A true story with no particular point to it
The time has come to tell of Mr Smelly’s Improbable Emporium, though I have no idea why.
In the mid 90s when I moved to this area in Nara, the neighbouring town of Oji had a run-down-yet-picturesque shotengai shopping street. It was one of those wooden places of red lanterns and stubbly old men in sagging long-johns tending shop; family businesses selling broken electrical appliances, dried beans, clogs and sandals, unidentifiable stuff that no one under the age of 100 knew what to do with; there were smoky izakaya pubs, fish stalls — whatever you expected and hoped to find in a run-down-yet-picturesque shotengai shopping street. It was old Japan, it was one of those places that harked back to the Meiji period when Japan was just out of top knots and swords, or evoked the Golden Age that enveloped in the world in the non-specific past and spawned films of vomit-inducing sentimentality like the Tora-san series, and quite a bit later on the other side of the world, Brexit.
This shopping street in Oji has, of course, now been destroyed by progress, but while it was there, I liked to stroll through it and feed on the atmosphere and imagine I was peering back in time.
And it was in this place that I found Mr Smelly’s Original Emporium, distinct from his later venture, the Improbable Emporium. I shall call it now, with the blessing of hindsight, Mr Smelly’s Pop Emporium partly because it sold drink but mainly because I get the repetition of the humorous po-sound between ‘pop’ and ‘emporium’. Yes, Mr Smelly’s Pop Emporium sold all sorts of drink. Pop, certainly, but mostly booze; the kind that appealed to your hardcore and uncompromisingly Japanese person: beer, sake, shochu, chuhai, more beer, sake, shochu, chuhai, and lots and lots of whisky. Japan is known for its award winning single malt whiskies that go for thousands of dollars a bottle — I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about the non-award winning domestic blends that come in three-litre bottles priced at about the same point as the average family-sized bottle of generic shampoo.
Where Mr Smelly’s whiskies lacked notability for their pedigree, they very much attracted my attention for being physically tied to the shelves — tied with lashings of thick, white plastic string stuff, which was looped through the handle of the bigger flagons or round the neck of the regular bottles.
Why? Why would you tie your stock to the shelves? What happened to persuade Mr Smelly to tie his whisky down? Did a swarm of locusts once clean up his shelves? Perhaps those cheeky but precociously intelligent monkeys took the three-hour train ride from Mino just to raid his Nikka. Did his bottles blow away in a stiff breeze? Were salarymen insouciantly grabbing them off the shelves in passing to quaff straight from the neck on the train to work? Or was he simply so emotionally attached to them he couldn’t bear to see them go?
And what if you want to actually buy one? Do you have to ask Mr Smelly’s permission? Bring your own scissors? Bring your own machete? Mr Smelly’s cavern was always full of questions.
However, I ventured in a couple of times. I say venture in the full understanding of the word and not as a lazy collocation. It took some resolve to step inside Mr Smelly’s Pop Emporium. You see, Mr Smelly himself was inclined to stand guard at the door, apparently watching over his bound whisky. He cut an imposing figure — no he didn’t. He sagged from his own shoulders, his belly sagged into his waistband. He was so saggy he seemed to sag vertically from the floor.
He glowered at passersby as if daring them to come into the shop. Sometimes he glowered resentfully because they weren’t daring to go into his shop. It was quite clear that Mr Smelly was not quite synced with this planet, and possibly had some competence problems living on it.
I wanted to get a beer, a single beer to drink while walking home and I like to support the independent business rather than the big impersonal brands — or did before this experience. Slipping past Mr Smelly was difficult, the aisles being piled with waste cardboard that hadn’t made it to the recycler. It was like clambering over a very unstable ridge of collapsed boxes. It turned out there was another person in there — an improbably hooped old lady draped in some kind of casual hakama or yukata. She was so hooped that when stood up straight she was still staring backward at her own knees. Mr Smelly sidestepped protectively toward her as if I might try to grab her rather than one of his whiskies. I guess she was old Mrs Smelly, the Smelly matriarch.
Which brings me to Mr Smelly’s name or the reason for it. You didn’t think that was his real name, did you?
The stink that pervaded the shop was powerful.
In old Japan there was a tradition of something called living mummification in which a particularly holy man would have himself bricked up in tomb and meditate until he was dead, and then keep on meditating until he was totally desiccated — except he wasn’t dead, he was just meditating really, really deeply, dig? And there was another phenomenon in Japan, where elderly relatives who died at home were secreted in the oshire closet or the spare room or in a space under the tatami so that the family could continue claiming the pension. I have never attended the opening of one of these meditation tombs or discovered a grandmother mummified in her futon in the closet but I can imagine the smell. I imagine the smell to be that of rot so ancient that it has itself turned to morbid mustiness.
