Thursday, July 29, 2010

And so we say Farewell...

Well friends, the time has come I think. It has been almost a year now since I set off for Japan, for adventure and excitement and everything more. Sometimes it felt long, like the year would never end, but now, looking back, I find that a year is too short a time. It is far too short to do all you want to do, to see all you want to see, to meet everyone you want to meet. But then, we cannot berate ourselves for unlived lives. I did what I set out to do, which was to live life to the fullest, never holding back, while I was here. There is more I want to see, want to do, but no time. The clock is nearing 12 and I must return from whence I came. Certainly this experience has rewarded me, it has changed me irreparably in all the best ways. I can see now what I am capable of, what I can do when I have to. I've never been a childish person, but now I can soundly say that I have grown up. My time here has made me into a world-wise adult, it has broadened my horizons and opened my eyes in ways I neither expected, nor can describe. I suppose it is often so for people in my position. In hindsight I see now just how small my view of the world and its people really was. "I am altered by what I have seen," if I might nab a line from a movie.

I cannot claim to know everything about Japan, about Tokyo, but I know it very well, and it, and its people, are more complicated, intricate and beautiful than I could have every thought. I suppose I'm rambling or sounding like a philosopher, something I mustn't do at all costs, so I will make this brief. I would like to thank all those who have read this blog, even if only one post. I hope it has afforded you some benefit, even if it only be some slight amusement. I'm thankful that anyone at all has read my random blabber, and I am sad to have to say goodbye to you. But, as they say, all good things must come to an end, for if they did not, there would be no room for new adventures, which are precisely what await me. I cannot know what will happen to me now, to my future, but I am glad for what I have done and optimistic for that yet to be done. My time of departure is very near and it is time to say farewell. I thank you all, and bid you adieu.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Banks and Cell Phones

Today was ‘doing the dirty work’ day. By which I mean to say, time to shut down all bank accounts and cut cell phone contracts. Luckily, I had my host mom with me which prevented any wrinkles in the process, and while I might have managed the bank accounts flying solo, I’m fairly well convinced that the cell phone situation would have drowned me. My ardent advice to anyone not planning on living here for more than a year would be not to get a cell phone as the entire situation surrounding them is way too expensive, and almost impossible to get in to and out of unless you speak perfectly fluent Japanese.

So we started our chores by going to the post office (first to drop off one of the many boxes I’m having to ship back home). Incidentally, you can ship rather large boxes of stuff home for not too much cash if you use surface shipping, though it takes a month or two to get them. So, after depositing the heavy box into the wafer-thin arms of the mousy girl behind the counter, my host mom and I took a number and waited to be called to the bank side of the post office. Here in Japan, the Post Office is a multi-headed beast. It not only serves as a PO, but also sells insurance, acts as a bank, and performs other services that I no nothing about. A few years ago, the PO was privatized, which is when it took on these many masks, and that is also the reason why it is open/running 7 days a week (which is handier than you know).

So, when our number was called, we went up to the counter and my host mom said that I wanted to close my account. I was asked to produce my bank book, my inkan (personalized stamp), ID, and my cash card. Having presented all of these to the lady, we were asked to go sit down and wait. I was called back up three different times to input my PIN number into a little, shielded calculator-like machine, and then the last time, I was giving a receipt, asked to sign a slip of paper, and then was presented with the remainder of my account (19 cents), and my bank book which had a ‘void’ sticker on it. And that was one check off the list. Pretty painless, huh?

Next, we hopped a bus to Sangenjaya and went to the Docomo store where I got my cell phone all those many months ago. We took a number and waited in the longest line of the day, despite it being before noon on a weekday. After about 45 min. we went up to the counter and my host mom talked in length to the lady beyond. I’m assuming she was saying that I wanted to cut the contract (I’d had to sign up for a 2 yr one remember?) I filled out a slip of paper with my name, address and cell number and then the Docomo girl worked her magic, stopping every few minutes to say things like, “After this, your cell phone will no longer work, so be advised,” etc. Cutting the contract ended up costing me $150, just further proving my point that it’s not cost-effective to have one of the bloody things here. And just so you don’t buy into the idea that Japan’s cell phones are so much more superior than ours in the US, they are not. They are more or less the same, only 3-6 times the cost.

Having rid myself of all means of mobile communication, we hopped another bus for Shibuya, to the third and last thing on our to-do list. This time it was to the Mitsui Sumitomo bank that we went (a bank I’ve grown to love for the sheer ease with which they handle everything), and again we took a number. We hadn’t been sitting a minute when we were called to the counter and, presenting the aforementioned articles once more (Inkan, ID, card, passbook), the girl started punching things into a computer, presented me with my balance and my voided passbook and all in under 10 min. And that was that.

All in all, the three checks on the list took 2 hours, and so, as a reward, my host mother and I went out to lunch in a restaurant situated on one of the top floors of Loft, an everything-you-could-ever-need sort of store situated in Shibuya. The small café-sized restaurant was technically Chinese, though it was more well known for its ample tea selection and so much lunch set came with spicy noodles in soup, three small side dishes of my choice (egg rolls and two types of dumplings), and I chose Lychee tea to finish it off.

After lunch we parted ways, my host mother going home and myself going to Tower Records to stock up on Korean Pop Cds for my return journey. Japanese Cds here usually cost around $12-18 for a single (avg. 4 songs) and around $30+ for a full album. DVDs cost about $35-50 for a regular DVD, and about $150-200 for a TV Box Set. Korean Cds, on the other hand, cost about the same as American Cds, and since buying them here and brining them home would eliminate shipping costs, so that’s what I went to Tower Records store. On the subject of DVDs and Cds (and games for that matter), I will leave this entry with some parting advice for the day. In Japan there are stores called Book Off (a huge one in Shibuya, way down the street HMV is on), and they specialize in used books, movies, magazines and cds. Because things are used, the prices vary, but everything is in good condition and remarkably cheaper than if you were to buy it new, so to anyone wanting to load up on any of the above, check at a Book Off first. They have stores everywhere in Tokyo, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find one. To those game enthusiasts out there, though, you should know that Japanese games (like Playstation, Wii, etc.) do not work on American or European game consoles, so if you really want a Japanese game, you’re going to have to buy the console here too (which they also sell at Book Off). Ta-ta for now! I’m off to my last Alice Nine concert!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Hanabi (Fireworks)

Today, at 5:30, I went out to meet a friend and her husband to go see fireworks. As with Disneyland, many Japanese people find it to be quite a shame if you leave Japan without seeing one of their many magnificent fireworks displays, and so my friend ardently searched for one that would take place before I leave (most start in August). And so, we waited at the JR Nambu Station at Mizonoguchi to head out to some place I’ve never heard of on the Tamagawa River to watch the fireworks.

And I had an experience that everyone should probably have before they leave Japan. The packed train. When I say ‘packed,’ I mean, you can literally feel people’s bones against yours, you can feel their heartbeat, their sweat stains your clothes. You cannot get a handhold, but however reckless the driver might be in his sudden stops, you will not fall; there is no room to fall. I’ve been in packed trains before. The worst up until today was when I went with my host parents to see a Sumo match way back when. This one outdid them all.

We made our way down to the platform and got in line behind 20 other people that were lined up at one of the 4 doors to our train. The other lines were longer. It wasn’t but a minute or so and the train pulled up. And as the doors opened, people were falling out. No one got off. To look at it, there was room for maybe three people. But the Japanese are not to be deterred by any manner of train traffic. And so, with a laugh, I, like the twenty people in front of me and 8 or so people behind me, shoved those already in the train farther inside, like packing an already bulging suitcase. And somehow, we made it, though there were those who couldn’t fit. As one, we moved with the motions of the train like seaweed on a wave, unable to keep balance because there was no room to readjust your feet. But, as I said before, you cannot fall down. You cannot readjust either. Everyone fits together somehow, like puzzle pieces and you just have to stay that way. We rode like this for four stops before several people got off and the rest of the way (two more stops), while full, was not, ‘if this guy moves, his elbow will spear my kidney’ packed.

And, once we’d funneled out into the streets with a million other people, we stopped at one of several tables along the sidewalk to buy bottled tea and snacks of dumplings, though in truth we’d have done better to wait. All along the way, mostly young couples walked close, if not hand in hand, and despite the humid and hot weather, most of the young girls were all trussed up in their Yukatas, their hair up and prettily done. Even several of the young men with them were dressed in the male equivalent of a Yukata, though their hair was spiked and gelled and modern in contrast to their dress. Also, many young married couples with small children were among the crowd.

We walked a long ways, then up the stairs, over a road and down onto the banks of the river, past policemen shouting for people to watch their step. On the bank opposite, all you could see were little dots of people’s torsos, in such a number that you couldn’t see the green that was the space between them. On our side, stretching about a mile long on the main path, were stands selling their festival wares. I’ve come to love these stands, as they are more traditionally Japan to me than Ikebana. There was Yakisoba, Takoyaki, Okonomiyaki, Mizuame, Candy Apples, Shaved Ice, Frankfurter on a stick, chocolate covered bananas, chicken nuggets and more, all the way down. We finally found a bit of asphalt on the path above the main walkway, and laid down our tarp and sat (rather uncomfortably as it was rocky, hot, hard asphalt) and waited for the fireworks to begin.

At around 7:15, they started. This particular show was to last an hour and had 12,000 fireworks. While that is a good amount, the largest firework show around is, naturally taking place after I leave, and is held over the Sumida River in Tokyo (we were now in Kawasaki). The fireworks show was absolutely amazing. From start to finish it was the equivalent of the big rush at the end of our 4th of July fireworks show (the part when they set off all of what’s left at the end). And these had been designed in a computer to be artistic, so you weren’t just watching fireworks, you were watching a show. I don’t know how the fireworks in bigger cities in America are on the 4th, but this one in Japan put St. Louis’ fireworks shows to shame. They had all sorts and they were going off constantly, not one by one, but three by three or more, and in two locations. It was such fun.

Afterwards, we joined the mass exodus, cutting through a jungly bit of forest and rejoining the group, and wisely, instead of going straight to the station, we walked for about 20 min. and found a restaurant where we had dinner and said our farewells (this was the last time I would get to see my friend), and then we went back to the station and I caught the last train home.

