Voices call out: O hisashiburi (a greeting acknowledging a long time of separation) as people pad across the tatami in the narrow room. They welcome me with bows, gifts and Canadian-style hugs, as our connection goes back almost 20 years.
Then they take their places by rank at the long table laid out along one side of the room of the Umizuki inn.
Ichikawa-san (who has been doing so since 1998) offers a cucumber to each woman present. This time some of the guys get one, too. A long-standing joke, he reminds us that Japanese cucumber is small, hard and delicious.
Drinks are poured—we all serve each other as it’s done in Japan—and someone offers the first toast: Kampai! To indulgent laughter someone else shouts the second in Italian: Cin cin. Everyone understands and enjoys its association with slang Japanese chin chin. In any language, it seems you always learn the naughty bits first.
For several hours servers ply us with platters of food along with seemingly bottomless bottles of beer and Nihonshu (sake/rice wine). We relax, reconnect and reminisce. Our faces flush with the warmth of the room and rounds of sake.
I’m always amazed at how much alcohol I can put away at an enkai. There’s something about the quality of Japanese food and spirits; one cancels out the negative effects of the other. Or that’s my theory at the end of the night. Mind you, in a culture where someone is always filling your glass, it’s a bit of insurance to leave very little room some of the time.
Always there are speeches. I’ve rehearsed mine well. For the first time I begin in Japanese (the sort a polite two year-old might speak) before switching to English. To my great surprise, when I finish no one tells me I speak Japanese very well. I was expecting it and had practised the appropriate demurral. Instead, this tacit compliment.
Before the ritual clapping to end the evening, we pause for a group photo.
The final banzai comes too soon. Always too soon. Ten thousand years! Each time I leave my friends, this cheer reverberating in my mind; it feels as if it might be that long before my return.
And so we slowly gather our things. Once outside we linger in a circle. Talking, smoking, shifting one foot to another and shivering slightly in the autumnal night—reluctant, as always, to part.