The Place had Picture Frames but No Pictures in Them

Did I say essays? I mean stories. Of course I meant stories. And by stories I mean that these are mostly true with some events slightly shifted in time and two or three minor characters shuffled into one, or vice versa. The conversations recorded in this story are not word for word, but are generally reconstructed from my faulty memory and journal entries. The club really existed and I spent a lot of time there during my first few months in Japan. I have a lot of good memories, and some not so good memories from it and tried to give you the pertinant details of the joint. I hope you enjoy this story; feel free to leave comments or e-mail me with critiques, questions, or just random feedback.

One final note, some names have been changed or omitted to protect those who wish their privacy. Thanks.

The Place had Picture Frames but No Pictures in Them
Twenty-Five to Thirty

“Mate,” she said, the seven gin and tonics slurring her thick Aussie accent out to the point of near incomprehensibility, “if he weren’t here, I’d be taking you home with me.”

I pulled my drink back from my mouth before I could dump it on my shirt as I felt my jaw drop. Not so much out of shock as out of pain. ‘He’ was my new roommate, assigned by the head office just a few weeks before. He was a nice guy, just my worst nightmare – younger, smarter, more confident, better looking – and to have Dee slur out her ranking of us stung more than I wanted to admit.

“Have you told him that yet?”

“No. He’s with her.” The pout on Dee’s face did nothing to restore my lost pride.


“C’mon. Dance with me.”

“Dee, you can barely stand up.”

“I know. Maybe I’ll just sit dow—oh shit. Students.”


Dee straightened, as much as she could, and tried to clear the slur out of her voice. “Hi. How are you tonight?”

The girl was probably a few years younger than us and much less drunk. She had that look of shiny innocence that so many Japanese girls seem to have; the one that makes so many Western men into drooling morons, myself included.


“Ah. S’good.” Dee was losing her battle with gravity and I found myself being pressed into service as a convenient wall.

The girl looked at me. “Could I have your name please?”

“Hi. I’m Joel.”

“It is nice to meet you.” The girl held out her arm, awkwardly straight and unnatural. I shook her hand briefly, replying “S’nice to meetchu too. What’s your name?”

“My name is Sachiko. Sa-chi-ko.” She made a spreading gesture with her hands, pausing at each syllable. I recognized the gesture as one I had seen the other teachers, my new co-workers, use to give the correct pronunciation on longer words.

“Sachiko, I’m going to the bar. Would you like something?”

“No thank you. I’m going to see my friend. I thought I should say hi to Dee Sensei.”

“Thank you Sachiko. I’ll see you in class.”

As we stumbled our way to the bar Dee aimed a drunken slap at my shoulder that ended up smacking me in the chest.

“The fuck was that for?”

“’Cause you…you’re turning into one of them. You know. One of those guys who has to fuck every Japanese girl that walks into this place.”

“What? No I’m not. Besides, you want Ted, not me.”

“Trying to buy her a drink. You never get me a drink.”

“I bought that one. And make Ted buy you a drink.”

Dee looked sad. “I’m sorry. Don’t be mad.”

“S’alright. What do you want to drink?”

“I’d like another G&T. I’ll be back.” She stumbled off towards the toilets.

I leaned against the bar and signaled to XXXXX, the Russian bartender that I had met for the first time the night before. She came over with a smile and a shouted “Hey!” that I barely heard over the music.

“Hey.” I answered back. “Can I get another G&T and a whiskey-coke? On my tab? Jackie okeyed me for one yesterday, I think.”

“Sure.” She smiled again and wandered back down the bar.

The bar itself filled up the back wall of one room of a place called the Raven.

Alternately dance club, pool bar, karaoke joint, pub, and darts bar, the Raven was home to most of the expats in Utsunomiya from the hours after work closed to about four in the morning. Most nights of the week, barring Sundays and Mondays, you could find anywhere from a half-dozen to a couple hundred people, most non-Japanese filling the place – sitting on one of the couches or throwing themselves around the dance floor. Jackie, the owner, made sure that her staff, all of whom were also foreigners, were able to speak English and Japanese; most could speak Portuguese as well, catering to the large Brazilian population who would come in from nearby towns where they worked in factories for wages most Japanese would describe as pathetic.

