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Honky-Tonk, the Gokiburi & the Yakuza
by Shane Dickey
graphics by Sam
I had been living for three months in a rooming house in the rural Kyoto
suburb of Iwakura when I met Jo Nishitani. He was the proprietor of
a bona-fide honky-tonk restaurant just outside of town. At twenty-one,
Yatani had changed his given name to Jo and decided to embrace his love
of Hank Williams instead of becoming a policeman as his father and grandfather
had done. Not surprisingly, his family disowned him and cast him out,
a lone cowboy on an inhospitable Japanese landscape.
After a brief tour of the American Southwest with his band, Cheyenne,
during which the aspiring country music stars were mocked and ridiculed,
a jaded Jo Nishitani returned to his homeland and opened his own honky-tonk.
It was indeed a “Western-style” establishment, with a dozen
bourbons behind the bar, a Dolly Parton pinball machine in the corner,
a Confederate flag over the worn pine dance floor, and live country
music three nights a week.
A friend introduced me to middle-aged Nishitani, whose head cook had
recently left. Walking into the place, which sat adjacent to a riding
stable, I felt suddenly like I was standing in Alabama. The sweet sounds
of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys emanated softly from large ceiling
speakers. Nishitani and I discussed my cooking experience and the long
hours the job required while he nodded his head under a large cowboy
hat and chewed a toothpick stub. But when Nishitani discovered that
I was a genuine, pure-bred Kentucky native, he hung his white hat on
the wide set of bullhorns over the bar, poured us both a shot of bourbon,
and we drank to my new job.
Having been built in a one-time supply closet and adjoining hallway,
the honky-tonk’s kitchen was small and cramped, even by Japanese
standards. The fryer, stove and grill had been shoe-horned into the
place before the last wall was built and as such were immovable. During
the course of a double shift, all sorts of food scraps would fall behind
the cutting board and be lost. At the end of the day, per Yatani’s
instruction, I would sweep up what I could, and then, with a powerful
hose, wash down the walls, workspace and floors, pushing to the furthest
corners and unreachable places all that remained of that day’s
Needless to say, the floor would be crawling with roaches in the early
mornings when I’d first turn on the light. I’d wait by the
front door long enough for them to scuttle off, deep into walls and
under the counters. The roaches rarely showed themselves while the place
was in operation. One morning, however, on my way through the dining
area, I accidentally kicked something that skidded across the wooden
floor like a matchbook. This dead roach was not like its smaller, tamer
North American cousins: It was a tropical roach, a Japanese roach, a
gokiburi. Gargantuan, it was ten times the size of those that
used to scurry around my kitchen floors on damp Kentucky summer nights.
This one was much darker too, almost black, and its head, abdomen, legs
and even eyes were clearly articulated. It was plain to see that this
was a superior roach, more highly evolved than any other. Repulsed,
I went to the bar for a napkin to pick it up, but when I got back it
was gone. Had it been carried off by one of its brethren, to be devoured
by the brood? Had it just been feigning death? Or was it maybe only
in shock after a fall from the ceiling?
Every Thursday morning at eleven sharp, exactly an hour before opening
time, when the place was otherwise empty, the yakuza would
come in. Three guys in shiny silver suits and slim sunglasses would
make their way into the dining room, each with an unusually tall, perfectly
made-up woman on his arm. Nishitani was usually sitting at his cramped
desk in the back, working the accounts. He always seemed strangely nervous
as he brushed past me on his way to the front, muttering Japanese words
I didn’t understand. Out front, Nishitani would pour expensive
whisky and do his best to buddy up with the men, but they seemed to
hold him at arm’s length. Here was some sort of business association,
the nature of it beyond me. After the first Thursday, I told my friend
Mike, who had visited a yakuza-operated gambling town nearby on the
shore of Lake Biwa, that I had made lunch for some gangsters. He was
genuinely concerned. “Look out for those guys, man. Especially
the ones with tattoos on their hands or missing fingers — their
bosses take off a knuckle every time they mess up. Those guys are bad
It was on one such Thursday that disaster struck. They came in as usual
and all three ordered jambalaya, the spicy house signature dish. Since
I had special instructions to exaggerate the portions of anything they
ordered, I was going to need a much larger pan than the one I normally
used for stir-frying. When I called Nishitani and told him this, he
came back and impatiently pointed to the wall next to the stove. At
first I didn’t see it, but then I realized that hanging there
on a nail, completely covered with a dark blanket of grease and soot,
was an enormous pan the exact size and shape of half a whisky barrel.
So rarely used was it and so well camouflaged, that in all my time in
the kitchen, I had never even noticed it was there. When I took it down,
not only was there a perfect silhouette in its exact shape on the wall,
but from behind it scurried half a dozen fat, black gokiburi. A shudder
ran through me, but I had no time to dwell; there was jambalaya to prepare.
I rinsed and preheated the big pan, then dropped into the fryer the
better part of two whole chickens and two dozen large shrimp with heads.
