Thursday, December 31, 2009

Project Host Redux

Although I've shamelessly neglected Project Host for the better part of 2009, I breathed life into its failing lungs recently when Tokyo's illustrious male vanity expert Tokyo Moe expressed an interest in visiting a host club. Always up for a challenge and never one to refuse an evening surrounded by cigarette-lighting coiffures, I began hunting for Japanese information on male patrons of host clubs.

The information was a bit dire, a smattering of Yahoo! Q&A posts touching on whether men could enter host clubs but not a lot else. Even after viewing the websites of at least twenty host clubs, there was no clear information: some did not allow men, some made a mention of the "male" price for drinks and others said nothing at all. In the small print on one of the sites it said, If you feel the prospect of visiting a host club for the first time daunting, please feel free to bring a friend or male escort. And thus I began to fabricate a story to explain to any one who asked why I was visiting the club with Tokyo Moe: he is my gentleman cousin who has kindly agreed to escort me on my maiden voyage to a host club.

Armed with a list of ten clubs, Tokyo Moe (TM) and I descended into Kabukicho's neon sleaze, the faces of hosts on the brightly lit billboards smiled down on us like Greek gods with slightly more outrageous hairdos. TM made the decision easy and suggested we aim high and head to Top Dandy , and really, who was I to argue? They have a winning entrance page on their website depicting some moody-looking dandies against a brick wall. There is even some smoke (London fog?) sneaking in from the corner of the mirror. You cannot argue with brick walls and smoke, it is a sexy, sexy combination.

Upon alighting from the elevator, I immediately announced that it was our first time and were men permitted? The men at the door were extremely gracious and after quickly explaining the system, ushered us in to the chandelier-lit interior. The first time fee was 5000 each with the requisite bottle of either shochu or brandy and there was no time limit either. Most club websites that did list entrance fees for men upped the price by anywhere from 3000-5000 yen so I was chuffed to have gotten such a deal.

We were immediately presented with the man menu, which was a heavy leather-bound tome filled with A4 glossies of our potential male companions. Hobbies, blood type (always important when choosing a mate) and height were among the data listed for each host. As is always the case when presented with the man menu, I was hesitant to choose anyone, preferring the manager to send over a variety of pointy-toed men throughout the course of the evening.

The hosts were fine, as with every other club, they tend to subscribe to different looks: there are the "classic" hosts, the "semi-goth with piercings" hosts, the "natural" hosts. Both TM and I were impressed by one host who was both very tall and looked like Kimura Takuya, especially when posing in pictures, which I suspect he perfects at midday in front of a mirror. When he told me I could touch his blond fountain of hair I just about fell into his lap. He was very sweet, although not the most engaging conversationalist. We spoke with around twenty hosts altogether and as with the other clubs, you can usually find at least one you wouldn't mind rubbing up against. TM was able to have some interesting conversations with a couple of the hosts - I think his gender was in his favour in this instance - and he gleaned some juicy tidbits about the darker side of hosting. On my side of the table, however, things were neither juicy nor saucy. At every other club I've been to, the flirty dirty talk has started early on, and encouraging girl that I am, sometimes gets quite interesting. Halfway into the evening one of the hosts told me that he had assumed TM and I were an item and this was when the light went on: because the hosts made an assumption about our relationship, they were keeping the conversation tame and to approved topics such as the amount of alcohol I can drink, upkeep of hair and food. From then on, TM and I went out of our way to drunkenly proclaim to every host coming by that we were cousins, but the conversation still remained fairly stagnant.

There wasn't much wiping of condensation from our glasses, but when it came to lighting cigarettes, I had two or three lighters held to my cigarette each time, which never failed to charm me. The first few hosts we met didn't give us their name cards, and just as I began to wonder what exactly the problem was, we started receiving them from each subsequent host. Despite receiving them though, there were no numbers or email addresses exchanged at the end of the evening, nor any hosts pressing us to return. Again, I think part of this can be chalked up to demographics - as a male/female pair, the hosts probably assumed we were just visiting the club to see what the host thing was all about and nothing more. This was a little disappointing. TM was the perfect male escort however, eager to ask the hosts all manner of question and very discerning when it came to analyzing the physical attributes of each host. I was honored to visit a host club with such a distinguished connoisseur of the Japanese male, and I look forward to future installments of Project Host with his assistance.

