With a sudden tug, Henry sends a slug of sake over my hand. Blame it on the toy poodle in the distance. Or me for trying to hold a one-cup sake with his lead wrapped around my drinking hand.
In fairness, it wouldn’t be a one-cup if I didn’t spill a bit. The pull-tab lids take just enough of a yank to frequently cause a mishap. A damp patch on your jeans. A boozy trickle down the arm. All common place for a one-cup drinker.
For Henry—a black shiba—and me, a sake spillage is part of our routine. A couple of nights a week, we forego a walk around the park or pee-punctuated run along the riverbank for a bench and a brew outside our local convenience store. You see, Tokyoites can be standoffish, but just as a drink can bring down barriers, so too can a dog. Combining the two has become a way to connect with other people who call my neighbourhood home.
On this night, the socializing begins with a familiar face. A familiar set of teeth gnarling at all and sundry. Kenta-kun, a fluffy tan shiba. He comes by and growls incessantly while his mum chats with me and Henry. We talk about how early both the dogs seem be waking up of late—Henry wanted a lick at 4:15 yesterday, Kenta-kun was pulling off his mum’s bedding at 5. Occasionally, she turns to Kenta-kun and scolds him for being grumpy – the kind of soft, but rising intonation that has no effect. “Aren’t you going to play with Henry? He’s your friend,” she says at one point. I get the feeling Kenta-kun doesn’t do friendship.
Kotaro-kun, the next shiba we meet that night, does. Him and Henry exchange sniffs, then Kotaro-kun’s dad, a recent retiree, reaches into his pocket—as he does every time we meet—and finds a doggy treat for Henry. In return, he gets an ear lick. By now, my one-cup is half done. With Kotaro-kun headed off to the park, Henry returns to carefully watching people come out of the subway exit next to the store. Every so often someone gives him a smile or let’s out an exaggerated kawaii (cute) as they pass. “Was that kawaii for me or you?” I ask him at one point. He ignores the joke.
He can’t, however, ignore the scent of fried chicken when a couple of laborers take the bench next to us with snacks and a post-work chu-hi. They look like they’ve had a long day—many long days—their greenish overalls stained with what could be tar, skin dark tanned in the mid of winter. Without Henry here, I doubt we’d talk, but Henry is our bridge, and when he nuzzles in to try and get some chicken a conversation starts: one of them had a shiba as a kid; Japanese dogs are the best; I should have had my sake heated this time of year. A normal conversation with strangers. The kind you can’t take for granted in Tokyo. The kind you can get with a drink and a dog.