The Value of Standing and Staring - a Japanese Life Lesson

by Richard Pooley

“The Man”, Port William, south-west Scotland. Sculptor: Andrew Brown

At the end of his article on the French presidential election in the last issue David Lee quoted the well-known opening couplet of a poem – Leisure –by the Welsh poet and self-styled super-tramp*, William H. Davies:

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare?”

The rest of the poem is a plea that we look at Nature more closely. It’s not very good. Davies’ chooses to end the third line with “boughs” and can find nothing better than “cows” for the end of the next one. The poem finishes however with a satisfying near-repeat of the opening:

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.”

It wasn’t until I was nearly forty that I came to realise how important it is to stand and stare and put aside, however briefly, life’s many cares. Although in my case it was sit and stare. I was coming towards the end of a period running my company’s subsidiary in Tokyo. Anyone who has worked in Japan will know how exhausting it is. The hours are punishing (rush hour, when the trains are packed, is at around 23.00); weekends are not sacrosanct. There is a photograph of me at this time with my wife and children at the beginning of a two-week holiday in New Zealand. I look gaunt and wiped out.

One winter weekday evening I arrived back at Gakugei-daigaku station on my way home. As I neared the exit I stopped outside a tiny bar. In two years I must have hurried past and never noticed it. Seeing that there was one empty stool, I went in. The barman’s traditional welcome – “irashaimase” - was the softest I had ever heard in Japan. He bowed and waited for my order. The Japanese salarymen to my left and right were totally silent. The station noise had almost disappeared. I looked up at the array of bottles. “Gintonic” I said as quietly as I could. He nodded, placed a tall glass in front of me, reached up for a brand of gin I had never heard of and waited, bottle poised, for me to indicate how much I wanted in my glass. I pressed a finger against the glass and he poured to that level. We repeated the process with the tonic. “Aisu?” he whispered; “Hai” I murmured. But he waited. I struggled to remember (if I ever knew) what counter word had to be added to the number if the object being counted was an ice-cube. Mai is added for flat, thin things like chopsticks and pens. But which of the other five hundred or so counters was the right one for ice? I gave up and chose the general-purpose word for two: “futatsu”. “Lemonu? Sulisu?” I was sure those were not the Japanese for lemon and slice. I nodded. Finally, he palmed a bottle of Angostura Bitters in front of me. I bowed my head this time. I am sure he smiled. We had made the drink together.

He watched me as I took the first sip. It didn’t taste great but I smiled a thanks. He wasn’t fooled. After a few minutes of sitting, sipping and staring at the bottle display, my glass was empty. I made as if to go. He scribbled a number on a piece of paper. I handed over my life savings in yen. He bowed and then muttered in clear, accented English: “Nextu timu. Buring yoru boteru gin.” “I will. Thank you.” He bowed deeply and gave me the formal goodbye to customers: “Okiotsukete okaeri kudasai” (Have a safe trip home).** As a salesman myself I loved his assumptive close: there was going to be a nextu timu.

And there was. I bought a bottle of my favourite gin, Bombay Sapphire (it still is, you gin snobs) and walked in at the same time a few evenings later. What looked like the same silent seven besuited samurai were there. And the same whispering and bowing barman. The ritual was repeated except that he poured from my gin bottle and did not need my guidance. He had memorised my order exactly. I sat and stared and sipped more slowly and pleasurably than before. It was only when I saw that the scribbled number on the scrap of paper was almost the same as before that I woke from my reverie. The barman could not miss my frown. “Yoru gin muchu beter? You kipu boteru here.” He did not wait for my assent. He picked up the “rubery brue boteru”(so described by one of my Japanese colleagues when I had brought it into the office) and asked me for my meishi. I gave him my business card. He took a pen and wrote my name on the bottle label in katakana (the syllabic script used for foreign words and names) before placing it next to the bottle of gin he had used the previous time. I paid and left, still puzzled by the economics. Hadn’t I paid twice for the gin?

