My first days in Japan were a whirl of novel sensations and intense exchanges. I shared music over dinner with the owner of a vintage record store. I drank a ninety-cent, 4.5 ounce can of Asahi beer in three sips. I stumbled on an old temple in residential Ikebukuro, and the sense that centuries of visitors had walked its tree-lined entrance brought me to tears. At a small eel restaurant filled with cigarette smoke, I drank sake with a couple who complimented me on my choice of food. “You know Harley Davidson?” the man said, handing me a Zippo engraved with the Harley insignia. He owned two Harleys and wanted to drive them across America. America felt so far away. One day I found the word ‘crab’ written on the back of my hand and couldn’t remember the name of the restaurant the word was meant to conjure. Another day, I tried to photograph a giant plaster crab that hung above a subway entrance, and I knocked over a row of unlocked bicycles. What transpired was like that scene in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, except with people rushing over to help instead of pummel me, and with me bumbling apologies and getting the bikes more tangled, and “Gowen nasai, gowen nasai,” I am a complete tourist idiot.
For three weeks I wandered in an unyielding euphoria, enchanted by Japan. People rode bikes at all hours. Subways were cheap and accessible. You could buy whisky in vending machines and five-dollar meals at twenty-four hour diners. “Tokyo might be the greatest city on earth,” I texted my girlfriend Rebekah. It all made me wonder why I’d settled for America for so long. But the joys of the city meant less without her. Understandably, three weeks was too long for Rebekah to take off work, so I went alone, exploring neighborhood after neighborhood, shrine after shrine, and talking to strangers. I started in Shinjuku, near the train station and my hotel.
Shinjuku is home to Kabukichō, the largest red light district in Asia. Set inside central Tokyo’s neon intestines, Kabukichō is filled with bars, porn shops, pachinko parlors, massage parlors, strip clubs, peep shows, telephone sex clubs, karaoke clubs, and the infamous love hotels where consenting adults rent rooms by the hour to have sex. Kabukichō only spans 0.13 square miles, or about fifty square blocks, but certain sections seem composed entirely of love hotels with names like Hotel Tiffard, Hotel Colorful P&A, Bron Mode, one after another.
In the “entertainment district,” the sun goes down but the lights never dim, and the endless flow of hungry pedestrians earned it the nickname Ne mu ra nai ma chi. or “Sleepless Town.” Many locals visit the red light’s legitimate businesses without fear, but Kabukichō is considered Tokyo’s most dangerous neighborhood. From the outside, you’d never know it. It’s all crowded sidewalks and bright vertical signs climbing the sides of buildings. Under the surface, the Yakuza control certain businesses, and the sex trade thrives.
At night, solitary men stroll the streets. Drunken salarymen throw their heads back with laugher. Women in sequined dresses click by on high heels, the long slits showing their calves, even in winter.
Although prostitution isn’t legal in Japan, the law’s language makes non-coital acts permissible. In places like Kabukichō, the sex trade operates legitimately by respecting zoning regulations, serving cops and bureaucrats, and by offering enjo kōsai, or ‘compensated dating.’ At bathhouses called “soaplands,” women lather and fellate men through circuitous payment rituals. At “open strip clubs,” dancers take men in back rooms to perform extra sexual services that aren’t included in the entrance fee. Those bright vertical signs that Westerners can’t read advertise businesses with names like Maid Station and Dick Nurse.
I didn’t understand these details until months later. I only knew the trade existed and that men stood on the streets handing out leaflets. “Sex,” one said, stepping in front of me. “You like sex?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I love it, but not tonight thanks.”
Another guy blocked my path. “I get you sex,” he said. When I declined, he leaned directly into my face. “I get sex.”
I said, “No thanks,” and stepped around him.
The leaf-letters thrust out their arms to pitch their club or “dating” site, or whatever service they were peddling. Some were aggressive. While walking down a side street searching for a CoCo Ikebanya restaurant, a man stopped mid-step, spun around, and started walking beside me.
“Hey, what are you doing tonight?” he said.
I said, “Going to find dinner. What about you?”
He walked quickly to keep pace, his shoulders inches from mine. “Walking around like you.”
“Going this way, huh?”
