Monday, July 12, 2010

What the Hell Am I Doing in Japan?

A couple months ago, I tagged along with my friend and visited Japan for about 10 days. My friend is kind of a special case, which led to an interesting experience and a surreal atmosphere. The best way to explain how it was for me is to write a short story, interspersed with random pictures. This is a recollection of my first night there.

In my life long quest to culture my mind, I take consolation in what must be an indisputable fact, happening right now, this very second: I am the most tolerant man in the world.

Part of earning this title dictates that I take no pride, I receive no thanks, and nobody else even notices. There is no ceremony, no plaque, no award, no fan club, and that's fine. The Most Tolerant Man in the World accepts these things, it's in his nature, it's in his blood. In the face of unbearable tension, when the air is tattered with frenzy and panic, when a situation calls for every right for you to speak up and be aggressive, when you have the opportunity to back up that aggression with substantial reasoning for your actions, when those actions are those that anyone could relate to, anyone couldn't blame you for carrying out, when you could punch someone in the face and no judge in the world would convict you, I don't act. I don't speak up, I tolerate. I'm just here. No choice.

I am in Japan with my friend Jim, who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome. He's also a psychopath. A tactless person with ill intent would call him a psychotic retard. Interpreted in many ways, this affliction in his case right now means that he does not have the mental capacity to shut the fuck up under any circumstances. We've just arrived and it's dark. As dark as Tokyo can get, at least - the streets are carved alleyways, a maze of canals, each side lit with unabashedly disorganized signs in every color. Street lamps are unnecessary when there are all these signs. Most are in Japanese, but some try their best to tell me something in English - "Hang-o-bar: Gonna Have a Hangover." Okay then. I really like one sign in particular - "Freshness Burger." That's such a perfect name. How can you read that and not want a Freshness Burger? I could eat that sign.

The streets are chock full to the brim, solid people. Jim is having his first of soon to be many panic attacks. He is sprinting ahead of me, people darting out of his way, stomping his feet hard on the ground, like the street were magnetic and his shoes were steel. I meekly follow, because there's nothing else I can do. He's been here before, 3 years prior, and he speaks fluent Japanese. I thought it would be fun to tag along, but I knew what I was getting myself into. In situations of this nature, people more often than not perceive themselves and only themselves as "the normal one." I do feel normal, despite being in a foreign land, one of two white people on this crowded street on a Sunday night. I also feel very tired, having not slept in 30something hours. I can't even do the math right now. I don't try to catch up to Jim, I just walk, towing my bag behind me, its plastic wheels roaring at the pavement.

Jim is running because nobody was at the hostel to check us in. Running for the sake of running. He isn't thinking, he doesn't know what else to do. It happens, I'm used to it, it's fine. There wasn't a Plan B. Planning and foresight didn't cross our minds. "This is Japan," we said. "Nothing's going to make sense." Us hardly planning anything didn't make sense either. I was comfortable with that, only now we have to decide what to do. Jim has stopped running. I don't notice, I actually pass him. He's standing in the street, loudly muttering to himself.

"What do y--"


When he's in this state, Jim has an infuriating habit of saying "What?" immediately after you try and say something to him. I want to snap at him for less than a second, like a pilot of a passenger plane going into a dive just for fuck's sake. I don't. I am tolerant.

"What do you want to do?"

"Food. We need food. I'll find something that's open. I remember there was a ramen place, this shitty hole in the wall, steamy, it smelled bad, where is it? It should be over here, it's not, is it gone? I don't know anymore, this street is different. This shouldn't be different, why is this different?"

"I thi--"


"I think we should keep walking, okay?"

He doesn't respond, we keep walking. We'll think of something. We pass an alleyway, the concrete looks fresh and its well lit. It's about 60 degrees Fahrenheit right now.

"Sleeping on--"


"Sleeping on the street wouldn't be horrible."

"I recognize the post office, and that's the ATM. Yeah..."

There's a long pause. He seems to be calming down.

"Not horrible. People sleep on the street all the time here, no one cares. It's not all... dirty, filthy. Oh, dude, in this Yazawa video from like, 1986, the same time he did this commercial for Coke..."

This is normal. Random run-on sentences about whatever, gesturing wildly, I barely listen, because I barely know what he's talking about. It's fine. I keep going back to that - it's fine. It really is fine, I notice. There's no life or death danger here. So we might not sleep, who fucking cares.

He's still talking about nothing. It helps him, he's got all this shit in his head, and his only recourse, or at least the only one he's able to use, is to talk, a lot, about everything. I realize I'm also calming down also, physically. It feels nice. I didn't know how much stress I had, I couldn't tell in my enhanced state of exhaustion.

"...stupidest video ever, it's hilarious, he doesn't care, what does he care, he's rich, just... does whatever he wants. 'I'm gonna make a video for this song where I'm just dancing in slow motion with these chicks in this red room, the end.' How awesome is th-- is that a fucking rooster?"

We listen. It is a fucking rooster.

"What time is it?" I ask as I'm pulling out my phone. It's 11:13.

