When my college friend Jenny emailed to tell me she’d moved to Japan to teach English for a year, a tiny, buzzing light bulb flickered above my head. I had never been to the Far East, or Orient, as it was once known. I didn’t see how, with a free place to stay, I had any choice but to buy a ticket to Tokyo.
It was almost a mandate, sent from the spirit of some long-deceased samurai. You will go to Japan, grasshopper. Many frequent flier miles you will receive. My co-worker and friend, Richard, joked about the reception I’d receive at the airport. “They’ll play that Asian music,” Richard explained, singing the chimes from the beginning of ‘Turning Japanese,’ “Doo doo doo doo do-do do-do dummm, and when you walk through immigration, someone will strike a huge gong.” I imagined Jenny’s apartment as one of those flat, chair-less spaces with paper screens in the windows, surrounded by lush, layered gardens with trickling streams and banzai trees. Kimono-clad servant-beauties would bring us tea, for relaxation after our noon sparring sessions. Evenings would be spent in relaxation with the resident Geishas.
What Tokyo turned out to be was a huge, cold, intimidating and unforgiving metropolis. I know because within a few hours of landing, I was completely lost. It was the middle of the night, in February, and my jacket and passport were sitting in a locker at a nightclub. Jenny and I had gone with some of her other American friends shortly after dropping off my bags at her apartment. She and her friends grabbed a table on the mezzanine level, but I wanted to check out the dance floor and start drinking.
It was a surreal experience, hearing house beats and standing in the middle of a sea of Japanese kids. I never cared much for clubs in New York. When my friends from Wisconsin would visit, it was often the first thing they wanted to do. I think they just assumed I spent my nights clubbing, surrounded by supermodels, ordering bottle after bottle of Cristal, and doing bumps of coke in the bathroom until dawn. When I told them that I in fact hung out at the same kind of bars in New York as I had in Madison or Eau Claire – lounges, pubs, and dives – I felt like I was disappointing them. “McGee’s?” they’d respond, dejectedly. “Yeah, we could go there. Sounds fun.” Clubs just weren’t my scene. In a foreign country, however, visiting a club was field research, like staying with a tribe in the bush or drinking and escaping arrest with soccer hooligans. I wasn’t in a club surrounded by greasy, cologne-soaked meatheads from New Jersey and Long Island. No, I had gone through a wormhole to a post-modern vision of the future: Hundreds of Japanese youths, dancing, singing, and tripping. I was…drunk.
Finding Jenny and her friends proved to be difficult. I circled the mezzanine and the floor level several times before giving up and leaving. Now, you might wonder why I, a then-25-year-old Yankee traveler on his first night in Tokyo, would make this decision. I agree that it was not arrived at rationally. Normally I’d have stayed inside the nightclub, figuring Jenny was in the bathroom, or buying a drink, or smoking, but after a few stiff drinks compounded with the jet lag of a 14-hour flight, my decision-making was plummeting to levels usually occupied by cretins like George W. Bush, or Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid. “She went home,” I deduced. Naturally.
Nevertheless, I had made it as far as the metro station, which was impressive because we had taken a cab from the metro station. Somehow, if I got on the subway and went the right direction, I’d make it back to Jenny’s neighborhood and could wait outside her non-paper-windowed apartment until she got back – if she wasn’t back already. “Brilliant,” thought I, in the way only an inebriated jackass could. The only problem was that it was well past midnight, and the metro was closed until about 4 or 5 a.m.
Continuing my streak of intelligent decision-making, I decided to catch some sleep at the metal gate until the subway opened that morning. It was a little warmer down there, and I was definitely ready for a good eight or nine hours of shuteye. I sat down in a corner where the gate met the wall, leaned against it, and began to doze off. In my lifetime, I’d stepped over the cold, huddled, urine-soaked bodies of hundreds of homeless men and women, often without thinking twice. I knew they were only doing what they had to do, given their circumstances. I reasoned that this was the same thing, on a much less desperate level – a few hours of hardship borne out of necessity. Soon I’d be on the train and back in Jenny’s warm apartment.
I awoke to a nightstick rapping against the gate. “You can’t sleep here,” a policeman informed me, or so I guessed, as he was speaking Japanese. Fortunately, the subway itself was about to open, so I bought a ticket and hopped on a train.
Tokyo is one of the cleanest, quietest cities I have ever visited. Although its population is larger than New York’s, and on par with Mexico City’s, the people of Tokyo have managed to keep even the most well-trampled spaces looking pristine. You could probably lick frosting off the subway floors, and the streets look like they may as well run through a Hollywood set. Even the people seem clean and sparkly. In New York, it’s not uncommon for any one person in a hundred to smell of urine, feces, or vomit. New Yorkers are so accustomed to this that they accommodate the dirty party by emptying half a subway car during rush hour. Their reputation for rudeness gives way to a sort of pity and understanding, as if there but for the grace of God would they, too, reek as if they had just been swimming in sewage. Even someone who unknowingly walks into the subway car, thinking one empty car on an otherwise-packed train must have simply been his crazy good fortune, only to have the doors close behind him, well, even he will politely wait without cursing until he’s able to switch cars at the next stop.