“I’m just taking a walk.” He spoke with a Caribbean accent and was one of the few people of color I’d seen in Tokyo. “What do you like tonight?”
I’d bought enough drugs in my youth to communicate in the coded dialect of illicit transactions. I tried to ignore him, but he wouldn’t split. Finally I said, “You have something you want to tell me? Come on. Let’s get this over with.”
He held up his hands, feigning offense. “What, you think I want something from you? That I have something?”
I almost laughed. “Hey, you turned to walk with me. I just want CoCo curry.”
He squinted and tilted his head. “Come here. I show you.”
Side streets weren’t closed to car traffic, but streams of pedestrians filled the narrow lanes as if they were, only stepping aside when cars needed to pass. The man stopped at an intersection and pointed above pedestrians’ heads. “See that white sign?” He leaned close enough for me to smell cigarettes on his breath. “The white one, white like your face? Turn there.”
I faced him. “Yes, my face is very white, isn’t it?” We stared at each other a moment. I said, “Good luck,” and we went our separate ways.
Instead of curry, I found a pack of Wakaba brand cigarettes lying on the pavement. I was going to buy smokes from a vending machine eventually, just to savor the process and get a souvenir, so I slid these cheap ones into my coat pocket. What the hell. Only a few cigarettes were missing.
This was why people came to Kabukichō. To drink. To fuck. To throw up on their shoe. When they were done, they spent the night in a capsule hotel for the price of a fancy dinner and sweat out their hangover in a bath the next day before catching a train home. Alone, far from home, I began to wonder why I’d come to Japan. Needing comfort, I kept searching for food.
* * *
Golden Gai is a series of famously narrow alleys that gets a lot of tourist attention in Shinjuku. Its buildings are low and ramshackle, a stark contrast to the new high rises that define the rest of the ward, and people visit to drink in its tiny bars. Some Golden Gai bars have three seats. Some have ten. Most consist of a few stools lining a short counter, serviced by a single bar tender. Some only serve whisky. Some only serve beer. I wanted food, so I went to another series of alleys on Shinjuku Station’s west side, called Omoide Yokocho, or “Memory Lane.”
Also known as Piss Alley, or Shonben Yokocho, for the way people relieved themselves before bathrooms were rebuilt after a 1999 fire, this narrow, winding maze of alleys stretches beside one of Shinjuku Station’s many overpasses, housing a salt of the earth collection of yakitori joints and izakayas that serve inexpensive, delicious food to locals, commuters and tourists. Grilled chicken skins, grilled chicken hearts, gizzards and liver stew ─ Memory Lane’s food has its origins in the late 1940s following WWII. In post-war Japan, meat and vegetables were scarce, so people learned to make use of offal and all parts of available animals, much of it procured from Allied Forces. From grilled giblets to chicken feet, yakitori is like soul food in the American South: a food of necessity and endurance, now savored for its flavor and its connection to the past.
The bars were packed. People hunched to get under low ceilings. They slid past each other in narrow passages. I wandered Memory Lane until I found an izakaya with room. Two of its ten stools were empty. Men in suits filled the others, and a woman was spooning delicious looking stew into a bowl for a customer, so I slipped between a row of salarymen and the wall and took the stool on the end. I ordered nikku-mi, or meat stew. When the waitress brought it out, the man next to me said, “You like liver?” He was huge, smoking a cigarette while drink shochu, and one of two people not wearing a suit. The bar was so small that even with his feet flat on the ground, his back rested against the wall.
I turned to him and smiled. “Sometimes I do.”
He pointed to my bowl. “That’s liver stew.” I tasted it. It was rich with umami and mineral flavors, and the silken meat melted on my tongue.
“Well I like this liver,” I said. He introduced himself as Daisuke and offered me a sip of his umeboshi sochu.
