Tag Archives: tokyo

A Sunday

Telling a drunk story entails risk. For those who weren’t there, who weren’t involved, the recounting is never as enjoyable. Their appreciation – if it is to be found – derives not only from the merits of the story , but from how the story plays off their knowledge of the storyteller. Yet, even with the proper level of familiarity, finesse is required. Drunk stories, after all, are not intended to make the storyteller look good.

I’ve always said on these pages that I’m not much of a storyteller. With the right audience, however, in the right context, this is one of my stories. I’m not quite sure how it’ll translate to this format. But my buddy Jim is getting married next month. And in honor of that, a drunk story:

Kurosawa made this classic film called Rashomon. It centers on a crime that takes place, and the truth of that crime being reconstructed piecemeal through the recollections of three or four different characters. There are contradictions in each of their stories, embellishments, obvious lies. Each version though adds depth, each calls into question objective reality and whether it exists at all. This day was kind of like that for the three of us involved.

This drunk story takes place in Japan. Naturally. I don’t know how much longer my liver would have held out living in that country. It was the land of all-you-can-drinks, where getting fucked up under the cherry blossoms was not only socially acceptable but a national pastime. On weekends, public bathroom sinks were sporadically filled with vomit; pillars and walls in train stations adorned with slumped figures of the wasted, of both genders and all (adult) ages.

It was a Sunday.

Once, maybe twice a year, this sake brewery 90 minutes northwest of Tokyo would open its doors to the public. There’d be samples, sales, food: a grand old time. I hadn’t heard about it. It was the kind of festival that attracted primarily natives and presumably drunkards. Katsuya was a native, maybe a drunkard. I’d actually never met him before but he was a friend of Jim’s, which was good enough for me. He was the one who passed along the word.

The gates opened at 10 or 11, I forget. Either way, it seemed excessively early for a sake festival. It worked out nicely for me and Jim though, at least in theory. We had tickets that evening for a baseball game, and not just any regular baseball game. A Major League Baseball all-star team was in town visiting. American all-stars. We were American, so we wanted to be there. We’d check out the festival, stop home, then pop over to the game. Easy as pie. American apple pie.

We met at the train station near the brewery, the three of us – Katsuya, Jim, and I. We all had arrived about 20 minutes before opening, as per Katsuya’s instructions. Introductions were made, and we shared an easy laugh about the absurdity of preparing to get (reasonably) drunk before noon. Japan, right? We started walking towards the brewery, but stopped about halfway there. There was already a line about three blocks long – like it was Black Friday outside Best Buy, only with more alcoholics.

Once the gates opened at 10 or 11, the hordes streamed onto the brewery grounds. It was a bit chaotic, as you might expect from any alcohol festival, but not too much so, as you might expect from any alcohol festival in Japan. We got in line for a couple of sake samples here and there; generous portions were provided.* There might have been some informational displays around, but like everyone else, we didn’t pay much attention to them.

*I nearly got into a fight when this guy blatantly cut ahead of us in line. When I started to make a scene, his response was to repeatedly say “Chill, we’re all having fun here”; he then proclaimed that he would have expected a reaction from the Japanese, but not from another expat. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I wanted to stab him.

After downing several samples, we headed off to gauge the food situation on the grounds. The crowd was by now immense. It was at critical mass; the situation seemed less fun than overwhelming, as events in and around Tokyo can be sometimes. So, after each purchasing a wooden sake cup – filled with sake, of course – we huddled and considered our options. It was Katsuya, I think, who came up with an inspired plan: buy a bottle, get some food, and have an impromptu picnic at a nearby park.

In line, ostensibly to purchase a single bottle to share, was where it all started to fall apart. Katsuya deftly jumped ahead of me and Jim at the last second, then selected and paid for a bottle before either of us realized what was going on. It was a gesture to old friendships and new, he said. A genuinely touching sentiment. But in the heat of the moment, Jim and I responded in the only way that made any sense. We bought additional communal bottles. We ended up with six in all (roughly 750 ml apiece).

