Accompanying Rino to work seemed like a safer alternative to braving the city by myself, plus what do people do in big cities anyway other than check out museums (in the case of Tokyo, shrines) and go shopping – neither of which are particularly my cup of tea. I can feel overwhelmed in NYC, which is even smaller than Tokyo, and they also speak my language there. It’s particularly frustrating for me having once studied Japanese and now since forgotten 99.9% of it, because I feel like I should know more, which makes me all the more intimidated to even attempt mere utterances out of fear of deceiving innocent Japanese people into thinking I know anything at all, to which they’ll respond with protracted rapid-fire responses that will soar over my head like an F-22 high above the clouds; and then we’ll really be in a bind. I don’t understand how anyone ever picks up languages. How lucky and unlucky I am to have been born into a world where English won out as the dominant global language. In coming to work with Rino as opposed to exploring the city on my own, one could argue that this is in fact a more culturally representative and informative experience of ‘authentic’ Japanese life in frenetic and overwhelming Tokyo. It makes it manageable, I’m interacting with her Japanese coworkers, and I’ll even put myself to use helping move boxes around and whatnot. There’s definitely an underlying feeling of being babysat here, but most girls have some kind of maternal instinct need-to-take-care-of-somebody thing going on, so what the hell, right?
Man. That initial pique of the coffee high is starting to wane and I’m wondering if I should make a run for it. What the hell am I doing in Tokyo? After helping rearrange the office, I go out to lunch with Rino and her coworkers for Thai food, ironically enough. In the afternoon I leave the nest and head for the Meiji-jingu shrine – a nice traditional juxtaposition alongside the hustle and bustle of modern Harajuku with all of its hip shopping and envelope-pushing Japanese schoolgirls. The hours are passed snapping pictures, meandering, and swiveling my head like Linda Blair in the Exorcist to take in the multifarious sensory overload. At 7pm I meet back up with Rino, now joined by her international adviser, Aaron, from years yonder during a 4 year stint at Macalester College in Minneapolis. Aaron is in his early 40’s and making his annual rounds through Asia recruiting for Macalester. While maybe a little less horny than the average 23 year old, the guy still has an appetite for a good night out on the town, so the three of us – Rino, myself, & Aaron – make for a heroic trio. We go out for finger food and drinks, later to be joined by more Macalester alumni, plus an old friend of mine from my days in Australia, Kazuhiro Shimizu. Though only 26, a fresh marriage and 6 months of working for the premier consulting firm McKinsey have sprouted some gray hairs on good ole’ Hiro’s head. Capping off the night with some karaoke in a private room amongst friends proves a good elixir in taking wandering minds off aging and other existential hullabaloo.
It’s not until the next night, though, that I hit my stride in karaoke with a little known ditty by the name of “Jump Around”. On this particular Saturday, we don’t make it out of the apartment until 4:30 in the afternoon, just lounging around and such as the sun runs its course over the eastern sky. Linner (that lunch/dinner hybrid) is had at the train station noodle shop. Over my bowl of udon, I splatter soup everywhere – on shirt, on glasses, and even on Rino. It’s quite a struggle managing to simultaneously get both the noodles and broth into my mouth.
By the time we make it downtown, night has managed to squash every last lick of daylight. It was already getting dark when we first left the apartment, because in Japan, there’s no such thing as daylight savings time. Rino tells me “It’s because the farmers get no love here.” I still don’t know what that means.
We proceed to grab a mighty expensive drink somewhere with another Macalester alum, then it’s off to an Italian feast with even more Macalester alumni – they’re taking over the world, or at the very least Japan. Hiro makes it too, and after the dinner, we gallivant over to some hole in the wall bar for yet another alumni’s birthday party – an Indian guy raised in Japan, fluent in the language, attended school at Macalester, then came back here for a career in I-banking. For the sake of this story, we’ll call him Vorin. As it quickly becomes evident, on the cusp of 24, the kid has some serious issues with drunken belligerence and dealing with the opposite sex, let alone his own sex, as he makes death threats on my life to Aaron and company throughout the evening, enraged that I lie at one point about being Rino’s boyfriend to keep him from molesting her. Somewhere along the line, Hiro departs, but not before delivering an offer to recommend me at McKinsey if I ever want a job. While it’s fun to toy around with the idea, ultimately I don’t think a big bucks consulting gig requiring 70hr work weeks and Jared Robbins are very compatible. So we bounce around various places before winding back up with Vorin and his posse in a Karaoke room overflowing with drunken idiocy. It’s quite the surreal experience bearing my soul – during spot-on renditions of George Michael’s “Faith” and House of Pain’s “Jump Around” – to a bunch of twentysomethings I don’t know, all of whom were educated together at international school.