PS: Btw, I've added two entries today, so there's a new one below this too : )

Disneyland and Obon Odori

Today (7/24) was my last Japan Disney trip. Disney might not pop into your mind instantly as being Japanese, and whether as a tourist or as someone coming to live and stay, (at least from an American point of view), it probably isn’t on the top of your list of must-see Japanese sights. But, the Japanese see Disney as being an integral part of Japan and its culture, even more so than Tokyo Tower I would argue. In my time here I was never once asked if I’d seen the ancient ships at Hakone, seen a sumo match, or been to Tokyo Tower, but I cannot count the amount of times I’ve been asked if I’d been to Tokyo Disney.

You might recall that I have gone to Tokyo Disney Sea (twice, and loved it), and so my host parents decided that I needed to see the other half of the Disney coin, so we went to Disney Land this time. May I first comment on the heat of a Tokyo summer. It’s hot here. I don’t mean just regular hot, I mean surface of the sun hot. If it’s not in the hundreds, its certainly trying to be, and it is famous for being swelteringly humid. The humid season is, I think, called tsuyu, and while it’s supposed to have ended (because the horrible, nationwide, flood-creating storms have passed) the humidity is here to stay.

Since it was Friday, we had the workweek to contend with and I got my first real dose of what morning means to a salary man in Japan. It means a packed train of men in suits at 7 o’clock in the morning. While not pleasant, it wasn’t the worst ‘packed train’ I’ve been subjected to (as we’ll see in the following entry). We rode out to Disney (a far ride for most anyone), already complaining about the heat, and then we walked down to see about eight lines of people, 70-ish people deep at the entrances to Disney. It wasn’t open yet. This was at 8 o’clock. Some people were sprawled out on tarps on the asphalt, most were wearing hats, none were wearing sunglasses (an absurdity here that I still cannot accept). I asked if the park opened at 8:30. It did not. It opened at 9, and so we waited under the sun for an hour, and when the gates finally did open, it was like the Furby frenzy, or the Beanie Baby craze, or whatever other mass hysteria moments you’d like to liken it to (a sale at Macys?), and people were running, I mean full out running, through the gates into the park beyond, though to what ultimate purpose I never did find out. My group speed walked.

We went first to Space Mountain for a Fastpass, then found that the ‘ride’ next to it wasn’t bogged down with an unbearable line, so we queued up and entered an air conditioned haven, watching monitors that told the behind-the-scenes story of ‘Captain EO.’ Captian EO is a ride/3D movie now only shown at the Japan Disney Land. Back in the 1980s, George Lucas, a team of puppeteers and dancers, and the one and only Michael Jackson, got together to create this 3D movie for Disney. Upon its creation, it ran for some time at the various parks, in the US and in Japan, before being retired and replaced with other 3D attractions like ‘Honey I Shrunk The Kids.’ But then, Michael Jackson died.

The Japanese love Michael Jackson. That, itself, is an understatement. He is, to them, what Elvis is to a good number of Americans. Or Freddie Mercury of Queen is to some others. (Btw, Freddy Mercury was a Parsi Indian, born in India and raised in Bombay; bet ya didn’t know that). They adore him. Even in his death, they adore him. In the regular movie theaters right now, there is another ‘in memoriam’ movie running around. So, suffice it to say, upon his untimely death, the people and Tokyo Disney decided it was time to take old ‘Captian EO’ off the shelves, dust him off, and plant him back in the park where he once reigned. It was this ride that was my first experience of Tokyo Disney Land.

It was typical Lucas, typical Michael, typical 80s. The critters within it, and the space chase scenes could just as well have been out of Star Wars, the costumes and makeup of the dancers could have been from any 80s music video, and Jackson was, well, Jackson. All in all, the ride was like one, long Michael Jackson music video with special effects. For MJ fans, like my host mother, I could see why someone might love the ride, but not being an avid MJ fan myself, it was amusing but just ‘okay.’ The storyline is that MJ, aka Captain EO, crash lands on an enemy planet where he’s been charged to give the Supreme Leader a gift. As he and his wonky fellow space buddies are about to be carted away by the minions of the metallic, witch-like Supreme Leader lady, MJ’s friends turn into musical instruments and he starts to sing and dance, the power of his song turning the gnarly baddies into exotic, beautiful backup dancers until finally, the entire landscape and the Supreme Leader herself are turned natural and beautiful. Then MJ packs off back to the ship and flies off.

So, after that air conditioned respite, we went over to Space Mountain where I got to sit in the first seat by myself. Then, since I’d told the host mom that the two rides I wanted to go on were Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion, we headed off in the direction of PotC. We’d just gotten in line for it, and my host mom had just finished relating a story about how, the last time she’d tried to ride it, the boats broke, a voice came over the intercom saying the ride was broken so everybody out.’ My host family seemed apologetic, but it wasn’t really any big deal, and we took the break to go off and eat. My host mom and I had cold noodles (since it was so unbearably hot) while my host dad had ramen, and then I drank about a gallon of water. From there we proceeded to the front of the castle, in the center of the park, to wait for the show.

Here in Tokyo, both parks have ever-changing themes, and the current theme is something about water, so after warnings over the speakers that ‘you might get wet,’ Goofy came lalloping out onto the stage, streams of water shooting up behind him in a rhythm while he fell over himself comically as they eventually made their way around to him. After that intro, Minnie and live backup dancers made their way onto the stage and, as a song started up, from all the balconies on Cinderella’s castle, water rocketed off in enormous sprays, spreading in the air to look almost like white fireworks. We were quite a ways away from the castle, but such was the force of the rocketing water, that it made itself over to us, falling down like rain. In time to the music, rockets of water would shoot off in directions from the castle, or from the stage, and from amongst the gargoyles perched among parapets and ringing the castle walls, up to the highest tower, were steady streams of arcing water spitting out like fountains. At one point, the turrets on either side of the stage (I don’t think Disney World’s castle has separate turrets) started up huge, powerful sprinklers that swept over the audience, soaking everyone, while on the stage huge industrial fans turned side to side blowing mist and the male dancers grabbed water hoses and started dousing the audience. They must have gone through a Sea World-sized tank of water.

When it was all over (15 min. max), the entire audience had transformed from being grumbling and angry, to being happy, clapping and smiling. Myself included. It did not take long, however, for the nice cool water soaking me to dry. Anywho, at this point my host father left, having to oversee the last minute’s Obon Odori preparations, but my host mother and I continued on, nabbing some green tea shaved ice, then pushing on to Haunted Mansion, which is exactly the same as in the states, past the Queen of Hearts small castle (which you can’t go into, only look at), then to Thunder Mountain and lastly to Splash mountain (in whose line we talked about You’re Beautiful, a Korean drama I’ve managed to get her to watch). Once we finally got off of Splash Mountain, sufficiently splashed, we hurried back to the park’s front, did a little shopping, and then hopped the cool, empty train back whereafter we watched an episode of You’re Beautiful, then I came back up to my apartment to survey the sun-burn damage and take a shower.

I’d been told to come down before 7 for dinner so that I could be there for the beginning of the Obon dance, but, with the intention of only ‘resting my eyes’ for 15 min., the next thing I knew, I was awakened by the first beats of the Taiko drums outside my window in the courtyard below. Hurrying into my Yukata (and making a mess of tying the bow), I rushed downstairs and inhaled my food, then my host mom and I went out to look at the dance.

In Japan, Obon is the name of a festival/festival time in the summer. The purpose of Obon is similar to that of Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, in that it is a time when the living are calling for the dead to come back from their graves, home. The main time for Obon is the first week in August, so if you’re coming to Japan or staying in Japan, I would advise you to try to stay through this week (I, not knowing about it, set my fly out date too early). During this week, all schools and most offices shut down completely and everyone in the country gets a week off to celebrate. As far as how the Japanese celebrate it, there are several interesting things that they do. For one, in their household shrines, they place vegetables (typically eggplants or cucumbers), that they’ve stuck through with toothpicks to give the appearance of legs so that the vegetables look like animals. The reason for this is to give the spirits something to ride to come back into the home. Also, they will like lanterns in their houses (ours is in front of the household shrine). Another interesting practice is the floating of small boats (like, toy-sized) down the river onto which they put lit lanterns. During this season, all throughout the month of August, is the time when Japan has its famous, magnificent fireworks displays (usually on rivers or on the ocean). And of course there is the Obon bonfire. On a certain night (I’m not sure when), huge bonfires are lit and around them, people come and dance. At our shrine we didn’t have the bonfire, but we had the dance.

Obon Odori is what it’s called, odori meaning dance. In place of a huge bonfire, men had built a large stage with a metal rafter in the middle, and from it were strung different colored lit lanterns, some with names written on them, others blank. Down the side entrance to the shrine, a few stands had been built, and by the time my host mother and I got on the scene, they were busy at work selling takoyaki (octopus balls), children’s masks, blowup children’s toys, Mizuame (sour fruits on a stick dipped in melted sugar and then placed on a block of ice to cool so that it’s like a lollipop), Sosu-senbei (You spin a board and get however many thin wafers you land on, with a dollop of chocolate, vanilla or plum flavored pudding on top), yakisoba, and water yo-yos (you get a small hook on a piece of paper and you try to fish a balloon out of a pool of water). As we’re a small shrine, there were only these few stands, but it was sufficient for the amount of people in attendance.

We came out and stood, surveying the scene for a long time, the heat of the day lasting far after sunset, but lessened by a night’s gentle breeze. In front of the erected stage, people were playing three large Taiko drums in time to old music that blasted from speakers hanging from the rafter towering above everyone in the middle of the stage. The Taiko drummers were the same people who had carried the portable shrine at the fall festival. Around the stage in an ever moving circle, men and women in uniformed outfits (male and female Yukatas), were dancing in a simple, choreographed way that everyone seemed to know, reflecting the dance of the 8 or so people that we dancing under brighter light on the raised stage. A time or two, my host mother tried to push me into the ring dancing in time, but I vehemently refused until finally she gave up trying.

After every song, a different group of dancers would go up on stage, the previous ones descending to join the circle, and the drummers would continue on tirelessly. There’s not really much more to report than that. We watched from the shrine’s office door for a long time until my host mother, too accustomed to the festival to find any real interest in it, said she was going inside and, not wanting to be left without her, the white girl in a very Japanese ceremony, I retired as well, and about 20 min. later, the festivities drew to a close.