Looking around at the other customers, most women were by themselves and fairly plain looking for the most part. I couldn't help but wonder why they had decided to start frequenting the club, and what their first visits had been like. One highlight of the evening was getting to see a champagne call, the elaborate song and dance that goes on when a customer orders a bottle of champagne. All the hosts gather around the customer's table, clapping and cheering and showering attention; I can see how one would lose her head and end up ordering a 60,000 bottle of champagne (wholesale value: 8,000 yen).

I would love to visit the club during their second session, which starts at sunrise due to the entertainment laws and is generally frequented by hostesses and other women in the mizu shobai. With such a different customer base, it would be fascinating to see how the club dynamic changes when catering to other people in "the business". While you always learn more each time you visit a club, I can really see the draw in going to the same club again. After a while, having the same conversation with each guy who comes by starts to feel suspiciously like sitting at a bar and being hit on by a series of guys, each conversation as unoriginal and forgettable as the last. The point of the host club is to create a fantasy where the men fashion themselves after a somewhat forgotten image of the gentleman, with modern accents of bling cuff links and hair injected with air. The female customer is not supposed to worry about directing the conversation, and a skilled host can quickly discover which direction to take the conversation with a new customer. Top Dandy was well-run, clean and sparkly and had a large number of hosts, but I can't remember much of the conversation, which of course means it was forgettable, not that I was too smashed. Whatever the reason for this lacking conversation, I would consider visiting it a second time based on the quality of everything else to see if things improved, if not just to touch the pseudo-Kim Taku's golden candy-floss hair again.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Happy Holidays from the Kaisha

It's that time of year again, gentle readers, when your breath turns into white puffs and an endless loop of Christmas music makes you want to snap off a reindeer antler, when your electric toilet seat keeps your tush warm and most importantly, when the first year ladies at the Kaisha don inappropriate clothing and entertain their colleagues. That's right! Holiday Party time at the Kaisha!

After last year's gong show I was peeing in my pants to see what kind of sexist, laughably inappropriate and lawsuit-inducing performances there would be this year. The Kaisha, never one to disappoint, certainly pulled through for me. At the top of the evening, six young men with semi-flossy hair and sharkskin suits came on stage
and began singing and shuffling their pointy-toed shoes. A group of 20 Secretaries wearing satin dresses and fur stoles danced in rows in front of the stage. Not recalling six wholly attractive men at the Kaisha with host-like hair, I wondered if the Kaisha had hired professional dancers this year. Not so it turns out, I simply hadn't had the pleasure of meeting these first-year Professionals, who have the superman ability to crunch numbers and attend client meetings by day, and give performances as pseudo-hosts at night. It became extremely apparent when the bottle of champagne came out, that this performance was an imitation of the host club "champagne call" that one sees in movies and TV dramas. I had planned on visiting a host club earlier this week and was mildly impressed to have been given a host club experience for free at the Holiday Party.

There were several other mediocre and borderline inappropriate performances to pad out the evening schedule, but the real gem was the grand finale, where the female Professionals and Secretaries slipped into hot pants and sexy military outfits, and high-kicked themselves around the stage. Last year's performance smacked of perverse fascination with young nubile schoolgirls but I had trouble finding the humor in this year's party. It felt more like a sick and tired old joke and despite some hot pant quips, I really have a problem with putting female colleagues on stage and parading them around in a non-subtle sexual manner for everyone's entertainment. Glitzy and amusing it may have been last year, but by this year it was simply depressing, for what better way to ensure that a woman is not taken seriously in the career she is just embarking on, than to put her on stage wearing precious little, and make her dance like a show pony.

I would truly love to bring some FOB foreigners to next year's party and see what they make of the whole charade. Try picturing some run-of-the-mill job you've had overseas and now imagine yourself or your colleagues being instructed to dance on stage in mini skirts at the Christmas party. And no, you can't call HR.

Aside from the questionable activities on stage, there was little to entertain me this year so I swam my way through a couple bottles of white and enjoyed the same conversations with the same people, some silently disapproving my decision to darken my hair. By their skewed logic, someone who can carry off the golden look should never go dark, the colour common to oh, 99.789% of this island nation. I wouldn't be surprised if I get less lunch invitations now that I am less of a true foreigner (light hair, light eyes) who can be showed off to friends much like a gold watch from Cartier.