The party then transports to some small club owned by Nigerians and packed with hookers in another part of town where we get the VIP hookup because Vorin’s a regular there, throwing around his hard-earned I-banking bucks like rice on Vodka Redbulls and god knows what else. Maybe time in Tokyo ticks differently, or maybe I just never glanced at my watch, but by the time we make our exit, daylight has supplanted the night and it’s almost 8am. Weird experience.
“You look like Harry Potter” one of the Nigerians compliments me on the way out. Snippets of dialogue transpire, I ask him where he’s from, he gets defensive, then asks me where I’m from. “Detroit” I say. That seems to impress him.
On the subway back to Chiba, everyone on the car is out cold. It’s 8:45am by the time I finally crawl into my makeshift bed on the couch, in the crevices of which I swear vicious bed bugs lay and wait to exploit my sleeping vulnerability. Good morning.
Aaron & Rino modeling on the subway
Waking up to a setting sun can be equally as disorienting as falling asleep to a rising one. That night Rino and I went to the hot springs/bathhouse. When you walk in, there’s a sign at the entrance which reads something along the lines of “No Tattoos”.
“Is that to keep out the Yakuza?” I ask.
“Yeah.” she responds.
“What about the rest of the world with tattoos.”
“I guess they just have to find another bathhouse.” The decision to not get “BINZ” tattooed in block lettering across my back had proven to be a shrewd decision afterall.
The plan was to go into the co-ed baths, but it was too late by the time we finally hopped into Rino’s Prius (decked out with GPS and a rear-view camera for parking) and made it to our destination. My excitement quickly plummeted upon finding out that I would instead be sharing baths with a bunch of naked Japanese men. I thanked my lucky stars that Aaron had opted to stay behind. I’m tellin’ ya, if you’re a gay man in Japan, there’s no better place to go than the bathhouses.
Rino and I parted ways and agreed to meet back outside in thirty minutes. I walked into my side with bag in tote containing a hand towel (for god knows what because it doesn’t cover up anything and it’s sole purpose is merely to rest on top of your head while you sit in the water), a regular towel for post-bath drying off (not to be worn into the baths otherwise be cast off as a total pariah), and a traditional robe for lounging around in the main outside area if one desires a break for some tea, arcade games, or those picture booths that yield crazily designed photo strips which can’t possibly be geared for anyone but 10 year old girls and perverts (and then me, but only as a one time ‘cultural’ experience). Before you enter the actual hot springs, you’re supposed to wash off in a semi-open row of showers with dividers that only come up to waist-height (not that you still can’t see everyone doing their business). There’s a wooden stool to sit on and wash yourself, and while everyone else was crouched down on it, there was no way I was putting my bare ass on that thing – definitely not sanitary. So I opted to be the only one standing while everyone else washed themselves sitting down on those stools most likely designed for 8 year olds put in timeout. When it came time to rinse off my crotch with the shower head spitting out water at greater pressure than the fire hoses used to suppress protesters during the 60’s, I shifted my body in surprise at how bad it hurt and accidentally shot the man directly behind me. He looked at me, and I looked at him apologetically, and for a moment we were two naked guys just staring at each other.
It must’ve been “bring your toddler to hot springs” night, because while Rino had the women’s side to herself, there were at least ten father-son pairs on my side. I was overwhelmed by the number of baths to choose from and wound up selecting one of the few uninhabited spots off in a corner, for which I remained during my entire bathing experience. I watched as the other bathers hopped from one bath to the next, but thought nothing of it. It wasn’t until after we were leaving the premises did Rino finally give me the rundown.
“Why do I smell like chlorine?” I wondered aloud.
“Because one of the baths is chlorinated. It’s just like a hot tub.”
“Well that’s the only bath I sat in the entire time.”
She shot me a funny look. “You mean you didn’t go from bath to bath?”
“No, I didn’t realize there was any difference” I dumbly responded.
“All the baths have medicinal benefits except for that one. You’re supposed to go from bath to bath and experience the various effects of each.”
“How was I supposed to know that?”
“Didn’t you see everyone else going from bath to bath?”
“Yeah” I said, “but I just thought they had ADD.” I really did.
And that’s how I would like to end my tale about Tokyo. I don’t really feel like going into detail about accompanying Aaron to the international school college fair, nor my experience with Okonomiyaki, and not even my peculiar borrowing of Rino’s copy of “Kicking & Screaming” (the Noah Baumbach film from 1995) that could very easily be misconstrued for stealing. I’m done with Tokyo, at least for now.