PS: To anyone considering going to Tokyo Disneyland or Disney Sea, I would advise going to Disney Sea. Both are cool, but Disneyland is more or less the same as in the States, and probably Europe, but Disney Sea is something you'll only get to see here.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Shinjuku, the Movies, V-Kei Stores and The Globe

Last Sunday was my free day, as in the day when I didn’t have any assignations with people of my social circle and was thus able to go about the day doing whatever the heck I wanted. I’d made strict plans the night before as to the course of the day. With my final days now in a countdown, most of what remains are pre-planned with farewell trips, so a day to myself is rare and just begging to be filled up with ‘one-more-time’ sightseeing.

Much to my own surprise, the top of the day’s to-do list was going to the movies. Here in Japan, comedians outrank celebrities in terms of popularity by astronomical amounts, and one of the more popular up-and-coming comedy duos is a pair called Hannya, who I’ve taken quite a shine to, to one member in particular whose name is Kanada Satoshi. Standing out from the crowd with his staggeringly tall yet wafer-thin frame, Kanada is more or less a physical actor, though he often dons the ‘young rude hoodlum’ persona in many of Hannya’s skits, which he donned again today.

Being a great fan of Japanese comedians, I’m always on the lookout for anything to do with them, and while quite disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to go to this weekend’s Live Stand ‘10 comedian extravaganza (pretty much a blowout 3-day event where all of Tokyo’s well known comedians come out and perform), I was happy to hear that the aforementioned Kanada was actually in a movie that came out just yesterday. The short notice was, to say the least, abrupt, and since it’s a small release movie, there are only about 3 or so theaters in all of Tokyo who are set to play it (and for 1 week only), but I was determined that I should go, come heck or high water. It also just so happens that Oguri Shun’s directorial debut film also came out yesterday, and that fit into today’s agenda as well.

Not wanting to wake up early, as the plan dictated, I was, after much protest, able to wrest myself from my futon and step out into the blistering asphalt-reflected heat that is Japan in summer and hop onto the surprisingly empty train bound for Shinjuku. As I got off, a few stragglers were meandering their way about the station and streets of Shinjuku, a late-working host or two among them, but as everything opens at around 10 am in Tokyo (or later), there wasn’t much cause for people to be out at 9.

I followed the convoluted directions I’d sketched out on a scrap of memo paper and found said theater on the third floor of a clothing store building, but when I took the elevator up, I found myself staring at a sign that said the theater wasn’t open yet, and so I went back down and out into the blistering heat again to find the second theater (playing Oguri Shun’s movie) just across the way. I walked around for a bit longer, until I could stand the heat no more and went back to my original destination, surprised to see that in the ten minutes I’d been away, a line of ten or so people had formed in front of the ‘Not Open’ sign. Leave it to the Japanese to line up. They do love their lines.

I got in line, ignoring the multitude of stares that shot their way at me from everyone in line, and waited until 9:15, just 15 min. before the movie was set to start. We all shuffled to the ticket counter like a chain gang and purchased out tickets. In contrast to Grandberry Mall’s plush 109 Cinema that I’ve grown accustomed to visiting by the school, this theater was tiny by comparison. Four screens occupied one floor of the building, and while there was a food stand (selling Takoyaki especially for the movie I was going to see), there were no goods to purchase (another thing I’ve grown accustomed to in relation to theater-going, and one I will very much miss in the States). Even the tickets were not automated or printed, but simple paper slips with the price printed on them which the girl at the counter would stamp with the name of the movie you were going to.

Having had my ticket soundly stamped, I forwent the food and pushed on into the theater which was small as was to be expected, able to seat maybe a total of 70, though only 20 or so were in attendance for the morning show. I sat and relaxed and waited for the movie to start, watching the anti-piracy warning and then a few commercials (one for a movie I desperately want to see but won’t be able to, as it comes out the day after I leave), and then the movie began.

It was a goofy movie, to say the least, though you knew it would be going in. It was very ‘high school first love,’ but I thought Kanada did a fairly good job for his first real acting role, though it was at times unsettling that he (my age) was meant as the romantic lead in a movie whose cast was the average age of 16/17. Even so, one looks over that.

After the movie, I’d planned to scuttle over to the other theater and watch Oguri’s show, but upon entrance into the place, I quickly realized such a task would be impossible. I had 30 min. before the show started and, looking at the line before me at the ticket counter was like looking at a hive covered in bees. There was no fathomable way that I would be able to get a ticket in time, so with a laugh of exasperation I left defeated but not discouraged. Instead, I went to the large bookstore at the station which has a half a floor devoted entirely to books in English, where I picked up a few Carl Hiaasen novels for the plane ride home.

I then made the circuit of the fantastic Visual Kei stores in Shinjuku, all 4 conveniently located within a block of each other (two are a door away), and found a 50% off CD store that allowed me to buy an Alice Nine CD for $1.50. As for the stores, I should probably mention them lest someone reading this is in Tokyo and wants to visit. The most well known is ‘Like An Edison,’ which has two floors and at times stages events with bands (my friend and I happened to run into a band on the way in once, though, like a fool I didn’t realize what was going on at the time and thus didn’t get a look at who they were). The first floor is all Cds and the second is mostly magazines and tickets to all upcoming concerts, though there is from time to time band merchandise for sale. Diagonally across from LIE, is Club Indies which has a few magazines but is primarily just a CD store. Both of these are obviously Visual Kei stores as shown by the huge posters of bands like Vivid, Sid and various others plastered on the windows looking out. One block over are my favorite shops. First, there is Pure Sound, which sells books, magazines (some for a dollar), Fan Club only pamphlets, band/tour merchandise, Cds, DVDs and posters. They even have Hide and Yoshiki dolls for sale, and at the counter they have a ‘Take Free’ jar where you will sometimes find stickers or trading cards of your favorite band. Despite things in this store, they are cheap, but not the cheapest. The cheapest is the shop practically next door called Closet Child. I should first mention that Closet Child is a chain which normally specializes in Gothic Lolita clothing (which is sold at the Harajuku store), but the Shinjuku store is special because it has V-Kei stuff. It has things for super cheap, and stuff you’re not going to find anywhere else. They have baskets full of tour/band merchandise, books, magazines, walls of used and new Cds, and then more specialty stuff like, for instance, the $300 ring that Reita from the Gazette designed, Gackt’s (I think it was him) shoes, etc. And for those who want to stock up on stuff, they offer packs that contain a collection of tour goods, all in one packet. It’s hard to explain, but it’s awesome. This is where I found the sale. I mean, they even have the Alice Nine bandaids (unused of course), that you could get from the vending machines at the Royal Straight (I think it was) concert. So, I had a heyday, to say the least.

After that, sticking to my plan, I went up one stop to Shin-Okubo, a place I was now rather familiar with as I’d been to the ‘Korea Town’ a few times by this point. That being said, Shin-Okubo is known to be the home of Tokyo’s very own Globe theater. Yes, Tokyo has a Globe theater, and it’s said to be a recreation of the original Shakespearean Globe. I’d known this all along, but never actually dropped by to see it, and figuring as I only have a few days left, why not take the opportunity while I was in the neighborhood.

Turning left out of the station, rather than right (which is where all the Korean goods stores are), I made a quick turn down a small street and followed that for some time past Korean and Middle Eastern groceries, seeing the less-glamorous, real side of Tokyo where minorities live. By the time I actually reached the Globe, there was no one around, only the tall apartment buildings to keep me company, and as for the Globe, if I’d blinked, I might have missed it.

With nothing running, it was locked up so all I could see was the outside, which, much to my disappointment, was rather concrete-y and modern, leaving me to imagine that it must be the interior that is the likeness of the English original. With that let down, I turned back and went to a Korean Goods store (by goods I mean bands, dramas, actor merchandise) and got my mom some more DBSK pens like she wanted and then hopped back on the train and decided to call it a day, as the sun had now sufficiently turned me a darker shade of tan.

Here's the trailer. It's not subbed, so I apologize for that. Still, if you watch it and you'll get the idea.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Tanabata and Charcoal Grill Anko


Today we went out to celebrate my host dad’s birthday, even though it’s still two days away. I’ve been forever bugging them in the most roundabout ways that I know how, to escort me to a little restaurant about 5 buildings down called ‘Charcoal Grill Anko,’ and tonight, we finally went.

My affection for the place began months upon months ago, just around the time when the brisk winds of autumn became the chilling torrents of winter. Back in those days I would often walk all the way down to Sangenjaya on foot, or if not that far, then the large grocery aways down the street, and since my walks would often happen under the cover of darkness, my return journeys always took me past the curiously enthralling, often bustling Charcoal Grill Anko. I can’t say what it is about the place that cast a spell on me, but just the overall aura of it was intoxicating. As I would walk in and out of the shadows of buildings at night on my way back home, the smallish wooden sliding door that is the entrance, with small, plate-sized square windows just large enough to let you peer in to see the men inside, working behind massive, hot grills, their hair pulled back in bandanas, their close a mysterious and alluring black as they serve people at the bar beer and dinner, drew me in. The place itself seemed to glow invitingly, a warm, honey-colored glow that washes comfort over you in a world of florescence. Beside a Dominoes pizza and an out of use shop, this restaurant, above all others, seemed to offer a different side of Tokyo, a side I wanted desperately to see but never have (and was too timid to brave on my own). And so, I would always, on my walks, slow down, sometimes stopping at the door, and watch the young men cooking inside and it would make me happy and I would smile, and then I would glance up at the massive, torso-sized lanterns bearing the shop’s name that hang on either side of the door, and proceed on my way.

Flash forward about eight or so months and I finally make the not-so-subtle hint that I want to go, that finally hit’s the target and me, my host dad, my host mom and the grandma all walk the two minutes or less down the street and for the first time ever, we enter the shop. Now, situated next to the bar dining is an outside, triangular-shaped, raised wooden porch that they put in about five months ago. As we enter the restaurant, we’re greeted by a chorus of ‘Irasshaimase’ (welcome), and the manager and the other young cook look up briefly at our entrance, but are quick to return their attention to the food on the grill before them. We are offered a table upstairs, but because the grandma has a hard time with stairs, we’re ushered out onto the porch instead where there are three tables waiting and empty. And I got a flash of what I’ve idealized as the ‘salary man’s eating joint.’ Instead of stools or chairs at the small tables, there are red and blue plastic crates (like people ship crates of beer or milk bottles in) which are covered with colorfully designed cushions. Beyond, out facing the street and the passersby is a glass display case like you might see at a butchers, and in it are displayed all the fresh foods ready to be cooked up (corn, meat, eggplant and other veggies). On the wall nearest me is an old 30s or 40s vintage poster of a women in a kimono advertising Yebisu Beer, and then a yellow fabric banner offering beer and another fabric banner often seen this time of year. This second banner is white on the top, blue on the bottom and in the middle, in bright red, is splashed the kanji for ice. This is an advertisement for shaved ice, the treat of choice in this oppressive, almost sadistically humid and miserable weather we’re having.