“That’s Hide,” he said, motioning to the smiling man beside him. Hide’s face was one giant grin. Hide waved. They were friends. We talked for the next hour. First came the introductory questions: Where are you from? What are you seeing and doing in Japan? Do you like it? I loved it, I said. Daisuke nudged my shoulder with his shoulder. “And you like liver!” he said. He couldn’t seem to believe it. This bar, it turned out, was known for its stewed pork liver. Daisuke said, “You like Japanese food?” I explained that it was some of my favorite food in the world, from grilled fish to the complex flavors of seaweed salads, but that this one alley in Tokyo had more great Japanese food to eat than my entire home of Portland, Oregon. We discussed our favorite dishes ─ unagi kabayaki, sanma no shioyaki, grilled onigiri filled with salted plums ─ and he asked my favorite restaurants. “Not McDonald’s,” he said, laughing. “You eat good food.”
When I said I’d been eating a lot at the Japanese donburi chain Matsuya, Daisuke slapped his palm against his thigh. “Ah,” he said, “Matsuya! Beef and rice is so good. Better than McDonald’s!” He then suggested a restaurant in a park in a neighborhood I’d never heard of. We didn’t have any paper, so he wrote the name on the side of a wooden toothpick, in tiny perfect letters, like a painting on a kernel of rice. Beside him, Hide gave a thumbs up and sipped his beer. Their faces were red.
Daiskuke scoot a small bowl of pickled meat toward me. “Try this.” Using his chopsticks, I lifted a few slivers to my mouth and slurped some of the juice. He and Hide watched me carefully, grinning. It tasted like sesame oil, soy sauce and garlic.
Daisuke leaned close. “You like it?” I did. The meat was chewy, but the flavor was delicious. “It is raw pork stomach.”
I chewed and took another bite.
“He likes it,” Daisuke told Hide.
“It’s really tasty,” I said.
He bought me an order of it, and another round of sochu for them. I bought us some pickled carrots and lotus root to share. Daisuke spoke some English. Hide spoke none. Because he sat in the middle, Deisuke ended up interpreting the conversation back and forth from English to Japanese between Hide and I, so all three of us could participate.
Daisuke explained that he’d lived near Ann Arbor, Michigan for two years, doing research and design for the Nissan Motor Company. He showed me the faces that Americans usually made, he said, “at food we Japanese eat.” He scrunched his face and stuck out his tongue. “This is for how we eat,” he said. “Not cool.” He told me about his time living in America, how he used to buy things at Cosco in enormous sizes and quantities, more than he could ever use. “But so cheap,” he said. “So, so much.” There was a Costco near where he lived in suburban Tokyo. “I go there sometimes to smell its smell, which makes me think of my time as a big American.” He laughed.
I said, “Nostalgia.”
“Nostalgia,” he said. What did it mean? I gave him the best definition I could. “A new word,” he said. “Cool.”
He said ‘cool’ a lot. When Hide asked him something in Japanese, Daisuke waved his finger around in a circle over their heads, and then pressed the tip to the counter beside our empty dishes. “Cool,” he said. “Cool, cool.” Speaking of cool, these guys were the definition, warm and fun, generous and curious. We took a few selfies, shared what we could share about our lives, and then traded emails so I could send him the photos and we could keep in touch.
Daisuke said he needed to practice his English. So we talked about Detroit, talked about eating in America, talked about tacos ─ especially tacos, which he’d discovered in Michigan and missed dearly ─ talked about souping up cars, and why his wife made him drive the tiniest minivan imaginable, because they had a daughter.
I said, “You have to choose your battles.”
“What does that saying mean?” Daisuke said. I explained and he laughed. “That’s another good one! Cool. No fighting your wife when you can be agreeing.” When the topic of Chinese food came up, he leaned in close and told me why he hated China and Korea. “These people who own this bar are Chinese,” he whispered. The owners stood inches away. Everything in there was inches away. Then he held up his glass of shochu and laughed. “Maybe this is poison!”
“That’s not sliced pig,” I said. “It’s a razor blade!” We laughed. Daisuke and Hide smoked six cigarettes each during the hour we spent together, so much cigarette smoke that I woke up with a cough, and it was completely worth it.
When I told Daisuke that my girlfriend Rebekah was raised outside Ann Arbor, he got excited. “Tell her, ‘Let’s go blue!’” he said. “Say, two Japanese guys tell you to say that!” At first I didn’t know what he meant. I’m not into sports. Then he explained: this was the University of Michigan fight song. He repeated: “Let’s go blue!” I wrote the phrase down on the back of my hand where, unlike the word ‘crab,’ I would never forget it.