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Trip 41 — Yell Walk

Tuesday, 23 April 2024

After Dogojima, I spent four nights in Osaka. Most of the city's fun lies in the narrow alleys near the Dotonbori River, the Shinsaibashi street grid to the north, and Namba to the south. The sun sets far behind the Ebisu Bridge, which is always packed with people taking photos, going down to the riverbank for octopus balls, or entering the Don Quijote department building for its crammed aisles (you have to love a store where the Hot Wheels are next to the sex toys) and its oblong Ferris wheel.

Could I ever tire of exploring the little bars and restaurants? At Bar Simon, I stepped up from the alley into about 1935. Soft piano jazz was playing as I took the only empty seat, one of six, at the polished black bar. The male half of an Australian couple was enjoying a lengthy birthday whiskey tasting; he must have had seven or eight. I had a Yamazaki 12-year with an equally polished diamond-like ice block.

At Bird/56, the owner was playing records while "the amazing Sakamoto" presented the whiskeys and poured them generously, topping them off a few drops at a time, egged on by the owner. "Stop!" "More!" "Stop!" "More!" Another patron brought me to Momo Light, where Steve Reich was on the phonograph. A florally painted upright piano topped with wine bottles (every space gets used) stood next to a microphone, guitar, and drum set. After I played some Beethoven, the bartender came out and joined me on the drums to improvise a jazz tune. Several whiskeys into the night, the bar got its other customer, who picked up the guitar. For an hour, four of us were a family.

The cozy atmosphere continued at Sushi Ichi, on one of the smallest dead-end alleys — no, it's not a dead end; it swings around by the pebbled bar, the public urinal, and the woman screeching by herself in the one-seat karaoke room. I wondered whether Sushi Ichi would survive the pandemic. At a restaurant with a two-year waiting list for its eight nightly seats — two seatings of four people — I somehow always managed to get in.

My trick was to go around 5:00, while they were setting up, and chef Tetsuya, or in this case his son, would tell me to come back for a secret seating at 10:00 or 10:30. In this case I reappeared the following night as instructed, expecting to join a quartet of diners. Tets hung my jacket a few steps up a staircase so steep it was practically a ladder.

"Are there other guests tonight?"

"No, just you." He had stayed open just to serve me. I was touched. The place hadn't changed. The daily offerings were handwritten and posted, with items crossed out when they were eaten up. There was still the wall calendar, one giant page each month, with the reservations scribbled for 6:00 and 8:00. An antenna from a radio, the source of the background music, stuck into the stairwell, near a wall clock that was two and a half hours behind. The only additions since 2019 were the bottles of hand sanitizer and the English sign outside telling people not to bother waiting for seats to open up.

I let Tets choose what to give me, an omakase selection. Highlights included squid with a little squeeze of citrus; conger eel with a delicate, almost berry-like sauce; and liver of kawahagi, thread-sail filefish.

"Is there anything special you want?"

I remembered his shirako, a torched sac of cod milt. He went one better: fugu shirako, the sperm sac of a blowfish. The quick blast gave a light sweetness to the salty, smooth texture. It was silken, like tofu.

The price always ends up the same at Sushi Ichi: 8000 yen including a bottle of sake. My first time there, in 2013, 8000 yen was equivalent to US$86. This year it's $53. And there is no tipping in Japan. I never thought Japan was as expensive as it was reputed to be, but it's now practically a bargain. A real-estate window showed a three-bedroom apartment on the 41st floor going for half a million dollars, and I spent more time doing the math than I have on previous visits.

One morning at ten I thought, well, it's too early for lunch, so I might as well spend the time eating. Crab buns by the Dotonbori. Kushikatsu: fried things on skewers. Quick-grilled scallops and crab legs snipped open with scissors at the Kuromon Market. I ate sushi in Osaka like some gamblers go through Las Vegas. Take a break from walking, plop in front of a conveyor belt for a few plates mindlessly collected on impulse, the equivalent of nickel slots. Sushi Ichi was the intimate, intense but friendly poker room. In the frenzy of Sakae Sushi, they now have an English menu so you can write your selections' numbers and hand them to the chef, but it's the only place I get to practice writing Japanese; I studied the choices for maximum variety of common and uncommon items like a card counter at blackjack. I went there twice, recognized by my favorite dealer; I may once have been there twice on the same night.

And I went to Spa World, where, in March, the men's floor was the one with the Asian-themed bathing areas: a Merlion replica from Singapore, Balinese hedges, a Persian bath evoking Persepolis, and Japanese cedar tubs, plus a sauna and a salt sauna. In even-numbered months the men get the European floor and women the Asian. There are also a restaurant, a hotel, a game room, and a mixed-gender pool.

I was enjoying my Full Body Dirt Cleanse Body Soap Wash Massage Shampoo treatment when I suddenly laughed as I realized what my two "Y"-island possibilities had in common, scattering the strong fingers scrubbing all the skin dirt that had accumulated since...well, probably since the last time I was at Spa World, five years ago.

Both "Y"-island names were verbs representing loud, shrill sounds. The one I didn't choose, Yap in Micronesia, was probably too small for an Abecedarian Walk, and I had just been to that part of the world for Niue.

Instead, now that the chilly, persistently rainy weather has left New York, I'm off to find it again in Yell, part of Scotland's Shetland Islands. The name has been the source of several Abbott & Costello–style conversations:

"What's your next island?"



Until about ten years ago, Allen Fraser was a tour guide in Shetland. One day he was driving a Japanese group who giggled at the road signs pointing the way to places such as North Roe, Urafirth, Ronas Voe, and Toilets. The last one had no distinctive shape, size, typeface, or color; clearly it was just another village.

Allen's memoir, "A Town Called Toilets," is in two parts. The first is his upbringing on Yell in a family of crofters or tenant farmers. Traditionally, families rented the land they farmed, paying the laird or landlord and bringing their livestock to a common grazing area. Crofters were also required to fish for the laird.

A trend in some of my more recent small islands — Dogojima, Niue, Quinchao, and now Yell — is that people have been leaving over the past 50 to 100 years. Allen's grade school is gone, as is his village's shop; the population isn't there to support them. A nice commonality between Yell and Quinchao, however, was the tradition of neighbors' helping each other with work projects, knowing it would be reciprocated.

Thank goodness Allen included a glossary, because the Shetland dialect is as foreign to me as Toru Tomita's geology terms. A croft house has a "but-end" (living room) and a "ben-end" (bedroom or best room). A "caa" is the rounding up of sheep on the "scattald," the common grazing patch. "Paets" are dried peat cuttings used for fuel. "Kye" are cows, "tawtees" are potatoes, and the "tawtee-crö" is the dark corner of the barn where they are stored.

The second half of the book covers the author's developing Shetland as a UNESCO Global Geopark (there are 213; the Oki Islands are another) and his years bringing visitors around. Yell is absent from this part of the book. All the tours went to places on Shetland's main island (called Mainland) or Bressay or Papa Stour and so forth, and Yell was merely a transit point between Mainland and Unst. Its name may come from an Old Norse or Brittonic word referring to barren or infertile land.

So I may not see the top sights usually covered in a Shetland itinerary, but that's not the point of the Abecedarian Walks; instead, I'll see what those crofting lands look like now, and I'll have no shortage of peat. Allen Fraser is no longer guiding, but he responded kindly to my message, promising a coastline that is "quite challenging and a long way from habitation but very spectacular with amazing views." As long as I can avoid the nests of the bonxies (great skuas), it should be a perfect peat-pondering perambulation.

Go on to day 1