I was already drunk when we left the grounds of the brewery for a park Jim had located on Google Maps. We each had had at least three servings of sake by then, between the samples and the overflowing wooden cups. At a convenience store, a konbini, we bought some onigiri (rice balls) and chips, plus a few beers for alcoholic variety; I grabbed a piece of fried chicken as well, devouring it en route. It was well before noon when we arrived at the park.

We drank nearly four entire bottles of sake there.

Katsuya left us at the park. He had mentioned earlier that he needed to meet his wife and child. They were nearby, or back in Tokyo, or something – it was a little mysterioso. But at some point in my drunken stupor, I noticed he wasn’t with us anymore. While the trek to the bathroom in the park was substantial, he had gone for what felt like ages. He did reappear momentarily, presumably from the bathroom. Then he left for good. Jim and I both thought he seemed remarkably sober.

Ironically, Katsuya would later mention he thought Jim and I seemed to be in surprisingly good shape when he left us. All three of us were wrong. Later that day, Katsuya drunkenly dropped his baby while on public transit. …Yeah. Fortunately, there was no lasting damage, though Katsuya’s wife understandably was quite displeased with both him and us. To this day, and perhaps on a related note, I have not met her.

It was still early, maybe 1 or 2, but now windy bordering on uncomfortable. At some point, Jim and I realized we needed to make our way back to Tokyo. My head was pounding; I was blackout drunk. Jim still had the wherewithal to use his phone to figure out which way the train station was, so I followed blindly. I couldn’t walk straight. My head was slumped down; I was dragging myself along, hoping I wouldn’t slam into anyone or anything.

Of this journey, Jim does remembers being strangely overcome with a singular focus on reaching the station. He knew I was behind him, primarily because he heard this distinct clopping noise. That turned out to be me as I kept looping from sidewalk to street and back, in diagonals and circles. But we were both in dire straits. At the station, it took Jim about four tries to get his metro card properly scanned.

We must have been a sight at the station. Past the ticket gates, I made it up a set of stairs one at a time, slumped over the railing, hoisting myself along. I don’t know how I didn’t fall. Maybe I did and forgot about it. Thankfully, it was the terminus, so there was a train sitting, waiting to begin its journey back to Tokyo. Jim and I made our way aboard, collapsing quickly onto a bench. I closed my eyes a moment and lost consciousness.

I was sprawled on the train bench when I came to. I felt like garbage, even moreso now than before, as drunkenness gave way to the in-between before the hangover fully appears. It took a minute to process my reality, but I soon realized that:

  1. I was alone;
  2. The train was rested and emptying; and
  3. There was a Japanese woman yelling at me.

I dealt with the last and most immediately pressing bit first – the yelling and gesticulating stranger. Judging from her tone and volume, she was chiding me for being wasted on a train at 2 on a Sunday afternoon. But past her disgust, she seemed to be trying to convey something else. Eventually I followed her gestures, looking beneath my seat. And on the floor, I saw a cell phone: mine. I looked up to thank her but she was already gone. Eventually, I dragged myself off the train too.

I didn’t know where Jim was, but I was feeling worse and worse. I went straight to the bathroom in the train station, locked myself in a stall, and sat on the ground. It might have been a public bathroom in Japan, but it was not the kind of public bathroom in which anyone should be sitting on the ground; it was a squat toilet for starters. But I was in no position to be particular. I sent Jim a text, then rested my head on the floor and started moaning.

There, behind the locked doors of a squat train station toilet, I passed out again.

At some point, someone started banging on the walls, perhaps with an emergency of their own. I tried to respond by moaning my pain, but I couldn’t put words together. I was a drooling mess. Eventually they left me be. I ended up spending about an hour in the bathroom, lying down. Eventually, I used the squat toilet properly and without incident, a remarkable deed given my condition. When I felt slightly better, I checked my phone. There was a text: Jim was back in his Airbnb.

Halfway through the train ride towards Tokyo, Jim had apparently gotten it in his head that we needed to make a transfer. We did not. So, while I was passed out, he stepped off intending to check a map. The train took off, as a train does. Jim pounded on the window to try and get my attention, but to no avail. Then, left behind, he wandered that station for a bit. He vomited in public. Then he boarded another train back towards Tokyo.

