by Charles J. Waggon
“It’s old rock ‘n’ roll, Waggon-san, I think you gonna like it.” Right. “Old” for Kumiko, my secretary at General Strategics, means the 1980s. That’s when she was in college and a big fan of this rock band made up of fellow students. Tells me they were some real bad dudes, called themselves the Dead Emperors, played all over Tokyo.
But after several visits from some guys from the government, they got talked into changing their name to the Sick-In-Bed Emperors.
“After they graduated, they all turned into salarymen,” Kumiko tells me like I should be surprised. Now the guys are getting back together for a 25th anniversary reunion party in Roppongi called Bar It Isn’t or something like that. That’s where Kumiko dragged me, and once the band started playing I couldn’t hear a damn thing.
My hearing aid went into hostage crisis mode and it all sounded like a fighter jet engine tryin’ to duke it out with one of those screamin’ oil rigs on the Texas coast. I tried to tell Kumiko that my idea of “old” rock ‘n’ roll is what I used to hear in east Texas road houses back before white folks started playing that kinda music. But with that racket, she’da had’ta read my lips.
Well, “Music It Isn’t,” I thought and slipped out when some tall, shaggy-haired fellow was starting to chat Kumiko up. Besides the noise, I was also ready for some real chow. Not to mention a stiff shot to stop that ringin’ in my ears.
Hadn’t been in this neck of Roppongi in a horse’s age. ‘Course, Berni Inn’s long gone. Walked down the steps, and Maggie’s Revenge was now something else. No sense walking over to Henry Africa’s or Chaps ’cause they ain’t there either no more. By the time I got down to the edge of the graveyard, I ran into a familiar face.
“Charlie Jake! Long time no see. How’s you this tonight!” It was Ando. He and I worked together on a transmitter project for the Japanese Navy, way down south in Kagoshima. What, that’d be ’bout 25 years ago. Sharp engineer and a hard worker. After work, he’d be draggin’ me to these local joints and getting me acquainted with the local chow and hooch like white lightning. Loved it all.
Kagoshima’s the San Diego of Japan—seems like where most the Japanese Navy’s dropped anchor. It’s also the Deep South, where the food is rich and people drink this white liquor—imo shochu—made from sweet potatoes, reminds you of young corn right from the Mason jar. Plus, they gotta drawl what makes it hard for folks from other parts of Japan to understand a thing they say. Any farther south and you’re on a boat to Okinawa, which is a different country, far as I can tell.
So I tell Ando-san I’m tryin’ to find some chow, and he says on his way to this little joint what’s got real Kagoshima food and a raft of shochu. Half a short block and we’re there, ducking under the curtain to get inside. The place is called Satsuma Ogojo and they don’t come any more Japanese than this.
They also don’t come much cheaper, ‘specially in Roppongi. Most things on the menu were way south of ¥1,000. Ando-san orders some imo shochu and they bring it with a big pot of hot water. He starts pourin’ the shochu into the tall cups when the woman working there starts hollerin’ about how you’re supposed to pour in the hot water first and then the hooch. Straight it’s 25% alcohol, but you’re supposed to mix it about half-and-half with the hot water. Seems like most folks drink it even weaker, though. Anyroad, the hooch we got, named Sagara, had a powerful aroma and a funky sweet flavor that just grows and grows on you as the night rolls on.
Ando-san then orders up a mess of grub, and one by one all those memories start landing on the table. We got kibi nago—little filets of raw fish with bright, silvery skin. There’s satsuma-age—a fish cake with stuff inside, all deep-fried a golden brown. For the brave we got jidori-no-tataki—raw chicken slices that are only slighdy seared on the outside.
And one of my favorites, ton-kotsu—hunks of pork what’s been stewed for hours and hours in soy sauce stock; the pork just falls off the little rods of cartilage it surrounds. Don’t confuse this with tonkatsu, which is a fried pork cutlet.
We start talking about the months we worked together in Kagoshima and the hours melt away as we finish up the bottle of shochu. They got all kinds from little mom-and-pop shochu distilleries throughout Kagoshima, which is the only prefecture in Japan that doesn’t have a sake brewery. These folks are serious about the stuff. At Satsuma Ogojo, just tell them if you want light, the easy-sipping stuff, or heavy, the strongly flavored stuff. Percentage of alcohol’s all about the same, though.
So if you find yourself in Roppongi, but want an authentic and inexpensive slice of real Japan, head for Satsuma Ogojo, and tell ’em Charlie Jake sent you.
Roppongi Village IF
3-13-3 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Open nightly from about 5:30 till about 11:00, except Sundays and holidays.