With a Backpack

Japan / Lost in Translation / WTF Japan?

A Coffee with a Japanese Businessman

It was a quiet, calm Tokyo night. My friend and I had just finished a delicious meal of sushi, as one typically does in Japan. We were bid farewell in the friendly way we had grown accustomed to here in this welcoming country and pushed our way out into the street through those weird blanket things they use as doors.

We get separated as we exited the restaurant, my friend walked slightly further ahead closely followed by an older Japanese businessman. My friend turns around whilst talking to me, and is shocked. He quickly realises that it wasn’t me, I hadn’t actually “fully integrated into the community” as the guidebook recommends, and I was simply just further behind them both. This businessman assumed that my friend was talking to him and was temporarily confused.

This was the first in a series of misunderstandings by this pleasant businessman that evening.

The man laughs off his mistake and walks off ahead whilst we regroup, consult Google Maps and try to figure out our way back to the hostel. It buffers and buffers and we get frustrated – we spent a long time walking out to this restaurant and neither of us were quite sure where the closest metro was.

You two… young boys…”

We look up; it was the same businessman from before. He was calling us from the end of the road. What could he want? How should we react to being called boys? Did we really look that young? Our curiosity drove us to walk up to him to find out.

I should say now that there was an immediately obvious language barrier between the two parties. So much so, that it took us a decent while to realise that he wasn’t actually gesturing towards a nearby alleyway and was instead inviting us to eat with him. We then had to rub our respective stomachs and act satisfied – indicating that we were full and had just eaten.

When he worked out what we meant, he changed his offer to invite us for coffee to a place he seemed to go to regularly. We had nothing else planned that evening so we decided to take him up on his very kind offer. What could be better than seeing a city from a local’s perspective plus the coffee must be great if it’s his favourite coffee shop right?

So there we were, just three guys, out on the streets of Tokyo at 8pm, looking to get a coffee.

As we were walking, the businessman decides to ask us why we had come to Japan. We tell him that we came in order to see this beautiful country for ourselves. He seemed to be very happy with this answer and it spurred him on to ask further questions.

“Are you athletes?”

I was caught slightly off-guard by this question, confused where he could have even considered this possibility and eventually coming to the conclusion that it was because we are both above 6ft tall. As we were still wondering what exactly he was asking us, he tried a different approach.

“Football?” He asks whilst kicking an imaginary ball.

“Oh, I play rugby” My friend says.

The man suddenly stops in his tracks, the cogs in his mind visibly whirring.

“OHHHH! LUUUUGGBBYY!” He is now giddy with excitement, seemingly at the concept of us playing rugby.

“Lugby,lugby, lugby!” He is extremely happy with this answer and reaches out to shake both of our hands.

With this one move, we realise that he is considerably more inebriated than we had initially thought.

We also realise that he hadn’t been asking about our hobbies or about which sports we like to play in our spare time.

He was asking what our jobs were.

There was not a chance either one of use would be mistaken for International Rugby players to a sober fan of the sport, but we didn’t want to upset him after he reacted so gleefully to the news.

Shortly after his happy revelation, we reach his ‘favourite coffee shop’ and it seems to be less of a favourite ‘coffee shop’ and seemed to be more of an expensive looking luxury hotel lobby. The portion of our budget that was allocated to 8pm coffee possibly didn’t stretch far enough to treat ourselves in a place like this.

Asian hotel lobby -

We are guided inside the lobby and instantly feel out of place. We must have been the only people not wearing suits. We pass several groups of chatting businessmen and we were introduced by our friend as members of Britain’s Rugby team. We rolled down our sleeves and tensed our muscles to look the part. Thankfully, the groups remained uninterested and our legitimacy remained uncontested. Our new Japanese friend resorted to nudging passers-by and pointing to us with his thumb, saying “lugby” with a knowing nod.

We tried to give our least uncomfortable smiles and hope this would all be over before someone called us for the phoneys that we were.

The waiter directed us to a table and handed the menus to the businessman. He gave them to us and told us to choose our coffee. I looked down at the menu; the cheapest option was roughly £9.

This was not a cheap place.

In fact, it was the kind of place that you wouldn’t want to go with a drunken Japanese businessman that happens to sober up, go to the toilet and leave you with the bill, for example.

We choose our coffees and he adds a cake to each of our orders. The bill is going in a direction that I’m not pleased about, but I do like cakes so I don’t mention anything.