One small highlight of the evening was when the always exhausted and barely comprehensible young Professional who played the ugly drag Beyonce last year got smashed and began to swagger and speak with bravado. Normally docile and dorky, he came up to me and asked in rough Japanese if I was still seeing the beau. He then ordered me to introduce him to my throngs of pretty gaijin friends. Sherioushly, he said, indraduce me!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Part of your world, Vol 2.0

As I chronicled last year , cutting all my hair off wasn't enough to shock them, so I decided to go undercover. Camouflage in the Kaisha jungle if you will.

After spending my life as a Marilyn, I've wandered over to the dark side and am now experiencing life as a Jackie (or we could use the Serena/Blair dichotomy if you prefer something more contemporary). Yes, I'm now a brunette gentle readers, but still no closer to being accepted by my dark-haired peers. Acceptance among them wasn't exactly my aim, but this didn't stop me from obnoxiously pulling at the corners of my eyes and asking the beau if I could pass as Japanese now. Only from the back it seems, and even that would be a stretch with the junk up in my trunk.

It's funny slash heart-breaking to read the entry from last year, because so little has changed. I got reactions from the obvious people, those who smile at me in the hall and who actually partake in verbal communication with me on a semi-regular basis. Most surprisingly however, was the blank look I received from the two Secretaries who (still) sit in my quad. Our daily interactions continue to be limited to good morning and goodbye but they didn't even flinch this past Monday when I walked into the office. I went from curly blond to straight dark brown with bangs a la the singer in the Pretenders. I thought at least they'd ask if I wanted to have a hair-braiding party.

Why am I even surprised any more? One of the two asked me to help her with something last week, which I thought meant we were making progress, but then yesterday she did the same but by e-mail. We are definitely heading in the direction far and away from progress. Digression I believe they call it? I try to smile as widely as my cheek muscles will allow during our brief encounters to discourage this kind of behaviour - the woman sits in spitting distance and we could easily high five over the quad barrier without moving an inch. WHAT IS THE WAY TO THE HEARTS OF THESE PEOPLE?!

Don't turn the dial yet, I could be rocking brown-coloured contacts in the New Year.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Postcard from the Kaisha: Bathroom Edition

I've been peed on at the Kaisha less times than I have fingers and it surprises me every time. Before you start thinking I work for kabushiki kaisha Goruden Shawaa, I don't mean literally, or figuratively either, but I am at a loss for what to call a situation where the Sound Princess isn't summoned to the party. I have become such a priss that I think it's positively scandalous when one of the woman in my office doesn't mask the sound of her pee with an electronic recording of gushing water. I'm surely not alone.

Most time I don't see the culprit, so I can't be sure whether it's sheer laziness or whether a new clause has been written into our Kaisha Work Rules stating that invocation of the Princess is optional when the lonely whitie is the only other person in the bathroom. I can tell you this, it certainly isn't a mistake on their part for on an almost daily basis the sound of my heels hitting the bathroom tile causes some unsuspecting Secretary to turn on the Princess in a hurry, mid-pee. One of the women who takes such liberty around me is the same one who purposely closed the door to the Kaisha after her knowing I was right behind. You know what this means don't you? I'm thinking that visiting the bathroom at the Kaisha these days sans Princess is the new snub.

While we're on the topic of bathrooms, I made the somewhat alarming discovery this week that some Secretaries use the bidet function of the bathrooms at the Kaisha! At home, yes, coupled with a pre-warmed toilet seat it can be quite delightful but who wants to do it at work?! I wish I hadn't made this discovery dear readers, but I can't help that my ears were assaulted by the low rumbling hum of the bidet motor followed by the gentle sound of shooting water, aiming for its mark. In my haste, I once pressed the button summoning the bidet instead of the Princess, and you can bet there was water on the floor after that. I even delayed my exit from the stall, fearing someone would think I was actually using it!

