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.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Will I ever learn?

I need to stop reading into things so much and start taking more at face value. I should have known last night in the depachika that I was not buying cornbread, as the label lead me to believe, but bread with kernels of corn laced throughout. Corn bread. I was so looking forward to some bread of substance with my lentil soup when I got home tonight and what I got when I cut into the loaf was fluffy and slightly sweet bread with said inconsequential kernels of corn. I need to be more skeptical, this is Japan after all.

My gyaru

The characters who dot the popular culture landscape of Japan never cease to amaze me. Unlike Overseas where only the rich and fabulous are idolized on TV and in magazines, in Japan anything goes and people like Gyaru Sone (Gal Sone), an almost 100 pound 22-year-old girl who eats like a champ, share the spotlight with more predictable celebs, like actors and models.

I love Gyaru Sone. I don't know if it's the way her bangs have an annoying way of falling over her sparkly eyelids or her ridiculously long nails that are adorned with 3D art, or just the simple fact that she can eat so very much and be so very small, but I love watching her put back plate after plate and then gasping at the grand tally: Gyaru Sone just ate 20 plates of curry rice totalling 100,000 calories in one sitting! It's fascinating stuff.

Gyaru Sone first became popular after winning an eating competition when she was 19. Since then she has entered and conquered numerous other ones but most recently she has become a fixture on Japan's variety shows, each time amazing us with how much she can eat while continuing to smile and proclaim it all delicious! Often shows will do a small feature on her where she travels overseas or to a region of Japan and then proceeds to eat a truckload of the food famous in that particular area. I saw her travel to Canada last year where she went fishing for a giant octopus. Once they had snared one a chef prepared it in 5 or 6 different ways and Gyaru Sone ate around 10 plates of each, in fact she ate right up until her manager came and collected her to go to the airport.

I think the charm of many celebs here is that they have a niche or something by which they became famous. Sure it may be eating a lot or running around with only a speedo for cover but unlike the recent celebrity of people in the States who became famous by virtue of their money or being at all the right nightclubs (think P. Hilton), these bizarre celebs in Japan are famous for a reason. People love to watch people. Preferably if those other people are "kind of" like everyone else but with some quirk. I think it's admirable that celebs here can laugh at themselves, especially while making fools of themselves on TV. I've never seen more variety shows featuring "diet specials" in which chubby celebs are put through eating regimes and training, all the while wearing too-tight active wear circa 1985 and enduring embarrassing close-ups of their bare stomachs and spandex-covered asses. Many people criticize and write-off Japanese TV as being wildly immature and downright stupid, but I will venture to say it is no more mature or stupid than pitching people on an island against each other or following a group of moronic girls as they compete in a modelling competition. It's simply another brand of it.

Anyway back to Gyaru Sone. How does she do it? I think part of her appeal (OK a large part) is that she looks so damn cute while stuffing her face and is not the image you would first conjure up when given the words "eating competition champ". No the public would probably not be as enthralled if her body betrayed that which makes her famous or if she didn't embody a sweet and less scary version of Shibuya girls, and maybe that's part of what is wrong in Japan but I think she is tops. One program featuring Gyaru Sone took us to the grocery store with her where she selected some ingredients to make curry (she is also very good at making food not just consuming it) and then back to her house to prepare it. The whole time I kept thinking, how is she even cooking with those nails?! But they really are an integral part of her appeal for me. The way she manages to cook and eat with those jewelled claws and look completely natural doing it makes me want to laugh. Like so many other gyaru with impractical hair, clothes and nails, she makes it look so easy. Almost natural. Really though, it's not so much her nails that appeal but the fact that she clearly enjoys everything about food and always manages to smile her way through 10 steaks and afterward humbly thank the chef for such a spread. If you want to check out her nails or the food she is eating, check out the Gyaru Sone blog.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Smelly barbarian

Accounts written after Perry and the Blackships came to Japan describe white people as smelling of butter, meat and sweat. Charming I know. While I think I can safely say I don't smell like butter or meat (except after a night of yakiniku), I, like most other barbarians from Overseas, smell after I sweat. After getting over the initial excitement of buying my first spray deodorant when I was around 12, I haven't thought much about it since. Until a couple days ago when I had to buy my first stick of deodorant in Japan. In the years I've been here I have not gone au natural, perpetuating the tale of the smelly white barbarian, but rather I always made sure to bring several sticks of deodorant back with me after trading missions abroad. Why? you beg to ask. Because I have never seen anything resembling ladies' deodorant in the pharmacies here.