I sautéed several handfuls of vegetables, then emptied the contents
of the institutional rice cooker into the pan and added special seasonings,
the meat from the fryer, and three ladles of homemade teriyaki sauce.
I could not flip the contents of the big pan with one hand. I took hold
of the long, smooth wooden handle with both hands up to the forearms,
and flipped the contents with utmost care so as to keep it all together.
The rice hit the side of the pan with a satisfying sizzle. Then I set
it back on the stovetop to work it with the bamboo stir-fry paddle.
Toss it again, work it with the paddle. That’s when I looked up
to the stainless steel hood over the stove. There, not an arm’s
length from my face, rested the fattest, blackest roach of them all.
I suspected that the gokiburi was one of those that had been hiding
behind the big pan. It was possible that, displaced, he had nowhere
to go. In any case, he was certainly in no hurry to get out of plain
sight; he had no intention of running off like his cowardly brethren.
No, this was a different sort — a new breed — bigger, bolder,
stronger, smarter. My disgust and revulsion quickly turned to anger
as I stared at the bug, and he at me. I looked deep into the round eyes
of the gokiburi. He didn’t budge. Only his antennae wavered slightly.
A classic standoff. On the stovetop, the jambalaya started to burn.
In my right hand, I gripped the bamboo paddle hard and slowly began
to raise it.
Directly behind me was a doorway that led behind the bar. Normally a
curtain was hanging there, blocking the view to the kitchen, but Yatani
had taken it down that morning for laundering. If I had looked over
my right shoulder and crouched slightly, I could have seen the three
yakuza and their lady friends all sitting at the bar drinking expensive
bourbon and making tense small talk with Yatani. Unbeknownst to me,
on this day the head yakuza, Kuroyama-san, who himself was missing two
fingers on his right hand, had brought along a coveted bottle of Maker’s
Mark Black Label, the most expensive and highly-sought-after Kentucky
bourbon in Japan, to consummate a deal between him and Yatani. In fact,
it was precisely when Kuroyama-san poured the bourbon that I’d
looked up and seen the roach. Their squat, full glasses were close enough
to me that I could smell barrel oak.
The moment before I swung for the roach was eternal. My vision centered
on the engorged thorax, the hairy legs, the black, knowing eyes, the
mouth — yes, the mouth — opening and closing slowly as if
chewing a dirty cud. All else in the periphery melted away. I imagined
the stinky yellow puss that filled him, how satisfyingly his guts would
smear on that shining stainless steel, how his eyes would pop, his legs
would snap, and his body would be rendered indistinguishable. An unknown
aggression had engulfed me. The roach... must... die...
I swung the paddle. And just before it got to the beast, the sonofabitch
flew! It went airborne, taking evasive maneuvers! The goddamn thing
could fly! Then, just as the paddle hit the stainless hood with a tremendous,
hollow thud that resonated through the kitchen and into the bar, the
roach, the horrible, intelligent gokiburi took offensive action and
actually landed on my face! No sooner had its tiny hooked feet touched
down in the hollow between my right eye and the bridge of my nose than
it immediately started skittering down my neck, presumably to take refuge
under my shirt. My left hand was still gripping the wooden handle of
the big pan when reflex took over. With a strength previously unknown
to me, I jerked back the pan, and all of its contents — rice,
onions, mushrooms, peppers, chicken, shrimp, and sauce — flew
en masse over my shoulder, through the doorway, and landed
on the bar, in the laps of the yakuza, in the bosoms of their lady friends,
and in their glasses of Maker’s Mark whisky. The big pan then
hit the ground. I screamed like a horror-movie schoolgirl. I swatted
at my face and neck, jumped around, slipped and fell, and writhed on
the floor, wailing, until I was exhausted.
Slowly I came to my senses. And when I did, I looked up from where I
lay, dirty, greasy, covered with rice and sauce, on the floor of the
kitchen, to see Nishitani and Kuroyama-san standing over me. The rest
were grouped behind them with horrified looks on their faces. I could
see that I’d hurled jambalaya all over them. I could only assume
that I’d ruined their drinks. I thought of Kuroyama-san’s
missing fingers, of the legendary brutality of Japan’s mafia,
and truly feared for my life. Kuroyama-san reached into his blazer’s
inside pocket. I wondered what kind of gun he’d pull out. I closed
my eyes. I might have even cried. But what came from his pocket was
only a neatly-pressed handkerchief, which he tossed to me with a chuckle.
In a chain reaction, soon all of them were laughing wildly at me, Kuroyama-san
and Nishitani especially, both so overcome with laughter that they could
hardly keep their balance. Slowly I stood up and sheepishly brushed
“Sumimasen, onegaishimasu! Sumimasen, Nishitani-san, gomen
nasai, Kuroyama-san, sumimasen, onegaishimasu!” I cried out
the words, bowing repeatedly. “Please excuse me, Kuroyama-san,
please excuse me, sir.” Then I retreated slowly into the mop room
to clean myself up.
held by the author
Mooney, based in Mie Pref., is currently working on an English manga
version of Urashima Taro, serialized on his blog, starting here
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