Another day, another bidet. Another insight into one of many neuroses.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Let's call the whole thing off

I was perhaps a tad hasty in writing the shotgun wedding off as being so cut and dry. This little nugget of enlightenment came to me at precisely 5.12 in the morning as I lay in bed listening to the beau yell at Lolicon (hereinafter referred to as Baby Daddy). The beau and I have had periods of ridiculous fighting so I know what he's like in a yelling match, but when he started rolling his Rs yakuza-style I knew he wasn't playin. I normally find that whole macho/angry Japanese man R-rolling thing hot so as I lay there ears a-perk, I wavered between lusty admiration and pain at the actual situation taking place.

As predicted in my last post, the beau did indeed received a phone call from his parents but it was far from over. Also as predicted but to a further extent, they are well put out over the fact that the first mention of Baby Mama is a joint pregnancy/marriage announcement. Due to our passing ships schedules, I haven't been able to grasp all sides of the situation yet, which would entail me firing questions at the beau so that I may eventually learn every sordid detail. However, this is what I've gleaned thus far: The beau's parents realize the family is in a "sho ga nai (can't be helped, c'est la vie) situation but are still smarting from the fact that Baby Daddy has not done things the proper way, or at least take Baby Mama up north to properly introduce her and then open up about their predicament, or at least give some kind of introductory speech, background of how they met, anything really, to assure them that he has thought about this and isn't making bad decisions for everyone concerned. From what I can tell, the conflict is coming down to a show of maturity and also respect for his family, who have been blindsided by this. It seems BD has met BM's family on several occasions but hasn't bothered to mention her to his parents or their proxy representative in Tokyo, the beau.

There is a certain order for doing things here, and even if you fuck that up, you are expected to proceed in some semblance of the original order. The beau told his mom that he would call BD before she contacts him again, to elaborate on exactly why their parents are upset and suggest ways to make amends. This, I assume, didn't go down very well judging from the change in pronunciation of the Rs. I was utterly exhausted at the time of the call but couldn't very well sleep at that point, so I remained in bed listening to the whole thing. BD was not very receptive to some of the beau's ideas and criticisms, it seems he expects his parents to get with the play without having time to absorb what the beau and I have had a week to do. Even without hearing BD, I could tell from what the beau was saying that they were going round in circles, with the beau urging BD to take BM up north for a day trip at least over the New Year's period, to show their parents he values their opinion and is somewhat formally asking for their support.

I started to get a little cranky at the length of the call and its interference with my much-needed sleep. The beau was chewing his brother out for not acting like an adult and yet he is the one who called at 5am to discuss things (granted BD also works nights). Poking my head out I asked him to wrap it up for the morning and after more vocal escalation I turned on the cranky bitch and yelled for them both to hear that I had to work that morning, followed by an ever mature sliding door slam.

I called the beau during my lunch to see what was going on, maybe apologize for getting nasty and receive an apology for being kept up, but I really wanted to ask about something that had been niggling at my mind since hearing it. I had heard the beau asking BD what their parents had said to him and at one point he said, "Green-eyed doesn't think that." What do I have to do with it? I predictably worked myself into a tizzy over this, for what consideration to me would be given in a situation I am not remotely involved in? I am thinking the worst, that the beau's parents think I won't want to marry into such craziness or worse, that I am going to feel bad/jealous that I'm not ringed and pregnant despite having been with the beau for more than a couple months. When asked about the precise nature of what I apparently didn't think, the beau told me we would discuss it later and not over the phone. Fan-fucking-tastic. Points to those who guess right and to be continued...

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Daughter, sister, girlfriend, Kaisha ho...aunt?!

Pop that cork gentle readers, a baby's on the way! Not from me obviously, for I take my birth control pills with the vehemence of a crack ho who needs her sweet fix every night, but from the beau's younger brother who in all his irresponsibility probably thought the pull-out method would work indefinitely. Cheers! L'chaim! Kanpai!

Lolicon (the brother) called me last night to tell me the news and I couldn't say anything but congratulations while setting my voice at an unnaturally high enthusiastic pitch. And you know what? If they are happy to have this baby and get married, well good on them and best of luck. Their choice isn't one I would necessarily make but, as my friends and I used to obnoxiously shriek at each other when learning French for the first time, chacun a son gout!

