Stress. In the bottom of our house’s Japanese style toilet I saw all the stress of two weeks flush away into and join the stream of piss and shit that flows everywhere underneath the three story thick cement surface of this snowless-globe Metropolis.
All that may sound morbid, but ya simply caught me at the end of a wild night; the day after I did my first teaching demo. Stressed like a mane-proud Yeti in an upscale barber shop, four of us newbies did our first teaching demos. The Japanese have this great pair of words that to any English speaking ear sounds terrible. The sweet coupling goes as such, “High Tension” which, in Japan, means something kinda like ‘high energy’ or ‘enthusiasm’ or the like. ‘We lucky few’ being thrown to the lions’ den that day were certainly feeling the high tension, but I’m not sure it was exactly the “High Tension” that renders mad men zealous stoics and bored high schoolers into giddy freaks of glitter and fanfare. This was sweaty, anxious, mile-a-minute thought like tension in the way I was introduced to the word in my native tongue.
After a long day working with the mixed mediums of Total-Success and Irrevocably-Confused-Auto-Pilot-Save-Me-Now, several theatrical Something-of-Other’s were thrust upon the already unsteady airwaves. All in all, I’d say it went rather well.
What does one do after such a prolonged exposure to such high tension? Grab a bloody drink, that’s what. Three (Bobby, Brett and I) of us went out for some ceremonious eating and drinking in hopes that somewhere, somehow, in the middle of some drink we’d wake up or emerge from the perilous waters of continuous observation and monitoring.
Step one: get Korean Samgyeopsal for dinner. Objective: Met.
Step two: find bar with awesome music, grab a drink.
After grabbing some meat off a hot stone in the Korean barbecue joint we continued down the K-Pop Love Tunnel that is Okubo-Dori in Korean Town. Out of a staircase we hear electronic music escaping down the staired drainpipe. Like the dullest of spiders, we climbed this spout. We were “seated” above in a bunk bed like balcony. We were nearly hoisted, in fact, by our obliviousness into place. However, once in our perch our new vantage brought us into a new and unknown reality. The first thing I noticed was, “My word, this place sure is popular with women.” Why? Well, the second thing I noticed was that the staff working the bar was not only all male but the collective good lucks from Bobby, Brett and I might perhaps almost match the good looks of just one of the staff members. We had come to the wrong place. We looked like the goofiest MoFo’s, and by all rights we were. After we finished our drinks and headed out the door, Brett asked the staff if it was actually a host bar. “No,” he said, “but guys rarely come here…” which was perhaps the Japanese way of saying, “What the baby-boomers were you guys thinking to come in here?”
Luckily, I was in the proper company to take a chance on the unknown and laugh when we made mistakes. I laughed a good deal that night, and it was precisely what the witch doctor ordered. Well, after mistakenly going to a Not-a-Host-bar-but-Probably-the-Maid-Café-equivalent-for-Ladies, what more could go wrong?
Walking up the stairs to the next bar, which we thought might be a Thai bar of any sort – one English idiomatic phrase came to mind: out of the frying pan and face first onto the greasy floor.
“Is this Bar Nana?” I asked the kind old lady sweeping up a front step across from the entrance to the wooden door barred bar to my right.
“Bar Nana? No, that’s a karaoke bar.” She said, ever so politely.
Karaoke? Even better, the three of us were always down for karaoke. Who isn’t? Occasionally, and I mean on all occasions, my wallet has no desire to go out for a karaoke night because karaoke bleeds your money like Tarantino bleeds a cast. Otherwise, I myself am generally down for some off-pitch karaoke times.
We enter, and by all first observations this place looks like a tiny karaoke bar. People at the bar are singing, when they’re not singing they’re drinking, when they’re not drinking they’re smoking, when they’re not smoking they’re talking, and when they’re not talking they’re looking off into the distance remembering that time when she first sang this song to him and nobody else will ever know just what that felt like except for Mr. Masashi and his memories dancing in the dark echoes cast from the depression obliterating light of a 1980’s J-Pop love ballad.
So, the three of us were seated and over the course of the next few hours we somehow bought a bottle of whiskey, bought beers for the nice lady who sat at the table with us, sang a bajillion songs in English, and talked with the extremely friendly regulars who all happened to be, for reasons at the time unknown to us, middle aged or slightly beyond middle aged Japanese Salary men.