He tells the waitress we are international rugby stars and then tells us that she is very beautiful. I’m not really sure what outcome he was expecting from these pieces of information as she was at least 20 years older than either of us. She heads to kitchen and I imagine starts preparing whatever extraordinary things have to be done in order to make a £9 coffee.

After the renowned beauty had left, the businessman’s attention turned back to us. He had more questions for the superstars he had recently discovered.

“Where does your father work” He asked my friend. My friend’s dad actually worked in the Middle East, so that was a genuinely interesting answer for the man.

“What does he do?”

“Electronics engineer”

“Manufacturing electronics for the king of Saudi Arabia? That is amazing!”

Yeah… Not quite.

My friend just looked over to me, not quite believing how his answer had again been interpreted in this extreme manner.

Now he turned to me and asked the same question about my own father. I answer “Oxford.”

Oxford is fairly normal city to live and work; nothing too exciting here. However, it turns out he had decided to change the order of the questions. Typical.

So, instead of giving an answer to “where does he work?” I instead gave an answer for “what does he do for work?”

So, naturally, in the eyes of this man, my father had now become a professor at Oxford University.


Japanese Coffee


We were in way over our heads at this point. With every question, this accidental web of lies seemed to be growing and growing. It would have broken his heart to find out that that we were just two average guys. Plus that coffee bill was racking up quite steeply…

“Does your father play an instrument?”

He used to play the violin a bit a long time when he was child so I told the man this. Of all the instruments this was coincidentally the best (or worst depending on your point of view) answer I could have given, as it was also the businessman’s favourite. He was truly overjoyed at this fantastic news and starts rummaging around in his bag for something.

He pulls out a programme for a violin concert that he had been to in the previous week. He asked if my dad knew of this famous Japanese violinist that he had watched perform. I was pretty much 100% sure that my dad had not, but this musician seemed to be quite a big deal to the drunken Japanese man so I humoured him with a “possibly”.

The man gifted me the programme on behalf of my father so that he could perhaps watch a performance if he ever had a break from all the ‘professoring’. I wasn’t really sure my dad was going to appreciate this programme. Firstly, he hadn’t played the violin in around 40 years. Secondly, it was written all in Japanese.

Thankfully the coffee arrives and the pressure is temporarily off us two superstar athletes. We decide to change the questions so the focus was finally off our incredible lives and onto him.

As we ask him questions about his life, his demeanour changes from jolly and excited to something far more sad and pensive. It suddenly becomes apparent why a retired business man was drinking heavily on a week day night.

He had an eventful career working around Asia, spending ten years working on a project in Thailand. Working his way up to a manager, his career was seriously impressive. However, this came at the price of family. He spoke of a wife and children whilst regaling us with his life story, but when asked where they were now, he simply said “not here”.

Japanese buisnessman

The coffees were finished, cakes eaten and we had no desire to delve any further into his personal life. He senses this and asks for the bill. Whilst waiting he grabs one of the hotel’s business cards and writes his contact details over the top to give to each of us. His name was Mr. R. Aida. He took both of our ‘autographs’.  Apparently if we were ever in trouble, or simply wanted a chat next time we come to Tokyo, we should give him a call.

Maybe I will.

On the other hand, maybe I wouldn’t know what to say and I would be surprised if he even remembered who I was and how I had his number.

The bill arrived and he refused to even let us split it. Honestly this was great news for us, the coffees would have already been pushing the budgetary boundaries – but artisan handmade cakes would have just blown it out of the water.

Without even putting away his wallet he gestures us to follow him over to the hotel reception.

My friend pulls me over, the colour drained from his face. “Uh-oh. He is not going to buy us a room in this hotel is he?”

The coffee was already a nice gift, if he generously paid for our accommodation that would be way too much! It would feel wrong for us to accept that from him.

Wait. He thought that we were international rugby players. This was exactly the kind of place that international rugby players would stay. Perhaps he was going to see if there were any free rooms that we could pay for. If coffee would have been stretching the budget then a night’s stay at a luxury would have absolutely obliterated it.

It was a short yet tense walk to the reception; we were desperately trying to think of polite reasons why there was no way we could stay in this hotel. Mr Aida had already proven to be a very persuasive person.

We reach the reception and the woman working there musters a meek yet friendly “hello”. He starts talking to her in Japanese and we look to each other.

This won’t be good; there is no way can we afford this.

They seem to be having a positive conversation. He smiles at her and points over towards us …



“Lugby athletes”




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