Sam Baldwin, author of For Fukui's Sake: Two Years in Rural Japan, shares (most of) his tale of the quintessential enkai evening in Japan.
Enkai means a "party" or "banquet," and is normally held with co-workers. While you can’t join just any enkai — that would be like crashing a company’s work night out — you can follow in Baldwin's footsteps and hold your own enkai at any restaurant.
An Enkai Evening:
Teachers in Japan tend to work long hours. There is immense peer pressure to be seen as one of the team; to stay late, just because everyone else is, even if there is no work left to do. But to compensate for these long days, workers reward themselves with frequent after-work parties called enkai.
I had heard all sorts of stories about enkai: embarrassing situations involving semi-naked colleagues, drunken groping, and strip bars. So it was with some apprehension that I rode my bike through the warm evening air, vigilant for gaijin (foreigner) traps, en route to my first one.
My destination was a traditional Japanese restaurant inside a beautiful, old wooden house. It had a black-tiled, curly roof and was tucked away on one of Ono’s narrow side streets. From the outside, it looked like any other home in the street. I had passed the building before, never realizing what lay behind its sliding doors.
"Irashimaseeeee! Dozo! Dozo! Welcome! Come in! Come in!" said the gray-haired mama-san, as I slipped in to the house slippers and was ushered up creaking stairs to a room with a tatami mat floor. Scrolls depicting mountain landscapes hung on the wood panelled walls. Two of my colleagues were squatted by a small refrigerator drinking what looked like bottles of medicine.
"Sam sensei! Good evening. Please, drink this. Give you power!" said the PE teacher, handing me a small brown bottle of liquid, a genki drink. These unnaturally luminous yellow "health potions" contain a potent mixture of legal stimulants, minerals, and vitamins and help keep the Japanese workforce awake during their long working hours. Some even contain nicotine-like compounds, perhaps explaining their popularity.
I had already noted that everyone in Japan seemed terminally exhausted. My daily greeting, "Hello! How are you?" that kicked off every class, was normally met with a weary "I’m tired. And you?"
I had never seen such a nation of sleep deprivation; no wonder genki drinks were a staple beverage. I had seen students asleep at their desks during class (obviously they had not been drinking enough genki drinks) yet teachers tended to let them lie. In fact, falling asleep in public in Japan seems to be considered a sign of a dedicated worker.
By 6:30 p.m., everyone had arrived and we took our places on cushions at low black tables. The headmaster stood to deliver a short speech to congratulate everybody on his hard work, which was followed by a toast of "campai!" (cheers!). The party had begun.
I sat quietly, cross-legged at the table. The smell of rice straw and sizzling fish created an intoxicating atmosphere as the mama-san, an old, chirpy woman deftly served sake, food, and beer, whilst a tangle of high-speed Japanese flew over my head. I understood little of what was being said, yet I was perfectly content to just sit back and absorb this alien atmosphere. It was delightfully exotic.
The enkai is one of the few occasions when everyone can talk freely without the restrictions and hierarchy of the workplace. One way to ensure this drunken state is achieved is by never letting anyone’s glass get empty. However, in Japanese drinking etiquette, it is bad form to fill your own glass; large bottles of beer and sake are placed on the table and it is your duty to ensure that your neighbors’ glasses are always kept full.
Rather than each ordering a single dish, a flow of small plates to be shared were served. It was a very social banquet. There was deep-fried crawfish — antenna, shell, and tail — all crunched up and swallowed. The egg sac and insides of the renowned Echizen spider crab, Fukui’s most famous food. All manner of sushi and sashimi (platters; cow intestines, pig intestines, boiled fish heads, deep-fried loach fish, and a spectrum of unfamiliar mushrooms and vegetables.
After two hours of continuous feasting and drinking, the so called "first party" was drawing to a close and it was time to move on. The headmaster stood up, gave another short speech and then the Banzai! toast. This is the equivalent to a "hip hip hooray!" and is accompanied by much waving of hands in the air.
After the Banzai, the troops were rallied for round two of the party. Following such a huge feast, I was surprised to learn that rather than going to a bar, we were going to another restaurant for more eating! Tonight this would be a local sushi bar, but forget the modern conveyor belts of Yo! Sushi fame, this was a tiny, traditional venue. Here, an old sushi samurai wearing a bandana, sliced and diced great hunks of tuna, octopus, and squid, and served us green tea, and the finest local nihonshu (rice wine).
To complete the evening, we moved on to a karaoke bar. This was the moment I had been dreading. I hate karaoke. Listening to poor renditions of "I Will Survive" is not my idea of fun, and having no singing talent of my own means that embarrassing myself in front of a pub load of people had zero appeal.
Knowing I would have to do karaoke in Japan was one of the things I had least been looking forward to. In Japan they do it properly. You rent a private booth, complete with disco lights, a huge TV screen, comfy sofas, and a hotline to the bar. You even get a score at the end of your song.
By the early hours, vocal chords were failing, and ears protesting. Many songs had been sung, mostly badly, and the night was coming to a close. The Deputy Head, who had taken me under his wing over the course of the evening, called for a taxi. And to make doubly sure I would get home, he jumped in the taxi too, barking directions at the driver. Five minutes later, we arrived at my apartment. He stumbled out of the car, refused my contribution to the fare, accompanied me to my front door, and then, satisfied I had been deposited safely, turned, tripped in his stupor, and fell down the stairs. He managed to get up, dusted himself off, wished me good night, and hopped into the taxi.
I loved my enkai experience. It had been a chance to explore obscure Japanese cuisine, bond with my co-workers and practice Japanese in an environment where it didn’t matter if I got it wrong. I’d love to tell you the whole story, but what happens at the enkai stays at the enkai.