Monday, July 18, 2011

Dangerous ground...

As many of you know, I go to a local izakaya (bar) on Monday nights to practice my Japanese, with Hiroyuki, the friendly insurance salesman who befriended me on my first visit.

Well, last week, we met again, along with a different Japanese friend of mine, who shall remain nameless. The night took an interesting turn, which is why I must protect his identity... Let's call him “Mr. X.”

So, Hiroyuki was a little tired that night and left the izakaya early. Mr. X turned to me and said, “Ri-chi-san, I want to take you to Kichijoji. To the dangerous part...” Well, it was a Monday night with an early class on Tuesday, but it was only 7:30.

We headed to the nearby train station; on the platform, I bought a bottle of sports drink from the vending machine and quickly drained it. I didn't know how this night was going to go.

At Kichijoji station, we headed northeast toward the “dangerous” part of town. There are clubs, hostess bars, snack bars, strip clubs, and, I think, an infamous “Soapland.” I think you can guess what happens there. Now, I don't really know how “dangerous” these places are; this is Japan after all. Yet, I was still kind of nervous because I didn't want Mr. X to put me in “harm's way,” if you know what I mean...

Dodging past all the slickly dressed touts dressed as yakuza wann-bees, Mr. X stopped in front of Club Spacia and definitely declared this was the place. It was a “kaba-kura” - katakana English for “cabaret club.” Next to the stairs was a display case with large photos of overly makeup-ed, beautiful young Japanese women. The doors opened into a large bar/club area with lots of lights and mirrors. We were escorted to our seats and a waiter explained the costs per hour and what it entailed. Luckily Mr. X seems to be independently weather and insisted on paying. Let's just say it wasn't cheap.

Soon, two young women were escorted over and sat down between us.

Now, for the official record, it was all quite tame and nothing inappropriate happened. Also, as much as I enjoyed the cultural aspect of this part of Japanese society, it still felt really weird and kind of creepy, similar to strip clubs in America (not that I've been to any; I'm just well-read...).

They very carefully put ice in our glasses and filled them with whiskey and soda. Using small towels, they delicately wiped the condensation from the glasses before handing them to us. It was a very much part of the show, a modern geisha thing. We engaged in small talk – where are you from, how long have you been here, what is your favorite Japanese food? It was excellent Japanese practice. After 15 minutes or so, a man appear and dramatically gestured for them to stand and leave. They quickly scribbled their names with little hearts, gave them to us and said goodbye.

Soon, two more young women were escorted over and sat down next two us.

Of the three sets of young women that we met that night, I don't remember who was from Aomori, who was 23, or who spoke the best English, but they were all very nice. Mr. X got the last laugh when he suddenly leaned over mid-conversation with his partner, “Ri-chi-san, she is Asia University student!” My heart sank. “Joke! Joke!” he continued. We had a good, hearty laugh. He'll pay. My revenge will be cold and sweet...

After an hour, we escaped that den of iniquity, our morals intact. I later asked a different Japanese friend, well versed in these matters, how this experience ranked on the grand scale of things, “If staying home with your wife and kids is a '1' and Soapland is a '10,' what does a 'kaba-kura' rate in Japan?”

My friend sucked air past his teeth, a quintessential Japanese thing to do, “Well, I'd say a '6...'” He paused, “Maybe a '7.'”

Once on the street with pure, wholesome, fresh air in our lungs, I hoped for a quick retreat. It wasn't yet late and there was hope for a happy, productive morning. Nope. Not to be. Next was off to a famous ramen shop for a large, wonderful bowl of sesame ramen with tender, delicious slices of pork.

Ok, now, maybe we are going home? Nope.

“Ri-chi-san, I want to take you to a different club. Don't worry; this one is safe!”

Off we went to a small establishment, maybe a “hostess bar.” It was much smaller and more sophisticated: no bright lights and loud music. The “mama” of the bar, maybe in her 50's, welcomed us and escorted us to our table. In the other corner, some salary men lustily sang away at karaoke while two women in their 30's refilled the glasses. Soon, we had our own drinking partner, curiously inquiring about our lives. It turns out she spoke almost flawless English from years of self study and was a born and bred native of Kichijoji. She entertained us with stories of Kichijoji before it became extremely popular and how the changes have affected it.

However, like all good things, it came to an end, and it was time to go home. We bid our farewells and wobbled to the train station. I'm sure our swaying on the train looked like just like everyone else's.

At the north exit of the Musashisakai station, where we parted ways, Mr. X admonished me, “Ri-chi-san, don't tell Joan-san. She will be verrrrrrrry angry...” Promising full confidentially, I pinballed home where I promptly confessed my “sins” to Joan. She laughed at me and tucked me into bed. It really unfortunate that the next day was one of the hottest so far and perhaps the busiest of the semester. However, the night was totally worth it. Not sure I'll do it again soon, though...

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Lending a helping hand

To find some relief on a very hot and windy day, I dragged myself out of the apartment and up the street to Saizeriya, an Italian chain restaurant. One of the best things about it, besides the air conditioning, is the 270 yen “do-ri-n-ku-baa” or “drink bar” - all the teas, coffee, juices, and sodas you can consume.

Even with the increasing temperatures and humidity, we have stubbornly resisted turning on

the air conditioning. With the projected power shortages coming due to the loss of Dai-ichi “gen-patsu,” the nuclear power plant damaged by the earthquake and tsunami, we are trying to help in our small way. However, when walking past a store with the front doors open and frigid air pouring out to entice customers inside, one quickly realizes that there is still so much waste and inefficiency built into modern society. Right after the disaster, everyone in Japan was so energized and enthusiastic to help and to make difficult changes/choices, but sadly, like in many other situations, that resolve has faded somewhat.

However, I did not start this blog post to rant and rave about the coming energy problems.

Related to the disaster up north, I had an interesting experience last week I wanted to share.

A Japanese friend of ours is involved with a nonprofit organization that is helping with relief efforts up north, providing direct aid and resources to people and communities, separate from the government and all the restrictions of bureaucracy. There are disturbing stories of people still in difficult situations up north while huge amounts of money and resources are tied up in red tape.

A local, large onsen/spa had gone out of business and is to be torn down. I don't know the details, but our friend's group had one day to salvage as much as possible. The plan was to fill a very large semi-trailer truck with things that could be used for reconstruction efforts or to bring some relief and pleasure to people who are still suffering.

With classes later that morning, I only had a short time to help but still wanted to show my support. Ten of us met at eight o'clock and received a whirlwind tour of the cavernous, multi-story building. Basically everything was still in place: sheets and towels on the racks, reclining chairs waiting for tired bathers, beer mugs, menus on the tables, even the cook's clogs waiting just inside the kitchen door. All of it was up for grabs, and it quickly became obvious there was no way it would all fit in the truck. So some quick prioritizing got us started on the tatami –

traditional, Japanese-style floor mats.

From the first room alone, we pulled up and stacked over 70 tatami near the front door. There

were many more rooms to go. With no electricity in the onsen, we relied on headlamps and flashlights to find our way into deeper rooms.

Quickly, I ran out of time and had to bid farewell, leaving them to a long and sweaty day of hauling and loading. Joan was able to stop by later that afternoon to see for herself and gather

information for a potential article. The truck was already loaded and gone, but she was able to meet some of the people and see the shell of the onsen itself. Hopefully, she will be able to meet the director of the organization and learn the whole story. Stay tuned for more details...