Against the far wall are blackboards whereon are written the specials in white and neon green marker, and this wall is made of wooden slats, and in these slats are stuck, just a few, colorfully decorated handheld fans (decorated with fireworks, koi, etc.). In the far corner, which isn’t that far at all, is a charcoal grill (as opposed to the grill inside which is more like a hibachi grill), and from time to time a guy in a traditional-looking shirt encircled by red carp, would come through with fish skewered through, or vegetables, and would place them on the grill, the fish’s dead eyes looking at the world upside down as he is placed over the charcoal. And there also stands a very thin bamboo tree which was decorated with colorful slips of construction paper for the currently running Tanabata festival.

Tanabata, written ‘seventh night,’ is a festival falling on July 7th (aka 7/7) every year, though its decorations are around for much longer. The history of this festival is as follows. Once upon a time, high, high in the heavens there was a beautiful princess who was so skilled at creating fine woven masterpieces that she was called Orihime (Weaving Princess). Her father was Tentei, ruler of the universe and he took great joy and pride in his daughter and her magnificent works of art. But, over time, Orihime grew lonely, for so busy was she with her weaving that she scarce had time to seek for someone to love, and seeing his daughter’s sorrow, Tentei introduced her to Hikoboshi, who herded cows up in the star fields. When the two met, they fell instantly in love and married soon after, but so preoccupied was Orihime with her new husband, that she stopped weaving, and Hikoboshi, for his part, neglected his herds and thus they wandered all over the heavens. At this, Tentei grew very angry and divided the two by the river Amanogawa (The Milky Way). Heartbroken at being wrenched from her lover’s side, Orihime fell upon her father and wept, begging for mercy and so Tentei decreed that, if Orihime worked hard the year round at her weaving, he would let the lovers meet on the seventh day of the seventh month every year. And so, to celebrate this reunion, the Japanese write wishes on colored paper and create paper chains and tie them on bamboo, some even floating them down rivers on small boats.

Now that you’ve got your history lesson for the day, let us proceed.

So, in honor of Tanabata, the restaurant had drinks for $2 on 7/5-7/7 and we made it just in time. As has somehow become my custom, I ordered soju (a type of rice or potato alcohol) cut with water, and my host mother started ordering a list of dishes off the menu for everyone to share. I don’t know if it is my host family alone, or if it is a common Japanese custom, but it seems that whenever we go out to eat, rather than each person ordering a dish for themselves, my host parents order about six or seven dishes and everyone shares, which is rather nice, I think as its more social and you get to try everything. To eat we had a shrimp and vegetable dish in a sort of sweet miso/soy sauce, cold potato salad with a hint of curry powder in it, squid and daikon (Japanese radish) cold in a sauce, pepper steak that fell off the bone it was so tender, grilled vegetables rapped in a thin bacon, thinner than American bacon and grilled on the grill (okra, zucchini, tomato and mushrooms), and all kinds of different yakitori (grilled chicken kabobs, sort of). And the one dish I did try (was coerced into trying) though I should have taken a hint from my host dad who just sat by and watched, was cold, raw chicken liver. Not a fan. Not. A. Fan. I somehow managed to get it down, but it took the rest of my soju to wash out the taste. Then there was a minced chicken sausage on a stick dipped in a raw egg and soy sauce (Japanese people eat raw eggs A LOT) and then rice which was served in a peculiar way. I suppose it was a more traditional way of serving it, but instead of a dish being brought out, we were given a wooden tray. On the tray was a dish of cold water which the rice serving spoon sat in (rice is sticky, so the water is to keep the server from sticking) and then there was a wooden, circular steaming box topped with a metal thing, which you open to reveal steamed sticky rice and vegetables.

Minus the raw liver (my own mistake), this was by far and away the best food I’ve had in the 10 months I’ve been here, and that’s up against some pretty tough competition. The chicken, in all its various forms, was so flavorful and tender and wonderful. And the ambience of the place was just an added bonus. Our waitress was dressed in a Yukata (a lighter, informal summer kimono), with a fan stuck in her sash/belt, and at one point, the manager came in carrying a spiral of incense (that serves as mosquito repellant) in a watermelon shaped hanging pot, to which my host dad replied, ‘Oh, that takes me back.’

So, though it was just going out to eat, something I’ve done several times now, this outing was more fun that I’ve had in quite a while. If you’re ever in the area, I highly advocate going to ‘Charcoal Grill Anko.’

These pictures here are of a bridge near my school which was built around a Tanabata theme with Orihime on one side (of the highway), her lover on the other, and the rest of the bridge is decorated with the various constellations cut into the concrete of the bridge.

PS - You may have noticed, but the layout is back to the one I had at the beginning. I figured it might be nice to finish how I started ; )

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Alice Nine - Fan Club Only - Concert

(More posts to come, about older goings-on, but since I had this one written already, I decided to go ahead and post it)

July 5th was the Alice Nine Fan Club Only ‘FLASH LIGHT from the Past’ concert. In hindsight, it really wasn’t all that different than other Alice Nine concerts, not to say I didn’t have a blast! Tour merchandise, as always, went on sale earlier than admission, starting at 3 o’clock. The various members of Alice Nine had actually designed special T-shirts for this fan club only concert, all but Tora’s using photographs Hiroto himself had taken (his shirt actually had a picture of his own lips on it, though it was graphic-designed up to look trendy and flashy). Unfortunately, not wanting to wait around for 3 ½ hours, I decided to wait until 4 to go, and by the time I got there, all the T-shirts were sold out. : (

I might mention that on top of rain, the humidity was about 130% on top of the 90 something degree temperature outside and everyone, packed in the first floor of Shibuya O-East, trying to stay out of the rain, was sweaty and all but melting. I was lucky in managing to secure a locker (though it cost $3 every time you open it), so for the first time ever, I didn’t have any baggage when I went into the venue.

Because of the sheer number of people packed in, they started admitting everyone a little early, and with ticket number 435, I was let in well before half of the crowd got through. Earlier, when I bought my obligatory towel, pamphlet and other goods, I had to get my ticket stamped and show my Fan Club ID card, so by the time I got up the stairs, it was no time before I was in the venue.

After a minimal amount of weasel-ing my way through the crowd, I managed to get closer to the stage than I ever have at any concert ever. I was dead center, fourth person from the stage (though by the end of it, I was a bit farther back). I met a nice Canadian girl who lives here, and we chatted for the remaining time before the live kicked off. As is always the way, the concert didn’t start on time, but after a 15 min. delay, the lights went off, everyone screamed, and a piercing, blinding, rotating circle of lights shot out toward the audience. In due time, the members came on stage.

I won’t give the blow-by-blow of every song and everything that happened, as the concert was 3 ½ hours long and it would take forever (and I’d be sure to forget something any way). But, suffice it to say, I was close enough to see the sweat running down their faces, the intricate detailing on their costumes, and the glitter on Saga’s half exposed chest (that’s Saga for you).

At one point, toward the end, Shou attempted a stage dive that didn’t quite work out since no one was really expecting it and it turned out being a surprise to everyone involved. Had I been adamant enough, like some people, I could have leapt over the tiny Asian next to me and touched his arm or something, but I heeded the advice of the stage hand when he asked everyone to get back and helped Shou back on stage. After that, during the encore, Saga attempted a stage dive and pulled it off successfully. For my part, I’m not much of a mosher or headbanger myself, but that didn’t stop me from getting shoved around and stepped on until I bled (my poor shoe choice for the night didn’t help). But who am I kidding, it was SO worth it.

The Mcing was long and I can’t really remember much of what was said. Saga talked about his computer, Nao talked about Akihabara, Hiroto talked about his photos and designing the T-shirts, Tora hardly talked at all. Same old, same old. However, at one point the band made as if they were going to go off stage, and then, as Nao, always the last to exit, was about to disappear behind the curtain, he jogged backwards to his place behind the drums, and in due time, Saga came back out and, taking up his bass, led a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday to You.’ It was Shou’s birthday after all, and as Tora pushed him back out on stage, from the opposite side, Hiroto and their manager came wheeling out a two tier cake decorated with tall, lit candles. The band and the audience sang another chorus, the lights dimmed, and Shou blew out the candles, or at least attempted to. Everyone congratulated him and Hiroto handed him a fan which was decorated on one side with Shou’s angel bunny, and on the other had all the bands icon characters. Shou had to use this to extinguish the few obstinate, straggling candles that remained lit. It came out then that Nao had hand made the cake, and upon looking at it closer from my standpoint, I could just make out the homemade-ish icing job, and the green gel flowers decorating the sides. Shou stuck his finger in it and pulled out a chunk, tasting it and proclaiming it delicious, then after saying he was so happy about the homemade cake (‘Meccha Ureshi desu’), he jogged up behind the drums and gave Nao a hug. There was a little more talking, then Shou started singing Happy Birthday again, and everyone was baffled. Confused as we were, the audience took up the song halfway through and discovered, by Shou’s lead, that we were singing this time for Saga, who’s birthday just passed. Then, from the side of the stage where Shou had earlier emerged, their manager wheeled out another cake with candles, unlit, that was covered with roses and carnations. Hiroto stepped forward to light the candles and Nao explained how everyone felt bad that Saga’s birthday didn’t fall on the day of a concert (nor does Hiroto’s it would seem, as he proclaimed himself jealous), and so they thought they’d make up for it tonight by celebrating it then. Saga, embarrassed, protested that they shouldn’t have gone through the trouble, then blew out the candles and received his fan, saying he’d been suspicious of Hiroto for a while, thinking he might have something planned.

After that the concert got underway again. Shou, in reference to a promise months ago in a magazine interview he’d done with Tora, actual did some Djing with two turntables that had been set up on stage, playing with the commercial jingle for Meiji chocolate (the choco-la-to song). That got everyone stirred up again.