The station I was at was about a 20 minute walk from the Airbnb, a mile away. In my condition, it might as well have been a million miles away. I threw myself into a taxi on the north side of Shinjuku Station – the busiest train station in the world. I thrust my phone at the driver, but he couldn’t make heads or tails out of the display. I couldn’t form coherent sentences yet, so eventually I grabbed the phone, dropped a pin near where the address was, or seemed to be, and handed it back.

The driver kept looking at my phone over the course of the drive – always a great sign. He ended up dropping me off at a hotel by the south exit of Shinjuku Station. My brain was fried though, and I figured it was not worth it to steer him to steer me in the right direction, so I paid and left.* Then I stumbled down the streets in search for Jim’s place. I got lost twice before I found the complex. I climbed up the stairs and banged on the door. …There was no response.

*To recap, I paid 1,000 yen (roughly $10) to take a cab from the north side of a train station to the south side of a train station.

The lights were out. It didn’t make any sense to my feeble and fragile brain. I still felt awful, so I lied down on the ground in front of his unit and curled up in a ball. I tried to catch a nap, but it was too cold, too windy by then. I checked the address again and again on my phone, shivering on the floor. Finally, after probably 10 or 15 minutes but what felt like 45, I banged on the door again. This time, there was some noise, some feet shuffling. Then the door opened.

Jim was holding the knob. He didn’t say a word and neither did I. We both turned into the living space, where two double beds decorated either side of the room. Jim fell into his bed, I fell onto the other one. I passed out immediately.

It was pitch black.

Groggily, I checked the time. More than an hour after first pitch.

I felt like garbage, of course. But I had a singular thought. We had spent about $35 apiece on our tickets, and we were going to this baseball game.

Jim would later tell me that his first memory of the late afternoon was waking up to my repeated cries of: “It’s gametime, man! Gametime!” After the transfer mishap, he had successfully made his way back to Tokyo and the Airbnb, but he had no recollection of my banging on the door the first or second times, let alone getting up and letting me in. I’m not sure why he didn’t protest when I insisted we go to the game 90 minutes late.

We made it to the Tokyo Dome that night around 9 pm. It was the seventh inning when we took our seats. But baseball being baseball, the game lasted another hour – enough time for the American team to score a few runs, enough time for us to get some curry rice. Mostly though, we sat still, moaning every once in a while, sipping our sodas. When the game finished, we joined the masses walking to the station. Jim rode to his Airbnb, and I went home.

I didn’t drink sake for about a month after that.

(Photo by Ralf Steinberger, CC BY 2.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

To Be Continued

I’m always reminded of how small the world can be when I get on a plane. I ask myself why it is that I haven’t visited home in so long. Why it is that I don’t travel more often. It takes ten hours, maybe 12 or 13, and I can easily be on the other side of the world: my sister’s home, my mom’s apartment, in a city or in a country that I’ve never visited before. Less than a day – nothing in the grand scope of things. I suppose money is the primary deterrent. Still, as privileged as I am, it still seems like an excuse.

It’s incredible though how much life can change with a plane ride. With a moment, really. For about six months, I lived with an increasing degree of uncertainty, knowing only that my future would very likely not rest in Tokyo. Then, I received an email. For about three weeks after that, I lived with the certainty that I was moving to Geneva. The fear of an unknown future barreling down on me shifted to that of a concrete future barreling down on me, my world suddenly one in which I simultaneously faced the reality of leaving a life behind while preparing for one that had thrust itself on the horizon.

The finality of leaving Japan struck me time and again. Perhaps it’s a feeling that expats more experienced than I have become accustomed to. But the particular circumstances of my farewell certainly helped to prolong it, forcing me to confront the end of this chapter of my life at an almost comedic level. My supervisor went on an extended vacation about a month previous, prompting an official farewell lunch and after-work drinks then. My best friend went on a long-planned vacation two weeks after that; her departure preceded by an emotional and reflective week of gatherings and conversation.

A week after that was when I actually left my job – the first real workplace I’ve been a part of, and the source of essentially all my relationships the past two years. It was accompanied by more meals and drinks, naturally. On top of all that, an unexpected wait for a visa pushed me to abscond from my apartment and shack up with a buddy for a week – thus providing a literal manifestation of my now-transitory existence in Japan, my purgatory of sorts. Visits to the immigration bureau, the ward office, and the Swiss embassy underlined the gravity of the chain of events set in motion. It all felt so real, yet so surreal also.

