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Saturday, March 12, 2011
WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST
Smoke gets in your eyes
"If you could pick five great places to smoke a cigar, where would you choose?"
A question not from out of the blue, but rather from the mouth of a cigar lover. Who tossed me this query during a lull in our evening conversation.
We were leaning over our beers at a bar in Shinjuku, him puffing on what looked like a torpedo. I blinked through the smoke and asked a question in return.
"I mean . . ." He tapped the torpedo on an ashtray. "Armed with a swell cigar and a lighted match, what five spots of scenic wonder would you select at which to enjoy that cigar." He tapped more ash. "Choosing from anywhere in Japan."
"So . . . it's a hypothetical question?"
He clamped the torpedo between his molars. "And a beauty too, isn't it? Where in Japan is the perfect spot to smoke a cigar? Where would you pick? The top five locations."
I confess I don't understand the smoking mind. To me, that lighted stick always resembles a fuse. When it burns down, I expect something to pop.
His eyes glow. The fire seems to have spread inside.
"Me, I'd pick the top of Mount Fuji at the first needle of light on New Year's Day. And then the beach at sun-up on the Sea of Japan, with the surf scooting over the sand. And then among the cedars at the Ise Shrine, in the misty still of the morn. Next on the lap of the Great Buddha in Kamakura, blowing smoke rings up into the face of eternity."
"And last . . ." He grins. Smoke rises from his mouth. "In a cigar bar in the belly of downtown Tokyo, with one kimono-ed hostess to hold my light and another to serve my drink. Simple is always best."
"You?" he asks again.
Me? I would pick a different hypothetical question.
Like . . . if I had Kim Kardashian and five smiley stickers, where would I put them? Or I had Justin Bieber and five blunt instruments, which would I use most?
"Monica Lewinsky," I tell him. "There. That is all I know about cigars."
"Come now." For a moment he trades his torpedo for his Guinness. "Certainly you've had some experience."
"Sure. I used to smoke cigars while fishing. It kept the mosquitoes away."
"As well as breathable air. And I think maybe the fish. But it wasn't unpleasant, really. Just like sucking on a sock is not unpleasant. Really."
"Let me," he says, "give you a cigar. It will put you in the proper frame of mind."
For a second I expect him to pass me the stogie from his lips. But, no, he has another, yanked from his sleeve like a magician with an automatic ace.
I hold it pointing down, as if pinching a dead mouse by the tail. But soon decide I need no oral stimulation, for I already have my list. Here are my top five cigar smoking spots in Japan.
5. On Tokyo's inbound Saikyo Line at 8:30 a.m. on any workday. Very scenic. Especially if you like to see people twisted together like pretzels. Here, a lighted cigar would make you instantly popular. If you can raise your arms to light it.
4. At the town of Taiji during the local dolphin hunt. There's nothing like the smell of dolphin blood in the morning. But a cloud of cigar smoke can kill that, I hope.
3. In the backyard of the Crown Prince. He sits unshaven in his skivvies with a chewed cigar in one hand and a cold beer in the other, his dream come true. "Wanna trade jobs?" he tells me. "I'll learn to write nonsense. You learn to wave." I tell him back, "Who needs to be prince? All I want is a good cigar."
2. At any fast-food restaurant that divides its smoking and non-smoking sections by a stand-up placard. Such shops used to be plentiful in Japan, but are now heading the way of the dodo. But before they complete the journey, I want to sit on one side and exhale smoke to the other. For it's a pity to see such perfect stupidity go extinct.
1. Simple is indeed best. At No. 1, I choose a bar, any bar. That way I can absorb smoke by osmosis and save the cigar as a gift for a friend.
"Like you." I hand back the cigar.
"You sure you don't want it?" he says.
"No, I'm sort of smoked out."
"I could tell that from your list."
"Not so good, huh?"
"No, it was OK. For a non-smoker. To me, a good cigar makes the world right. But what you want, perhaps, is more wine, women and song."
I nod. "And some smiley stickers."
"So — with this Kardashian person — you'd stick them across her forehead?"
And there it is: the perfect ending.
"Close," I tell him, "But . . ."