Friday, December 26, 2008

Mochi, onsens and nabe oh my!

While some of you are blissfully far from this small island nation during the holidays, some of us are still here holding down the fort. You know how I feel about Christmas now and I've never felt too bothered about being in Japan for "the holidays" at this time of year, not counting when I got all teary-eyed last year on an expensive keitai call to my mom from the beau's family home in the snowy north. Yes I do miss going to Granville Island in Vancouver to buy all manner of delicacies to keep us satiated through our days off from work and school, getting up at a ridiculous hour and shopping all day with my mom on Boxing Day, and of course the time-honored tradition of buttery popcorn at the movies on Christmas Day. But I'm here to remind those of you "stuck" here for the next week while your friends are back home with their families, clothing stores with more than one size and pizza with no mayonnaise, that this small island nation does have some winter delights that you can partake in too. So here we go, a small and possibly erratic list of some of the things I am looking forward to next week (the shit list to follow later of course!):

Mochi: Because who can resist pounded rice cakes?! This year as with last I get to look forward to eating mochi prepared by the beau's mom in a tasty soup and also roasted and wrapped in nori with a salty-sweet soy dipping sauce.

Onsen: To reward myself for spending a couple nights at the beau's family house in an ice cold room and not complaining (much) I am going to experience my first rotemburo in the snow this year! It's going to be a 3-day bathing fest!

Nabe: Food again! I love nabe in the winter here, especially putting rice into the broth after eating all the fish/meat/veggies/tofu, mixing it all up and enjoying another tasty treat.

Hatsumode: This year I am going to wear kimono for the first time to hatsumode, the first visit of the year to a shrine. If you go to the bigger ones there are always stalls selling food and stuff you don't need, and if you're lucky, there will be a whiff of carnival in the air.

Cinemas, Roppongi Hills: Sitting in the warm dark, eating a box of half & half butter/caramel popcorn is just the way to spend a cold winter afternoon. The endless and satisfying cycle of sweet-savoury is dizzying!

Museums: I have been holding off on going to the new exhibits at both the Mori Museum and the Teien Art Museum until next week, how blissful it will be to visit on a weekday!

O-souji: Cleaning is not fun but I do like how the Japanese clean their houses from top to bottom at the end of the year, it's a nice way to start the new one!

Eki-ben: OK food again and this isn't even limited to winter but riding the shinkansen means going early to Tokyo station and picking up some nice bento only available there. Crack open an Asahi SuperDry on board the train and you are set.

Geisha frivolities: The Tokyo scene is definitely different to that in Kyoto but the few Tokyo geisha I know always get decked out for the first week of the year with shiro-nuri (white make-up), elaborate hairstyles and special kimono just for that one week, a look completely different to the one they usually sport. I always get a thrill seeing them together in January in their finery playing stupid games and getting very drunk with customers, and I don't think it will ever cease to excite me.

If you're spending the next couple of weeks in Japan, what are some of your favourite winter things?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas at the Kaisha

I don't know what first comes to your mind when I say "Christmas at the Kaisha" but I'd imagine half-naked men, women in schoolgirl uniforms and sequined hot pants aren't exactly top of the list. You know, I actually had men in speedos come to mind after last year's debacle but the head honchos (side note: did you know "honcho" came to English from Japanese?) at the Kaisha really outdid themselves this year.

Apart from the lovely buffet spread that included a teppanyaki station and open bar that readily supplied me with copious amounts of champagne, the Kaisha made sure the program was so chock-full of entertainment we never had to worry about talking to one another. I guess I should probably tell you how I was involved at this point. The planning committee puts together a video every year to be played at the party and this year's theme was Sex & the City. I lent my voice as the Carrie voice-over that narrates the whole thing, and the rest of the people in the video were all men. I've got to say, the four Professionals who played the girls in drag made some pretty fine ladies after all the make-up, wigs and dresses borrowed from someone's drag queen friend.

And that was just the beginning of it all. At some Japanese companies, there is a strong tendency to make first-year employees do humiliating things at company drinking parties and so on but at the Kaisha we like to up the ante so to speak, and do our shaming and humiliating on a much grander scale at the Christmas party every year. Aside from a few "musical performances" including a Professional in drag as a very ugly Beyonce, the male Professionals all wore nothing but little white shorts and white hachimaki and did some dance/exercise performance that I didn't understand due to my lack of cultural reference. This was followed by some J-pop song with a few secretaries in sequin skirts and 2 female Professionals in black sequined hot pants stripper-dancing all over the stage. I was half-expecting some kind of Thai ping-pong act to follow but luckily it was just a huge group of around 50 first-year Professionals and secretaries dressed in schoolgirl uniforms doing some Sailor Moon dance that required them to affix permanent manic grins to their faces and waves their arms around while twirling. Only in Japan. I'm sure such a performance would probably warrant some kind of lawsuit overseas but in Japan there was just a lot of clapping and hidden boners.

Yes, in Japan we not only humiliate the first year employees but turn women with professional degrees and educations who have come to actually work into sex objects because glitter and bare legs make them so much easier to deal with! In fact, I'm sure it is these humiliating performances and experiences that cause employees at Japanese companies to become so tight-knit with the others in their "year" and everyone looks upon them more as bonding experiences than anything else. If this is the case, I wish they had signed me up! If all it took was some sequined booty shorts to get in tight with people at the Kaisha, I would have done the fucking choreography myself!

Not many people came out of the woodwork this year to introduce themselves to me and I was almost disappointed when I didn't get lectured by a Top Professional on how I should be dating a man with lots of money, a degree from Waseda or Keio and a high powered job like last year. This was the same guy who once when asking what my type was followed it up by saying, Well as long as he's younger than your father right?! Riiiiight. Really though, only if he name is Ken Watanabe and he is wearing a sword.

I did make an effort though to make nice conversation with Mr. Inappropriate Comment from last month and appear super nice and smiley around all the snaky secretaries, because really, I can wait to January to continue my grudges. I was all too aware that the Christmas party is truly a once-a-year opportunity for everyone at the Kaisha to peep the 0.0141 percent of foreigners employed there and analyze our native dress, customs and eating habits. I played along fabulously until I spotted someone I knew who would give me a cigarette. I believe I may have mentioned that no women (or a number so small it is negligible) use the smoking rooms at the Kaisha and while statistically some of the secretaries have got to be smokers, they weren't having any of it at the Christmas party. There was a small smoking pit outside the banquet room of the hotel and a small congregation of male Professionals could be found there throughout the evening. However, as the party progressed I cared less and less if people saw me having a smoko so I marched over there and got one. This gave me instant cred among some of the smoker Professionals but I'm sure the secretaries now have another bullet as ammo against me.

I will write another post later about the after party and its after party but for now let's leave it strictly on the Kaisha turf. I can hardly wait for next year! After this year's party though, I'm more convinced than ever that the party is thrown just for the secretaries. I mean come on, they are the ones crowding the buffet tables and orgasming over the desserts, wearing prom dresses and sparkles in their hair, and saving the glossy invitation as a memento for their grandchildren (after they get married and quit their jobs to breed of course). As I looked around the gathering of almost 1000, it was a bit like a twisted family party with the men standing around like creepy old uncles delighting in the playful and naive activities of the young girls frolicking about.

Friday, December 19, 2008

I fucking heart the Kaisha!!!

I apologize to those of you who have Google Reader or some such device and had the unfortunate pleasure of reading my very sloppy post on my section's bonenkai. I was just so elated! Here is a slightly more cleaned up version.

I was so fucking nervous about my section's bonenkai tonight that I did a little overtime and showed up 45 minutes late for it. Last time I attended a section party I literally went home and wept but I figured what the hell, I might as well see how this drinking and forgetting stuff works. And it does!!! I have totally forgotten my ill feelings towards my section peeps, secretaries and Professionals alike, and I am ready to ride off into the sunset with them singing kumbaya. Or some shit.

After I arrived a secretary and two Professionals who I do work for but never talk to showed up and sat next to me and we were chums for the rest of the evening. As I said before this workship is bound to fade away by tomorrow and I will be back to my white gaijin ghetto cubicle, eating raw apples and carrots and generally scaring people away, but tonight was amazing! I wonder if maybe it just has to do with who you end up sitting next to. At the last section party it was so painfully obvious that I was being ignored that over tears later that night, I vowed to the beau never to attend a section function again.

