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Jim Calio

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The Volga: A Russian Restaurant In Tokyo

Posted: 08/24/2012 7:00 am

It happened when I was a young naval officer in 1969. I was stationed on an aircraft carrier out of San Diego. Overseas, one of our "home ports" was Yokosuka, a huge U.S. navy base 43 miles south of Tokyo. It was our last night in Japan before leaving for the long trip back to the U.S. It was late in January, and it was cold.

I had been assigned the watch for that last night. That meant that I was the officer who had to stay on board to oversee the watch team. It happed about every five days when we were in port, and that night was my unlucky draw.

But another officer had been telling me about a restaurant he often went to when he was in Tokyo. It was called The Volga and it was, he said, right under the Tokyo Tower. And he meant right under -- you had to walk down several flights of stairs to get to it.

I was fascinated and I didn't want to spend my last night on the ship. So I switched the watch with another officer on the promise that I would fill in for him once we got back to the U.S. I then headed for the local train station and took off for Tokyo.

As the train sped through the darkened countryside, I would see that it was snowing. That made the whole trip even more romantic. There I was, in Japan, rocketing through the night and heading for a strange city. It didn't take long to get to Tokyo, maybe an hour and a half, but I saw it as a real adventure.

I arrived at the famous Tokyo Station, an old red brick building that had been rebuilt after the war. From there, I gave a cab driver the address of The Volga that someone on board the ship had written in Japanese. I also had the name of the train station written in Japanese for the return to the station. I couldn't miss the ship's sailing the next morning no matter what.

The taxi driver dropped me off at the Tokyo Tower, with the red light on top blinking through the snow. And right in front of me was a sign: "The Volga." I walked through the front door and then down a flight a stairs. At the first landing was a beautiful Russian samovar, all silver and shining in the overhead light. I continued down another flight and came to the restaurant itself.

It was a fairly nondescript room, rectangular with tables arranged throughout in no special configuration. As I remember, it was pretty smoky -- after all, this was 1969, long before anyone had heard of smoking bans. Waiters in white coats were scurrying round and at the far end of the dining room, a Russian balalaika band was playing. The only thing that seemed strange was that the band members were all Japanese dressed as Cossacks!!

The food that night was passable at best. The vodka, Polish, was terrible. But I didn't care. I was in the middle of Tokyo on a cold winter night eating dinner at a Russian restaurant as it snowed outside, and I was having a real adventure.

After coffee and dessert, I got back in a taxi and headed for Tokyo Station. A few hours later, I returned to the ship and the following morning we set sail for the U.S.

I never forgot that dinner at The Volga. For years I would tell people about it, how the food was nothing special and that vodka atrocious. But it I just loved the idea that I did it. I kept the restaurant's business card, dark green with yellow print and small image of the Tokyo Tower with an arrow pointing to the restaurant underneath.

Flash forward to twenty years later. I was in Japan again, this time on business. I decided to take a couple of hours out and go to The Volga again, to see if it was as I had remembered.

I showed the taxi driver the green and yellow business card that I'd saved all those years. And, sure enough, the taxi took me from my hotel to the same spot beneath the Tokyo Tower and there it was. The Volga still existed.

I went downstairs, passed the same silver samovar and found that the restaurant hadn't changed a whit. I was seated at a table and I immediately ordered vodka, Polish vodka. It was just as bad as I remembered. And so was the food. Once again, I didn't care. I was happy, reliving my adventure of twenty years before.

The only change that I could see after all that time was that the balalaika band had gone electric and that the musicians were all Bangladeshi. Otherwise it was exactly the same.

I paid my bill and took a taxi back to my hotel, content that I had done what I wanted to do.

Flash forward again, this time to five years ago. I'd been telling people about my return to The Volga, recounting my romantic trip through the snow that night in 1969 and then my return twenty years later only to find that it hadn't changed, that it was almost exactly as I had remembered it.

Once again, I found myself in Tokyo, and once again I decided to visit The Volga.

Only it wasn't there. I asked the concierge at my hotel to look it up, but after several minutes on the phone he shook his head and said that there was no restaurant in Tokyo named The Volga. I asked him to check again, and again he came up empty. I then showed him the old green yellow Volga business card, but no luck.

But I wouldn't take his word for it. I jumped in a taxi and told the driver to take me to the Tokyo Tower, certain that there had been a mistake. Maybe the restaurant had been renamed or maybe it had moved.

When we got to the Tokyo Tower, I got out and walked around, retracing my earlier steps as best I could remember. But no luck. I couldn't find The Volga.

I went back to the hotel and asked the concierge to check one more time for any restaurant named The Volga in Tokyo. None existed. "But I can find another Russian restaurant in that area if you'd like, sir," he said. "That area is near the Russian embassy, so there must be quite a few."

"No thanks," I said, shaking my head and walking away. I had been loyal to The Volga and decided I would remain so after all these years. I've still got the restaurant's green and yellow business card, a little frayed around the edges but still legible. I think I'll keep it.

 
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