We haven't met the mother-to-be yet, for by my estimation, they have been dating and/or casually fucking for only a couple of months tops. According to Lolicon, she is hotter than the opera singer who used to call the beau onii-sama (lit: honorific older brother), and best of all, legal! She can smoke, drink AND make babies! I can't wait to meet this woman.

Lolicon said they were going to call their respective sets of parents today to break the news and discuss whether to hold the wedding ceremony before or after the little one is born. I am extreeeemely interested to hear how this all goes down with the beau's parents. That could be the understatement of the decade: I've been texting the beau every five minutes to ask whether he has gotten the call from his parents yet. You know the one, they have just heard about Lolicon's inseminating prowess and then call their oldest son the beau for a post mort.

I don't have any money riding on this, for I was too sleepy when the beau got home last night to place bets, but I figure the parents' reaction could go either way. The beau's parents are strict but fair, they tend to approve when, if you do something, you at least do it right. Follow through so to speak. Given Lolicon's baby mama's age and the fact that they are planning to get married, I've got to assume the shit won't hit the senpuki. I am hoping for some choice words said in confidence to the beau (and by extension, me), but since these two are going to do the "honest thing" and get hitched, the parents will probably be excited to have a grandchild more than anything.

I would be remiss if I left out how this could affect me, but rest assured I will tell you. At the moment it is too early to predict what will happen, but up until now I have maintained a position of privilege as the steady, responsible and educated age-appropriate girlfriend of the beau, despite my white ass (face, and everything really). I have been the parents' kimono-tying princess and this may all come to a halt once a union is made and a baby birthed. In terms of age, the baby mama trumps me by being older, but I think according to the Confucian rules, the fact that I am the oldest son's partner trumps her age seniority. Who the fuck knows what happens to the rules when a grandchild is born. I could be overreacting but I get the impression that for many people here, carrying on the family line is held above personal and professional ambition. The beau's parents are lovely and some of my favourite Japanese people of all time so I won't be so quick to write off their feelings for me, but it will be educational to say the least, to see how things unfold and whether the baby mama usurps me in their affection. I say with none of my usual sarcasm that I hope not.

How has the beau reacted to all this? In summary, iin janai? This is basically the equivalent of "why not?" The beau, after an involved and complex calculation of the baby mama's age, Lolicon's propensity for underage girls and the estimated duration of their courtship, has concluded that they might as well have the baby and get married. I know dekichatta kons are all the rage at the moment but I can't help but feel a curiosity for the situation. Are they in love? Were they looking to the long-term before a baby was conceived? I suppose these questions are too impractical here in Japan where after a certain age, people are relieved when someone gets knocked up.

Never one to leave you on a sour note, let me just say that the beau has threatened to gift the child a bunch of bananas, for in his words, it will probably look like a monkey.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Drinking in alleys

I've hailed the joys of drinking in narrow alley bars before, and it appears to have not been just a phase. A few weeks ago the beau and I had a rare Saturday night together so I suggested we start the evening off at nonbei-yokocho in Shibuya. The beau, while able to get down and dirty with the best of them at Yoshinoya, is a bit of an elitist when it comes to drinking establishments. To him, sipping a bourbon while rubbing shoulders with the other customers (closer to molesting really) along a narrow bar counter is not a good time, nor something one would actively seek to do. Admittedly, the kind of establishments one finds in nonbei-yokocho are frequented by a certain set: the ojisan set, the cool, jet-setting gaijin set and the young hipster Japanese set. The beau, bless him, is not part of said sets. He has, however, learned to play along when I suggest trips to the countryside to eat bamboo shoots, jaunts in dark narrow alleys and evenings in sweet-smelling hookah bars.

I am always surprised to find a seat when I drink in nonbei-yokocho. Given the lack of space and proportion of regular customers, I often show up assuming I will not be able to start off at my first bar of choice. Strangely though, despite nonbei-yokocho's appeal and begging to be in a guide-book uniqueness, I have gotten a counter seat every time. This past evening, I looked out the window and saw a pair of frat boys walking through the alley taking pictures, which made me realize that despite its allure, many people will show up only to leave sono after, feeling intimidated by the intimate atmosphere at most of the bars and restaurants.