It's a very strange situation. When I first arrived at the Kaisha there was no Welcome Whitie sign in my section and no one even knew I existed until they walked by and saw a crop of blond curls peeking out from behind my cubicle wall. At a welcome party held for new secretaries and Professionals in the section, I wasn't even introduced. It was like I was so white I was see-through and therefore neither seen nor heard. Not speaking unless spoken to. It was as if I was so far on the outside that although I was a necessary presence, people would just pretend I wasn't there so they wouldn't feel uncomfortable talking to me.

When I tell people this, often I get some surprised responses. I think many people assume that one of the many perks of being a foreign female in Japan is being showered with attention. That is only half true. Half the time I am met with adoring fans and the other half I am as good as non-existent. Not even a blip on the radar. I can't speak for foreign men though and I wonder what it's like for them. I've tried mentioning this to a couple Japanese girlfriends to get some perspective on why everyone ignores me at the Kaisha. Their simpleton response was that I am so cute that people are either intimidated or think that pretty=stuck up. I don't think it is that easy. And whether it is a collective reason that can be applied to most people or if everyone in my section has a different reason for ostracizing me. Is it the combination of being female and white? Is it because they can't be bothered cultivating a relationship with someone who might not even be at the Kaisha for more than a short time? Perhaps one day I will find myself in a situation with a Professional so drunk that I can ask him what the fuck is up.

What a bizarre situation. Even if I can't expect (and I certainly don't) to form meaningful relationships with my colleagues I would at least settle for completely meaningless and shallow ones, spent drinking on a tarp under the cherry blossoms or choreographing the cross-dressers together for next year's Christmas party.

The bonenkai gave me hope though, that people do respect me but for whatever reason won't go out of their way to make contact in person. I do acknowledge that I probably seem a little brusque to some, as I've built up a bit of a tough shield after realizing that I am on the outs with everyone and for no attributable reason. As I suspected the next day I ran into one of the Professionals I had been so chatty with at the bonenkai, and while he did say hello, it was like the previous night had never even happened.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A chill in the air and bonenkai season

I'd like to make an amendment to my statement a few posts ago that I will have had 3 good friends leave Tokyo by the end of this year. It's actually 4 now that I've discovered through her blog posting that another friend is leaving. Kind of like being broken up with by email. That gripe aside though, she will be sorely missed as the number of witty ladies who I can smoke and drink with while conversing with what some would call sarcasm, is sadly low in Tokyo.

It's going to be a cold winter.

Hopefully my 2 work parties this week will help to warm things up, but I'm not holding my breath. First off, tomorrow night I have a bonenkai for my section, which I'm hoping doesn't leave me in tears like the last one did. The first section party I attended went fairly swimmingly, with a taxi ride back to the office in which a secretary, a Professional and I all made tipsy promises and future plans of hanami parties and summer fireworks. The second party did not go as well. Despite knowing that they could converse with me in either Japanese or English, the two Professionals I sat by insisted on directing their questions to the secretaries at our table and blatantly ignoring me. Not cool, especially considering I do work for one of them all the time. I know that these people don't know what box to put me in, I'm definitely a strange appendage to our section, but what happened to Japanese people opening up with alcohol? It was a sad sad night. Luckily for me, I don't have to return to work slightly tipsy tomorrow night so I am going to at least not enjoy the party, smashed.

At the end of this week it's the much-anticipated Xmas party! Held at another swanky Tokyo hotel this year, my only real dilemma is deciding whether to wear a faux fur stole and the level of cleavage to show. I figure no one can resist a little valley, as they call it in Japanese, so even if I only attract valley-grazers, at least I will have someone to make meaningless conversation with and deter the Professional who always brings me chocolate from monopolizing my time. And let's not forget my voice-acting debut either! But that is a secret until the party so I will have to refrain from spilling details until then.

A quick weekend in review:

While getting my nails done on Saturday afternoon the nartist (nail artist) asked me if the sparkly design I was getting would be OK for work. I assured her it was while thinking, Are you fucking kidding me?! I have seen enough veritable diamond claws around the Kaisha on secretaries and female Professionals alike to render my sparkly tipped nails tame. Love Japan!

After that sweet little encounter I had to ask an ornery fucker of an ojisan if it was alright to buy a pair of earrings from his antique stand after getting a "what?" and no move to come help me after I sumimasened him. Prick. You get so used to polite if not fake service here that I get a little over-incensed when the service falls below that mark.

Mado Lounge party that night fell short of expectations. There were some burlesque performances that ended up feeling more like sleazy stripteases due to the disproportionate number of foreign guys straining their eyeballs to get a peek of nipple from behind the performers' pasties. Did someone take a bus to Gaspanic in Roppongi and kidnap all of their customers? It sure felt that way. The hooping performance however, was fan-fucking-tastic, with the ladies using LED light hoops to spiff things up. All in all though, I feel bad for anyone who didn't have an invitation and had to pay 3500 yen for a douchey party. The space they have to work with on the 53rd floor of the tower at Roppongi Hills is incredible and sexy with the most killer view to ever be seen from a club in Tokyo but that was sadly not enough.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Project Host continues

Welcome back to another episode of Project Host! For your reading pleasure, I went and checked out Club Acqua in Kabukicho with two lovely and very discriminating Canadian ladies.
My first hurdle was sneaking out of work. Not in the sense that I was playing hooky in order to go carousing with some big-haired men in Kabukicho, but in that I had to get spiffed up in the Kaisha bathroom and then make it down to the lobby without anyone seeing me and discovering that I am actually moonlighting as the White Host Hunter. I successfully manoeuvred may way out of the building and I was safely on my way.

I don't know what it is about Kabukicho, maybe its the smell of sleazy money and fabricated love, but I adore passing under the Kabukicho gates and entering its seedy world. A bit like a twisted modern day tale of making a visit to the Yoshiwara, once you walk through the gates you can be anyone, you can be with anyone, as long as you have enough money to see you through until morning. When walking through Kabukicho you know you've reached Hostland when the billboards displaying glamour shots of attractive boys with high cheekbones and even higher hair start popping up, and when the amount of men wearing sharp suits and sharper shoes hanging around on the street corners increases exponentially. Yes, there is no doubt when you've arrived.

There was a small moment of uncertainty and panic when we passed what I though was Ai but turned out to be its sister club, as I feared we would run into Roses or one of his henchmen and I haven't been returning his calls...

We soon arrived at Acqua and were greeted by an attractive young man with blond candy-floss hair. I asked for a table for three and he asked if we could speak Japanese and whether we had photo ID on us. After assuring him we could and we did, he asked us to wait on a leather sofa. A few minutes later and he returned bearing a coaster with the first time price for 2 hours written on it and showed it to us for our agreement. We then had to show them our IDs before they took us to a table (Ai also required this on their website but not in practice). After we were seated we were given the choice of brandy or shochu and a range of mixers before being given an explanation on the system. We had the option of flipping through their man menu and choosing some choice meat (my god how bad does that sound) but after having a quick peek we decided to leave it up to them and asked to have a range of men paraded before us.

I counted the number of cards I had when I got home later and there were 10, which means we probably had around 5 host changes, with 2 or 3 hosts in each set. About an hour and a half in, one of the managers came by and told us to each choose one host that we fancied to sit with us for the rest of our time there. That done, the three of them came over and situated themselves between us so that we had some one on one time for the last half hour. The host I chose wasn't really my type in the way he dressed, but he was one of the ones who stood out in my mind from earlier and I remembered that it had been fun talking to him. During our one on one time we talked about music, relationships, whether I was mote mote in Canada, my hair and finally, cheating. I would like to point out though, that he brought it up, not me! He asked if people in North America cheat and whether I thought it was more or less than Japan. I asked him whether he thought people in Japan cheat a lot and he said it wasn't so much that they cheat a lot, as there are many many pervs. And then he added that his women were always running around on him and that he couldn't understand why someone would cheat. True story? A line? Who knows. He then showed me some cuts on his knuckles that he got in a fight with another host at the club last week. Apparently the guy "pissed him off". Nice. I wonder if there are host fight rules, like no punches to the face. Gotta preserve that money-maker.

The service in general was pretty good, but not entirely seamless. There were a couple times when we were left alone at our table while the hosts scurried around and although the condensation wiping was attentive, I sometimes reached for my glass and discovered it was being wiped again or was practically empty. When we first sat down they gave us soft blankets to place over our knees, which was a nice touch and I am assuming was for warmth and not to preserve my modesty in a skirt that was not at all modest in its length. The cigarette lighting was also pretty good, although most of the hosts had plastic lighters, unlike their classier versions at Ai who all had expensive gold and silver ones. See how discerning I am getting?! The big downer was the rat. While we were waiting for our first set of hosts to come, we saw a rat climb down a wall that led to an outside door, which was not the right way to start the night off but we quickly forgot about it as we were plied with alcohol.