I don’t know that it hit me until I got on the plane, and perhaps not even then. Fact is, a week into my new life, I’m not sure it’s quite hit me yet. I’m too busy being overwhelmed – by the big things, the first days at the new job, the in-progress apartment hunt, but also the little things, the denominations of coins and cash, the instructions at the Laundromat where I sit writing this – to have my feet fully underneath me, to be able to truly process everything that has happened in the span of the past month or two. I can’t help but be aware of the most painfully obvious elements of the move, of course. There’s the smallness of the city, its corresponding and welcomed manageability. The pace of life, the rhythm and space, the diversity and liveliness, all plain as day.

But the physical traits of my new surroundings matter less than how I choose to perceive them, how I choose to interact with and engage them. And that is yet to come. After all, my life changed with a plane ride, but not simply due to the physical act thereof. Rather, it changed and will change because the ride has put me in a place where I must define and redefine myself: my life and career, my path and future direction, my hobbies and interests, my friendships and relationships. Not all of that is entirely under my control – it never is. But the assessment, the reevaluation, even the confrontation: it’s not the worst thing in the world. Maybe it’ll get me to the place where I want to be, inside.

Japan: Year Three

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*drafted July 30, 2016

This seems appropriate. Three weeks before I’m to leave the country, I don’t know where my next destination is. In fact, there’s a decent chance that the answer to that question – and to that of the inextricably linked, “Did I get the job?” – actually reached my inbox sometime in the past few hours. But I have no idea. I’m in a mountain lodge, no wi-fi, no shower actually, putting this down with pen and paper. Because I got stuck on a hike that took longer than anticipated. Because the last bus took off at the unconscionably early time of 4:40 pm. But mostly, because I needed to get away from it all – the uncertainty, the stress, the crowds, and especially my own head space. Like I said, this seems appropriate.

The Japan experience has had its flaws. This is an understatement, and certainly more than enough space has been devoted on particular aspects of these flaws. But perhaps it is natural, at this late stage, to overlook those, and to consider the past three years of my life with rose-colored glasses. And that is indeed some of what I have been doing for what feels like months as endgame in Japan draws near. I suspect some of it resembles a senioritis of sorts. But I would vehemently disagree with the idea that nostalgia is all there is. Because ultimately, this has been an incredible, exhilarating experience. And it is now legitimately fucking hard to let go.

I’m leaving Japan because my fellowship is up. I’m not trying like hell to stay because the ceiling for both my personal and professional lives here are severely limited. Job opportunities tend to be few and far between. Dating has not exactly been a rousing success. My social circle remains generally confined to work colleagues, and as fantastic as one of those relationships has been, that too is not the healthiest of circumstance. I see my family much less than I would like, and my relationship with friends stateside deteriorates further with every year I spend here, more and more milestones passing by. So why then is it so difficult to leave? Why then am I not champing at the bit to move on?

The uncertainty doesn’t help, that’s for sure. That I am diving into the great unknown provides requisite pause. But familiarity explains only so much. No, what makes it so difficult to leave comes down simply to what I am leaving behind. The coolest city in the world, exuding life and vibrancy and excitement, filled at times with grandeur and decadence, at others marked by restraint and purity, and sometimes, yes, a fair bit of weirdness. A country full of wonders, with a seemingly endless supply of vast natural landscapes to get lost in and quaint towns and villages and spaces to absorb, with all my senses. And people who I connected with, in an almost visceral way, in a way that we only could here, because of the circumstance of Tokyo, Japan that envelops us all.

Who knows. Maybe some of this is bullshit. Maybe what is killing me is, as per usual, impending heartache. But whatever the reason, I’ve come – if not quite full circle – then most of a circle. Three years in Japan. Time of my life. Will you look at that.