We began the night at a place whose name I can't remember for the life of me. The regulars are always friendly and despite some awkward silences at first, we were soon engaged in conversation with the customers on either side of us at the counter. One poor ojisan was berated by the others for asking me where I was from despite having just been asked twice by other people, but the conversation was light and playful. The (apparent) owner is a hip older Japanese man who showed up with a dark-haired Russian woman in sunglasses and hummed an enka tune from behind the counter. After a few drinks we headed over to Tight were we met a cool Middle Eastern and French-Japanese couple. Located on the second floor on eye level with the train tracks, I felt like I was in a childhood treehouse, but with alcohol and trippy graphics bouncing around a plasma screen.

I am always so warmed by my experiences in these tiny bars. Unlike the glam restaurants and bars whose atmospheres discourage interacting with other customers despite the tables (sometimes) being very close together, at the small bars of nonbei-yokocho, you can't help but talk to your fellow customers, and conversations are surprisingly honest and revealing. It's a Japan away from Japan.

As the name implies, Tight is very tight and was made more so by the arrival of three more customers. The beau begged claustrophobia so we paid the check and headed off into the darkness. Approaching the entrance to the alley I asked him whether he would ever come back with me and he avoided the question by asking aloud why people like drinking in such confined spaces. I think in a city like Tokyo where anonymity is prized, drinking at one of these small places allows you to connect with others in a brief and fleeting way, even if you join one bar's small community for only a couple of hours. Whether he comes back with me or not, at least I coaxed him out of his comfort zone, showing him to an unknown nook of the city.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Keeping it in check

Just in time for bonenkai season! I don't think there will be much of anything at home for people this month, which is usually packed with end-of-year parties for every compartment of life. I really enjoy what could be called the Metro's naivete in saying "let's be careful not to drink too much" in small print on the poster. I have an inkling it could take a bit more to undo years of a practically institutionalized encouragement of alcoholism.

What do we have to look forward to at Chez Geisha this month? Hopefully more writing, for one. I haven't posted as much as I would have liked this year so there's no other way to fix that other than an end of year blitz! And speaking of getting blitzed, we can all look forward to stories from this year's Kaisha Kristmas, which is coming up this month. I almost have to bite my pillow I'm so excited to see what will happen this year! Last year they did the schoolgirl uniform thing so this year maybe we'll be treated to Professionals dressed as maids and some ugly cross-dressing renditions of Madonna circa her most recent album cover. The possibilities are endless!

There won't be a trip up North this year, I am spending my first New Year's in Tokyo (not counting the one when I was 20 and started the night off with the madness at Shibuya's crossing followed by inebriation at Pure and phone calls in the ensuing days from boys I couldn't remember)(I may have fallen down some stairs too). This does mean that I probably won't have any tales of the beau's lolicon brother and his underage exploits. Fear not however, for I believe last night the beau told a half-asleep me that the brother may have impregnated someone, so we could be in for a dekichatta-kon (shotgun wedding) in the New Year! (I'll have another post on general sexual health and the use of condoms in Japan coming up shortly.) The good news is, the woman is 27!

New Year's this year is thus a toss up between an event I can wear a sparkly dress to and a small gathering of friends at home followed by a shrine visit at midnight, which I have never done - and yet I dare to call myself a foreigner in Japan! Luckily, champagne knows no cultural boundaries and will be appropriate for either.

This year I will try to refrain from posting about Christmas although I can't promise anything. You know I love to give in to impulse. Hell, I might even indulge in some fried chicken.

Have you noticed the increasing cold, Tokyoites? There's no better cure for cold weather than snuggling up to men with candy-floss hair. That's right! I am reviving Project Host and there will be a visit to a host club this month to look forward to. I can barely keep from clicking my pointy toes together in anticipation!

Last but not least I am trying to finish my kitsuke master course but it may have to wait until January. My favourite kimono bought when I was a student at Waseda doesn't fit as well as it should, so I am hoping to have it taken apart and stitched back together again in time for the New Year. Knowing Japan, traditional seamstresses are probably booked through January so its formal debut may have to wait too.