The interior was lots of white with long black leather sofas and bluish light. It is a decent sized club but probably has less than half the number of hosts that Ai does. There were a couple screens set into the walls playing music videos and the tracks were all hip hop, which gave the place a young hip feel. I don't remember what was playing at Ai, probably because I was blinded by all the sparkles and lights. The hosts all seemed to be in their twenties, but I assume there are a couple older ones that we didn't see. A few were dressed in suits but most of them wore the kind of outfits you see running around Shibuya and one even showed us his tattoos. In general they all had a much younger and more casual feel about them-I saw one across the room with his foot up on the sofa-and a couple times I wasn't sure we were going to make it through the conversation when our host seemed like a newbie and unskilled at conversation. In the end though, most of them were pretty good at what they did. During one set however, we ended up with two strung out hosts. The worse of the two had the biggest blond hair out of everyone (including me) and blue contact lenses that kept swishing around inside his head. They were both slurring their words and were probably smashed, although I think Blondie was on drugs because of the way his eyes keep rolling into the back of his head and the way he licked his lips after telling me I had an impressive rack after I stood up to go to the bathroom.

The conversation at Acqua was good for the most part, although we didn't have much time with each host because of all the changes. It was fun meeting a lot of hosts and some of them were good at keeping the conversation on the up and up (with a little down and down sex talk) but I have to say the boys at Ai (and perhaps because we spent more time with them overall) were flawless in their conversational skills from their puns to their promises of love. The host who initially received us at the beginning of the evening pulled me aside later and explained that they sometimes get customers who say they can speak Japanese but then can't, which makes it really hard on the hosts to converse with them, and so they have to be careful about who they admit to the club. I think this was his way of offering an apology for the way we were received at the beginning.

As the time drew near, our chosen hosts became our escorts out, the option of designating the escort often carries it's own price tag but was included that night, and they carried our purses up to street level. Before leaving the club there had been a little talk of hanging out and going to karaoke with my host and when he asked if I had a cellphone I turned the conversation around like a seasoned Host Hunter: I've got your number so I'll call you honey. Crisis averted. He waved me away into the Kabukicho lights with the order to email him and with my faux promise to do so soon.

All in all a fun evening well spent. The hosts at Acqua are younger on the whole than those at Ai and some of them even told us their stories of moving to Tokyo to make money as a host. I wouldn't say they are wilder, just younger and more inexperienced, which means you feel more like you are hanging out with some cute boys than being taken care of like a princess. Acqua offers a different kind of host, one who seems more like a boy you'd pick up in Shibuya than a seasoned professional. The club itself was fine but was certainly not as dazzling as Ai. Where to next? If anyone wants to suggest a club to go to, I would be more than happy to oblige.

Club Acqua, Kabukicho

(On a five-star scale)
Professionalism ***
Club decor **
Hosts' fashion ***
Conversation ***
Attentiveness ***1/2
Overall ***

System: 5000 yen for 2 hours includes 指名料金 (designation fee)

***Thanks to a couple lovely readers I will be doing away with the stars very soon, well really as soon as I can figure out how to use a computer!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Have yourself a very melly Christmas too...

Now that both the Canadian and American Thanksgivings are out of the way, it's time to focus our attention on what's really important: buying shit for Christmas!!! Now I should preface this by reminding you all that I am from the Hanukkah tribe and not the one that also includes Christmas trees (not that there's anything wrong with that). Or "Hanukkah bushes" for that matter, which instead of a thinly-veiled Christmas tree makes me think of what someone might call getting some holiday lovin' from their partner who doesn't believe in waxing. No, we deal strictly with menorahs.

I've participated in a Christmas celebration maybe three times, and this has been on the extremely rare occasion that I was in the US visiting my family in the Christmas tribe. And well, I love them to bits so honestly no complaints there. But the years of being the only Hanukkah girl at school, nay for miles, I have come to reject every aspect of Christmas as something I might possibly engage in. During the years La Familia de Geisha spent in New Zealand, my parents had to go and talk to my brother's teacher when he was 6 and ask her to stop telling the class that the Jews killed Jesus. When I was 7 my teacher sat the class down for me and taught them that they should stop drawing swastikas in the classroom. No, none of this has to do with Christmas and I am not trying to jerk any tears with an oh-poor-me Hanukkah girl act, but growing up in the environment I did, (I think) really made me equate Christmas with the Christian religion, despite that for many, it is a secular holiday. I cannot imagine celebrating it as a secular holiday, which is really the crux of why I think it is so batshit crazy the way Japanese people celebrate Christmas!

Take for example, last week. I was enjoying a pleasant stroll around the Ginza, because really what other kind of stroll is to be had there? and my ears were suddenly assaulted by Christmas music. Granted if I walk into a store I am consciously subjecting myself to hearing whatever they have spinning, but I would like to enjoy my walks outside at this time of year sans Christmas music. I will probably get some flack for this post which is fine, because I have no problem with other people doing Christmas, I just wish it hadn't become this blanket holiday that you would think everyone participated in from looking at the amount of public hooplah that surrounds it.

I think my main problem is that I simply cannot separate Christmas from Christianity and have never been able to understand how my Hindu, Buddhist and Atheist friends do. The beau is not into Christmas and so you would think given that Christmas here is not a national holiday, I would be able to avoid it. Not quite, as many couples with scheduling conflicts do Christmas on the 23rd, which is the ever-so-convenient Emperor's birthday. Nevertheless, in the past couple years we have managed to do OK with a movie and Japanese food, the Japanese- Jewish equivalent of a Jewish Chinese-food-and-movie Christmas.

Christmas is one of the best Western things to hit the retail and food industry in Japan in the last century. Between the two of them, these industries have fashioned a holiday that appeals to the Japanese love of eating, buying exorbitant gifts and factory-standard dates. Check out any magazine on the stands this month and there will be at least a few pages dedicated to romantic hotel packages, restaurants with special Christmas courses, suggested gifts from Louis Vuitton and the requisite fried chicken take-out places. All of this food, shopping and lovin' is fine by me, I just wish it wasn't all in the name of the birth of baby Jesus, granted many Japanese think it is actually Santa's birthday on the 25th. I have rarely tried to articulate this to a Japanese person, for asking them why they are celebrating a Christian holiday is usually met with a short and furious burst of blinks.

Those who do not live in Japan would probably assume that we are fairly isolated from Christmas over here but it's quite the opposite in fact. Every year in Japan too, I deal with my feelings over whether to nod and smile or correct people when they either wish me a Merry Christmas or ask me what I'm doing for Christmas, and these are Japanese people. Even the Kaisha is having a Christmas party that should rightly be named a 1000-person bonenkai, except for the chorus interlude when a group sings some Christmas songs. Yup, they sing their little hearts out to a room full of Japanese people, 2% of which probably know who Jesus is.

There is a fantastic article here written a few years ago about Christmas in Japan that my dad sent me when I was first studying here. I do feel for the foreigners here who can't be with their family back home on Christmas, and I hope that at least the superficial celebrations of it here get them in the Christmas spirit, as I believe they call it, but for me I think it will always be something that makes me flinch. For something that is so often touted and assumed to be a shared cultural holiday, I think it's not shared by as many people as we think.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Japanese Love Proctor Tendencies

I learned a new feeling of pain at the Test on Sunday and it wasn't located in my head. I mistakenly thought I didn't need to use the bathroom before the listening test and figured that even if I ended up having to go, it was only a 45-minute test. Kind of like holding it at the movie theatre right? Wrong. As soon as the stupid recorded Japanese woman's voice started droning on about not chewing gum or leaving the classroom, I felt like a faucet had been turned on inside me and rather than a gradual feeling of having to go, I had to go right. then. and. there. But this being the Test, one cannot leave the classroom until every last answer sheet and test booklet has been collected, counted, recounted and shuffled around a bit by the proctors at the front for good measure. Imagine a time that you have really had to pee but haven't been able to. Then multiple that by about a thousand and try holding it for OVER AN HOUR.

