lobby, we shared one last look around. We don’t say a word. We don’t have to. Our eyes tell the story.
I finally break the silence… “HOLY FUCKING SHIT”. Holy fucking shit, indeed.
We headed up to our rooms, weary yet exhilirated. Before we retired for the evening, CodeRed, Shack and I stopped off at the vending machine on our floor and bought a few scotch and sodas for a night cap, because that’s how ninjas roll.
The next morning I sent Takato an email to thank him and his friends for sharing such an incredible experience with us. His response touched me to the core.
Thank you for your e-mail.
For us, it ws also wonderful time to meet you.
If you didn’t quit your bank, we would never come together.
So, we really appreciate your important decision.
Hava a good trip and keep in touch.
Two weeks ago, I was dealing with the ramifications of quitting the only job I’d ever had. Was I making the right decision? Should I suck it up and stay? How will I find another job? How long can my family get by on only my wife’s income? I was forced to make a life altering decision in a short period of time and I chose to jump off the high dive into the deep end. I didn’t know what to expect. I simply hoped everything would work out for the best.
Reading Takato’s email – If you didn’t quit your bank, we would never come together.
So, we really appreciate your important decision. – I knew everything would be just fine. A ninja told me so.
This article is dedicate to Takato, Shunsuke, Haruto, Keisuke, and Akiko. Thank you for your kindness, your generosity, your spirit of adventure, and most of all, your friendship. You will always have friends in Hawaii.
Domo Arigato Gozaimasu