To Understand a Place, Party With the Locals

LAST NIGHT NAGASAKI was drenched with rain. The vibes were sweet. After strolling through Shinchi Chinatown, the oldest Chinatown in Japan, Greg and I made our way to Shiambashi Yokocho, a nightlife district known for its compact, lantern-lit alleys, local food and cozy bars, perfect for the moody night.

We happened upon a red stair set that I’d read about on the train from Fukuoka. We followed the stairs up to the Doza Inari Shrine, opening the red lock and climbing up several flights to find the Torii gate tucked away amid the legion of modern rooftops.

It provided an extraordinarily cool panoramic view of green, craggy mountains and colorful buildings, overwhelmed by the rainy, deep blue night.

Back on the street, as we peered inside izakayas and bars throughout the back streets of Shiambashi Yokocho, a friendly face beckoned.

A man noticed we’d been up and down the street before and asked if we needed a hand finding a spot to tuck into. We asked where he recommended, and he said, well, I always come here. We fell into the small room, barely bigger than the eight person bar.

Our new friend joined us upstairs and after a few drinks, we were playing drinking games with the other two tables; after a bit, the servers got in on the fun, too.

With no expectations, our first night in Nagasaki turned into an all-nighter: we had midnight sushi with the entire crew from the bar and hit karaoke until the small hours of the morning.

Our squad wouldn’t let us pay — they only asked that we’d try what they ordered, which was fine by us. Fish fins were a peculiar highlight.

I’ve realized that traveling isn’t always about seeing as much as you can — if that’s what you want to do, of course do it; I love visiting the iconic shrines and monuments to better know a city. But I think it’s just as important to have a night like we did last night, even though we’d essentially given up today to do so.

View of Nagasaki from Doza Inari Shrine
View of Nagasaki from Doza Inari Shrine

I write this at the hostel cafe, sitting at a small table outside. The air is cool and the sky is grey, perhaps on the brink of rain. Greg and I felt it today, not doing much besides finding a bowl of ramen for lunch. Yet, we’re both more than okay with that.

Perhaps in the past I’d feel guilty for not getting out there today and hitting the streets with my camera. But times have changed. Last night was truly hilarious, an experience neither Greg and I will ever forget. Today, we both wanted to just chill.

Drink heavily with locals whenever possible, advised Anthony Bourdain. Be gracious, be polite, eat everything you can, drink the local drink and don’t be an assFood and drink bridge cultures and hearts; they’re essential to what gives a place its spirit. That’s something to be celebrated when on the road, and in Japan, it’s a necessity if you want to really experience the culture.

To do this, perhaps it’s most important to leave your fear at the door. The more intimidating the haunt, the greater the possibility it’s going to turn out to be epic — a rule my friends and I adhered to as we bopped around Tokyo over the winter.

Dip beneath that flapping noren curtain and ask if you can squeeze in at the bar. If you get turned away, which often happens, so be it. In Japan, locals are often the most gracious, jolly, and welcoming — just don’t take anything personally and open yourself up to a little adventure.

I’m so content sitting here and writing this right now. Greg’s in the cafe, reading and doing some writing himself. Before Nagasaki, Greg and I visited Fukuoka, another city in Kyushu which is the southernmost of the big four islands which make up Japan.

We sat in the park on a beautiful day and just hung out and read. We discussed how that was just as enjoyable as trying to fit in as much as possible into the three days we were there.

I believe one of the best ways to get the feel for a city is to stay in an interesting place and watch the world go by — a river, a park, a busy street corner. Just be. Observe. Smile as the kids walk by all goofily with their families as I’m doing now.

Enjoy the site of locals coming and going from work, departing into the evening.

Travel is about experiencing something new, a change of scenery, a foreign way of life. For me, it’s about noticing the way the world makes me feel — thus, helping me understand.

Do what you enjoy when traveling. If you want to chill, do it. If you want to hit the sites, get out there.

In honor of Bourdain, don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations from the guy or girl beside you at the restaurant. Beyond that insecurity exists my deepest joy, new friends in a foreign land.

As we discovered last night before falling into that truly outrageous crew, locals are usually more than happy, in fact delighted, to share what they love about their city — the local food, the hidden gems, the good stuff.

Sure, we’re hungover today. But, I’m reminded of a lesson imparted from an older fella I’d met over the summer in Naples.

There was another young kid staying at the hostel, and he didn’t go out or do much at night. Nothing wrong with that; whatever makes you happy. In the mornings he and the older guy got into discussions about history, culture, religion, as the older man clearly had travel experience and the kid was interested.

The man told me there was a concert at a bar one night. I met him and his girlfriend out there. I went solo, and they were surprised I showed up. We talked and had a few beers in front of the bar, and the man told me how he was impressed that I even cared to talk to them.

When he was my age, he said, he would never have never just chilled out in front of the bar talking to an older couple, genuinely interested in what they had to impart.

He was loose, drinks were flowing, vibes were fun. Max is a great kid (from the hostel), he said, but things don’t get interesting in a city until after 10pm. Sure, you might feel sprightly and ready to attack the day if you stick to your home sleep schedule.

But you might forgo life-changing, soul nourishing experiences with locals of another country. We’re all much more similar than we realize. the news, the stereotypes, the negativity paints us as otherwise.

I think it’s worth it to get out there and find out for yourself.

No Comments

I'd love to hear your thoughts!