The listening test is my strongest one and I suppose that makes it a good time to have to go so bad you feel like you're drifting in and out on consciousness, but I spaced out on a couple questions because I couldn't focus due to the stomach cramps and innate fear that at 25 I was going to go and pee my pants. Not such a hot situation when I had planned for my listening test to tilt the scales in my favour. I don't know if anyone else noticed that I was constantly moving around in my seat, scratching a scab on my hand until it bled and finally, peeling off my pretty sparkling nails, just to keep me moving in a way that didn't trigger the flood gates so to speak. I am such an idiot for not going to the bathroom before the test I know, but hasn't this happened to anyone else? I kept glancing around the room to see if anyone else looked as distracted and distraught as I but everyone was calmly listening to a man and woman discuss a painting of an ogre. I was so afraid I was going to get distracted and stop squeezing my bladder closed for just a moment, that I seriously considered calling over a proctor and forfeiting the entire Test. Somehow I managed to hold it together and almost body checked a fellow Test-taker trying to get out of that classroom at the end.

The rest of the Test was fairly uneventful, obviously it would have gone better if I had actually studied before going, but I think the fact that I didn't blast my pants makes it a smashing success. This year the proctors' explanation of the yellow and red cards felt a bit like airplane safety instructions and I was half-expecting them to point out the exits to us using their index and middle fingers. And I forgot how ridiculous they all look. There is always the proctor who doesn't care about following the rules and then the one who is holding the rule book the whole time, making sure he is doing everything exactly according to plan. And then there is of course the fact that all the Tests at one level must be synchronized to the minute so you actually end up waiting about 10 minutes after the test instructions for the test to begin and then another 10 or 15 minutes once the test has finished, for the proctors to get their shit together and count every last piece of paper to make sure it is all accounted for before letting us leave the room for a break. Not the best 6000 yen I've ever spent but.

Group of rambunctious gaijin girls descend upon Nakano

Last Friday night a group of 7 fabulous gaijin ladies flocked to Nakano together. How do I know? I was lucky enough to be one of them. After a champagne-fueled conversation at 57 one night, a small group of us decided that we had to go to Nakano to try this black sesame ramen that I had been raving about. We started to question our identity as gaijin however, when we ended up setting a date more than a month away to ensure that we could ALL be at this momentous dinner.

At the appointed time we began arriving one by one, until there were 7 of us, compliments of the GGG, or the Gaijin Girl Grapevine. I don't know if it was the fact that it was Friday, or our special gaijin girl superpowers, but we were so giddy that while walking to the restaurant, people started to give us "who let them out" looks. Not in a bad way though, but it was clear Nakano has never seen the likes of it.

After being shown to our table, the combination of the Asian-chic red lantern hanging over it and the dim lighting of the restaurant made our dinner feel like some kind of mafia meeting, except the heads of each family were gaijin girls. I think the restaurant staff were certainly surprised by us but nonetheless they did our bidding, bringing us bowls of black sesame noodles, accompanied with gyoza, spring rolls and ebi chili.

Full, we headed out to the long narrow street that runs parallel to Nakano Broadway, which is becoming overrun with snacks and hostess clubs. Is this part of Nakano the new Kabukicho?! Not knowing quite where we wanted to go and dodging the advances of dodgy men, we headed down to Juke 80's, a "one coin" 80's bar where all the drinks are 500 yen and the song requests are free. Before long we were getting down with the locals, singing along to songs of the 80s and admiring Michael Jackson's cheek bones.

I have not laughed that hard in a really long time. If I say that the night out with the girls brought me back to life it sounds trite and also as if I haven't been doing very well lately. Which isn't true. I've been doing fine but I've allowed myself to forget how fun it is to have a warm and fun group of girlfriends to hang out with. By the end of December I will have lost three close friends to their home countries this year. And according to my calculations, that leaves me with not a whole lot. The past couple years in Japan have been pretty lonely for me, sporadically dotted with fun time spent with friends, for which I am grateful, but constantly wish there were more of.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

I want to be a shellfish

This past weekend the beau and I went to see a real downer of a movie. I should probably qualify that statement, as most Japanese movies are downers, so let's just say we practically had to talk each other back from the ledge once it was over. This won't be a movie I recommend to anyone on a date, or anyone who doesn't want to be sent into a dark spiral of despair for that matter. We went to see 私は貝になりたい (watashi wa kai ni naritai or I want to be a shellfish). I had not heard of the movie before we made the fateful decision to see it, so you can imagine my surprise when I realized by the end that I was getting all welled-up over a Japanese war criminal. It's not quite that simple however, and while I should probably go brush up on my WWII history before embarking on this post, I won't, so bear with me.

To give a brief summary, a kind and slightly disabled man is drafted during the war and following the orders of his superiors (at gunpoint), he kills an American POW. When the war is over he returns to his family only to be arrested and tried in Tokyo during the American occupation. The court rules that he is a B class war criminal and he is sentenced to hang. I was pretty shocked by the end of the movie as I hadn't realized until then that in the post-war era, lowly soldiers had been tried and executed for crimes committed under the orders of commanding officers. I had been under the (mistaken) impression that it was mostly the higher-ups who were held accountable for the atrocities that happened at the hands of the imperial army. In the end, the movie did a commendable job in drawing out indignation and shock from the audience at the fact that blame was also placed on an "innocent" man simply obeying orders, and not just his commanding officers. I'm not so sure that is a job that needed/should be done.

To help lift our spirits we headed to Orange for warmth and champagne. The beau and I talked about his family and mine, in terms of their involvement in the war. His dad had 12 siblings, 3 or 4 who died in the war. 12! Can you believe it? I could imagine it one more generation back but not in the same generation as my parents, whose four-children families seem large to me today. One of my grandfathers was in Pearl Harbour and the other in the merchant marines (I think). I don't know if I would go so far as to say how utterly amazing it is that things have changed so much since then that the beau and I were able to meet, let alone be together, but I think it's pretty fucking cool. Unfortunately none of our grandfathers are around today to talk to, because I would love to hear what they would say about this Canadian-Japanese couple. I'd also like to hear about post-war Japan from the marines grandfather who was there and who brought kimonos back to the States with him, one of which I have today.

Going into the movie, I really had no idea of what it was about or the background behind it and after a little digging the only English information I could find was this article, which was conveniently published just last week. After reading it, a lot of things fell into place for me. Superficially at least, I see the film for what it is: a remake of an older film AND TV series, which has been directed by someone over at TBS and is thus overly dramatic and made-for-TVesque. There are also two members of SMAP in the film, one who I completely missed and the other who left me thinking, why the fuck does this guy pop up EVERYWHERE?! I probably would have taken more notice if it was Kimtaku, who is all hot man, hot hair. Then there is the music, which is at times ridiculously cheesy and what the above article calls "literal-minded". At times it all felt like a really bad daytime soap, something to which the Japanese acting aesthetic lends itself far too well. These thoughts were not in my head however, when I was crying along with the rest of the captivated audience.

There is no mistake that this is an anti-war film but there is always the delicate and ever-sensitive issue of how much Japan will be portrayed as a victim, blameless except for an elite and monstrous military few. I'll readily admit that throughout and maybe even immediately after the film I kept thinking how wrong it was that this man who was clearly forced to kill another in war, be held accountable. I agree with the points the article's author hits on however, especially when he says that "the filmmakers, however, have loaded the moral dice by making an extreme case like Shimizu the protagonist, instead of the more numerous torturers and murderers of POWs who rightly ended up on the war-crimes docket". Maybe I should have walked into the movie with a more critical eye but I think I can safely say that my initial reaction is similar to what most people feel when watching this movie, which is perhaps where the danger lies. It's much easier to feel bad for a disabled barber-turned-soldier than an officer who let men under his command rape women in China. How many average Japanese people equipped with the "national average" amount of knowledge of WWII walked out of that movie and decided to read a few history books to brush up? Or who even thought past feeling that the barber's fate was unjust?

I don't have the answer, I don't know at what point people should be held responsible for their actions in situations such as that laid out in this movie, or if it differs depending on the cultural perspective. Would Japanese people be more inclined to hold the highest person in a chain of command responsible, whereas their American counterparts believe it is the individual who has to step up? If your life was threatened would you harm another to nullify that? Cheesiness aside, this was a truly depressing film where by the end I too, understood the protagonist's longing to become a shellfish.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Call for submissions

Does anyone out there have skillz when it comes to computers? If, for example, I was to ask you to make me a little icon of either a host with big hair or a pointy shoe, not unlike those worn by hosts, would you be able to? If so, please let me know! I need an icon to use for my *patented* host rating system and I got no skillz!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Please do it at home in December

Happy December gentle readers. The metro folks are at it again as we knew they would be, and just in time for bonenkai season, when the inhabitants of this island nation band together in groups to drink copious amounts of alcohol, in the native belief that this does wonders to help one "forget the year". I think that says a whole lot right there. Instead of celebrating the passage of time, the Japanese just want to forget it ever happened.