A Japanese woman colleague explained the next day (it’s nearly always the women in Japan who explain to the perplexed gaijin how Japan works). This was a bottlekeep bar. When you first go in, you pay for a whole bottle of whatever is your tipple, and you order exactly what you want to go with it (the cost of the extras such as tonic, lemon, bitters etc. is swiftly calculated over the life of the bottle and the total is added to the cost of the bottle). The bottle is marked as yours. How you like your drink to be made is never forgotten. You pay and say nothing more until the bottle is empty. Result? Peace. No stress. You can sit, sip and stare. All you will hear is the murmured welcome and farewell from the barman.

But he charged me for the bottle of gin that I had bought elsewhere!” I cried.

Her voice rose in pitch, the Japanese female’s way of mollifying the boss. Or correcting him. “Maybe you were paying for all future tonic. He will not ask you to pay again until bottle is finished. You did not like his gin. So, he wanted you to have gin you like. Also... (always wait for the Japanese supplementary point; it’s usually the most important one) you are paying for the peace. It is like meditation. It is a place just for you to dream, to think, to forget.” She giggled, hand over mouth. I checked with my male sales staff. All but one, a strong Christian, had a bottle of theirs kept in a bar near their homes.

I went back to the bar several times and paid nothing further. The bottle was not empty when I left Japan for the UK in the spring. However, I was still responsible for our operation in Japan at our London head office. So, I visited Japan two or three times a year for the next decade. On one visit, some five years later, I decided to go and see the elderly owner of the apartment we had rented. She lived in the same building on the ground floor and had become fond of our children. I was armed with photographs of them. It was a weekend day. Hence, I was astonished to see on leaving the station the same barman in the bottle-keep bar as five years earlier. Perhaps he was the owner. I dropped in on my way back. He recognised me, immediately took down the blue bottle of gin - still there - and, without saying anything, gave me the exact same gin and tonic that he had five years before. I sat and sipped and stared. And went through in my mind not only the reunion with my ex-landlady, Nishijima-san, but also the past week of sales meetings and business discussions, until my brain stopped whirring and I was back, late at night, staring at a row of bottles, at peace. I looked at my watch. I had been sitting there in front of an empty glass for over half an hour. I got the same formal farewell when I left. I paid nothing. The bottle was still not empty.

Is it still there? I asked myself this when I went to Japan for the Rugby World Cup in 2019. I was due to see friends in Yokohama before watching the England v France match and had thought about going on up to Tokyo as well. Perhaps I could take a train to Gakugei-daigaku station and the bar. But a typhoon stopped me from going further than Osaka, and caused the match to be cancelled and my friends to take shelter in their basements.

I have never found it easy to stand and stare. I always want to be doing something, even now when I am semi-retired (a label which perhaps proves my point). But ever since those Tokyo days I have tried hard to take time out to stop, stand and stare at least once a day. Never at people, though people-watching is one of my favourite activities. Try staring at someone for any length of time and they will notice it, I assure you. No, I’ll stare at Nature - a tree, a stream, a blade of grass - as Davies wished us to. Or a view of distant river-cliffs - as I can at my house in France. Or a building, a graffito, even a piece of litter. Or, yes, a lovely blue bottle of gin. Do the cares of the world slip away? Only while I am doing it. But they never seem quite so overwhelming when they flood back into my mind. “It is a place just for you to dream, to think, to forget.” Quite right, Yuko.

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818

by Caspar David Friedrich, who seems to have been a bit of a starer himself...

portrait of Friedrich by Gerhard von Kugelgen

*Davies spent the 1890’s as a hobo, criss-crossing the Atlantic on cattle ships and North America on trains, until on 20 March, 1899, he mistimed a jump on to a passing freight train in Ontario and his right foot was crushed under the train’s wheels. He returned to England minus his right leg below the knee and became a professional poet. I suspect he sat and stared more often than he stood. The 1970’s British rock band Supertramp, named themselves after Davies’ The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp.

**You don’t say sayonara to someone in Japan unless you want to upset them. It means you never expect – or want? - to see them again. There are at least twenty ways to say goodbye in Japanese. Context is all.