The mixing of the various tribes of non-Japanese was in no way easy. Fights between various hot-blooded groups were, while not as common in some countries, far more usual than normal for Japan. Jackie kept things as international as possible, keeping multinational billiard rules posted above the coin operated pool tables and a drinks list written in four languages.

XXXX brought the drinks over as Dee came back from the restrooms.

“You won’t believe it,” said Dee, “there’s some bloke having a shag in the ladies.”

I grinned. “Well, makes for an interesting time on the pot, I guess.”

“Yeah. Makes me horny though.”

I was saved from having to make any sort of answer by Ted leaning on the bar next to me and taking a sip off his bourbon.

“Hey,” he said, “what are you two doing?” He sing-songed his way through the sentence, somehow conveying that whatever it was that we were doing, we should probably stop it immediately and hope that our parents never found out.

“Dee just say someone shagging in the women’s restroom. We were wondering if that someone was following the rules of rhetoric.”

Ted just looked blank.

“You know, proper volume, repeating everything three times, asking rhetorical questions?”

Dee picked up the joke. “Is it good? Is it good? Is it gooooood?”

Ted laughed. “Nice.”

Dee groaned. “Jayzus. Who the fuck brought them in here?”

Ted grunted a non-response and I asked “Who?”

“Those girls. They won’t speak Japanese to you and their English is crap. You two will like them; all the other boys around here seem to anyway.”

“What’s with you and not liking Japanese girls anyway?” I glanced at Dee out of the corner of my eye and put my glass to my mouth, taking a sip of my drink while I took in the scene.

“I like some of them. It’s you boys that fuck me off, mate. You lot always want to go out and shag them all, but you won’t even look at us round-eyes anymore.”

“Hey, now, Dee, give us a chance, why don’t you?” Ted gave her a disgusted look and pushed himself away from the bar. He started walking toward the far wall, where more of our friends were talking, but was set upon by the gaggle of young women Dee had been talking about. I saw Ted smile as the voices floated over, full of “where you come from” and “could I get your name”. I looked over at Dee.

“You know…”

“Yeah. Look, I’m sorry mate, I’m just about pissed is all.”


“Drunk. Bloody yanks.”

“Didn’t know that one. Pissed means mad in the States.”

“Yeah, it can mean that at home too, but it usually means drunk. I think I’m off.  Got an early tomorrow and I need to get some sleep.”
“You alright getting home?”

“Yeah, we’re in the safest country in the world!” She smiled and gave me a hug, then got her jacket and walked out. I turned back to the bar and signaled XXXX.


“Hey. Uh, is the kitchen still open?” She nodded. “Chicken basket please.”

Richard sat down next to me. “Hey mate, how’re things going?”

“Yeah, good. It’s all a bit weird though.”

“How long have you been here now? About a month?”

“Yeah. Every time I think I’m beginning to get a handle on things, it just ends up  I get more confused than before.”
“Yeah, don’t worry about it. Get yourself to studying, get a girlfriend, you’ll be sorted.”

“Done the one, don’t really know enough about the latter, I guess.”

“Just don’t force it. Ask around. There are lots of good girls around here.”

“Alright.” My chicken basket arrived.

XXXX said, “800 yen.”

“On my tab please.”

Richard said, “A tab already Joel? That’s a bit dangerous.”

“I dunno. Just seems to be the done thing though and I always like to blend in. Besides it’s not real money, is it.”

“Not real money? In that case…” Richard reached a hand across me and grabbed a piece of chicken. “You’ll not mind if I have this then!” He laughed and raced to the far side of the pool table as I made a fist and started as if I was going to chase him before shooting a mock glare and returning to my seat.

I took another look around the bar, soaking it in, letting the music and smoke and voices in multiple tongues and booze and sex and adventure wash over me.
People came in and people left and eventually Jackie herself came up to me and said, “Mate, we’re gonna close up. You know the drill.” I laughed and said I did, thanking her for the warning. I joined the throng of people making their way out the door. Someone bumped my shoulder and a friend said, “What shift are you on tomorrow?”

“Late,” I replied without looking up from the stairs I was walking down.

“Me too. Cheers mate, I’ll see you then.”

“See you.”

I got my bike unlocked and moving, away from the milling crowd and down the long street to my apartment. Twenty minutes later, the sun was just beginning to peak out from between the tops of houses and apartments and I let myself in my front door, laid down on my futon, and slept.


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Filed under Left From Seattle, Stories I Tell Myself At Night

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