The main text on the poster tells us to Please refrain from drunken behaviour. Well for people to do that, they would need to refrain from drinking too much. The metro people certainly have their work cut out! I do think it a sweet gesture however, to include a small note in the white bubble encouraging us to "also take care not to drink too much". What's next metro peeps? Only three months left until Tokyo has so many manners it doesn't know what to do with itself!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Geisha 2 Kaisha 0

I've been making breakthroughs at the Kaisha recently. Just last night one of the Professionals who sits in spitting distance from my white ghetto and who is one of the few I don't have a personal vendetta against for the very reason that he nods and smiles when our paths cross, popped over and asked me to do some work for him. He must have felt sorry for me or seen the glazed look I have been sporting of late for lack of work. There are some people you just know aren't assholes, and judging by his smiling silence towards me and his interactions with the non-untouchables at the Kaisha, he is definitely a good guy. The way he poked his head over my desk barrier was so unobtrusive and sweet that I just about broke down and cried. And I wasn't even put off by hearing him speak English for the first time either! In fact, it endeared me to him even more. I find it very disconcerting when I've either interacted with a person only in Japanese or I've only ever heard them speak Japanese, and then they start speaking English. It's not just their tone of voice (which funnily enough, I think drops for women and gets higher for men) but their very being changes in front of my eyes. They are no longer the Japanese people I thought they were, but some hazy in-between character that has done a language switcheroo on me.

Being the sweet-tempered girl that I am, code-switching usually puts or pisses me off. And I don't think it has to do with the switcher's level of English either.

This past weekend I went on a field trip with my kimono school to Ibaraki and on the bus ride there, one of the younger teachers I hadn't met before started chatting me up in Japanese. The conversation was smashing and for the rest of the day we chatted here and there. During one of our last stops, while looking at ceramic tableware she did the switch on me. She asked me if I cooked at home by asking whether I "prepare anything" and not catching what she said, I did a Japanese "pardon?" So she immediately asked if she should speak in English and continued for the rest of the evening in English.

Was she:

A) waiting for me to trip up so she could speak in English?
B) unsure of whether I could actually understand Japanese, despite having conversed in it moments earlier?
C) none of the above?

There are a couple reasons this bothered me. No one else on the field trip speaks English so by continuing to speak to me in English she was definitely excluding everyone from the conversation and quite possibly showing off how Clever she is. Second, would it have hurt her to repeat the question instead of switching to English? I haven't felt this in a long time but I often joke about it with hard-line Japanese who insist that people speak in Japanese as this is Japan, but it irks me when people do the switch. I'll let them speak English when they come to Canada. I of course always look for the worst in people so in my petit conspiracy theory every Japanese person committing the switch is out to get me or at least to show off their superior foreign language skills. If I step back for a moment, I realize they are probably trying to accommodate me, believing that if they speak in English I will feel more comfortable. This may have been true when I was a punk exchange student at uni but now that I no longer have to think before I speak Japanese, it's a little insulting, especially if said switcher has been conversing with me in Japanese the whole time.

It's not always like that however, as I sometimes get pleading stares and exceedingly grateful thank yous from people at the Kaisha when they speak to me in Japanese and I go along with it. For these people, they are grateful that I am making them comfortable by continuing in Japanese, even if I have to run and look up the word for "board of directors meeting" later.

Ultimately I think I get freaked out (and sometimes insulted) when people do the switch. Most times I've found that people come across as markedly different in English and Japanese. I think sometimes this is because a different persona comes out depending on which language they are speaking and other times their personality is inhibited by the depth of their language skills. My snazziness in English is definitely lost in Japanese but with intimacy and gradually increasing proficiency in it, I find other ways to make the beau laugh, a skill I would feel truly lost without.

On a totally different note and because I will forget if I don't write it down, some of the non-Professional men (there are so very few) at the Kaisha are hot! I remember seeing a small huddle of them at last year's Christmas party and could tell immediately by their appearance that they were either from the mail room or the IT department. It's so refreshing to see what I consider "people from the outside" on the inside, because all the bullshit suits make me want to loosen my nonexistent tie. I have also recently discovered a mailboy who looks like a host! He is sporting the poofy colour-from-a-box hair that is classic a la host and I think perhaps he is moonlighting for extra cash! Will be sure to inform you if I run into him while researching my Host Series.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


I believe I've mentioned both my Japanese sensei who comes to the Kaisha once a week to flog me with a kanji textbook, and also the Test. The Test that is fast-approaching.

I'm actually not that anxious about it, and aside from calmly acknowledging the fact that I will most likely not pass due to shockingly good marks in listening and shockingly shocking ones in kanji, I am feeling pretty zen (wink wink) about the whole thing. As long as I don't read the information on the test voucher that warrants two different styles of underlining that is. I don't know if the TOEFL or TOEIC people are as anal as those from the JLPT, but I'm convinced the JLPT peeps are employing scare tactics to keep everyone in line.

Before applying for the test there is a little 45-page booklet that you must read before attempting to fill out the application form. The booklet first instructs us: "Do not throw away the booklet until you receive your test results". OK. Then scattered throughout the most anal and exceedingly Japanese explanations contained in said booklet, there are little warnings screaming out at you from the page: "Every year people do not receive their test vouchers due to mistakes on their application forms", "every year --% of examinees are expelled from the test site for letting their cell phones ring", "every year --% of examinees have incomplete test scores due to tardiness". They even go so far as to tell us not to bring our cell phones. What mad planet are these people from? First, we are in Japan, where 5 year-olds sport their own cells and second, most people have to trek at least an hour from home to some second-rate university testing site and they want us to do this with no mode of communication?! I say i to the iie to that.

I could be completely off base here, but I could have sworn the test booklets in past years contained little smiley faces that were more often than not frowning, with little crosses for eyes to draw your attention to yet another warning. Reading through the test materials always makes me feel as if I have made the Test People mad, by my mere existence as someone who studies Japanese and is eligible to take the Test.

But back to the two fast-unravelling threads running through this post: my sensei and the Test. Or was it red cards? During the test, the proctors employ a warning system not unlike that of football (not American football, Americans!), in which yellow and red cards are furiously waved at players to signal a foul. The first and to date only time I have taken the Test, I thought the proctors were joking when they demonstrated holding up the coloured cards while running through a litany of Prohibited Behaviour. In essence, if you receive a yellow card once, your second offence is likely to graduate you to a red card. There are however, certain events in which you will be directly handed a red card, which essentially means Get the fuck out! I looked at my Test peers in amazement when some of them had the audacity to keep writing after Pencils Down. Or those who couldn't help but whisper to their neighbours despite the proctor's warning. I don't know if as far as classroom scare tactics go there are differences in the Asian and Western classroom, but those yellow and red cards sure as hell kept me in line. I did however, almost get a yellow card during the break time when I was having a smoko in a Prohibited Area. This must be an Asian classroom technique: just when you think you can relax during break time, they sneak up and get you from behind. Was the Original Head Test Man a football fan? What in the world gave the JLPT people this idea for discipline?

This just about brings me to the end of my not-much-of-a-story. I was about ready to red card my sensei today, and I might just prepare a yellow and red card just in case, for our next battle. Things up until today had been going swimmingly, until I asked her to quickly read me the answers to a mock test I had completed at home. This turned into almost 45 minutes of her going back and forth between my answers and the book's, and included tittering on her part when she thought that the incorrect kanji reading I chose was tres amusant. I should have just taken the reins at that point and told her what I wanted to study during our limited time, but I got so pissed off at her incessant tittering that I was stony silent for the remainder of our time together, only speaking when spoken to. What the fuck is her problem? I told her I would take full responsibility for my kanji duncedom. And for such a normally cool old lady, she was a real red-card deserving witch today.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Royale wit cheese hits Tokyo

Upon exiting Omotesando station this past Friday night, I was somewhat disconcerted to see that the McDonald's, where people-watchers who can't afford to sit on the Anniversaire terrace up the street sit, was gone. On closer inspection however, I discovered that the black no-name sign was in fact the store front for the Quarter Pounder, a new concept for Japan.