It's going to be a busy month gentle readers, I hope you're all staying warm and well fed!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Maybe these people aren't so bad afterall

Another day, another nomikai with my BFFs at the Kaisha. After what sometimes feels like a lifetime of nomikai, I have learned that to be fashionably late is to have a better chance of actually enjoying yourself. For at the Kaisha, when the reservation is for 7.30, all the Secretaries gather together and move en masse to the restaurant, with a few older male Professionals flanking them to make sure they don't get lost. Or poached.

Upon arrival at the banquet room, there is mandatory milling about and twittering behind raised palms, until the male Professionals insist that everyone find a seat, anywhere. There is then pairing off and choosing of team members, as the Secretaries distribute themselves among the tables. The first hour is never much fun, for the party starts off like an old reluctant train until it's wheels are oiled by free-flowing alcohol and the arrival of the younger Professionals. The it's off the chain, I mean tracks.

You see, at these events the Secretaries never drink much, some for legitimate reasons and others because they do not want to appear too human, female, like one of the guys or all of the above. Usually about half an hour in, the rest of the male Professionals (with a few young females among them) decide to grace us with their presence and it is precisely here where the combination of people sitting around you will determine what kind of night you'll have. Will you end up going home by last train or falling out of a cab after cross-dressing karaoke? It's a fine line.

It's not that the male Professionals are all hot studs with impeccable conversation skills, but they tend to bring the life (or death) to the conversation and I generally have a better time talking to them than to the Secretaries. This is where timing and guesswork comes into play. If I arrive with the Secretaries, I must be strategic and sit by those who work for good Professionals, for it is a general rule of Kaisha thumb that Professionals sit in close proximity to their Secretaries. To do this, you must research beforehand and ensure you know every important name and face so you don't get caught at the table with the 20-year old Secretaries who have nothing to say for themselves and the old Professionals who have nothing to say for anyone.

At this last nomikai, I was seated at a middle of the road table. I have recently become friends with a Secretary who is a little more seasoned than the others and a genuinely lovely person. She was sitting at a so-so table but when she motioned me over I couldn't refuse (plus the older Professional who had called me Princess at the last gathering was there so who was I to say no?). Then a friend of hers who saw I was joining the table got the free English lesson equivalent of dollar signs in her eyes and scooted over, penning me in for the night. What ensued is formula really, the same questions got asked and answered and no real conversational ground was covered.

As the party broke up and I was getting my coat, a well-meaning but obnoxious Professional came over and asked if I was heading home. At my affirmative answer he informed me that himself and a few others were having a small intimate party at Princess Professional's secret pad if I was interested. The fact that words like "gang bang" were going through my head at that moment must have registered on my face, for he quickly assured me I didn't have to go. Lovely Secretary then came over and explained that after most nomikai, Princess Professional invites a small group of people to his penthouse for drinks and did I want to come. That sounded a little more reasonable and not as sinister as Obnoxious One's proposal so I said yes.

Minutes later I found myself experiencing what the rich and famous must live with every day in Tokyo: lofty night views, floor to ceiling windows, vaulted ceilings and multiple bathrooms. Heavenly hea-ven. Most of the other Secretaries invited to this intimate party were newbies and from their high-pitched sighs you could tell they were learning on the spot not to accept any less from a partner. Now that they had tasted the fruit of Princess Professional's labour, they were going to set out to snag a Professional of their own. It was incredible to see how quickly their minds worked.

What followed is old hat really, champagne was popped, French red was poured and the high flying mingling commenced. Things went fairly smoothly until Obnoxious One's line of questioning got a little too intense, to the point he was insisting we go out and meet the beau that night. I have now learned to keep my mouth shut about having a boyfriend, for it just opens the door to questions I don't need to answer from the people I work with. Luckily he got distracted and cornered a doe-eyed Secretary on the balcony while the rest of us carried on inside. The ultimate moment of awkwardness came when people began asking about Obnoxious One's whereabouts and Lovely Secretary went out on the balcony to find them there alooone. They promptly came back in and everyone pretended nothing had happened. And really, nothing probably did happen but after hearing Lovely describe it to another Secretary the following day at lunch, it was clearly thought of as strange and awkward that the two of them had been out on the balcony alone. To have been a fly on that balcony...