Japan: Year Two

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An hour before the fateful pass, when I watched a man slip off a ridge and slide 20-30 feet down before righting himself, I had come across a guy under the shelter of an emergency hut while taking a breather for lunch. It was snowing a bit, which made for a gorgeous if intimidating backdrop. The man didn’t speak English, of course, but we communicated a little nonetheless, as we are wont to do. He was a local who climbed the mountain once a month, every month, in fact was already on his way down. He was curious about me, why I came out, whether I was prepared. To the last, I assured him I was. We exchanged a few more pleasantries, and then I trekked on. He wished me luck.

I found out later the man posted on a Japanese hiking forum shortly after our encounter. He put up a description of me – we hadn’t exchanged names – mentioned I was tackling Kumotori from the north side. The message, ostensibly, was this: “Hey, make sure this kid is okay. Keep an eye out.” I learned about this later, from another man I met at my cabin near the summit that evening. This guy actually spoke a fair bit of English, which was why we got to talking, out in the lobby as a group of us sat around the heater while drinking and killing time before lights out. He translated bits of the surrounding conversation: the man who remembered a spare iPhone battery but not one of his snow gloves, the chef who spent more than half his year living in the cabin, the friend sitting next to him – still gasping and wheezing – who couldn’t remember his last real hike.

We made plans to meet up the next morning before sunrise, the three of us. We tackled the summit together, then began our descent on the south side. There wasn’t much chatting, just a sporadic question here, a word there. Eventually, we reached our separation point. The English speaker didn’t have his business card, but I had given him mine, and he told me he would email me shortly thereafter. We’ve gotten together for dinner a couple of times since. I learned he wasn’t a regular hiker until recently, November of last year, near the same as me, in fact. Actually, we both started for  the same reason – though his was a divorce, mine a mere budding romance that wasn’t to be. Anyway, I still see his hiking pictures on social media. Presumably, he sees mine.

So the two of them headed away, and I trudged eastward alone once more, rather uneasily. The path was clear at first, but it soon disappeared under the freshly packed snow. At some point, I drifted well above where the actual trail was. I only figured as much when a couple of middle-aged men passed well beneath me at that point, down where we were all supposed to be, if the snow hadn’t obscured the way. Quickly, I redoubled my steps and eventually caught up to them. Neither spoke English, of course, but they also weren’t speaking much in Japanese either. Just two friends, marching forth with purpose. I joined them, matched their pace.

They had trekking poles and snow boots, plus took surer steps, so they continued to lead the way. They knew I was there right with them though, and would pause if I was left too far behind, an unspoken agreement.* We chatted briefly during a pit stop for lunch, confirming we both had the same destination. Later, we would come to a consensus on skipping another summit on the trail, instead choosing to skirt the mountain along its side. We walked together for about five hours, eventually reaching the end of the trail. I thanked them profusely: without their maps, their footsteps, their company, it would have been dicey in the snow. There wasn’t much chit-chat after that: they went straight to an izakaya, I headed towards an onsen.

*They hadn’t seen the post on the forum: I was sure of that. I don’t think either looked at a phone the entire time.

I’ve hiked a lot this second year, and the experiences encapsulate a lot about my time, about life here. All the charms, frustrations, eccentricities and paradoxes of Japan are laid bare on the trails. Communication remains an exercise in futility, thanks largely to my inability to learn the language, but it doesn’t stop people from listening, from trying to help, whether it’s keeping an eye out or giving me a lift. Transportation appears often as an art form – trains, frequent and fast, to every part of the country – yet god help me if I’m relying on bus service in a village somewhere. Meanwhile, despite the camaraderie, loneliness persists, even in the solitude of nature: there’s something telling about the fact that all the guys I’ve described running into have been single males.

A couple of weeks ago, I was posed the question, “Do you love Tokyo?” by someone who clearly does, around a couple of friends who also very clearly do. It was a leading question. She didn’t want to elicit real discussion, but simply confirm her feelings as objective reality. People are annoying like that. I wanted to push back on her. I wanted to ask what it meant for her to love the city. I wanted to ask whether she ever felt frustrated or isolated, like an automaton in and around people with 60-hour work weeks, apartments the size of small pods, eating at bar-style, even standing-only restaurants. I wanted to ask whether she ever felt incomprehensibly lonely, and if she loved the city as much in those moments for her blanket proclamation to stand. Instead, I kept mum.