Imagine my shock last week when the last of my lady speed stick crumbled to pieces and I discovered there was no back-up stock in the bathroom cabinet. I vacillated between ordering some online and having my mom send me some and then didn't do anything about it for a very smelly week. And I couldn't just borrow the beau's gentleman speed stick because he doesn't own deodorant and probably never has. He's the limited edition no-smell Japanese boyfriend! Seriously, he is scent-free. It is the strangest phenomenon. I have even smelt his armpits after sports and nothing!!! What kind of good deal did the Japanese make with the evolution gods to make their sweat odourless?

As I said, it was not a good week without deodorant. What with the seasonal change I am overdressed half the time and schlepping around town makes my eyelids sweat so just imagine what was happening in my pittal area!

Enter my new roll-on deodorant. I was acutely embarrassed as I brought it to the check-out counter and was honestly surprised when they didn't put it the same little brown bag they use when I buy tampons. You'd be embarrassed too if you had seen how the ladies' deodorants (all two of them) were hidden in the dark reaches of the pharmacy isle. I had two choices: spray or roll-on, and they were made by the same company. I went roll-on as the sprays had strange scents that reminded me of the spray deodorants boys used to saturate the cloakroom with at primary school. So I went with my "soap" fragrance roll-on with not only anti-perspirant but anti-bacterial ingredients too!!! Score.

Back at chez Geisha I felt like a pubescent lass all over again as I excitedly tore off the plastic wrapping and went to town with my new roll-on friend. I don't know what they put in this deodorant but it smelled like pure alcohol at first and I'm surprised I didn't get fire pit. After a minute or so it started to smell more akin to a cleaning agent like Lysol and after more arm-waving time, began to smell like a more passable deodorant. Safe for now. I'll use it all up but I'm going to stop procrastinating and get a whole box of normal stick deodorant shipped over here pronto. Despite the fact that deodorant is a given for both genders Overseas, Japan has yet again managed to make me feel unfeminine and barbaric.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Fresh air helps my constitution

As promised, Roses' last email: Have you been busy lately? Since the weather was nice today I went for a walk in Shinjuku gyoen. Because I really like Autumn and I grew up in the country, I often go to the park when I'm looking for nature. At this point I'm really tired from drinking too much every day and so I have to at least get some peace of mind. I think you must be busy too but please email me sometimes. I miss you [breaking heart emoticon]. (Please excuse the moronic sounding English, I'm hurrying so I can get to bed.)

Ahhh a host with a soul! He just doesn't stop does he? I handed him the holy grail and he still wants to make sure I'm locked down as a return customer. A return customer that requests him by name on my next visit. In fact, he probably sent a similar version of that same email to several other customers while lounging on the vinyl sofas at the club waiting to be called to a table. I guess even after relenting to a return visit he has to stay on the offensive to ensure I make good on my word. I'm too tired to come up with anything witty so I'll leave it at that for now.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

On how to become the easiest customer ever

Despite what I wrote on the Demise of Roses, I felt I should at least email him something that would discourage further contact. So I gave it up and with very little encouragement too. I told Roses that although I was busy with work (i.e. no private dates), I would try to make it back to his club sometime in November (i.e. this is what you have been pursuing me for, now you can stop). Well, Roses must think me the easiest customer ever! He didn't even have to court me and already I am making plans to visit the club again. He immediately texted back and asked if I would ask for him by name next time. Hoping to elicit some information on return visits, I said I was unsure of how the system works. Dot dot dot.

Clever host that he is, he gently explained it to me as follows: the time you came before we gave you and your friends a first timer service, in order to show you what kind of club we have and the kind of hosts you can talk to. The next time you come to the club, if there is a host you fancy, you can ask for him by name and he will receive a portion of your bill. So, the next time you come it will be a little more expensive. If it's OK with you, I'd really like you to ask for me by name...(emoticon of bowing man). Also, if you are working within a budget, you can tell me what that budget is and I will work within that. If you have any more questions let me know!

I figured I would leave it there and contact him again if I went back this month but when another email came the following evening asking if I understood the system, I told him yes and thank you. I thought that would be it. I gave it up so easily after all! But alas the following night I got this: hey, how are you spending the long weekend? As I said in my mail about our club's system, I would really like it if you ask for me next time you come to hang out at the club. Aside from that though, if you do have any free time I would really like to hang out together. There are a lot of things I want to ask you about, like your work and Canada. Email me any time.

If that wasn't enough, he called my cell the evening after that. I'm going to relay his last message that I got tonight and that is it. How do I know it will be his last? I'm going to block his address. Don't worry though, this is not the last of Roses, as I have a sneaking suspicion a visit to Club Love is in the cards this month.

