No place like Oz

In Japan, a bar with no alcohol or music, only coffee.

By Salon Staff
Published July 24, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

We came upon it by accident, drawn by the sign. Oz, it said. Jazz Club. The door onto the dark street was slightly ajar and partially lit by the gloaming of neon. It seemed strange that there wasn't any music coming from inside, nor any voices to be heard. It was still early but it wasn't that early.

Inside, it looked like a fight had broken out. The place was empty, the tables overturned, broken bottles everywhere. In one corner, a mop bucket lay on its side. In the other corner, the mop itself lay flung across a table. Perhaps this was a Mafia joint, I thought, a hangout for the Yakuza. Maybe somebody didn't pay someone else the respect or money they thought they deserved. But these wild conjectures couldn't explain the water streaming down the walls and puddling on the floor. Like some amateur Columbo, I touched the wall, rubbed my wet fingers together and looked quizzically at the ceiling. But nothing clicked.

"Konbanwa," Paul called out finally, and after a time a thin man with a drunkard's smile poked his head around a corner. "Konbanwa," he answered, a little unsteadily. "Irrashaimase!" he added, welcoming us. Here was our proprietor, local jazz aficionado and, by his own account, famous drunk. In Japan, it's not uncommon for people to be famous (or infamous) around town for some trait or characteristic. When he asked where we worked, Paul and I named the school and he said, "Yes, yes, yes, I know your boss, the famous lesbian."

He was happy to see us, he said, wiping the bar clean of broken glass, cigarette butts and big peels of orange rind. He apologized that he could only offer us coffee to drink. No booze had been delivered, he said, since the fire.

The fire! So that explained the water. It seems our friend, the notorious souse, had passed out in the upstairs apartment with a cigarette still burning between his fingers. By the time the flames were climbing the walls, the Tokuyama Fire Department was on the scene, but in the process of dousing the flames they flooded him out of house and home -- or, rather, house and club. He had no insurance to cover the water damage, he said, and all he could do was laugh, albeit grimly, at his plight. As he finished telling the story, he pulled a record from a half-soaked cover and put it on the turntable. "Braaa-zil," the record cued up, "la da de da de dah de dah" -- a nice touch, which only added to the surrealism of the evening.

"How long ago did it happen?" I asked.

"Four days," he said, "and I've been drunk ever since."

"Would you like to stay drunk?"

"Of course," he said, turning his palms up as if to say, look around you. Or maybe the gesture simply meant, it's what I do best. So Paul and I went around the corner to a vending machine, bought some beers and some good Suntory whiskey, then returned to the bar, righted some stools and proceeded to tie one on. "Kanpai," we said, raising our glasses to his predicament; there was nothing else to offer but sympathy, and our man didn't seem to want our pity. As we drank, he showed us a photo album he rescued from the damage. In picture after picture, he stood happily behind his bar, a host of customers smiling at the camera.

I'll admit that I don't remember how we got home that evening, or even leaving the place. And, sadly, we never made it back again. Paul and I looked for it on a couple of occasions, driving around the narrow streets in search of the sign, but to no avail. No one we asked had heard of Oz. And nobody seemed to know our friend, the celebrated drunk.

-- Patrick Joseph

Salon Staff

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