Japan might seem ass backwards, and most of the time, I was pretty sure that it was. The bicycles on the sidewalks, the seemingly endless underground shopping malls, the effeminate males, the lack of sex and predominance of kink, the dried bonito flakes on just about everything you eat. Yeah, it’s kind of a lot for a Westerner to take in. So is Japan ass backwards? Or is it pointing straight forward? Maybe I’ve been the one talking out of my ass my whole life.
Quoting “The Simpsons” back in 1999: “Welcome to Japan. The current time is… tomorrow.” My jet lag left me feeling drugged. We’re talking that $3 dollar a gram imported from China kind of drugged — not the good kind. We decided that the best antidote to this feeling would be good food and a good night’s rest. Since we booked ourselves a fancy hotel (we felt we deserved to start our trip in luxury) and we were in Tokyo, this was pretty easy to accomplish. Assuming that you don’t have shit for brains, you’ll probably eat sushi, ramen, yakitori or the like. If you find yourself rushing to the nearest Western joint, then you deserve the inevitable 3 am diarrhea that guarantees to wake you up and fuck up your whole sleep schedule for the next few days. Food was the number one reason for me to visit Japan in the first place, and if you are a plain cheeseburger type of cat, Japan may not be the best place for you to visit.
Our first adventure in Tokyo began in Shinjuku. I felt as though this tourist center of Tokyo let me keep my training wheels attached for a couple days while I got used to the dos and don’ts of Japan… with a heavy emphasis on the don’ts. Here are some examples: Don’t smoke on the street. Do feel free to blow smoke in the faces of strangers trying to enjoy their $80 wagyu beef at restaurants. Don’t talk on your phone on the subway. Do feel free to crank up the volume on your pachinko machine while the indebted person next to you suffers internally. Don’t do drugs. Do feel free to drink yourself into blackout territory to your heart’s content. These are only a few differences between life in the US and life in Japan. Everything that differs between these two worlds definitely got me irritated from time to time, but the perks always seemed to outweigh the drawbacks whenever I took the time to step back and think about where I was and what my travels were doing to my psyche.
Shinjuku is bright lights, expensive cover charges, overpriced food, robots, seas of people everywhere, and I loved every minute of it. It’s a lot like the strip clubs back home… only without the strippers. You know you’re paying too much to be doing what you’re doing, but you can’t wipe that dumb smile off your face. You just keep throwing your money on stage, knowing damn well that you should save it for more practical endeavors, but all those stupid stories you accumulate somehow seem to make it worthwhile.
So, we spent our first three evenings there. We attended the entirely over-hyped “Robot Wars” extravaganza on our first night out. Upon entry, we were told to take the elevator to the third floor. Before we even had the chance to press the “up” button, it was sensory overload in the best kind of way. Japanese business men downed their drinks on the ground floor while we squeezed past a corridor of skinny girls adorned with feathers and shiny jewelry. The walls sparkled with LED and neon light refracting from a disco ball lining that covered just about every surface around. Then we found the elevator.
“What floor?” Lani asked.
And there we were. Surrounded by a shit load of foreigners and pretty much forced to buy overpriced drinks in a place that is, apparently, run by the Yakuza. This should have been a major buzzkill, but I didn’t care much. I was in the “Blade Runner” type of Tokyo that I had wanted to see so badly. Shit, I was only a tourist myself, and this place was catering to my expectations, but so be it. Expectations met. Between the cheesy Japanese bands covering popular songs from the previous decade, my Asahi Super Dry tall can, and the seizure-inducing lights and flashy screens that were everywhere, it was hard to complain. We were given about 15 minutes to get gouged for drinks and then we were lead to our our seats in the basement of this ridiculous complex.
First, maybe I should clarify something: When Japanese people do something, they go hard or go home. There are very few half-assed McDonalds workers or janitors in Japan. When they are given a job, they do it to the absolute best of their abilities lest they quickly be replaced by someone much more willing to do the job better. Americans might think they work hard, and they do, to some degree, but what they mean by that is that they mostly work long hours. In Japan, they do all that and then some. So when I say that the performers were enthusiastic, I need you to understand that this is by Japanese standards. Once the show began, the flashy costumes and practical effects were pretty immeasurable against the backdrop of the energy put forth by the people that made this show happen.
The show was a spectacle. I guess there was some sort of plot line to it but that didn’t seem to matter. It was mostly loud music, smoke machines, lasers, fake robots, flashy props and over the top costumes being paraded around and shoved in your face. The room felt dark and murky yet painfully bright on the eyes at the same time. I can’t pretend to know what the show was about at all, but if I had to guess I’d say that it’s designed to be visceral, disturbing and entirely laughable at the same time. It is supposed to leave you entirely confused and be unlike anything you have seen before. If these were the goals of whoever its creators were then I would say that it succeeded a great deal. There were several “acts,” all of which took place on a faraway planet inhabited by peaceful and sexy forest folk that had to defend their ancient woods against a violent race of robots who sought to destroy and pollute any planet they came across. The robots were pretty much huge assholes for no reason. It seemed to be written for children but made for adults, like most things in Japan. I think Lani said it best later in the trip:
“Japan is like a nine year old girl’s acid trip,” but really, it was all for adult men who weren’t tripping.