Maybe it’s different because she has a family here. Maybe it’s just different for everybody else, more black and white, in one direction or the other. So then, do I really love Tokyo? Do I love Japan? The honest answer is, yes and no. Ultimately, I suppose I do. But it’s a complicated love, and it’s certainly not an unequivocal love. Then again, maybe that’s most love.

[Previously: Japan: Year One.]

28 Days Later

People are really angry in New York. A woman curses out the wifi at Starbucks, accusing it of blocking her from accessing Gmail (it’s not). She complains to the employee, and then leaves in a huff. A man curses out the cashier at a Mexican place, claiming a false charge on the receipt (there’s none). He loudly mentions he put two dollars in the tip jar earlier, an aside but not really – and then leaves, in a huff, before he hears the offer to return the money. People in general are loud, abrasive, aggressive, angry. They show attitude, talk on the subway, strut without giving an inch. Welcome to New York.

The last time I returned to the United States, it was easy. That’s because I went home, to Los Angeles. Yes, as I chronicled, I began feeling like I was interrupting lives in progress, a burden even among my closest friends and family. Still, the process of it went smoothly, naturally. Not so much this time. Maybe it was because I had spent six more months in Japan since, felt even more settled than I had previous. Because this was essentially a work trip. Because this was for a full month, and to New York to boot. Whatever the reason, this visit was different, and it became immediately obvious.

“Why are the cars going in the wrong direction?”

This is my first thought getting off the train in Manhattan. I can barely make sense of it all. I keep looking at my watch when the trains run late, which is often. I hesitate at intersections – it takes days before I start jaywalking like everyone else. I stand in awe as I glance down supermarket aisles, searching futilely for a size of canned tomatoes not meant for a family of four. I find a lot of things abhorrent – the uncleanliness of the Starbucks, the Bolt Bus seatmate who stretches his legs about 70% into my space, the polarization of rich and poor (…not necessarily in order of importance).

America is awesome, of course. I eat at the halal cart. I eat hot dogs from a street stand. I eat Doritos and Tex-Mex and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and dim sum and banh mi. I enjoy other things besides food too. I walk around gentrified Brooklyn, bike through Manhattan from about 40th on, and not worry about throwing out trash or whether I have enough cash or if I’ll be able to communicate or anything . And the diversity. God that’s the best. Ton of attractive women too. Still though, things don’t come as easily as they did in Los Angeles. It hits me after about 10 days: I want to go home.

It’s everything, I think. People rushing by like they’re fucking bigshots or something. People having loud conversations – some crude – in public spaces, with no sense of irony or self-awareness. People homeless everywhere, and it sucks in every conceivable way: that people don’t or can’t do anything, that I can’t do anything but feel sorry and grossed out and guilty and ashamed. People honking every second at every turn. New York is amazing. But it’s overwhelming. And it’s not enjoyable when I’m crashing on a floor of an apartment that isn’t mine in a sleeping bag. When I’m not invested.

In Los Angeles, people are chill, relaxed. I’m where I grew up. I’m in a car driving, enjoying my space, spending time with friends and family. And I’m as comfortable as I could possibly be, for a short visit. In Tokyo, people are kind, respectful, orderly. Even if it’s a complete facade, it’s a pretty fucking good one. Besides, I can’t pick up stray conversations, don’t understand any of the surrounding hubbub: it’s a natural filtering mechanism. More than that, Tokyo is home. I’m in my bed, my apartment, my neighborhood, after all.

Six months ago, I visited Los Angeles, and slowly came to the recognition that I belonged in Tokyo, at least for the moment. I still don’t know how long that impulse is going to last. But visiting New York this time around: there was no doubt about it. Yes, I saw friends, family, and had a good time. But I was ready to leave long before the month was up.

So This Exists: A Night at the Robot Restaurant

Stereotypes about Japan are ubiquitous for a reason. They’re true. Now, as with all stereotypes, they’re not 100% true, nor are they applicable to the whole of society, nor do they say anything about the whole of society. However, the sheer size of the population in Japan – and Tokyo in particular – means that there’s likely some representation of, some truth behind just about every stereotype if you look around hard enough. I mean, there is a giant statue of a robot. There are cosplayers wandering the streets. There are girls who really want to fuck white dudes.