"A rooster is crowing, in Tokyo, in TOKYO, at 11 at night."

"That's actually a rooster."

"Yeah," Jim says matter-of-factly.

"That's not fake, that's a rooster."


"What the HELL?"


"How do you even... how do you decipher 'cock a doodle doo' from that? It's just some... insane dolphin howl-cough."

Jim is laughing. "Yes." He clearly enunciates the word in a way that expresses his approval. "And now it's an album title."

I poorly impersonate a rooster. We laugh. People on the street are staring. We're still laughing.

"Hey, a taxi," I say and point.

Jim is thinking. "Okay."

We approach and immediately the trunk of the car melodramatically rises, as if to say, "Yes, you made the right choice, and this taxi welcomes you." Jim speaks rapidly in Japanese to the driver, and I understand none of it. It's fine. I feel like I'm already used to it.

"I asked for the cheapest hotel." He stops to gesture wildly. "Whatever."

"How much is cheap?"

"Like 4000 yen for each of us."

"I don't have any idea how much that really is."

"40 bucks."

"Just for tonight though, right?"

The driver asks him something and he responds.

"It's a bathhouse too."

"Just for tonight though, right?"

"Oh yeah, yeah, yeah."

"We can't be pulling this shit every night, we'll have no money by Tuesday."

I'm too careful, I hate it. I wish I could not give a shit as freely as Jim. I'd even welcome some of the enormous irresponsibility that comes with it right now. I want to be okay with sleeping on the street, all the time. Everything about that thought clashes with how I was brought up, but deep down I want to sleep on the street the rest of my life. Just let it happen. It could start now, here. I could explain, "I had no money, we had no choice, the streets welcomed us, they were clean." People would wonder how I could pull off such a feat, despite the fear of murder or infection, or even backaches.

Alas, the hotel. We're here. It looks like a bank from the outside, a marble building with an aura that it wishes to appear on currency someday. Walking inside, we're immediately in line, in front of a desk attended by four people.

"Shoes off," Jim says. I notice other shoes to my right, I slip mine off and slide--

"Ngg! Dude!" Jim's face is part urgency, part anger. "Off the floor!"


"Get - up - here!"

There's a step up to a hardwood floor. The four desk attendants are staring at me suspiciously. I notice one man in line smiling bemusedly - might as well be saying, "Why am I not surprised?"

"Shoes off on this floor, shoes on on that floor," Jim says pointing.


"Like hot lava."


We get to the desk, and again, Jim does all the talking and I drift off, until suddenly I notice deskman talking at me. I give my best dumb white guy expression. He continues to speak, inches from my face, in a very serious, hushed tone.

"He needs to know if you have any tattoos."

"No. No tattoos."

He resumes talking to Jim in the same tone, very close to both of us, like he's telling us how to break into Fort Knox or something. He turns to me again.

"He needs to know if it's okay with you that they don't let people stay here if they have tattoos."


"It has to be okay with you that--"

"Alright, yes, okay."

He then, I presume, asks Jim the same questions. After what feels like an eternity, he finally gives us our keys, takes our bags and our money.

"Tattoos equals Yakuza. Mafia."


"Yeah, it's like that everywhere."

"Shoes go where now?"

"Over there," Jim points.

Shoe lockers. I walk over to get my sh--

"Gah! Dude, DUDE!" I'm on the marble floor again in my socks.

"Ah, shit!" I jump off. Again, suspicious stares.

"We're gonna get fucking kicked out," I whisper.

"Just... here, follow me."

"Christ, they're pissed, how am I supposed to fucking know about--"

"Let's go, come on."

We put our shoes away in our of perfectly spaced and proportioned shoe lockers. A very small, middle aged woman approaches us and hands us both what appear to be folded towels, smiles, and walks back behind the desk.

"What's with that?"

"We have to wear these."

"We do?"


"How do you know all this beforehand, I'm so lost."

"I just... yeah."

I unfold my garments. "Wow, pajamas. Shorts, even."

"I just get the principle of what they're thinking, it's all... crazy, but it makes sense in a way that's... orderly, something, I don't know, fuck."

Ahead of us is a regular looking locker room with bright green lockers. We find ours as deemed by Desk Man and change, one of us at a time, all whilst Jim of course rambles on about nothing. It's Fernandes guitars now, I think. There is value in his rambling (I keep telling myself this) but there is no value in paying attention.

Meanwhile, I look fucking ridiculous. The shorts barely come to my knees, and they're way too wide. I look like John Stockton. My shirt buttons up way too low and gratuitously shows off my chest hair, like a very low rent Magnum P.I. stand-in. I feel sufficiently stupid.

I notice a dark, peculiar looking hallway to our left. I interrupt Jim, "What's down there?"


I notice someone getting out, climbing down a bunk bed ladder to the floor, decked out in the same pajamas.

"So we're sleeping there?"

"Yeah, dude."

Tubes. Awesome. "Lets find our tubes."

