Veterans’ Tales by Vassar Bushmills
(Editor’s note: There is today a Manos Russian restaurant in the Asakusa area of Tokyo, but the one of which I speak here was just a short walk from the original Sanno Hotel in Akasaka, who’s history can be seen here.)
I could tell a dozen stories about Manos, a little Russian restaurant in the Akasaka District of Tokyo, about 200 feet from the Soviet Embassy.
My best friend in Japan was Maj Guy, living next door in our 12 family quadrangle in the Sagami-hara housing area at Camp Zama. He worked in the G2 section of our Army headquarters. His boss, Col Mac, was the last Army Attache in South Vietnam at the time of the Fall of Saigon in 1975. We were also good friends up until he passed away last year.
I’ll tell that story some other time, but Maj Guy was Col Mac’s Liaison Officer with the Japanese Ground Self Defense Forces (JGSDF, their national army).
What a sweet gig.
Guy was basically a dog-robber, whose principal job was to set up all the social events between our command and the JGSDF (Army). He was the go-to guy for every office in our command, G1-thru G4, plus the General’s office, when there was to be an event with their Japanese counterparts. This included golf, fishing trips, special dine-ins (Japanese military were like the Russians, they had very ritualistic ways of getting drunk) I was invited to several.
Manos’ was where Guy took their officers to get laid.
And when he told me this I said, “You’re a pimp.”
“No, but you have to come to Tokyo to see. I’ll set it up.”
Manos was a small Russian restaurant, only a short walk across a big boulevard and down a side street, no more than a five-minute walk from the Sanno Hotel, the US military hotel in Tokyo since early in the Occupation. It was the only place where, in the world’s most expensive city, American military personnel could sit down at a 5-star table and enjoy a steak and fine wines at stateside prices.
The Sanno was a safe-haven for Americans.
There were also all sorts of high-class night clubs close by, the Copacabana the one that fit that generation of Japanese’s ideal of swank, glitzy drinking and dancing, and the staff all wore tuxedos.
Off on a side street, Manos was a small place, maybe 20 café-style booths, with piped in music. Its street was narrow, cars couldn’t park there, just drop off and pick up, and there were several pull-carts with geishas, which was a wonderful sight just to see. Anytime you see those you’re in a classy neighborhood. A two-story plexi-glass discotheque was next door.
And it did offer borscht, Russian chai (tea), kielbasa and what they called Russian potatoes, all of which I tried.
I almost never saw people eat there, it was always after 9, but I recall pizza-by-the-slice being on the menu, plus some Japanese side dishes, such as gyoza.
Manos also offered the full panoply of Japanese beers, all world class I might add, Kirin, Sapporo (still my all-time favorite beer), Asahi and Suntory. The wall behind the bar carried the bottles of the all the most popular American and European brands, Johnny Walker Black Label, Napoleon Cognac and Jack Daniels Black Label the Japanese #1 favorites. Japanese whiskey brands were also were available, and much cheaper (but also disliked by Americans because they were neither fish nor fowl, somewhere between bourbon and scotch.)
A common practice in Japan bars was to fill empty bottles of prime American brands with cheaper Japanese swill and sell at premium prices.
Which puts me in mind of a story, for at one of the drink-ins Maj Guy invited me to join, where US and Japanese officers sat, Japan style, around a long short table, girls would bring food and beer and Maj Guy, of course, supplied the Johnnie Walker. While eating we’d do a round robin of songs, I would do my famous rendition of “Buffalo Gals”, and then follow up, on the next round with something more somber, such as “Old Folks at Home.” At the end, we would all join in with “Shiretoko ryojo” a national love song to the peninsula by the same name on Hokkaido. The only Japanese song I knew, and would sing to my kids for years.
At the end, the general, at the head of the table, would hand one of the empty bottles of Johnnie Black to his aide, sitting next to him, who would clutch it, and whisper some sentiment of gratitude, then burst into tears.