A novelty in the fast food world, McDonald's is apparently trying no-brand marketing in introducing its hefty little burgers to this island nation. And they are being all boutique about it too! I hardly recognized the site before me as a McDonald's enterprise (save for the huge picture of a quarter pounder) with its use of a simple black and silver colour palate and something equally new for McDonald's: mood lighting. If for a moment you forgot it was a McDonald's you were looking at, you might mistake it for some kind of futuristic and trendy take-out place with its lack of logos and spiffy bold-font paper bags.

While I waited for my friend to arrive, I got to observe the fascinating comings and goings of this undercover McDonald's. To add to the simplicity, there were only two lines: one for Quarter Pounders and the other for Double Quarter Pounders. They are sold in sets, and that's all the McTique (McDonald's boutique) had on offer. Granted McDonald's has still not sunk to the level that it has in the public eye here, I was amazed at the number of well-dressed people lining up for some meat. The lines actually moved surprisingly fast and there didn't seem to be any wait even close to Krispy Kreme proportions. I'm a bit disappointed that McDonald's didn't change the name of their burger to put it into perspective for the locals, like the 113 Gramer or something along those lines. There were a few brave women who stepped up to the Double line but most of them remained in the Single one. A couple looked curious to try the Double line but defected to the Single line after discovering that the Double line should have been called the "foreigners and men" line. And did said foreigners ever look happy! Who knew 113 grams of meat and a slice of cheese could illicit such emotion!?

I'm not sure how long these McTiques are going to be open for business but there are currently only two in the city. I wouldn't doubt that the Quarter Pounder doesn't make it on the menu permanently, especially when the ladies catch on and realize they are eating 113 and 226 grams o' meat.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Postcard from Seoul

Once upon a time there were two white girls from the glam city of Tokyo who upon a visit to Seoul, found themselves being covered with burlap sacks and shoved into an oven, not unlike a twisted version of Hansel and Gretel but dubbed in bad Korean.

Perhaps I should back up a few steps. After hearing some rave reviews of Seoul from Japanese and foreigners alike in Tokyo ("just like Tokyo 20 years ago", "the same as Tokyo but dirty", "Tokyo in a mess"), Other Whitie and I just had to see it for ourselves. We popped over the river for a couple days and with an itinerary under which a visit to a Korean bathhouse was top priority.

After discovering that the subway exit we were supposed to use had mysteriously disappeared and possibly been kidnapped by North Korea, we found our way to a very local-looking bathhouse in the middle of Seoul's premier shopping district. After looking somewhat surprised that we didn't blink at the 6000 yen price for the "basic course", the woman at the front desk ushered us to a check-in area where we received locker keys and a numbered tag to wear on our wrists, presumably to distinguish us from all the other naked women.

We were then passed off to another woman, who essentially became our "handler" for the duration of our course. She instructed us in a concoction of Korean, Japanese and dictatorial English to strip ourselves of clothing and make-up and to don pink gowns with matching skull caps that when filled out with the bulk of hair, looked like sporty pink turbans. Come on, she instructed while clapping her hands at us, and led us into what looked like a service elevator that took us down to the deepest reaches of the building. As soon as we alighted from the elevator, our handler disappeared and two old Korean women were upon us, throwing burlap sacks over our heads and thrusting an extra into our arms. Before we could become oriented, we were being pushed by these little women towards a door that looked as if it led to a hobbit hole. All we could see from the outside was what looked like a dimly lit clay oven and perhaps reading the panic on our faces, one of the women told us to push the door from inside and come out whenever we were ready.

After crawling on all fours through the hobbit door, we found ourselves in a small circular room with a dome roof that indeed felt like an oven. Sweat immediately poured forth from my pores and we sat there detoxing, blinking at each other from beneath our burlap hoods, for as long as we could stand. After the Korean oven we were left to lie on the floor of a heated room with wooden pillows until summoned by the handler for our next assignment.

I was worried about making noise and so conversed with OW in hushed tones, which turned out to be unnecessary as a small group of Korean women were having what looked like a mutual ear grooming session in the corner. Just as I was nodding off to sleep the call came and we were whisked off to another floor of the building, finding ourselves at the entrance to a shower room, not unlike those in Japan. The handler stripped us of our gowns and wearing nothing but our numbered tags and pink turbans, we were ordered to shower and sit in the bath until called again. We smiled the smiles of pros, assuring the woman that we knew what we were doing when it came to the shower room and public baths. Our confidence waned as we hopped into one of the baths and discovered that we had an unobstructed view of the Scrub Room. One of the key features at any Korean bathhouse is what is called asukari in Japanese, and means exfoliation treatment. In plain English, it means an old woman scrubs your naked body until it shines. From where we sat in the bath, we could see a row of white vinyl covered tables, upon which naked women were lying in various degrees of immodesty, while old Korean women wearing nothing but black bras, black panties and stomach paunches were working them over with soap, oil, and exfoliation mitts. I'm not too sure about this exfoliation business, I whispered to OW.

Luckily, before I had too much time to marinate in my own worry about coming away with no skin or some kind of infection, one of the gangster-looking ajummas came out and beckoned us into the Scrub Room.

Let us take a short break here and examine the word ajumma:

A term used to address an adult female individual of married age and/or runs a business or restaurant. The stereotypical 'ajumma' image is that of a short, stocky, tough old woman who wears purple pants and permed hair, and has sharp elbows on the subway. The word ajumma is also used to call older women when in a restaurant or simply when getting a person's attention, but it is best to only call older women this as women of a somewhat younger age may not think of themselves as ajummas yet, especially if they are in their 30s and maybe even early 40s.

Back to the Scrub Room. My Ajumma pointed at a white plastic table and told me to hop on face down. I figured there was no point in arguing at this point and did as I was told. She immediately began furiously scrubbing me with her rough exfoliation mitt. At first it stung a little, but I eventually got used to the grating sensation and allowed my eyes to wander around the room. There were women in various stages of the scrub process, which allowed me to glimpse what I was in for next. The room was basically a car wash for humans by humans.

Ajumma finished my back and told me to lay on my side while prying open my legs after which she scrubbed closer to my cooch with that mitt than I was comfortable with. On to the other side and she finished up with me on my back. This woman was thorough, and didn't leave any bit of exposed skin unscrubbed, which translates to nowhere. When Ajumma deemed she had sufficiently stripped me of a layer of my dermis, she ordered me back to the shower room for a wash. I made the rookie mistake of glancing down at the table as I was getting up and was witness to all the bits of skin I had shed. Delish.

Back at the shower station I began washing with soap to the dismay of Ajumma who yelled at me that I was only to have a quick wash before getting my (now) pink ass back in the Scrub Room. I saluted her and ran back to my plastic table. Starting on my back again she applied a face mask from the freezer and then laid what I think was slices of cucumber all over my face. While that set I got an oil massage, which basically consisted of her rubbing oil into my skin without much oomph. Funnily enough she used the small towel I was allowed to carry with me to cover my cooch during the massage, which I frankly thought was too little too late after she had essentially come face to face with it during the Scrub. As with the exfoliation, she had me roll onto my side and then onto my back, where she proceeded to oil my breasts. Being as greased up as a seal pup or a newly birthed babe, both times I almost slid right off the damn table and onto the concrete floor, which caused Ajumma to cackle furiously.

When she had finished with my oil massage slash breast exam, Ajumma had me sit up while she rotated my legs to the opposite end of the table so that the rest of my body swivelled around on my ass. To finish up my Scrub Room procedure, Ajumma tore off my pink turban and shampooed my hair. She then hosed me down and ordered me out to the shower room and into the adjoining two saunas and three mineral baths, which I was to use before graduating from the basic course. I half expected her to slap me on the ass as I left the Scrub Room.

The rest of our time passed fairly uneventfully, but I guess Ajumma is a pretty tough act to follow. After drying off and getting dressed, we took our newly polished asses off to our first Korean fashion show.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Host by any other name...

Despite my recent silence on Project Host, it is anything but forgotten. In fact, I have plans to go back to Club Love next week in order to experience what it is like to be a return customer. Yes, that is the only reason I am going. Taking one for the team so to speak. After exchanging a couple messages with Roses however, I really will be taking one for the team. 30,000 yen worth in fact.

I wanted to make sure that the other ladies in my party would be hooked up with a good deal and so I inquired with Roses as to the cost the four of us would incur. The two of us who are host virgins will get the same deal we got on my birthday and my friend who accompanied me that fateful night will pay double the virgin price. When it came to me, things got a little murky. Because I essentially have to request Roses by name when we go, my portion of the bill will be "a little bit more expensive" he said. When pressed for more details, he said it is calculated by the amount I drink. And then, sweetheart that he is, he offered to meet us and escort us to the club. Without prompting he added that the "escort portion" doesn't cost any money. You know it's true love when your date assures you that picking you up won't cost a thing. But not in a J. Lo "my love don't cost a thang" kind of way.

