Yat-chan and Fuku-chan

Japanese masks © Peter Roan

“Monn – kii, Monn – kii”, they say excitedly, giggling and pointing up the road to a wooden building with a red lantern glowing outside. It must be the name of the restaurant.

We’ve stopped a couple in the street to ask them to recommend a place to eat. We want something “non-fishy” I’ve explained in my best pidgin Japanese. We’re not in the mood for sushi or fried balls of octopus tonight. They’re very enthusiastic about the place they’re directing us to anyway.

“Irr-a-shai-ma-se.” The owner cries out the customary Japanese welcome as we enter. It’s cosy and inviting inside with traditional tatami mats, low tables and cushions to sit on. We take off our shoes, settle down on the floor and order two beers immediately.

As we struggle to decipher the menu, the waiter brings over hot towels to wipe our hands and face with. I take mine, still reading, but catch out of the corner of my eye that there is something deeply wrong with the waiter’s hand. It’s too hairy, too pink, too…well…bendy. I look up and gasp.

The waiter is something hideous my brain cannot instantly comprehend. It’s wearing a mask, wig, black dress and white blouse and is small and covered in hair. Something between human, animal and doll. As it clambers away on all fours, it becomes clear that it is in fact a monkey. A monkey grotesquely disguised as a human waiter. It’s disturbing, yet nevertheless – now I know what it is – quite amusing. “Monn – kii” indeed.

Another monkey appears, bringing us our beers, one at a time, sloshing just a little. This one is wearing a traditional Japanese waiter’s blue and white tunic, and shorts, but thankfully no mask or wig. I look into its eyes, which seem incredibly knowing and intensely puzzled at the same time.

The owner comes over, chuckling at our surprise. “Monn-kii waiter,” he says. “This is Fuku-chan. This is Yat-chan.” He hands us a bowl of green soybeans. “Please give monkey. It’s tip.” As the owner takes our order, I hold out some soybeans for Yat-chan, which he takes niftly.

This is actually quite fun, but shouldn’t he be swinging through trees? Scratching his head? Picking out fleas? Eating fruit? Not bringing me cold beer. But…hmmm…cold beer… The food is good too, delivered by human, not monkey: Fried cheese in breadcrumbs, chicken kebabs in teriyaki sauce, a Japanese pancake with bacon, fried pork dumplings…Not a hint of a whiff of a fish.

“You like monkey?” asks a customer at the next table. His English is pretty good and we get chatting. He tells me the monkeys are only allowed to work two hours a day. “Animal rights rule” he says. They are macaque monkeys, native to Japan, and were originally just the owner’s pets, but one day Yat-chan mimicked him and took a hot towel to a customer.

Yat-chan’s a boy, 13-years-old, Fuku-chan a girl, only 4. The owner takes them for walks in the woods on their “days off”. After a couple of beers, I start to really enjoy watching the monkeys scoot around the restaurant.

They are amazingly good at their jobs. They understand commands from the owner, shake hands with customers, open and close the fridge with ease, respond to requests from customers for “biru” (beer) and bring us our bill.

As we pay, I notice there is a collection box on the counter next to the till. It’s unusual. Tipping (humans) is not a custom in Japan. But when I look closer I see that it’s for money to help with the upkeep of the monkeys. I put in a ¥1000 note and hope that it goes towards their food and not a terrifying new wig.

Watch a video here.

This tale was runner-up in the 2011 Quirky Guide strange travel story competition. See the full shortlist here.

Written by - Photo by Peter Roan

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  • Mia says:

    So cute! This is really beautifully written – hope you win

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