I eventually got tired enough to leave for home, but Brett and Bobby stayed; I couldn’t blame them, as the group was super talkative. The drinks flowed and the songs were a total blast. Paying my portion, 4000 yen, the lady said, “but, Super-Cute-O-Niichan, if you stay another hour it’s only another 1000 yen!” Exactly, I hadn’t the foresight or experience to know that I’d racked up that much yen in the first place, I couldn’t actually afford to go any further into the evening there.
The place we had found was a “Snack Bar.” Look em’ up. Snack Bars. They’re infamous. Luckily, my experience was all fun and games, good conversations and fast drinks. But, Bobby and Brett got caught with a fancy bill that they couldn’t pay – and what unknowing-new-to-Japan-adventurer of our type could possibly know before entering that place how much we’d be politely and pleasantly ushered into racking up. Apparently, the staff was extremely nice, given the circumstances, about the bill going not-quite-paid-up. Offering to do a little bit of cleaning labor helps, it seems.
So there I was standing above the toilet the morning after. Laughing at myself, at my friends, at the wonderful hilarity and good memories that are born of the silliest misadventures.. It felt good, especially after such a stressful day.
Step three: purge my belly of its alcohol, my brain of its stress, and my serious nature of its selfish blockade on silliness and absurdity. Objective: Met. It’s still one of my favorite misadventures during the trip thus far.
Its goofiness can only be matched by going to grab 9 a.m. hangover ramen from a 24 hour ramen shop to witness those at the end of their nights chatting and smoking up a storm before they go home to sleep or, just as likely, go on to work for the worst day of their lives, again. It’s 9 a.m. and everyone is coming down from their long, long night of eating and partying in Shinjuku. Well, except for me, I haven’t lasted that long since I lived in Spain. Well, except for me and except for the girl just down the bar from me. Face first on the counter, jacket over her body, half finished Bloody Mary to her right. Poor girl. When I finished my hangover ramen meal and paid up, the waiter asked me if I would like to use the bathroom and motioned towards the back. “Wow,” I thought, “I must be blitzed still, if this guy thinks I need to use the bathroom that bad.” Nope. He just wanted me to see his shop’s bathroom. Every inch of the walls in the bathroom was covered in a 1970’s playboy centerfold. I laughed to myself, knowing I’d been had. I walked out of the bathroom, and with the most devilish smile the waiter said, “Thank you! Come Again!”
These little short stories happened some time ago, now, but these days – this day – Christmas Day – everything is slowing down a bit.
Recently I’ve been hitting up a local café bar joint like a regular. I guess I’m a regular, but this is Japan after all and one never can tell just how honest or sincere someone is being when they treat you like a friend. As a friend described it, “I have a Japanese student who claims she’s learning English because just once in her life she’d like to know what it feels like to communicate with someone and trust that you actually know what that person is thinking – that they’re not concealing their true thoughts from you.”
Nevertheless, despite being entirely privy to such a looming social peculiarity, I find myself having some decent conversations with people. I might dare to say, ‘honestly interesting conversations.’
After a long day of work and transit, I found myself at the local wine bar, having a glass of wine, flipping through a large picture book with the fullest collection possible of famous Blue Note album covers. Blue Note album covers certainly are distinct and the Blue Note image (including Jazzers’ performance wear) may have defined what’s popularly thought of as quality jazz as much as the music itself.
As I flipped through, I got to the perhaps one page with maybe two album covers designed by Andy Warhol. At that moment the bartender, fervently polishing already spotless glasses with a pure white towel, stepped over and said, “He was just young and unknown at that time, Andy Warhol.”
Quite honestly, before looking at that page I had no idea Andy Warhol did art design for a couple of Blue Note album covers; never really got into Warhol too much, myself.
“You into Jazz?” the bartender continued.
“Yeah, it’s more or less the reason I picked up playing trumpet as a kid.”
Eyes larger, surprise registered, towel spinning, he asked, “Oh, so what kind of players do you like?”
In English I would probably have said something like, “The players whose music makes me question whether that’s really air I’m breathing or some sort of sonically induced hallucination distracting me from the greater reality that I’m much less than a moderately self aware fleshy excuse for the flow of capital towards the bank accounts of much more alive and important, albeit slightly more fortunate, individuals.”