Once the show ended, we found ourselves feeling very drunk, so we retired to our hotel room around midnight.
Our next night in Shinjuku was a very different kind of experience. After a decent dinner of grilled meat and kimchi, we went to Golden Gai, a smaller sub-district of Shinjuku, to find a more mellow environment for intoxication and, hopefully, some conversation. We found ourselves at a bar called “Albatross,” which had two bars on three floors that were each about half the size of Manhattan studio apartment. The theme of the bar was unclear, as every bar in Tokyo seemed to have a theme. There were many tiny chandeliers hung all over the place. The quarters were cramped but very cozy and welcoming with dim, warm light illuminating every corner and crawl space. We sat on the second floor first.
The bar was mostly filled with tourists. This time, I was a bit bothered, and not because of the fact that they were tourists, but mostly because of their age. It seemed that we had stepped into an extension of some study abroad dorm room. For the first time in all my adventures around the world, I was finally too old to relate to all the students and backpackers fueled by booze and sex that we would likely encounter at all youth hostels and energetic bars throughout our trip.
“I’m probably gonna live in Shibuya for about a year after I graduate,” said one baby-faced chain smoker. “Then,” she added, “I’m sure I’ll go to grad school but I’m not sure where.”
“I’ll probably do a year in Korea,” responded the drunk male blow-hard, “…and grad school back in the States.”
His posture feigned interest but his eyes alluded to an internal scheme to, somehow, get this girl back to his student housing. With a bit more age and wisdom behind me, I could see that the girl was really only interested in having someone listen to the particulars of her dull, all expenses paid, run-of-the-mill existence. The poor sap. Who knows, maybe they had scholarships. Maybe they were driving themselves into debt for the rest of their lives to obtain an education in their youth. But judging from the arrogant demeanors of these particular people, I doubted that they were paying for their privilege in any way. Maybe it’s a bit of jealousy on my part to sound so critical. After all, they will likely accomplish great things in their lives while I’m here hoping to gain a readership in the triple digits on some travel blog. But I can’t help but think that anyone who has such a path laid out for them, so streamlined and devoid of responsibility, will probably end up with a eulogy as mass-produced as the fortunes in a cookie. After rolling our eyes and talking shit for the duration of our first drink, we knew that we were not going to make friends on the second floor, so we moved downstairs.
The first floor had enough room for a bar to sit about eight people and two small tables tucked in the corner. One table was taken by an older couple speaking loudly in French. One thing I’ve learned about the French from traveling is that, once they start drinking and speaking their native tongue, it is very difficult to pull them away from it. So we sat at the bar.
The first person to engage us was an Australian businessman. His job was the kind of drab bullshit that you forget about almost as quickly as they explain it to you. He was nice enough, though, and seemed to have a sense of humor I could relate to. Maybe his life had been paid for and set up as well but, now in his thirties, he was definitely paying his own way. That was all the requirement I needed at the time to find myself respecting him.
“Do you know who this bartender is?” asked the dapper Australian while pointing at the man behind the bar. “This is Nori, and he’s fucking famous! Ever seen Anthony Bourdain’s show? There’s heaps of footage of him on there!”
I glanced at the bartender and we now had his attention. He was a lanky, youthful guy, and after taking a good look at him, he actually seemed quite familiar.
“Nori, eh? Like the seaweed?” I asked. He smiled and nodded. “Nice. I’m gonna call you seaweed.” He laughed, possibly out of courtesy, possibly authentic, but it is often hard to tell which is which in Japan.
The Aussie left soon after we sat down and my interest shifted to the barman. Lani let him know that I, too, was a bartender back home and that helped us hit it off. His English was pretty decent but we still found some roadblocks. Luckily, Lani’s phone has free data coverage overseas so Google’s translation software was becoming a great alternative to hand gestures and constant misunderstandings. We shared ideas on different cocktails (not that I really had many to share) and I bought him several drinks. Tipping a bartender is a must in New York but pretty much unheard of in Japan. Where your monetary tip will likely be rejected, the drink you buy them, charged at full price, seems to always be taken eagerly and thankfully. Was his friendliness and willingness to talk to a loud, drunk foreigner just part of his hustle or did we actually form a bond that night? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that we had a great time… and that I ended up running up quite a large bar tab between us.
Aside from the aforementioned characters, we met a polite Singaporean travel agent, a drunk, middle-aged guy from San Jose, a Japanese barman who was friends with Nori and an utterly obnoxious girl from “New York.” She was actually from Honduras, but living in NYC for several years was seemingly one of her greatest accomplishments in life since she absolutely regaled with the fact that she had lived there longer than we had, as if we gave a shit. After translating “This bitch is loud” into Japanese and sharing it with Nori, I figured that I had had enough to drink at that point. We settled our tab and headed back to the final night in our fancy hotel. The next day we would exchange our comfort for something better: a free place to stay and a local guy willing to show us around via CouchSurfing. For those who don’t know, CouchSurfing is a great way to meet new people around the world while traveling. They offer you a free place to stay and you offer them a mutually beneficial cultural exchange. Oh, it also tends to be a way to meet some absolute nut-cases from time to time. However, this time we got pretty lucky.
Click the link titled “CouchSurfing in Japan: Where Maybe means No” to continue on our adventure.