That was the odour in Mr Smelly’s Pop Emporium, but in this case the mummies must have been neglectful of personal hygiene even before death.
Was the smell from Mr Smelly himself? Or from the old woman? Or did he have a whole stockroom full of dried out priests and abused grandparents grinning silently at the locked at implacable eternity and boxes of whisky with bent teeth through yellow papery skin? Such a secret might account for his ambivalent attitude to customers.
Of course, the beer fridge was right in the back, the most difficult and furthest place to reach, prolonging my journey in these unsettling regions. As I paid for my single can, Mr Smelly went through the transaction as if the whole incident was quite improbable. What on earth brought you in here? His face seemed to say. What do you actually want with a can of beer?
As I say, I might have ventured in a total of twice. My sense of adventure and curiosity has limits. The shop struck me as an odd place, the kind that probably didn’t ought to be in business for being, well, weird and horrible.
Eventually, all the shops in the shotengai closed and were shuttered as the area was prepared for redevelopment. Except Mr Smelly’s Pop Emporium, which remained obstinately open, and obstinately without customers. Mr Smelly was now poignantly standing guard at his door in an abandoned street of boarded up and shuttered shops.
I imagined that Mr Smelly was hanging on for more money, or because this was his family business and damned if he was going to move for some soulless corporate types in suits, or — the most likely, I suspect, and my preferred theory — because he couldn’t understand the forms he had to fill out to get his compensation.
Time and progress wait for no man, not even Mr Smelly: he moved, the area was redeveloped and Mr Smelly was completely forgotten until he reappeared, quite improbably, in his new emporium, which was a unit in a prime position by entrances to both the Kintetsu and JR stations. I assumed that such was his obstinacy or inability to move from his original shop that the developers had offered him this prime spot as incentive to get out of the way of progress.
In shifting location, he had evidently shifted the focus of his business from post-Edo maximalist pop shop with string to post-apocalyptic minimalist convenience store-cum-ridicule. Or he had insufficient funds to restock after being closed for so long. No more three-litre flagons of Nikka lashed to the shelves. Instead individual random items of the banally everyday spaced at twenty-centimetre intervals — a bar of soap, a bottle of vinegar, a pack of tooth picks, a bottle of shampoo, a bottle of soy sauce, a hair brush, a jar of pickles, a bar of chocolate, a small carton of sake, a bag of crisps, a box of rubber bands. Mr Smelly followed me from the door pointing with hope at random items. I just wanted a beer, but Mr Smelly thought I might like a toothbrush or some window cleaner to go with it. How about a small bag of s-hooks to dangle things from my kitchen shelves?
His whole family — or someone’s whole family — had turned out to see this spectacle of Mr Smelly with a customer. A collection of completely mis-matched humans, ranging in age from elementary schooler to improbably old, stood in rapt attention behind the counter, except for one woman of Mr Smelly’s age who seemed to be washing the family dinner dishes in the store sink behind the register. Oddly, it was only this one woman with her hand in the suds whose eyes alone bore the signs of actual sentience and self awareness and a probably not unrelated acute embarrassment.
But more than the poignant paucity of stock placed in such a desperate manner to disguise its lack, more than Mr Smelly’s eccentric customer service, more than the sub-Addams family, what struck me was the smell. It was the same smell I experienced at Mr Smelly’s Original Pop Emporium a couple of years previously in the old shotengai. He had lost his old stock, he had lost his old shop, but he had kept that improbable pong.
The how and the why of this tickles the imagination: was it a deliberate choice, a branding decision? I can see overalled engineers piping green stink from the old shop into the back of the new one. Or was it an accident — a huge shaggy dog of green slime that followed Mr Smelly everywhere, a pet that always homed back from any attempt to abandon it? Or perhaps there really was a pile of ancient dried corpses, or more excitingly, a new pile of recently dried corpses. We may never know.
As I say, there is no punchline to this story. The Emporium just fizzled out, and there have been no sightings or smellings of Mr Smelly for a very long time. After just one or two years, Mr Smelly’s Improbable Emporium closed and has remained closed since — now several years. His shop sign remains, which reinforces my suspicion that he has left the business in a state of legal limbo again and the owners of the unit are unable to lease the space to someone else.
Today, the neighbouring restaurant has appropriated the pavement in front of Mr Smelly’s place with stools for waiting customers, and the shutter is plastered with missing person posters for an old lady.
At night tendrils of faintly luminous green ectoplasm escape from under the shutter …