Alas, as my Japanese “skills” are still thawing from the great intellectual freeze during my post graduation years in Madison, I said something to the effect of, “Well, I’m not too good with names. Ya know? How ‘bout you? Who do you like?”
The gentlemen like bartender strung together a bunch of famous names familiar to me. I suddenly remembered Don Cherry, Chet Baker, Dizzy G., and other cornerstones of The Yazz. Just like when someone asks you your favorite thing about autumn and you have no clue until you get a smell of dry leaves and then all your favorite childhood memories come to the forefront. Except Jazz was a great deal of my childhood itself, and it comes up along with those autumn memories. So, we got to talking Jazz and I asked him where to see some jazz around town. He recommended I go to Asagaya, three stops west of Okubo. I did, in fact go check it out and saw a little jam session in a bar called Manhattan no bigger than, fittingly, a Manhattan apartment.
Just like my conversation at the Bar Narcissus with Yuko-san about jazz which led into French New Wave film, my convo with the bartender at this local joint led to a discussion about authors. Like every other foreigner everywhere, the only Japanese author that I’d read much of is Murakami Haruki. Why? Because that’s what’s been popular with upper/ middle class white kids for the past 25 years.
He asked me if I’d read any of Murakami’s earlier works like “Dance, Dance, Dance.” I hadn’t. He didn’t directly say anything per se, but it was made pretty clear that I should either stick to Murakami’s really early books or check out and move onto other stuff.
This advice is, of course, all too late as I started reading one of Murakami’s most well-known and easy to read novels: Norwegian Wood. I thought I’d pick it up to ease myself into reading novels in Japanese. Here and there the kanji is over my head but it’s only a couple times a page and the boy-can’t-decide-between-two-girls subject matter is easy to understand, if only because I was once one of two boys between whom a girl was once not trying too hard to decide between. But hey, that’s life. And it’s this book. And, so far this book is a total delight to read; even if I have to look up the kanji for words like ‘Flag’ and ‘To Duck Under’ which pull me out of the otherwise hazy like daydream experience of reading a fun novel.
That’s kinda what this winter break is for: novels, music, meeting new people, not spending too much money, and generally letting my beard down.
On my first day off I thought I’d check out the Tokyo Station seeing as it just turned 100 years old (1914-2014) a few days ago in December. It certainly is neat and casts a stark contrast with its western style brick building against the contemporary glass-like holograms that sway in the wind 40 stories high in Tokyo, Tokyo. On my way to the station I thought I’d stop by Meiji Jingu – a Shinto shrine in the middle of a wooded park. It’s a lovely walk.
However, December 23rd also happens to be the Emperor’s birthday. Meiji Jingu also happens to be where the majority of Shinto celebrations for the Emperor’s birthday were being observed. What at first seemed like bad luck became quite fruitful. There was all kind of festive decor and ceremony that I might not otherwise have witnessed. After all, how often during the course of one’s life is one audience to Shinto (one of the oldest traditional religions still cooking) ceremonies performed to honor the birthday of the Japanese Emperor (The Japanese Emperor also being quite the time tested and historically stand-out figure in the world’s history)? Once. Maybe once.
Then, I left the well populated park and shrine area, hopping on the train towards the Tokyo Station. Not only were there tons of tourists observing the newly deemed 100 year old Tokyo Station, but hordes of nation-loving folk were wandering off towards the Imperial Palace grounds just outside of the Station. I had randomly picked to visit the most crowded areas of Tokyo that day. I honestly didn’t even know it was the Emperor’s birthday until I got to the shrine, if I did – I might not have made my trek through the crowds.
Yet, as usual, it was totally worth it. Sunshine, a stroll, and some cultural learning: not a bad day for the first day of break. Today, my third day of vacation is Christmas. It’s interesting to observe Christmas away from home. Last year my best friend Tomas helped me cook a stuffed chicken in a toaster oven to feed other folks who weren’t going back to their countries for the holiday. One Danish girl, Two French girls, Three –no- I’m done doing that. But it was quite a nice way to spend the Christmas away from home. Spain itself dresses up with all sorts of decoration as the reigning Catholic Christmas tradition quite nearly sprouts from the earth alongside their vast fields of olive trees.
However… Japan…Christmas in Japan is certainly a bit different than Xmas in the States or la noche buena en Spain. That story, my friends, will have to wait until our next evening together, for “Night, the Fourth.”