Dissed by a Japanese bird

No I am not quoting a British guy who got rejected after trying to nampa some Japanese girl. On my way to my kitsuke class today a bird shat on me. As I relayed it to the beau, the Japanese birdie looked down, saw my white ass and decided to shit on the foreigner. I guess I have been letting my conspiracy theory get the better of me if I am now widening it to include flying animals. At least in Japan they believe that getting shat on is good luck too or I would be getting both ends of the shit stick.

Truly not the best way to start my week after such a relaxing weekend but if the Canadian dollar stays down and Roses stop calling me everyday, I will know the tide has turned. In fact, I do have Roses to thank for one thing: after reading his inspired date list I decided to create a painfully typical 24-hour date for the beau and I, beginning on Sunday. Yokohama. The fresh sea breeze, the giant ferris wheel, the stuff of dating dreams for young Japanese people. I find the longer I am in Tokyo, the more prone I am to spend ridiculous amounts of money doing stuff. I get this "it will be mine" mentality and I don't stop until I have the hotel room, or the concert tickets or the restaurant reservation, no matter the price. And I usually plan things not so far in advance so once I find that the cheap option I was going for is no longer available, I ruthlessly pick my way up the price ladder until something available comes along, all the while convincing myself that is is totally normal to go out for a 30,000 yen dinner or to spend a night at an onsen ryokan for 100,000 yen.

So for this ridiculous weekend, we stayed on one of the upper floors of the hotel at the top of the Landmark Building, AKA best fucking view ever, and ate room service and drank champagne while laughing at the peons below. The following day we went to Chinatown for a yum cha lunch that was dumpalicious and divine and then spent the rest of the day at Hakkeijima Sea Paradise, strolling around with all the other smug couples and taking in the marine life. If that wasn't enough we ended up in Azabu Juban on the way home and found a yakiniku place where the meat literally melts in your mouth. I know that sounds totally nasty and wrong and I've probably plagiarized the M&Ms slogan, but you've got to trust me on this one. Grilled pieces of meat that melt in your mouth is a very good thing. To cap it all off we drank ourselves silly at Prego nearby, and when our bartender friend finished work in Roppongi, our evening turned into a mini double-date with him and his girlfriend and their wee dog.

All in all a very fun and expensive weekend. I don't know what it is about Japan, but dating has truly become a science here. Never have I heard more people talking so enthusiastically about date spots or asking other people for dating ideas. There are magazines and TV shows that give people dating itineraries down to the minute, with accompanying "insider tips" that aren't so insider when literally a million other people are doing the same thing. It all feels like part of some big show. After mocking the people lined up for restaurants in Chinatown and the people taking pictures of sea animals in their tanks (I mean really, this topic has been over-discussed but who looks at blurry keitai pictures of jellyfish and "cute" crabs the next day?!), I don't know if I can manage to not feel like a cheese when on a date here in Tokyo. I suppose if the beau cooked something up I could genuinely ooh and ahh but seeing other couples snuggling on benches and looking forlornly out to sea at Hakkeijima just made me feel like they had been taught to do that somewhere. Am I a cynic? No matter what I say, I can't be too much of one after enjoying my epic date this weekend, even if it was by the book.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sexy fruit

I can't believe that I forgot to write about finally seeing my homeboy Donald Richie! He is the be all and end all authority on Japanese cinema among many other cultural aspects of J-land and I got the chance to hear him speak earlier this month. Every couple of months or so Temple University puts on a "Japanese Cinema Eclectics" night at Superdeluxe in Roppongi, where a Japanese film is shown after a short introduction by Mr. Richie.

The film shown was Crazed Fruit (1965), which is based on a novel by everyone's favourite governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara. But don't worry, I suspect he used to be quite cool back in the day and this movie would never bespeak the politician he has become today. The story follows a group of young boys about town, as they spend their summer in a beach resort outside of Tokyo, drinking and chasing girls. Despite being made in the fifties, the cinematography was interesting and the story still fresh to an audience today. As with all movies from that time, what used to be shocking is no longer shocking today, but the subtle scenes that create a sexual tension in the movie are still fairly palpable and relatable even today. In one scene all we see is two pairs of legs, inching towards each other but not quite making it. Richie asked the audience, is this not sexy? It is damn sexy Mr. Richie.

Ishihara's younger brother Yujiro is in the film, and he was THE heartthrob in those days, comparable to James Dean. There is also a biracial actor in the film, who plays Frank, the swankiest of the group and with an American parent. The fact that there was this foreign element in the film, and that Frank's character was looked up to by all the other boys, was very interesting and surprising to me. The movie isn't fluff though, and takes quite a dark turn towards the end, reminding us that it is afterall, a Japanese film.

If you're in Tokyo I would definitely check one of these nights out. The chance to hear Richie speak and the music lounge session after the screening is an evening well spent.