They finished with an encore of heavy songs and after exiting the stage, the lights stayed off and two big screams began playing the music video for ‘Senkou,’ which was phenomenal and only reconfirms my suspicions of it being my all time favorite Alice Nine song. (During the concert, they had also played the other new songs on their new, unreleased album, btw). After the video was over, there was a short montage of pictures of Nao, with his red hair and oversized sunglasses, baking Shou’s cake, and then the lights went up and it was over.

Standing there I felt like I was either going to suffocate or die from the heat (you were pretty much drinking in body heat the whole 3 ½ hours without letup, but thankfully, it didn’t take too long for everyone to filter out.

Instead of spending the money on train fare, I decided to go ahead and walk through the heat back home, since the venue was already sort of down that direction. From downtown Shibuya, it takes about 25 min. to walk to my apartment, but I decided I’d much rather contend with the heat at a slow pace, then with packed trains in Shibuya, and since it wasn’t raining, I just walked home. After stopping by the conbini (convenience store) across the street from my place and buying the customary soda, carton of Jasmine Tea, small individual ice cream and spicy udon with gyoza that you just heat up (the same thing I get after every concert, without fail), I hurried into my cool apartment and collapsed.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Catching Up

Hey there guys! Sorry I haven't posted in ages. I've been so busy the last few weeks that I've been on the go with stuff to do everyday and haven't had time to write about anything. I updated with two days as you'll see below, and I have two more to do before I'm caught up, so those are to follow. We're in the countdown now, and my schedule is filling up fast with things to do. I leave on the 30th and it's going to be non-stop until then. I'll post as often as I can!

Also, for those coming back from Japan...

If you find that you've got too much stuff and not enough luggage to pack it in, you might consider shipping stuff home. If things are too heavy, it can get pretty pricey, but if you pack light boxes (and don't care if it takes a while getting to your home), it might be a great alternative to loading down your luggage. Here's the website for JapanPost, in English, and it tells you all you need to know about shipping stuff home, how much it costs, etc.

KimuTaku's Mom's Speech

June 26th was the day of KimuTaku’s mom’s speech here at the shrine. Because was a Saturday and the BIG tea ceremony is coming up, we still had tea class per the usual, albeit a little earlier than normal. Expecting that I would get leave from class early (since I was going to be pitching in to help with things all night), I was antsy to have my turn and then go back upstairs and change (I’m wearing Yukatas and Kimonos now, every week). Unfortunately, for whatever reason, I was kept around as audience for everyone else’s ceremonies as well, and by the time I got to go up and change, I only had about and hour and a half to change a relax before going back down to make preparations for the speech that night.

I’d made plans to have dinner with several of the ladies in the class, and Miho, the girl from the host club tour, at the local (literally next door) ramen place. The place is your typical ramen restaurant, no tables, only a bar, and when you enter you buy a ticket for whatever kind you want (yes, there are SEVERAL types of different ramen) at the vending-like machine in the corner, then sit down on a stool and hand it to the guy behind the counter. You’re given a glass of water, though there’s a pitcher full of it for replenishing, standing next to the napkins and jars of dried garlic and other toppings. When your orders done, the cook places a massive bowl before you with a spoon and chopsticks and you go to town, though its extremely hot, thus the slurping. Japanese people slurp their soup and noodles, and I think part of the reason is to cool it down as they eat. Instead of waiting for things to cool, or blowing on hot food like Americans do, the Japanese never wait, but slurp it in, thereby cooling it, or chew loudly with their mouth open, which cools the food within. These things are not rude eating customs in Japan. If you’ve eaten all your noodles but still have lots of soup left, you can order more noodles only (I forget what the word is), which usually cost 100 yen (sort of, about $1), and the cook brings the strainer over and plops them right into the soup for you.

Anyway, I’d thought that I was going to get to go to the ramen place with everyone to eat, but instead my mom had me stay with her and the other girls that work at the shrine and we busied ourselves laying out fliers on the folding chairs and serving tea to the boorish patrons of the shrine that sat down with my host dad and smoked and, presumably, talked about finances. About an hour before the shindig was set to start, when my host mom was entertaining the aforementioned patrons, KimuTaku’s mom came in and I welcomed her and we chatted a bit, then she was shown into one of the tea rooms to change. Instead of a formal looking outfit, which I had suspected she would wear, she changed into an avante-garde looking thing that seemed to me to be halfway between a jogging suit and a kimono. It was purple and very strange. Then she went out for a walk.

When the patrons finally finished their talk, my host mother hurried myself and the other helpers into a side room and we all scarfed down (as fast as we could) the sushi bentos that were our dinner. In short order, people started arriving and taking their seats.

The topic of the speech, ‘Being a Good Mother’ wasn’t of particular interest to me, but still, I’d been looking forward to the speech, and since I’d gone to the trouble of helping out, was hoping that I might get to sit back with like the other girls who’d helped, and watch. But, unfortunately, when the twins (4 yrs. old) started getting loud and fussy, my host mom had me take them upstairs and entertain them. It was more or less their bed time, so they were fussy already, and to make matters worse, I couldn’t figure how to switch the TV over to the cartoon channels, but we drew in my sketching book and made paper airplanes, and for about an hour and a half things went by fine. But, as kids are wont to do, they remembered they had a mother and missed her and insisted on going back downstairs. And their arrival was loud and caused a ruckus loud enough to interrupt the speech. At that point, I got to see about the last 20 min. of the speech, before bowing everyone out the door.

I got my picture with Mrs. Kimura, then myself, the other helpers and the two boy scouts (for lack of a better word since they’re both in college and my age) that I’d met with and cleaned dishes with before one night a month ago, all helped to put the chairs away. And that was really about it. There was no glamour to it and though I was told the speech was quite wonderful, what I heard of it only seemed to reinforce the ever-present ‘good wife, wise mother’ mentality that is imposed upon young Japanese women today. But that’s the stuff for my gender class, not my blog.

My Second Lion's Club Party

I'm sorry this has taken so long, and I know its about two weeks old now, but here you go!

The 23rd marked the day of my second Lion’s Party and, as with the last one, it was very plush and elegant. I will be the first to say that I love taxi rides as opposed to the train for the simple fact that I don’t like having to walk to and from the station and wonder about how many people I’m going to have to shove through to get to the exit and if I can do it before the doors close. So, after I got dressed up in my black Hawaiian Moo Moo that my host mom bought be on their recent trip, we all three got in a Taxi and made for Roppongi Hills, to the Roppongi Hills tower to be exact, entering through the elaborate covered garage that we’d gone through before on the Host Club Hato Bus tour. Instead of dining at the Hyatt, however, the Lion’s Club had reserved an elite, members only club dining area on the 52nd floor of the tower that overlooks the west side of Tokyo. However, before gaining entrance to the dining area, my host father signed us in and we were all given one bingo card and a ticket which would gain us admittance to the Mori Art museum (yes, there’s an art museum at the top of the mall), and the ‘Sky Deck.’ Not being a particular lover of art museums (and hardly an afficienado), we decided to forego that adventure and head straight for the sky deck.

Because the wind can be a force, and to assure that you don’t drop anything, the people waiting before the elevator to check your ticket tells you to stow all things but a camera in the lockers right there, which we did and then boarded the elevator. I’m not sure for certain what floor the roof is, but I’d guess somewhere around 56 if asked. The elevator lets you out into a pathway covered on all sides by white metal poles, a cage like sort of area that is reminiscent of those things that hold laser lights above the stage at concerts. My host dad said it reminded him of the sort of place Jack Bauer would have a shootout in “24,” and I couldn’t deny it. We went up a metal staircase and were standing on the very top of the Roppongi Hills tower, right beside the Helipad, and, after walking around the edge (don’t worry, not the real edge), we could look off in the sunshine toward Odaiba and Rainbow Bridge, the going a little further, we were looking down on Tokyo Tower, not far away. Then there was the Tokyo Dome and far in the distance, the Tokyo Sky Tree, which is still under construction but is going to be the highest building in Tokyo. Attempting to get a shot of the Helipad itself, I turned around the opposite way and lo and behold, to my shock and surprise, in the pink-tinted clouds nearing sunset, was the top of Mount Fuji, standing tall and majestic. Everyone, my party and the emerging Lions members all scurried around the fringe to the other side where we spent most of the rest of our time gazing contentedly at the beauty of Mount Fuji (though, much to my frustration, my camera wouldn’t get it in focus) If you click on this picture and make it bigger, you can sort of see Mt. Fuji there.

We had hoped to see Tokyo at sunset, but unfortunately, the dinner was set to start before, so we were all reluctantly herded back down the metal staircase, into the waiting elevator, and then issued into the plush dining area where we would spend the rest of our evening. We were seated at table C, by the windows, in clear sight of the projector screen, the podium and the large Lions banner that hung listlessly over in the corner, suspended by a gold, metal stand. There was a speech by some bigwig to start things off, and as dinner began being served, someone at the front started a slideshow, though most of the tables, ours included, ignored it almost completely, preferring to eat and chat instead. Myself, I only caught a few points of the powerpoint, namely the shots of the men planting rice in rice paddies, and then a talk which my host dad did at certain middle schools, warning of the dangers of drugs.

For dinner we had red wine and white wine, rolls of two kinds, and several courses. The first course was scallops and Canadian lobster with vegetables and salad which was good, but I’m not a big lobster fan. Next was a slice of daikon (Japanese radish) under foi gras, and this was, by far, the best dish of the evening (it tasted like a strange but delicious combination of scrambled eggs, bacon fat and popcorn). Then there was sirloin steak with a potato and pesto croquette and some vegetables, and then desert was fruit with an ice cream/whipped cream thing. After that was served and devoured, everyone got settled for a round of bingo and I won sometime around the middle. Going up to the podium, I was told to select from a large collection of mysterious white paper tote bags, and upon opening mine, one seated safely at my table, I found that I’d won an electric teapot, which I actually use quite a bit, it turns out. After that, the lady who was at the last party, the one who sings the theme song for Miyazaki’s “Totoro” movie got up and did a speech, basically announcing that she had a concert coming up and inviting everyone to come. But she did sing the Totoro song, which was cool, but wasted on me, as I’m not anything close to an Anime person.