I suppose then the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo embodies a collection of the most exaggerated stereotypes of Japanese pop culture. Scantily clad women, dancers in animal costumes, laser light shows, and of course – robots of all varieties, and plenty thereof. The website alone is almost enough to induce seizures. No, this isn’t what Japan is like. But in some ways, this is the Japan you imagined in your wildest fantasies, your worst nightmares. This is the Japan for tourists, crazy and exotic and impossibly foreign, more theme park than country.

Last week, some friends and I headed into the heart of Kabukichō – Tokyo’s red-light district, and one of the few places in Japan your government warns you about, curious as to what the fuss was all about. The restaurant / cabaret show had a sparkling 4.5 star average on Tripadvisor, after all. As a frame of reference, I thought about Medieval Times, the corny dinner theater show in the States. No, Medieval Times wasn’t quality entertainment. But it was a blast*: we screamed for our knight, heckled the competition, laughed at our own over-enthusiasm. It was the kind of place where you had to buy in. And that was my mentality for the Robot Restaurant.

*The alcohol helped.

Even the entrance of the restaurant could not seem to help itself. Our senses were immediately attacked. Giant video billboards adorned the hallway, while the storefront resembled some sort of pachinko parlor, only with more screens, more LED lights, just more. It was Xzibit’s wet dream. We were quickly whisked into a tiny elevator that would not be out of place in a disco. Gaudy would be an understatement; the restaurant literally outshone any locale Tokyo might have to offer, Las Vegas for that matter. Early for our show, we headed to the third floor waiting room, already overwhelmed. That was just the beginning.

The elevator opened into a stupefying display. It was as though all of the lights in Shinjuku had managed to be transported into a modest-sized lounge. A rainbow basically vomited everywhere. Chandeliers, mirrors, and video screens glowed, while extravagant chairs – thrones, really – lined the room. I somehow managed to miss the robot band playing smooth jazz until I walked right by the stage. That the vast majority of the crowd waiting appeared to be foreigners did nothing to detract from the experience: this was clearly no longer about authenticity, about Japan, or even Earth.

We waited in the room for a good half hour. I struggled to maintain eye contact with my friends, to keep conversation afloat. Instead, my eyes darted around, my brain struggling to comprehend my surroundings. I kept giggling every so often at the absurdity of it all. The theme of the lounge, of the restaurant, seemed to be robots, dragons, and women: clearly the manifestation of a hyperactive teenage boy’s imagination. Video screens teased us with what was to come. Finally, the announcement came to take our places. To the basement we went, via a garish staircase, surrounded by butterflies, flowers, brightness.

I was taken aback by how small – almost astonishingly so – the stage area was. It was this relatively thin strip of real estate, flanked by three rows of seats (fitting roughly 150 people total) and of course, two giant video screens. Because my friend had the wherewithal to make reservations, our seats were in the splash zone. We grabbed some beer and popcorn and settled in. Judging from the nondescript bento resting in front of our neighbors, we had made the right decision to skip the meal, “restaurant” be damned. The excitement in the room was palpable.

The first floats emerged from the side, giant taiko drums in tow. The performers stared ahead. The drumbeats began, methodically, ritualistically. The whole thing was hypnotic. There was almost a religious quality about it… if it weren’t for the risqué outfits, the elaborate light displays, the moving platforms. The show kicked into full gear, and immediately the world ceased to make sense. I  saw go-go dancers and giant tarantulas and flying monkeys. I saw robot boxers and neon motorcycles and glittery unicorns. The show was essentially a series of vignettes, each as over-the-top as the next.

Presumably there was some sort of storyline, some sort of common thread, but I was too busy trying to process all the visuals. I still am. The energy level emanating from performer and audience alike remained high for through the 90 minute show (with two short breaks), culminating in a epic finale replete with glowsticks and fembots. I’m not doing the experience justice, but how does one describe the indescribable? When it was over, we filed back up the colorful staircase, and found ourselves again on the alleyways of Kabukichō. The world seemed so different in that moment, so much darker, so much quieter.

No, I’ve never done drugs, but I’ve been to the Robot Restaurant.

