Izakaya are unique places filled with beer, tapas-style plates and—sometimes—rowdy customers. I thought my passive nature didn’t seem suited to this work, but once the opportunity arose, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and applied.
Getting the Job
Trying to find a job in Japan with limited Japanese and visa restrictions can be tricky. I knew I wanted to travel outside of the city and feel the heartbeat of the countryside, but I needed a way of supporting myself while doing it. This was when I came across Workaway, a website dedicated to work-exchange experiences with locals worldwide.
I didn’t know much about Hokkaido at the time. Still, when I saw a placement for one-to-two months izakaya work in exchange for accommodation and food, I said good riddance to my moldy Tokyo share house. I jumped on a plane to chilly Hakodate on the belly of Hokkaido.
Soon after landing, I was whisked away to my accommodation by my gracious host. She would come to pick me up later to start my first evening on the job.
I knew from the very first “irasshaimase! (welcome!)” that I’d have to learn a thing or two about izakaya etiquette. From when the customers took their shoes off at the genkan (entranceway) till they clumsily put them on again a few hours later, I would have to be the epitome of Japanese customer service.
The rules were simple and precise but not to be forgotten. When the guest entered, you’d welcome them with gusto and show them to their seat, provide them with an oshibori (hot towel) and then ask them what they’d like to drink.
This was followed by the otoshi (compulsory appetizer), which I had to explain was “like an added service charge” to a group of confused Singaporean tourists.
No one told me how much dishwashing would be involved. By the end of the month, my fingers resembled dried prunes.
My Japanese improved immensely as I got my head around the unlimited drinks and food that tend to populate an izakaya menu. This was when I was first introduced to unusual delights such as chawanmushi, steamed egg custard. It took me a while to understand that the customer wasn’t complaining about their soup’s mushi (bug).
I became a connoisseur at drink making. The call for “nama, mou hitosu! (one more beer!)” was always answered with a perfectly poured pint. I also became adept at pouring using a traditional sake bottle, a tokkuri.
Luckily, I didn’t have to worry about preparing dishes. I’d only go into the open kitchen to occasionally grind wasabi (my eyes still sting just thinking about it) or collect pots and pans. My domain was the sink. No one told me how much dishwashing would be involved. By the end of the month, my fingers resembled dried prunes.
Though, all the grueling scrubbing was worth it because, at the end of the night, the resident sushi chef would serve a mouth-watering platter that included my absolute favorites; tuna rolls and salmon nigiri. I ate well that month.
Meeting the locals
The nature of an izakaya means you are constantly interacting with new and fascinating faces. I can attest that my own cast of colorful characters was not easy to forget.
The one that stands out the most is one of the regulars: a kind elderly man who lovingly called me beppi-chan (meaning ‘pretty girl’). While flattered, I didn’t expect him to try to set me up with his 50-odd-year-old son like a suitor in Victorian England. I just wasn’t ready to settle down.
In addition to my new grandpa, there was the affluent retired couple that spent their Autumns in Hokkaido, a man who thought the only band I listened to was The Beatles (I’m British) and the handsome bartender that I most certainly didn’t have a crush on who most certainly didn’t throw up on me on his birthday.
Freetime and the friendly ghost
However, I didn’t just come to Hakodate to work and meet interesting people. I came to discover. So, when I wasn’t working hard at the restaurant, I was exploring.
Not far from where I worked was +, home to one of the best night views in Japan. I’d often save my money by skipping the ropeway and hiking the 334-meter trek to the top. I did this at least once a week and traversed as many trails as I could find.
Every route would lead me to something new and exciting. Or, in one case, lost and spooked. I had taken a wrong turn somewhere and found myself surrounded by tall, dead grass at the edge of the mountain with no one else in sight—typical. I’d gotten lost on Mount Misen just a year before.
Panic soon began to set in, but then I noticed a denim-clad stranger beckoning to me in the distance. I followed cautiously and soon realized he was guiding me back to the trail. Once I caught up to say thank you—poof—he was gone! I don’t tend to believe in ghosts, but this is a mystery I still can’t figure out.
Stranger in a strange land
As the autumnal colors rolled in, I would make several trips to Onuma Quasi-National Park to keep track of the progress. This pristine nature reserve is only a 30-minute train ride from Hakodate and consists of two sparkling lakes and a myriad of ponds below the imposing view of Mt. Komagatake. In winter, the waters freeze over and create an adventure park in the snow.
There is an important historical influence in Hakodate since it was the first port in Japan to let foreigners into the country to live and work. I’d often climb the battlements at Goryokaku, the five-point fort, and imagine what it was like for them, “a stranger in a strange land,” and how it might have felt a little bit like how I was feeling right then.
Hakodate gave me a second home in Japan, and I return almost every winter, possibly the most beautiful time of the year, to relive the special memories I made there.
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