After that, the men were called up one by one to introduce themselves and their families, and then present a small box to their wives as a way of thanking them for all their hard work raising kids and taking care of the men themselves. When my host father’s turn came, my host mom dragged me up front with them too, saying I was a daughter so I had to be introduced, which was my dad saying, “This is Rebecca, an exchange student who’s staying with us for the year. She’s perfect with Japanese, here say something.” Then he shoved the mic at me, catching me completely off guard, and all I could think to say was “Yoroshiku Onegaiitashimasu” (a pleasantry often said in Japan which more or less means, ‘I’m in your care/Please after me’). Then he presented not only my host mom, but myself as well, with one of these mysterious little boxes. Naturally, as soon as I’d gotten back to my seat, I opened it to reveal a crystal box, about the size of a ring box, and inside was a tiny, preserved purple rose with a Swarovski crystal stuck on it. Not bad, huh?

That was really more or less the evening. A lot of the time was spent chatting to the other people at the table, and then at the end we all stood up and gave the ‘Lion’s roar’ which is a sort of cheer for the club, then we broke apart and left by taxi. The thought I was left with from the evening was how very much I want to marry a super rich person so that I can always do stuff like that.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Club Ai (The Host Club Bus Tour)

So, yesterday was the much anticipated ‘Host Club’ Bus Tour and it lived up to the anticipation, though it was quite different than I’d hoped/expected. I got done up, and my host mom, her friend and myself met up at our local train station around 3:30 and made our way over to Tokyo station, which is where the Hato Bus Tour’s main hub is, and where we get on the bus for our tour. The day was a dismal rainy day with the added torture of violent humidity. Evidently this season is called ‘Ume no Ame’ which means Plum Rain. The technical part of it comes from this season being plum season and also being Japan’s rainy season (much like April in States), but with the added bonus of torturous humidity. Every time you step outside it’s like stepping into the locker room at an indoor pool, or standing directly in front of a heater. And it makes you sweat something terrible.

So, we arrived at Tokyo station, the largest station in the city, and wound our way around to the South Marunouchi exit, which is where you have to exit out to find the bus terminal. We had a little time to kill, so we wandered through the many sweet shops within the station, forever debating on what to buy for one of my mom's friends (as it was her birthday we were celebrating by going on this tour). We debated over some banana baumkuchen, which is only sold at that station, but eventually through what seemed to be shrewd rationalization, my host mother decided against buying anything. That killed about 45 min. and we plunged out into the rain, found the various bus’ leaving points and then waited inside a small shack area on benches with other tour patrons for the rest of our party to get there.

When it hit 4:55, an announcement sounded and we all piled back out into the rain, springing our umbrella’s to life, and found our particular bus at #2. There were actually quite a few people with us on the host club tour, somewhere around 35 in all. Our party was seven, there was a party of four younger girls who had dressed up for the occasion, and then a bunch of older ladies ranging between the ages of 50 and 70.

We set off.

Passing the Imperial Palace and the Diet building, our young guide girl tried desperately to keep our attention with her explanations of the Tokyo sights, but no one was listening, finding their own party’s conversation to be much more lively. We wound through busy streets into Roppongi, shops on either side of us springing to life as their signs all lit up for the early dinner rush. We pulled into a covered maze that was half-road, half-parking garage and then we took a turn into a small alcove that opened onto the Grand Hyatt hotel. There were no parking spaces in this small area paved with bricks rather than cement. Instead, there were about 8 cars reclining at their leisure in the space: BMWs, Rolls Royce, Jaguars, all manner of sleek, expensive cars.

We hopped down the steps of the bus and into the marble-floored side entrance of the Hyatt where the wooden walls extended up two stories and glass vases as tall as myself boasted reed-looking plants or muted-colored stones. We made our way past elite looking men in suits to a staircase and found ourselves at the front desk of the restaurant. It seems that the perk of the tour is that you get to dine before the restaurant even opens, so we were immediately led inside by a smart looking woman with short hair and a black suit. We walked past a luscious bar of mahogany or some such other wood, where the bartender in his vest and tie was getting ready for the dinnertime rush. Our party was seated at a long dining table at the back beside a window, though with the rain pouring down, there wasn’t much to see. The wall facing me had three tall square niches with a glass shelf and a tall glass vase that held a reed and limes, playing to the modern, minimalist fashion of the whole hotel. Off to our left were two massive glassed-in wine coolers that stood a story tall, such that a stainless steel ladder was built to slide across from one to the other, should one need a bottle at the top. There must have been over a hundred bottles of wine in each, perhaps two.

We all ordered drinks, the bulk of us asking for beer and in short order a waiter in a black suit and tie, like all the others, came out holding a frosted glass in one hand and the bottle in the other. Our dinner started with a long, thin, diamond-shaped roll, then the appetizer which was a small bit of salad and three slabs of some cold meat concoction that harbored pork, dark sausage and was ringed in chicken skin. I wasn’t a big fan. Next came a cup of cold soup that was orange, but tasted rather like cream than anything else. Then was our main dish of a grilled scallop and grilled Tai (which is a Pacific Sea Bream eaten in Japan, usually for times of celebration), with some cut vegetables and a small dollop of mashed potatoes. Then we had coffee and dessert, which was raspberry sorbet and a cake filled with raspberry cream and mango (or passion fruit, not sure which). All in all, it was pretty tasty and quite fancy. You know as soon as you sit down and see an assortment of forks, knives and spoons, that you’re in for fancy fixins.

After that we went in search of the bathroom and finally found it, after having to stop a lady passing by in a rush to ask where it was. Because there were 7 of us, it took us some time to all get done and we were late getting back to the bus, but nothing was said of it. Again, we took off, back into the rain, toward Shinjuku and Kabukicho. It was 7pm when we took off, and the prime time for traffic in Tokyo, so despite the distance between Roppongi and Shinjuku not being all that far, it took us about 45 min. to get there, and after unloading onto the sidewalk of the busy main street in front of Kabukicho, our chipper little tour guide led us through the winding back alleys for about 15 min., to Club Ai.

I am convinced that one can see Club Ai from outer space. The shop is like the Vegas Strip, beaming neon blue lights and glitter. If one were to imagine that Vegas ate a particularly old piece of confetti birthday cake and then threw it back up, you would have Club Ai. That’s the unofficial origin story of the place, at least as I tell it.

I was urged to go first and thus took the lead in going down the steep, straight stairway past mirrors and gold random things and all other manner of knick-knacks, to the man waiting below who asked for the number of our party. Then some host who I didn’t even get a real look at led me through into the club, past a standing line of 10 guys who rang out the customary ‘Irasshaimase’ (Welcome) as I jaunted by. Now I am going to try to compare/contrast Club Air (the one I’ve been to before), and Club Ai for you.

As the man held out a hand for me, showing me which were our seats, I was confronted with old, 70s or 80s fashioned sea green leather sofas, the sort that you can no longer buy anywhere because they went out of style about 10+ years ago. We piled in, myself and the birthday girl sitting at the end, and in due time, our hosts (six of them) sat down opposite, an old, gnarled wooden table, scarred and stained, sitting boldly between us. Above, behind, beside, beyond, the place was covered in mirrors and neon Christmas lights and plastic chandeliers and random knick-knacks (we’re talking picture frames that still have the picture of the married couple in it that came with it). And the place is lit up like the waiting room in a hospital, the florescent lighting killing any and all ideas of mood lighting. So, the interior was a main topic of conversation as our host sporadically filled our soju glasses with tea from a plastic pitcher that you can get at a dollar store (literally, cause I have the same one). I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, I know it does.


In contrast, when you walk into Club Air, everything is sleek and black and eloquent. The lighting achieves a romantic glow, light enough to see everything but dark enough to make the atmosphere intimate and away from prying eyes, such that you feel like you and your little group is the only one in the room. The walls are either black wood or obsidian tiles, the seats that the customers sit in, an upholstered black and you’re served out of decanters.

Likewise, the hosts themselves are different. At Club Ai, our host, Yamato, was remarkably young in comparison to the majority of his co-workers, though there were a few that seemed to still be in their twenties. Most, I would guess, are somewhere around the mid-30s mark, and not many that would make you stop and stare after their good looks. In following with this, their overall images didn’t seem to me to be nearly so sleek or trendy, most of them having normal hairstyles, little to no accessories, and all of them wearing the typical black suit like you’d wear to a wedding or a funeral. No silk suits or perfectly spiked hair like you see at Club Air. So, moving on.

We sat down and just as a conversation started to get rolling between my host mom, myself and our host, Yamato, someone came to interrupt, though his appearance was a pleasant surprise.

Back 1970 (as this year is the club’s 40th anniversary), Club Ai was founded as the very first host club in the world by a man named Takeshi Aida, evidently a mattress salesman at the time (ironically). Now, even to those who know next to nothing about host clubs or the mizushobai (businesses like those of Kabukicho), still know this man’s face. With the big sunglasses, the cheezy mustache and being dressed like an old-timey mobster, it would be hard no to recognize him. All he’s missing is a fat cigar between his bejeweled fingers.

And it was he that came wandering up to our party, plopping down in the middle of us and posing for the cameras. Meanwhile, upon his approach, all of the hosts stood up from their stools and, almost as one, stepped back into a line formation as if giving him the spotlight. They obligingly took our cameras and snapped photos of him with us, laughing uproariously at anything he said.

He started down at the other end, then wobbled over to sit between me and the birthday girl, my host hurriedly dragging the heavy, scarred table out of his way as he ambled over and plopped down, placing a lecherous hand on both our legs. When he heard it was her birthday, he called for someone to bring us a free fruit plate, which was very kind, and then presented her with a small Dom Perignon cake thing in a tiny pink box (though later she said it was nasty to the point of being inedible). We took a few more pictures with him and he tried to talk to me, at first in English, then in Japanese. I’m not sure whether he was horrible drunk or just senile (he’s not a whippersnapper anymore after all), but everything he said came out slurred and barring on incomprehensible.

Eventually he wandered off and our hosts resumed their seats and things continued on. I talked a little to our host, asking how long he’d been doing it, how many hosts worked there (100), and maybe one or two more questions, but he spent most of his time trying to draw my host mom into conversation (picking up, I'm sure, on the fact that she has a lot more money than me).

His talking to her made up the bulk of our visit, though there was one interlude, a trip to the bathroom. My host mom and a few of the ladies voiced that they needed to go, and when I declined the offer, Yamato insisted eagerly that I should go and at least look at the bathroom. So I agreed and followed him past numerous tables, over a scarred dance floor, before the live band with a crooning woman at the microphone (yes, they had a band and a dance floor), past other tables where hosts sat by themselves looking bored or reclined along the booth, taking a nap, and I entered the bathroom where I found more chotckies, mirrors and pictures of the owner with various celebrities and other well-knowns, only one of which I knew.