The Glass Half Full

It occurs to me every so often that there will come a time – sooner than I imagine – when I will no longer live in Japan. It’s hard for me to envision that now. Hell, almost a year and a half in, it’s hard for me to recall a time when my day-to-day didn’t take place in Tokyo. I attribute the feeling partly to my lack of previous expat experience and partly to Japan’s encompassing nature; the move as a result transformative, total. But in recent weeks, in moments of clarity, I have to come to recognize that this period too will pass, to evolve into nothing more than a vague remembrance.

I imagine I have become cognizant of the transient nature of my stay precisely because I am about halfway through it. More often recently, I have experienced a feeling best described as an anticipation of nostalgia. I think not about how surreal life is now, but about how surreal it will seem: that I can one day refer to that exotic period in my early 30s when I lived in Tokyo and saw all of Japan. It’s a forward-looking romanticism of the moment to be sure, yet it has somewhat paradoxically also allowed me to live more in the moment, to gain a greater appreciation of my time here.

It’s been an interesting process. It wasn’t until I left Southern California that I could readily pinpoint the things I loved about it growing up: the weather, the food, the diversity, the space. It wasn’t until I left Boston that I saw it as more than just a needed change of scenery; no, I loved the closeness, the character, the river. With Tokyo though, I haven’t needed the separation. Maybe that’s because of how non-replicable it is, how foreign it is. Whatever the case, I’ve become quite aware of the city’s (the country’s) draws, and more so as of late. For all my struggles* – and they persist, I’m going to miss the hell out of living here.

*Well-documented on this blog. Examples here and here.

For starters, there’s always more. I did a hike up Mount Buko this past weekend, and as I surveyed my surroundings from the peak, I kept thinking that I would never be here again, never enjoy the view again in my life. There are just too many mountains in Japan, too many trails, too many views to move onto. There is no shortage of places in general to explore, parks to stroll through and trails to stumble along and towns to take in. The enormity of the metropolitan area is something I too often take for granted, but it strikes me every time I hop onto an unfamiliar train line, or venture out of another new station.

That I never run out of locales to explore also underlines the accessibility of the whole of the country. I may miss my car desperately, but primarily as a product of culture. Mode of transportation is somehow the last thing I am concerned with when I make plans to travel, when I identify events to attend, attractions to visit, trails to hike. Not only is the public transit system vast, but clean, quiet, safe, frequent, efficient, even warm as need be. I haven’t once carried any sort of map or schedule even in the more rural parts of the country; the GPS on my phone is sufficient, and Japan takes care of the rest.

It’s strange too to live in a country where crime is basically non-existent.  I fall asleep on trains. I walk in pitch darkness in places I’ve never been. I talk to strangers of all kinds. I carry copious amounts of cash. I leave my stuff strewn when I use the bathroom at a coffee shop. I stumble home drunkenly at 2 in the morning. The stories I read about shootings stateside appears as though from an altogether different reality. The only policemen I see on the streets here are on bikes heading home at the end of the day; otherwise they’re at their posts, in cute little corner stations. I worry about the readjustment.

People are exceedingly polite here. The entire staff of a ramen shop welcomes your arrival with gusto; the shopkeeper thanks you and bows a dozen times as you awkwardly make your way out the door. I don’t care that it’s a facade, if it is one. I approach people constantly to ask for help – directions, clarifications, definitions. Yet, my general inability to communicate has not deterred natives from trying.  Sure, it often doesn’t work out, but no one loses their patience, no one sends me away. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen ANYONE raise a voice in public – none of it directed at me.

I’ll miss a ton of small things too. The artistry of the manhole covers, the hot drinks from vending machines, the unending chants at baseball games. I’ll miss paying bills and picking up packages at the convenience store. I’ll miss being overwhelmed by the sheer number of restaurants in any given building, let alone any given block. I’ll miss the food itself, of course, from the impeccable presentation at even a middle-of-the-road izakaya to the ubiquity of sushi and bento and tempura and tonkatsu – even the fucking kebab stands that somehow decorate the city. I’ll miss the ability to do things by myself without feeling ostracized. And I’ll definitely miss not tipping.

I have 18 months left in Japan. On the good days, when considering the spectrum of my life, it somehow seems short.