You’ll get much different treatment in Tokyo. While I hadn’t yet sunk so low as to soil myself, after hours on a plane, drinking in a club, and sleeping outside, I was probably a little gamey. Yet the glares, scowls, and general avoidance from locals on the subway made me feel like I was wearing an army jacket with the words “Enola Gay” stitched on the back. It happened on whichever line I rode, and I rode quite a few, because the more lost I got, the more I thought I knew where I was going and would just hop on this train and that’d be it. Asking directions was out of the question, as I had tried asking for help at a small police station in one neighborhood. Since the men didn’t speak a lick of English, I was left to my wits, body language, and drawing ability to try to explain to them my situation. “She lives near a liquor store,” I’d say loudly as I drew what looked like a store and then two bottles with three X’s each on their labels. (I was pretty sure that meant ‘liquor’ and not ‘poison.’)
I never understood why we feel it necessary to shout in English when attempting to communicate with someone who doesn’t understand it, anyway. But there I was, doing exactly that. I suppose it’s something you can’t avoid, despite your best efforts – kind of like looking at a map and pointing when trying to find your way around a foreign city. I once had a boss named Serena who hired a Mexican nanny to take care of her infant son during the day. Serena would always be on the phone with the nanny, frustrated, because she did not understand much English and Serena spoke zero Spanish. In an attempt to bridge the language gap, Serena would loudly dictate instructions over the phone in English, but with a hilariously contrived Hispanic accent. “Noo, heat oop thee meelk and poot the meelk een thee bottle!” After 10 or 15 minutes of speaking like Speedy Gonzalez – we could all hear it in our small office – Serena would hang up and complain about how lazy her nanny was. “I mean, she’s lived in this country seven years,” she’d say, “and she can still barely speak English. But her six-year-old kid is practically fluent! Can you believe that?”
Anyway, the policeman could neither understand nor help me; apparently there were more than a few liquor stores in the city of Tokyo. I decided to give the subways another go-round. It’s worth mentioning that while I had Jenny’s address and cell phone number on a printed email, the hard copy was in my backpack, which was sitting in Jenny’s apartment, warm and relaxed and sober. The only hope I had of getting in touch with her was by finding a computer, but internet cafes were surprisingly scarce in Tokyo. At least, they were scarce in whatever parts I was looking. In every neighborhood I went to, after the initial disappointment of learning that it wasn’t Jenny’s neighborhood wore off, I would look around for a place with an internet connection. I was coming up empty. Exhausted and nauseated, I decided I needed to shift my priority to finding a bed, a bathroom, and, if at all possible, some Cheetos.
This proved much easier, as I found a hotel near a subway stop and checked in immediately. After giving them my credit card, I asked if there was a computer I could use, or any place nearby with computers. For the love of God, somebody, somewhere must have a computer with a connection.
“Around the corner,” the desk clerk told me, in broken English. And damned if I didn’t go outside and around the corner and see a 24-hour Kinko’s, fluorescent lights beaming from within like a guiding light to the heavens. As I crossed the boulevard, angels from on high sang Hallelujah and showered me in rose petals. My back had lost its hunch, my step had its spring back. I got the email printed up and returned to my hotel room.
Logic would have dictated that, once back in my hotel room, I immediately phone Jenny and inform her of my living/breathing status and whereabouts. While I knew that was probably an important action to take, I deemed it a priority to take a warm bath, throw up, and sleep for a good 7 or 8 hours. I also watched some Japanese television: Bizarre karaoke contests and detergent commercials flashed on screen, or perhaps through my semi-lucid brain. Finally, I phoned Jenny, who it should go without saying was a bit irate.
“Where the f— did you go?!?” was her first question.
“I’m not sure. I –“
“Do you have any idea – I’ve been talking to everyone. I called the police. I almost called your parents. Jesus Christ. Why the f— did you leave the club?!”
“I thought you had left, and I –“
“Why the f— would I leave you there??” she shrieked. She had a point. I didn’t really have an answer. She sighed and asked where I was.
“Well, I’m at…” and I grabbed the hotel business card and read the address.
“Oh my God. You’re way on the other side of Tokyo. Jesus. Well, I’ll give you directions, but you’re finding your own way back here.”
And I did make it back. Jenny stopped being angry after a few hours, and the rest of my stay was far less dramatic. After she moved back stateside, whenever the story would come up among friends, she always found it a little less amusing than everybody else. I was probably too immature to realize how worried she was about me.
And Tokyo? Well, despite my misadventures, I had an amazing time. I highly recommend it. Just don’t get lost.