A few days later I started doing some investigative work on the Internet into the systems employed by host clubs for return customers. Let's just say that when I have time to think about something, I really think about it, and I knew that if I didn't know approximately how much I was going to be gouged for that night I would either not enjoy myself in tense anticipation of the bill, or I would overcompensate by drinking a shitload so that when the bill came I literally wouldn't be able to bat an eye.

In general, one of the things that distinguishes the host club system from that of hostess clubs and kyabakura, is that once you take the plunge and request the host you like by name, you cannot request a different host. Ever. In other words, once you choose him, you become his customer and he will then be in charge of looking after you on every subsequent visit. So on a return visit, there will be a fee for requesting your host (every time) and then often a table charge and some crazy-ass 35% tax that I don't recall hearing the government put into effect. There is then the "set" charge which is essentially your entrance fee and from what I've heard can be from around 3,000-10,000 yen. Possibly more. We haven't even begun to discuss drinks! You can order cocktails and drinks by the glass (exorbitantly marked up of course) but your host will really want you to put a bottle in the club's bottle keep and this is where it gets expensive.

This is also where I start to sweat. There was no way I was going to walk blind into a situation next week where I had no idea as to the monetary value of at least the drinks I would consume, if not the company I would keep. Revert to the Roses hotline. After making some floozy excuse for emailing, I inquired as to whether I would be able to "play" for 15,000-20,000 yen. He immediately replied that it depends on what I drink but to put a bottle away it would be at least 30,000 yen. Oh and that he would do his best to keep my bill within 30,000. Enough beating around the bush I thought, I had had enough with our polite and vague exchanges so I asked him straight out whether I had to buy a bottle. I don't think he was too pleased as he said that a service bottle of shochu would be there to drink and it would be "OK" to drink that but that it would be better to buy a bottle so that I can drink it next time I come. To drive this point home he said that the service bottle is for that night only and that even if there is some left over, it can't be kept. And for good measure he assured me that him and his cronies would do everything in their power to ensure we had a rollicking good time drinking. I'll bet.

After that exchange I immediately thought, fuck it, we'll just go to another club. The last thing I want to do is be the cheapskate customer who only drinks water but after hearing from him that I can drink from the service bottle, I think I will keep my date after all. From things I've read online it seems that the host industry in particular is trying to make their respective systems a little more transparent and less intimidating for new customers. For a long time many women were scared to go to host clubs because they didn't want to get stuck with an overinflated bill at the end of the night, and the environment is such that it is extremely difficult to ask about prices. I mean really, once you are surrounded and being pampered, the last thing you want to do is spoil the fantasy moment and ask how much the flattery is going to run you. This way of thinking still prevails for many women and because of this, clubs in Kabukicho are very up front on their websites about the virgin price. After that however, is where it still remains quite vague. Along with the virgin price many of the clubs have a Q&A page that is not particularly helpful but one thing I found interesting was that they all had a couple lines encouraging women to feel very welcome to call the club with any inquiries they may have. Experiencing what I have with Japanese people asking questions though, I doubt many women take the clubs up on this offer.

Online there is not as much information as I had hoped. There are a large number of websites ranking all the host clubs, but in terms of Internet forums on the topic, it is quite sparse. I found a few places here and there where women were asking about going to a club for the first time, but I couldn't find any specific info on return visits. Some of the ranking sites also include "host club manner" sections and "how to spend time at a host club" sections, instructing women on the host club basics and assuring them that they would be able to visit a club even on a budget. Again though, after briefly mentioning how it can get dangerously expensive if one is not careful, these sites then remind women to feel free to ask questions. It's a bit of a catch 22 here. Women are encouraged to ask questions while simultaneously being fed lots of vague price information that makes the system out to be more complicated than it is. This in turn intimidates customers I think, customers who will then show up no questions asked and hope the bill isn't too outrageous by the end of the evening.

I would like to see just once how the return customer deal works so I most likely will be heading there one night next week. If all else fails, I will just get started a bit early on the series, and check out a new club.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Playboys' stocks are down

Thank god for that little button that says "email" which can be found at the end of every article on the Internet these days. If it weren't for that little button, this Japanese say good bye to Western playboys article would not have found its way across my desk. After a quick snicker to myself over which Heartland-frequenting investment banker acquaintances I would send it to as a heads up and which strong Western sisters I would send it to as a gleeful hurrah, I began to ponder whether Japanese women are as calculating as this article makes them out to be. If this article is anything to go by, forget the Keizai Shinbun, we can just examine the habits of Japanese gaijin-hunters to understand where the economy is going!

According to the article, the numbers of Japanese women who go to Heartland in Roppongi to bag themselves a finance man and join the elite legion of the Hills Tribe are declining. I first heard the term "Hill Tribe" when I came back to Tokyo a couple years ago and was catching up with an ex. We had both been students at the time we were together and two years later I had become a student again while he was embarking on an unexpected journey to become an investment banker (when we were both students he had planned to go back to Africa and win a Nobel prize). He told me about the firm he was slated to begin working at the following spring and of the high-flying world of money he had glimpsed during the string of extravagant welcome parties held for new employees. After completing a couple degrees in Japan as a poor struggling student, he was ready to join the Hills Tribe, he said. The Hills Tribe, or Hills-zoku, is an exclusive and proportionately small number of Tokyo residents who live in the Roppongi Hills complex. While drinking beers next to the pond in Yoyogi Park, we joked about decorating ideas for his future glamorous-life bathroom.

Yes, if there are no predatory Japanese women flocking in from the suburbs to prey on successful foreign men, it will certainly be the decline of "Roppongi romance", a term used in the article to refer to what I like to call "Roppongi romps". Last time I checked, there wasn't anything romantic happening anywhere with a Roppongi address, unless you consider the coupling of foreign men sporting insatiable appetites for Japanese girls with said girls, albeit possibly STD-ridden, romantic. What do I know though? I'm just the Kaisha Geisha. Maybe the "breed" of girls is different between Gaspanic and Heartland, but I'd say the motive is essentially the same. It's the GMS. The Get Money Syndrome. Male readers, if there are any out there, what say you?

I had always thought professional women went to Heartland too, I was always able to spot at least a few when there, but the article contends that most of them are girls from the 'burbs looking for a white prince to whisk them away from nail salon jobs and cohabitation with their parents. But in light of the recent market crash, these women are becoming more discriminating than ever. A couple of the women interviewed for the article disliked the cheap sheen of the suits worn by the two men buying them drinks and doubted whether they were actually bankers, or cheap salaryman knock-offs, or worse yet, IT consultants.

To lend some legitimacy to the article and allow it to be based on more than the tipsy opinions of a couple Roppongi hussies, Mariko Bando, "one of Japan's authorities on gender issues", was consulted. Of the young ladies' behaviour, she says that it is not just about gold digging but "about finding a more attractive style of relationship". Oh well OK then. Props to her for admitting their gold diggin' tendencies but what is this nonsense about a more attractive style of relationship? I think she means a more attractive wardrobe and place of residence. I imagine looking down at the huge rock on your finger while getting your nails done would be more attractive than being on the other side of that salon counter. A more attractive lifestyle yes, but relationship? Not so much. If you read to the bottom of the article, an ex-Hillite is interviewed and admits to making her friends come over so that she can make them jealous with her marble floors. Nowhere does it say anything about her making them jealous with her strapping white boyfriend. Oops, I guess she was blinded by all the gold that she forgot all about who it was that introduced her to this shiny new world.

Don't despair yet boys, for Bando assures us that although the interest in foreign finance men will decline, foreign men on the whole will still appeal to Japanese women, "even the poor ones". Poor foreign men that is. Who knows, let's keep watching the market, this could be the best thing to hit male English teachers in a long time! More women from the suburbs! According to Bando Japanese women will still prefer poor white guys to regular Japanese guys any day, because Japanese men are mamas boys who don't know how to treat their women. Just when I thought this woman was sending a verbal jab to Western men, she gets pedestrian and attacks Japanese men because that hasn't been done enough recently. I expected more insightful comments from one of Japan's leading experts on gender issues but she has simply reiterated the old foreign men are charming princes and Japanese men are lazy and poor salarymen song and dance. She's probably married to a white guy.

