Heroes, in a mythological sense, always need a guide — a spiritual beacon to lead them safely through the dark forest of doubt and then onwards to face the twin pressures of fear and fate.
“And for dinner,” says my guide, “how about Hooters?”
Hooters? And heroism? Not a likely match, but perhaps you sense my dilemma: How should I play my first visit to the land of hamburgers and hot pants? Should I go highbrow? Or low?
I turn to my guide for, uh, guidance.
“Well, their motto is ‘Delightfully tacky.’ What do you think?”
“I just don’t want to come off as a sexist boob.”
He looks at me; I look at him.
“Ninny! I meant ninny!”
“And what is a ‘hooter?’ ” my wife, in her Japanese housewife innocence, had sought just the night before.
“Hooter? Well, um, ha-ha . . . it means ‘owl.’ “
Pause. “And what is so special about owls?”
“Well, you know, owls are the only birds with two well-formed . . .”
I look at her; she looks at me.
“I can’t believe you are going to write about breasts.”
“I said ‘ears!’ “
“Your mouth said ‘ears’ but your eyeballs said ‘breasts.’ “
So I squint and tell her that’s my angle: body language. Sometimes mere words cannot cross culture. But body parts can.
I look at her; she looks at me. “And,” she says, “next you’re going to tell me that some body parts cross culture better than others.”
I hesitate. She doesn’t. “If not, why don’t you write about collarbones? Or toenails?”
“When they get their own restaurant chain in Japan, I will. I promise.”
“And who is this guide fellow?”
I think quick and toss out a name, something modest and unassuming, to protect my friend’s identity.
“Gandalf the Grey.”
And she buys it.
The next thing I know Gandalf and I are seated inside Hooters. The chain opened its first Japanese branch in Akasaka, Tokyo, in 2010 and has since added two more restaurants, one in the Ginza and one in Osaka.
Gandalf leans in and notes that U.S. branches are more “hootery.”
Hooter, hootery, hooterest. Superlatives come easy, as any writer knows. But we heroes deal in action, not words.
And action we have, as a waitress now slides alongside. And there I am, faced head-on with the twin pressures of fear and fate.
Like any good hero, I maintain eye contact.
“Hi!” The girl is full of bounce. “Ready to order?”
Something has told her we are English speakers. Perhaps it’s my eyes, which keep repeating, “Ears, ears, ears.” Or, at least, I hope.
But my guide’s interests are elsewhere.
“How big are your burgers?” He cups his hands. “This big?”
“No, no.” She cups her hands back at him. “More like this big.”
They compare cups. Meanwhile, I maintain eye contact.
Outside, the clientele are lining up. The seats are already full — my guide had us arrive early — and now a queue is pressed against the window. I see hot breath on the glass.
Inside, each table is busy ordering, eating, ogling . . . and not necessarily in that order. All the customers are men. Every single one — except for two office-lady types at a table nearby. They must be lost. Or in love with hamburgers that are “this big.”
Or perhaps they are just being practical, adding to their list of clothing they would never be caught dead in. Or hoping to find their supervisor hitting on a Hooters girl. For what better time to solicit a raise?
“Foreign guys ask for my phone number,” says our Hooters waitress, admitting she does get hit upon. Sort of like the sea flows to the shore.
“But Japanese guys do it different. They give me their number, usually on a scrap of paper with their bill.”
“And do guys of mixed nationality give you half their number and ask for half of yours?”
Now it is she who looks at my eyes. Perhaps trying to see if I have anything behind them.
“I’m sorry. I have to ask these things. I’m a journalist. Next: Has anyone ever requested you hoot like an owl?”
Suddenly she remembers she has other customers at other tables.
“You’re supposed to be tacky,” says Gandalf, “not wacky.”
But what does he know? He orders a hamburger at a “breastaurant.” We harder-nosed journalists, however, cut straight to the chase: I go for chicken.
“What? All they have is wings?”
But of course there is more. Lots more. And all very American. In fact, the menu holds more cholesterol than the typical Japanese sees in a lifetime. Not that they come here for the food.
“No,” says my guide, “it’s the refills on soda.”
With that, we click glasses, roll up our sleeves and dive in. In general, much of the food — and only the food — is hands-on.
“So what did you learn, Grasshopper?” asks my wife upon my return. “Do hooters cross culture?”
I am indeed more of a grasshopper than an owl, yet wise enough to play dumb when needed.
“Gosh . . . well . . . you know . . .”
“Don’t tell me you need more research!?”
What can a hero say? The cultural forest is shadowy and full of owls.
I look at her; she looks at me. And she takes the final word.
“Just whooo do you think you’re kidding?”