"Remember that game Lords of Thunder? LORDS of THUNDER. Such an awesome title. I wanna take that and combine it with my idea for a Doom 2 remix and name it Lords of Dooms or something. I told you about that, right?"

Suddenly, the air is thicker. Steam. We're surrounded by naked Asian men. We've wandered into the bathhouse.

"Well, it's not this way," Jim says.

"I'm gonna try this." What the hell, why not. I'm too tired to care.

"Try what?"

"The bathhouse thing." The relaxed atmosphere is very contagious, and my exhausted mind is assimilated quickly. No one notices anyone else - the physiques are all very average, the grooming is poor, the privates are small. One man in particular has a bush so thick you can't see his dick.

"Do you know what to do?" Jim asks me.

"Not really." In the middle of all these naked men casually walking about, I notice the huge steamy bathtub, with at least ten dudes relaxing all next to each other. "Okay maybe not that," I say gesturing at the bathtub.

Jim gives a pronounced "hmmmm," before nodding towards a dry naked man walking in with a towel and a bucket. "Watch what that guy does."

He sits down on a plastic chair at one of the several booths lined up against the far wall, in front of a mirror. With the faucet to his left, he fills the bucket with water and dumps it over his head. He then lathers up a long, thick-thistled brush with soap and begins to scrub for several minutes. Once he deems himself adequately scrubbed, he reaches for a portable space-age looking shower-head thing to rinse off the soap.

Without saying a word, I walk to yet another locker room kiddie corner from where we're standing. I remove my pajamas before noticing that I don't have a cool bucket like that other guy. Instead I find an empty styrofoam cup. This will have to make due.

The walk across the main bathhouse floor to find a booth feels very surreal. I feel a very strong impulse to do some kind of retarded strut to ease my discomfort. I am naked, and there must be 25 men in here, also naked. I'm the only white dude. Nobody cares. "We are too busy bathing," they would say. "Bathing is more important than your white dick." I am thankful.

I find my booth, and as I take a seat, I realize I've never been privy to the sensation of naked-ass-on-plastic before, and it's not pleasant, especially when your balls are fighting for space. Styrofoam cup in hand, I fill it with water, and at once I feel like an idiot. I laugh. Doing this would mock the bathhouse culture. I fight the urge and set the cup down.

Instead I just grab the shower-head and go to town. I notice myself in the mirror and immediately feel ridiculous. I notice I also don't have any kind of brush or soap or anything. Other Guy must have had previously set up his booth. Bad job by me. Regardless, I hurriedly spray myself with water for a few minutes before I realize I have no towel.

I shut off the water and get up, walking back to my locker where the towels are and dry off, where people apparently got together and decided that NOW was the time openly gaze at me. Fuck. I throw on my pajamas without drying my hair.

When looking for a place to dispose of my towel, I notice yet another sector of this endless bathhouse - the towel room, where three people are drying off, where apparently I was supposed to be. Amazing - don't stare at the foreigner because of his naked foreign body, stare at him because he had the gall to dry off someplace other than the towel room.

Quick recap:

- You're not allowed to stay here if you have any tattoos whatsoever, because tattoos = mafia.

- You're not allowed to stay here if you frown upon their no tattoo policy, because then you are a mafia sympathizer.

- You must wear shoes in very specific areas, and no shoes in other very specific areas.

- You must wear doofy looking pajamas at all times.

- You must dry off in the drying area.

"This place is like jail, only you can leave anytime you want," Jim would later say. Now I almost wish I doused myself with my styrofoam cup. Maybe tomorrow.

Anyway, I deftly escape the stares. Now it's time to find Jim and my tube. After I wander around aimlessly, I run into him in what must be the smoking room. Chairs, TV, vending machines, smokes.



He shows me my tube. I climb up the kitchy looking wooden ladder and dive in. It is, quite literally, a tube. A thin, inch and a half mat covered with a white sheet, complete with a very stiff pillow that might be filled with wire. My 5'10" frame fits with room to spare. Laying flat on my back, my arms cannot reach full extension in front of me without banging the ceiling, which sounds like its made of fiberglass. It is not unlike getting an MRI, minus the harrowing noise of course. The only noise here is the bathhouse in the distance. There is nothing else inside my sleeping tube. This must be how a child born in the 40s imagined aliens slept.

I sleep. When I awake a couple hours later, I feel like I'm in an unfinished casket. If it weren't for the opening at my feet, I would not enjoy my tube very much. I climb out. I want to put my name on the outside somewhere. My tube is awesome. I briefly consider what it would take to create my own tube at home, but decide that it wouldn't be as cool to have just a singular tube - the hexagonal hive effect is what makes this really bizarre. Rows and rows of tubes. The 6 year old in me wants to stay here forever and invite my dog and only my dog.

Jim's not in his tube - it appears unstirred. I walk to the smoking room where I find him, smoking.

"Did you sleep at all?"


We watch TV and smoke, the only two in the room. Weird Japanese commercials inundate us. We laugh.

* * *

And, here's some random pictures that don't really have anything to do with anything. Please forgive me for being a very shitty photographer.

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