No really. A wonderful gift, it gave him great face to be able to go home, fill it with Japanese swill-whiskey, and then offer to friends, who were none the wiser.
That was over 40 years ago, so I’m sure Japanese have become more discerning today.
Manos was run by two brothers, Phil and John, from Pittsburgh. Both had been OSS agents during the war. I only met John once, but became closer with Phil, taking him cigars, while Guy kept him in whiskey.
With the Soviet Embassy nearby I assumed there was a connection, but they never talked shop in front of me.
Since Manos was usually the last leg on a round robin of drinking for businessman-high rollers, usually the paying customer wouldn’t recognize cat-piss if they’d served it, because they didn’t come to Manos’ to drink but to get to know, in the biblical sense, gaijin women, foreigner women, and especially the blonds.
I never learned the history of it, but Manos had a string of foreign prostitutes instead of the standard bevy of Japanese bar girls, and apparently was unique in Tokyo because of it. What was also unique was that his girls could be “bought out” of the bar for a quick roll in the hay in their rooms just up the street.
This was unknown to Japanese bar culture at the time. Bar girls would descend on a customer like flies, pawing and stroking a customer into buying them a drink, a top-of-the-line champagne cocktail the usual. Japan, like England pub rules, had fairly early and strict closing times, so when the bar bell rang “last call” the customer and girl would untangle themselves from their ass-over-elbow groping in booths, stand up, straighten the creases, bow and say oyasumi-nasai. (Good night.)
Never seen anything like it, and while I only went to one of those bars once, and then to despoil our chief prosecutor who had just been accepted for judges school, I was told that what I saw was the usual.
(This was why I decided to become a student of world prostitution, which I only dabbled in when I hitchhiked to Mexico to have my heart broken by never being able to meet the Fair Chiquita.)
I think this ritual is exclusive to Japan…which makes the crew at Manos all the more special. Guy knew them all and in some respects it was he safest and easiest place to hang out after a meeting and dinner at the Sanno. The girls rate was 100 dollar US, and I couldn’t afford that on a captain’s pay, but I could afford a ¥700 ($2) Kirin, and the conversation was always friendly an interesting.
Guy never took me along when he was escorting military officers, but he would let them make their choices. I’d never seen Manos more than half full, so the other girls would take orders or just sit among themselves. Japanese had a very strong preference for blonds and there were usually three there, the Australian, American and English girl.
To be fair to the other girls they established rigid rules of only three tricks a night, so all the girls would have an equal shot at having their tickets fully punched..
This meant the blondes would often be finished by 10, so would wait tables the rest of the evening, with this invisible “Not for Hire” sign around their necks. Guy would find out the preferences of his guests ahead of time, then tell them to come early if they wanted a blonde.
Japanese men came in usually in two’s or three’s, one a patron, usually a senior business man, not unlike Guy, who wanted to provide a business customer, a buyer or customer, the opportunity to hang a foreign woman’s memory on his lodge pole, (A little Cheyenne lingo here.) Corporate expense accounts paid for everything.
Angie, the Australian blonde, told me these girls ran a circuit from Tokyo to Singapore to Hong Kong to Bangkok, and stayed in usually 2-3 year shifts, before the Japanese authorities withdrew their work permits and sent them packing, only to be replaced by another crew. She said she never knew any girl to make a second circuit.
This crew had an Aussie, Brit and American, all blondes, a beautiful tall sultry Indian, a White Russian from Vladivostok, aThai from Chiang Mai, a Chinese girl from Hong Kong, a tiny Vietnamese girl from Saigon and a dark beauty from Papua New Guinea.
I would come back to Manos several times, once, with Guy, to bring our wives, since my wife refused to believe that I would go to a candy store and not taste the candy. Another time to bring her father, as a lark, which would go south. So more later.
In every visit, except the time I brought my bride, I would end the evening by walking the 200 feet up the street to the tall iron gate of the Soviet embassy rear entrance, and pee on it, then wave to the camera.