I went back to the table with the others and before long, a rotund man in a suit with a booming voice announced that it was time to go and we all piled out and made for the front staircase again. There was a traffic jam at the bottom of the staircase, and the gaggle of idle, waiting hosts (about 10 of them), standing around, didn’t help. They all thanked us and one guy pushed his card into my hand as I was trying to make my escape.

Somehow we got past the wall of men and I started my ascent back out into the drizzly, humid, night-studded Kabukicho, Yamato following close behind, every so often warning me to watch my step. We all poured out of the opening like a damn breaking, and reassembled on the glittering pavement, Yamato and one other host following us out and chatting a little longer with us as the rest of the tour followed behind. When we were all back together, everyone said their last round of ‘thanks’ and ‘goodbyes’ and then we started wandering around the back alleys of Kabukicho, getting lost.

Eventually we hit upon the now-familiar pachinko complex/karaoke place where my host and I went that night a few weeks ago, and I realized where we were and how to get out, so I took the lead. And eventually we were going under the famous Kabukicho lighted, red gate and across the main street.

Now to my reflections/opinions about Club Ai. As far as a host club, I have to admit that I'm glad I went to one of my own choosing, on my own rather than relying on this experience to give me a good representation of what a host club is. I'm far from an expert on the matter (having only been to 2), but from things I've seen (heck, even from the host scouts on the streets), I think its fair to say that most other host clubs are like Club Air, to varying degrees, what with their cooler-than-live looks and attitudes. As I explained it to my mom, Club Ai seems to be where you go to chat and have a cocktail and complain about the stuff that bothers you about being a Japanese housewife. Club Air is where you go to fall in love, or rather, to enter into a fantasy, perfect relationship (whether it be love or friendship), with your perfect host who becomes whatever sort of person you want him to be. And I suppose, that difference shows why Club Ai is so different, yet still popular. As my mom put it, Club Ai is probably geared for ladies of an older crowd, older than the 20 or 30-something OLs (office ladies). The women who go to Club Ai are probably in their mid-40s or older and they want somewhere where they can drink and have a nice guy listen to their woes about their husbands and their children and all the other hardships about being a Japanese wife (I'm not being sarcastic here, it is tough for them as I've seen). And they want a place that's over-the-top, with older music where they can cut a rug. And being such a space, the hosts don't need to look like models, and have every hair perfectly in place, their eyebrows drawn on just right. Women of a certain age aren't usually coming to Club Ai looking for a love affair, they're coming to let there hair down and talk to someone who does, or at least pretends to, care. These ladies aren't impressed by bling.

Club Air is the opposite, as is reflected in the age of most of its patrons. So, while I'm glad I got to go to Club Ai, I wouldn't recommend going there if one wanted to go to a host club, especially through a tour because I don't feel it's a good representation of what they're like. But, that's just my two cents.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hospital Visits and Drunks in the Streets

So, I think I shall report the much happier news first. As of about 50 minutes ago, Japan won their first soccer match in the world cup (against Camroon) 1-0, and there are still choruses of victory yells echoing up to my window. Finally succumbing to curiosity, I went out and perched on my balcony, overlooking the street below. There are three drinking establishments within one block of my apartment, but it wasn't difficult to see which one the happy drunks were pouring out of (or rather, standing deliriously in front of). From my viewpoint it's hard to see much amid trees and buildings of what's directly below, but even so I could make out a rapturously happy young man (drunk I've no doubt) who was running in and out of the closest lane of traffic, dancing and high-fiving passengers driving by with their arms stretched out. As the light turned to red, he went out and stepped in front of a truck toting a Big Cat, which (whether planned or accidental I'm not sure), tapped him on the behind. The happy drunk then proceeded to go to the passenger side, open the door and hurl himself in with the driver, purloining the man's construction had and yelling 'We won! We won!' as the man agreed cheerily. As the light turned, the hat was returned and the drunk took off running down the sidewalk towards the uproarious voices of his friends farther down the street, pausing only briefly to do a handstand. As you might have guessed, Soccer is big here in Japan.

In other news, I've been to the hospital/clinic. Technically the place is a hospital (the 2nd floor has long term patients), though I shudder to truly call it that. The place is old. Picture, if you will, a small village of people on a remote island of Japan. In this small town, everyone knows everyone's name, most of the citizens are farmers and there's only one grocery store and one gas stand. The people are so far removed from the mainland that over the centuries, they've even taken to speaking in a way unrecognizable to the modern Tokyoite. There are no movie theaters and the young people born here resign themselves early on to follow in the footsteps of their forbears. They were born here and they will die here. There is but one hospital and you would have to dig a few feet down to find the plaque that says just when it was built. It's old and in disrepair, duct tape stuck helter skelter in the most necessary places, the ceiling slats sagging more from the years than any weight on them. On file cabinets and drawers, all the labels are peeling off or gone already. The tiles on the floors which once were white have now yellowed and lost their shine. The walls too are a yellowish cream color, though whether painted that way or weathered to be that way, no one can remember. The second floor is a mystery, the abstract place you can only get to by a staff stairway or a shifty, rattling elevator. The first floor has no patient rooms, only two long hallways which meet like an L, and at this meeting is the waiting room wherein sit an overgrown fishtank harboring a turtle, an analog TV and a young lady receptionist sitting behind one of the few computers in the entire building.

Got a good idea of it in your head? Not exactly what you'd expect to find in a techno savvy city like Tokyo, but that's just exactly where I went (more than anything because it is literally next door to the shrine here). Now, I must preface the rest of this by saying that I have been to visit other hospitals, university hospitals here in Tokyo and they are the epitome of luxury, technology and advancement, just exactly what you'd expect and very like the best hospitals in America. This particular place, however, was at the other end of things, and that's why I hesitate to call it a hospital, favoring the term clinic instead. The following account is not at all or in any way meant to be taken as what one should expect if they have to go to the doctor here in Japan. This is an exception.

Because there are no patient rooms, when your voice is called out over an intercom, you walk ahead down the hallway before you (not a long hallway, mind you) to a table the size of your average dining table which stands in the very center of the widest portion of the hallway. In the middle of the table are a collection of highlighters, pens, pads of paper, stamps and seals and two cups with metal instruments in them. A doctor and/or a nurse sit on stools around the table, ordering you to sit as you come in. In this place, there is no such thing as patient privacy. Everyone, you and whoever else is being seen at the time all sit with the medical people around a table and you tell them what's wrong. If you say your throat is sore (as was one of my symptoms) they pull a metal instrument out of one of the two cups on the table and use it as a tongue depresser, peering into your mouth with a mini flashlight before depositing the used untensil into the second cup. If they deem a further inspection of you necessary (more than just your word on the matter), there is a patient table at the end of the hallway (about 10 steps away) with a curtain that pulls around it. As I was having pain in my kidneys, the doctor poked around on my stomach (though didn't bother looking into the pain in my back despite me saying that's what hurt most), and then I was put down for blood tests, a urine test and a CT. How that little, old ramshackle hospital got the money for a CT machine, I've not the slightest clue. So, I got my blood drawn, peed into a dixie cup and then did the CT, the machine telling me in Japanese when I could and couldn't breath. I sat with my host mom in the waiting area, watching the turtle and TV sporadically for about 20 min. and then my name rang out over the speaker again.

I went back and recieved my diagnosis for everything but the liver test (had to go back in 2 days for that) and got a few prescriptions. Then came time to pay. This is legitimate advice for those traveling here. Many places will not take your insurance. No doubt you were made to buy international insurance of some sort from your school before departing abroad, but usually the way this works out is: you pay out of pocket at the time of the visit, keep your reciept, and when you get back home you are reimbursed. Same goes for the meds. The scary thing is, visits can be very expensive, and pills even more so. Even Japanese people with good insurance (like my host parents) complain about the price of medicine. I was lucky, only shelling out a few hundred for the visit and being perscribed cheap (if weak and ineffective) medicine which came out to be basically Tylenol, throat lozenges and Chinese Herbal medicine which tastes like swallowing incense. Luckily, when I went back two days later, having been sick for 10 days without let up, I saw a different doctor who gave me free samples of an antibiotic which seems to have kicked most of the problems. So anyways, that's been my latest adventure, if you can call it that. Let's hope I can hold myself together for the last leg of the race!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Club Air ~Grace~

So, an American friend of mine came to Japan on a college field trip this past week and just so happened to have a few days of more or less 'free time,' and she wanted to go to a host club, so I bit the bullet and took her.

On Sunday morning we’d gone to Kabukicho around 10, hoping to get into Club Air ~Precious~ for the morning shift (Sunrise to 11 it turns out). A handsome receptionist greeted us dubiously, then asked if we could wait there a moment while he went into the actual club to check on something. He came back basically saying in the politest way possible that “it would really help us if you’d come back some other time,” which more or less meant they were about to close (which we didn't realize at the time). So, we left the club and as we were walking out, we were immediately confronted by another host/scout who waved a coupon for his club at us and somehow or other engaged us in conversation. He was a nice enough lad, probably younger than myself, and average looking as far as hosts go. We talked for a short while (he wasn’t pushy at all, which I appreciated immensely), and then I said we had to go and he wished us a safe trip.

So, fast forward to Monday night and we’re determined to try it again. Thankfully, we’d learned our lesson the day before and didn’t have much trouble locating the club this time. Step-by-step going down the black staircase, my heart started to pound. I’d already had severe doubts about this whole venture, not sure that my Japanese was good enough to be able to converse for 2 hrs (hers either as she's behind me in Japanese class levels). Even so, she was determined to go, and I’d given her my word that we’d give it one last try.

Down the winding black staircase, like Alice through the hole, a wonderland awaited us. At the base of the stairs, all but one wall a solid black, their was a massive two way mirror, where you touch a panel on the left and it slides open to admit you into the dark reception area. Nothing but the black, wooden reception desk to the right adorns this vestibule, and as we walked inside, three men, deep in conversation, look up at our approach. The one leaning over a budgeting book was fairly good looking, but no host, that much was clear. Beside him, towering over all of us at well over 6 feet, was a thin young man in a suit with black hair falling into his eyes; he was no host either.