I would be the first to admit that there are a fair share of undesirable Japanese men, but I am so tired of hearing them get put down by foreigners and Japanese women too, who seem to have chugged that kool-aid. How many 'burb girls after being initiated into the Hills Tribe found themselves up high on the Hill on a Friday night, looking out the window at Tokyo tower and waiting for their prince to come home, while said prince was thirty floors down at Heartland literally charming the pants off another girl from Kawasaki?

Maybe we are saying goodbye to the Western playboy in this era of financial uncertainty. Is this such a bad thing though? Sure Heartland may go under if it no longer serves the purpose of hooking up Japanese women and investment bankers, but I'd personally like to see a less money-concerned Tokyo community, where style and good food are still fabulous, but people treat each other with more respect - less animosity between foreign men and women, and less groundless bashing of Japanese men and women. After reading through what I've written though, I'm not sure whether I'm in a position to say that.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Comme des who?!

I realize that I may be the only person right now not raving about H&M's collaboration line with Japan's Comme Des Garcons, but I can't help myself. I had a scarring experience this past weekend at the Ginza store when I thought someone had thrown-up spots on cheap cotton cardigans and then hung a price tag on them at H&M just for shits. My god H&M, I thought, did you set up a play date with Edward Scissorhands and Yayoi Kusama?

I, like the rest of the can-I-get-it-cheap fashion masses, was waiting with breath bated for the November 8 debut of the collaboration line. Comme Des Garcons' mastermind Rei Kawakubo is a big deal not only in Japan but all over the world. I don't know quite what I was expecting, her stuff can be pretty freaky sometimes, maybe I was imagining something a little more Issey Miyake. I was not prepared however, for the depressing and overcrowded scene at the H&M in Ginza. Nor for the overabundance of black and navy blue. I'll admit, black happens to be my favourite colour, but despite all the "reconstructed" pieces, it all felt watered down, especially when it came to the polka dots. I love polka dots. I don't however, like navy blue cotton cardigans with no shape, covered in white polka dots. It will not do.

Maybe I just don't get it but I have been reading reviews of the line and everyone is gushing over how Comme Des Garcons has turned H&M into a luxury brand (I don't think I would use "luxurious" to describe the vibe coming from the black jackets) and how Comme Des Garcons for H&M has finally brought some of Japan's deconstructed avant-garde Harajuku fashion to the rest of the world (I'm not making these words up). First of all, I don't think Comme Des Garcons is exactly "Harajuku style", which these days seems to be whatever Gwen's little Japanese slaves are wearing. Second of all, please stop talking about Harajuku style! Designer Rei Kawakubo was around way before the word "Harajuku" was rolling off the tongues of every six-year-old with a Gwen Stefani CD and had become a household word.

Looking at some of the promo photographs, one would get the impression that the line is fierce but really, after seeing the individual pieces hanging bleakly in an actual H&M store with actual people crowding around, I realized that the only way you can carry off an outfit from this line is to go get yourself ones of these white blunt-cut wigs and some Kabukiesque eye make-up. And then have some mysterious smoke coming out of nowhere and snaking over your head just so. Yes that is the only way you are going to make anything from Commes Des Garcons for H&M wearable.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What box are you in?

On my way to work this morning there were surveyors in the train station with neat lines of 6 or 7 clickers on their horizontal clipboards. What do you call those things anyway? I was going to call them people counters but of course, you could count anything with them. Before that swell idea I was going to call them bouncer clickers because I often see bouncers using them to control the crowd capacity at night clubs. Anyway, I immediately began thinking of a clever blog post about the categories they are using to count people commuting in the morning. The number of their clickers exceeded simply man, woman and foreigner so what boxes are they grouping us into exactly? And into which box would my tick fall?

I promptly forgot about the whole thing when I got to work and only remembered on my way home when I noticed that the surveyors were still there, grouping us into demographic clubs and clicking away. Only this time, instead of trying to come up with a witty blog post I wondered if one of the categories was for women who had possibly been sexually harassed at work that day. And then wondered how one would tell from looking at a woman how her day had been. If my dark eyes and scowl could talk...Let me preface this by saying that I am not assigning a name to what happened today, not calling it sexual harassment or power harassment or any of the other ones that have been assigned names, but the terms did fly through my mind more than once. No matter what you call it, I felt disrespected today and for me it was really the last straw in a long string of small issues that have bothered me over the last year that are related not only to gender but to age and race too.

One of my non-Japanese coworkers was questioning me today in a rather abrupt and strange way, about our schedules. He is newer than I and so while I felt that he seemed to be implying that I should have been doing something that I was not (and by the way not supposed to), I ignored the tone and simply answered his question. This is all being done by email by the way. After receiving a short thank you for the explanation, I reread his first inquiry and thinking that maybe he was having an issue with my schedule and was not being direct about it, I asked him if there was a problem. After reading his reply, which was a long and painfully drawn out "joke" about how he was actually in love with me and needed to know my schedule to still his beating heart, I had a visceral reaction akin to feeling like I needed to puke. I hardly know the guy (arguably too much now) and in a professional work environment his conduct was way out of line.

If you want to look at it from a gender angle, I think (hope) we can safely assume that he would not send anything along those lines to a superior, a Professional or one of our male colleagues. And if we want to get all Japanesey and technical, despite him having at least 10 years on me, I am his senpai and for someone who hasn't been around for very long, he certainly thinks he has a big pair of cojones. I do not wish to become a pariah among my colleagues and on the whole I am usually quite tolerant for things that are said in mixed company. But this. The dormant feminist in me woke up screaming bloody murder and you can call me a "hysterical woman" all you want, but bottom line is, what this guy wrote was inappropriate and he is not above the age exception line. You know, for really old men, you can excuse them for not being politically incorrect but I can't write this one off as a geriatric just yet. So what's the problem? Is he a grade A asshole or has he just been in Japan for too long? Is it an all too common fatal cocktail of both perhaps? Part of my desire to act on it came from the fact that Other Whitie will be leaving me sooner than later and I don't plan on becoming one of the boys, and nor do I plan on becoming "the woman" of the group who is talked down to or talked around, for fear of instigating a hysterical feminist episode. What part of this guy's brain told him it would be OK to send something like that to a female colleague? And to one he barely knows. And he does barely know me, we are face-to-face maybe twice a month and that usually lasts as long as the obligatory pleasantries do.

After my feminist rage began to subside, a different wave washed over me, but this time it had more to do with plain old-fashioned respect. Content aside, the situation in question lays out his general arrogance and disrespect in plain sight. I gave a normal answer to a somewhat normal question and his tactic is to reply to my response with an antagonizing and passive-aggressive email that he sent to me based on some of the boxes I would tick on a survey: female, 18-25, non-Professional.

OK I thought, breathe. An hour or so of debating whether to respond with a humorous but to-the-point comment or to simply come out and say it, I went with the latter option because I feel as I am getting older, that there is no point in hiding behind the proverbial bush. If people don't like me because of what I say or the frank way in which it is said, that is unfortunate but unavoidable. So I wrote a very brief and to-the-point reply telling him that while I understood his sentiments to be a joke, I felt that his comments were inappropriate. Feeling good about my decision, I sat back and waited for what I thought would be a no-brainer response and apology from him: I automatically assumed that in a crazy moment of bad taste he had taken a walk on the oblivious side in sending the email to me, and that as soon as I quietly and simply told him that it had been inappropriate slash made me uncomfortable, he would realize why that was and offer an apology. And then we would move forward a little older and perhaps wiser. Or at least once burned.

If I thought I had problems with the initial confession of love joke, I shouldn't have even allowed it to warrant a response, for the half-assed snarky apology that looked torn from the spiral notebook of a fourteen-year-old boy or snatched from the mouth of a sullen eleventh-grade girl that I promptly received thereafter, was to send me into another downward spiral of desperateness and let's be honest, I wanted to cry. "Sure, sorry. Didn't think it would bother you". For someone who is usually very articulate, I felt like I was communicating with his half-wit brother. So not only did he fail to send a vague semblance of something that could be considered a sincere apology, he appears to not understand what I find offensive or inappropriate or why. He should have just written something like, Chill out, I didn't mean to ignite your hormonal feminine rage, as that would have better summed up his feelings on the matter. I've let a lot roll off my back in my months at the Kaisha because at the end of the day, it isn't worth the battle or the worry lines. But this single incident made me feel more desperate and frustrated than I've felt in a long time. Not only does my colleague not respect me in a professional sense as his coworker, he chose to invalidate my (I think acceptable) response to his inappropriate message.