I ask if they’re busy, they say no. I say we’re first time customers (as if that wasn’t obvious enough) and we’re asked politely to show some ID (you have to be 20 to go to the club, as 20 is the legal drinking age in Japan). When we’ve done that, the staggeringly tall young man produces a menu-like book, opens it, and asks which service we’d like. For first time customers at that club there are two choices: 2 hrs. or Free Time. The 2 hrs. cost about $50 and you get 2 beers, unlimited soft drinks and a half a bottle of soju. If you go over two hours it costs $15 ever extra half hour. The Free Time costs $100 but gets you a bottle of champagne and there is no overtime. I thought (naively, as it turns out), that 2 hrs. would be more than enough time, so I chose that and then, without further ado, he let us through another passageway and into the club.

Club Air is one of the classier, and thus more expensive, clubs you can go to, but the quality is immediately noticeable as you enter inside. The interior is primarily black, the seats black, the floors black, the walls tiled with shiny obsidian that are so clear you can see your reflection in them. In places along the walls, silver, curling designs of mirror break up the dark colors, streams of crystal chains hang like curtains to separate individual booth-like tables from each other, almost hiding those within from any outsider’s view. There is a small disco ball hanging off to the right, surreptitiously, near the pyramid of standing crystal champagne glasses that are lit from below in a glass case. To get a better idea of what the place looks like, you can watch the end of the first episode of the drama Yamato Nadeshiko Shichi Henge (starring Kame from Kattun), as the end of that episode takes place in this actual club.

So, we’re seated in a corner and there is a guy waiting for us. He asks us what we want to drink first and I order soju, then he hands us ‘the book’ and acts us to make our first selections. ‘The book,’ is a binder full of all the pictures of all the hosts that work at the club (28 to be exact). You sift through them and choose which one you want to meet first. At host clubs (any host club), your first visit is different than any repeat visit. One difference is that it’s much, much, much cheaper. Another major difference is that you actually get to meet pretty much all the hosts. The reason for this is so that you know which one you want to choose on your second visit. Starting on the second visit, you pay more for the table charge, you have to pay an unholy amount of tax, and you have to pay what they call a ‘nomination fee.’ The nomination fee is meant to appear separate, but is in fact mandatory. On your second visit, you choose which host is to be ‘your host’ from them on, and you cannot change, no matter what, regardless of if you start to like someone else better or not. The nomination fee is so that the club knows who to accredit your money to, which in turn raises your particular host's status in the club, helping to further him in his attempt at hitting the #1 rank.

So anyway, we picked our guys and in no time, mine was right there and with him came another, tall but young kid. Mine was very energetic and of course, handsome, looking sort of like the lead singer of The KIDDIE. He tried to teach us a game having to do with numbers and thumbs, which failed miserably as I couldn’t quite work out the rules, but his main purpose was to get us drinking, one which he succeeded at (after about the first 30-40 min, they stopped trying to get us to drink). As far as the drinking goes, you have a regular-sized glass and the hosts have small glasses, which they fill up with ice. Some of them did drink alcohol, and always asked if they could, but I would say that most of them just kept to water. When they would sit down, they would say ‘Cheers’ and clink glasses with you, and they would do this again when they were about to leave, thanking you for your time. Another side note: every one of them asked the same two questions. 1) Do you have a boyfriend (I’m assuming this is to figure out if you’re there because you’re lonely/want a fake relationship) and 2) What type of guy do you like (so they know what to act like). I was also often asked how old I was.

So, after my first guy (Natsuki), I got Hikaru (aka Handsy), who, despite being my anti-type, the sort that I deem my very opposite, turned out to be the one I begrudgingly admit that I liked the best. But we’ll get to that later. Up until he came, the hosts had been sitting across the tables from us, but he bounded right over, moved the cushion out of the way and slid in right beside me. Two other guys came over, presented their cards (they all do this before they sit down), and made a few feeble attempts to get my attention away from Hikaru, but to no avail, as he somehow managed to have my undivided attention. But, in my defense, he started off with a magic trick. How is a girl supposed to win against that? He then started down the path of blatant lies and flattery, telling me how beautiful I was, how soft my skin was, etc. (you get the picture). Then he showed off his muscles and his extremely expensive accessories, and again, you get the picture. Hikaru is, in short, the stereotype of a host. He was the only one that went on and on with the compliments and flattery. I mean, he even did the old ‘let’s compare hands’ thing, for crying out loud!

After him followed the Yamapi look-alike, and then a steady stream of guys who each stayed at least 20 min., sometimes more before 'changing' out. Some were higher ranking hosts, some were ‘helpers,’ and it was usually clear which was which. Of the string of guys that were my hosts, only about four stand out of the mix after ol' Handsy, though I hardly even spoke to the ones who were more or less my friend’s. One was a very nice, probably quite young guy who had a boy-next-door feel. Like the others, after about 10 min. he made the excuse of ‘Japanese hosts sit over here,’ and moved in beside me, but he was rather unthreatening and we had a very long, intelligent conversation. He said he usually worked at a club in Roppongi, and I asked him about being a host, and he said that it had it’s hard times, but that on the whole it was fun because he got to talk about all different kinds of things with different kinds of people. We also talked about the economy, about the strength of the yen against the dollar and how most countries seemed to be in a slump.

Then there was the Oguri Shun kid. He really did look just like Oguri Shun at about 16 years old, with longer red-and-blond streaked hair. He said he was 23, but man he looked young. He stayed for a long time with us and we chatted about American bands (he’s in a group as a drummer that plays covers of American songs), and about him being a host. He said that at the club, they don’t have janitors or anything, but that they all stay after close and have to clean the place top to bottom before the morning shift comes in.

And then there was Michi, my second favorite. He was the spitting image of Hee Chul from Super Junior, red hair and all, but with the exact opposite personality. He was quite reserved, but seemed markedly intelligent to me. Whether he was typically that quiet or not was hard to tell because the cutey that came with him for my friend was rather loud and rambunctious. We didn’t talk about a whole lot, but he said he’d been told that he looked like Shou from Alice Nine, which I didn’t entirely see, though perhaps a little in the eyes. When I mentioned/explained about him looking like Hee Chul, he laughed and proclaimed himself ‘global.’

One random anecdote is when I had to go to the bathroom. If you have to go, you tell them and whoever's with you will walk you to the bathroom and open the door for you (the guy I was with jokingly asked if I wanted him to stay), and then they wait outside (not directly outside the door, mind you), for you, and when you come out, they hand you a warm hand towel and walk you back to your seat.


Certainly the language thing was an obstacle. There were times when I spent a lot of my time talking more to my friend’s host than my own simply be means of being a translator, though the boisterous kid mentioned above was clever, taking out a napkin and writing what few English words he knew on it (like ‘example’) and then, in the conversation, when he’d say those words in Japanese, he’d point to the word on the paper. You’re probably curious about what we talked about in general. Of course I was asked where I was from and a little bit about America (what a typical American date is like, for instance), we talked a lot about language, about music, about food, things we like to do in our private time, where we like to go, but also about things like the economy, politics, etc. There was (which I found surprising), very little fawning over me, which was just fine, and I thought it was interesting and slightly unexpected that they would actually talk about their personal lives, their hobbies, where they live. And you could ask them anything and they would answer you (like my asking about their work as a host). But on the whole, the conversations were as different as the guys themselves.

Our last host came in around the last half hour. He was a half Brazilian/half Japanese guy named Gin, who could speak some English, and we talked with him about the peculiarities of Japan, and how Westerners typically think that Asian men are effeminate. There were a few champagne calls and, as the lights dimmed, he would leave to join the group of hosts surrounding whoever had ordered the champagne. The would sing, waving huge red fans that read ‘Festival’ on them until the champagne was poured and then the woman would make a comment into a microphone. At around 12:15/12:30 (bear in mind, the shop ‘closes’ at midnight), the #1 host was given a microphone and , as the lights dimmed again, the words to a song came up on the various screens hanging from the ceiling around the club and he sang the Last Song. (This was the first and only time I ever saw the #1 host, except watching him go back and forth with his arms slung around various girls. Strangely enough, he was the only one dressed casual of all the guys, as everyone else looked sharp in trendy suits whereas he was wearing a printed T-shirt, jeans and a vest.)

When I asked Gin about why the place was still open, he said that they officially stop business at midnight and the customers have to be out by 1, otherwise the cops will come in and arrest people (as there’s now a law against host/hostess clubs, and other business of the Mizushobai [as these sorts of businesses are called] being open between 1 am and sunrise). This had to be true, because on the taxi ride back, I saw a few cops lazily meandering the streets.

So, our bill came and we were asked who we wanted to escort us out. I chose Michi (the Hee Chul guy), and my friend picked Anji, who it turns out is actually #2 at that club and one of the bosses. So, we were led back to the vestibule where Michi and Anji were waiting, and we ascended the staircase together. Michi offered me his arm and then asked if he could give me a hug, as we reached the top of the stairs. Of course, I obliged. Then, as they wished us a safe journey home, we walked about 10 feet to a waiting taxi and started back.

Now, I have to apologize for my stupidity. See, you’re allowed to take a picture with up to three people and, foolish as I am, I totally forgot, so I don’t have any picture to offer you except of the handful of business cards I was given. If I go again, I promise to take a picture to show you, and my friend has one of the outside of the club, so I’ll upload that too, when she sends it to me.

Anyway, so there’s a quick course in host clubs. I would encourage you to go, but would have you heed this advice: First of all, if you’re going to go, you need to be able to understand about 80% of Japanese conversation. If you can’t, it’s not going to be that much fun because at a host club, 99% of it is talking and only about 1% is drinking. So you’re going to be talking, non stop, for about 4 hours. It may not be the most intellectual conversation you could have, but it’s still going to require some Japanese language skills. If you can’t do it, it’s going to be boring for you and hard for your host. Secondly, and lastly, I would caution you to go only if your visiting, not living in, Japan, or if you only have a short amount of time left. Because these guys make a career of getting women to fall in love with them, and inevitably, one of them will succeed with you. And host club going is a VERY expensive hobby/addiction. You need to have limits on yourself so you don’t go broke. I’m just sayin’. But it is a blast, not gonna lie.

Here’s the page of hosts for the club I went to ‘Club Air ~ Grace~,’ which is owned by a company called Air Group (which owns all the other clubs on this page [at the top]). As you can see, there’s the top 5 hosts ranked for this month at the top, then all the others below, with the last three being staff/not hosts. Have a look around the site and enjoy, but fyi, they look nothing like their pictures (not better or worse, just different).