As for me I managed to grab the last train home, unscathed. I enjoyed the conversation at the Princess Pad (which, by the way, is separate from the house he shares with his wife), and took every opportunity to "up" my profile at the Kaisha. I figure I only have a few chances each year to get out the Good Geisha Word, so if the gossip mill is working, at least I can try and influence what is said about me. It probably won't make a difference but if it means one more person talking to me or at least acknowledging my presence at work, I have come to think of it as progress.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Cohabitation in Japan Study #1

As I was sitting on the toilet the other night I happened to look in the wastebasket as I was throwing in an empty TP roll and noticed a crumpled piece of toilet paper with camel-coloured smudges on it. No, this isn't going to be gross so keep reading (you don't think I am that potty-minded do you?!).

I immediately had to know what offending and at first unrecognizable matter had wound up on a tissue in my wastebasket, so I pulled it out and started to examine the surface, including the ever trusty sniff test.


I don't and never have used liquid foundation or any kind of foundation that could end up in such quantity on a tissue.

I am the only female in the house.

The beau doesn't borrow my lingerie or make-up as far as I know.

You know where this is leading right? To an all-time 11 p.m. freak the fuck out. I even sniffed the TP again to see if I could discern any kind of scent (make-up smell). Not owning any foundation or having any recollection of wiping anything similar on a tissue in the past, oh, year, the only conclusion I could reach was there had been another lady up in my house.

When the beau got home around 4, I was in the dead of sleep but as soon as I felt a kiss hello I was immediately all, How did a foundation-covered piece of toilet paper wind up in our bathroom?! I don't use foundation so unless you want to cop to using some, there has been another woman in the apartment wiping globs of foundation off her face! Why?! I watched and waited for his response, even half-asleep I was looking for the direction his eyes travelled as he answered, having watched enough cop shows to memorize sound interrogation techniques when I see them.

His response was predictable and me, having been sleeping up until this point, promptly went back to sleep, figuring another round of questions would have to wait until the next evening, in that tiny window of time that I come in the door from work and greet him dressing for work.

The next morning I got up feeling about as awake as I do most mornings, until I remembered the insidious tissue. Despite believing my suspicions to be baseless and batshit crazy, I couldn't get over the fact that I couldn't remember throwing said tissue out myself. And I have an excellent memory, honed from years of replaying actions and conversations in my interactions with others with obsessive detail, trying to figure out whether the other person actually likes me or is just being n i c e. Now I did have a vague vaaaague recollection of grabbing some TP to wipe something off, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't pinpoint the memory or at least the day it would have occurred. So then I began a train of thought along the lines of this must be my not-to-be-trusted mind knowing there was another woman here but trying to come up with any excuse not to believe it. Yes, this is actually the way I think so you can imagine the circles I can go in, round and round we go, until I distract myself enough to shut my inner self up. I am tired just writing that.

So I did what every Law & Order loving human would do, I set up a mini-lab on my bathroom counter, overhead lights burning bright. I haven't watched years of Law & Order for nothing (including Special Victims Unit, pronounced svuuu to those in the know), and you can bet I put it to good use. I realized I had one product in the cabinet that resembled foundation - some kind of liquid pore sealer that I never used except. That's right! To try and cover up a pimple on my chin this last weekend because yes, I am breaking out like a fucking teenager from all the stress I have been under this past month. Either that or it's from the entire container of Betty Crocker's vanilla rainbow chip frosting that I consumed over the past week in an attempt to smother my stress to death in sugary velvetiness.

But I didn't squirt enough into my hand to unthinkingly wipe it on a tissue did I? Surely I would have just washed them...tricky, veeery tricky.

I squeezed some hole filler out of its tube and tried to realistically wipe it off with a piece of toilet paper, with the thoughtless ease of someone not conducting CSI experiments in her bathroom. It looked similar but after some comparative sniffing and touch examinations I wasn't convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. I then looked at the time and realized if I didn't punch out of the lab and leave I would be late for real work. I stuffed the beakers and test tubes into my side of the cabinet and took off.

My mind was riddled for the entire day with the thoughts of a crazy person. I couldn't remember creating that fucking tissue and yet felt bad questioning the beau about something I didn't really believe, or even have reason to suspect. And with the niggle of a memory of having possibly wiped off hole filler in the last few days but still no cigar, shining the lamp in the beau's eyes would be pointless, because I wouldn't believe whatever came out of his mouth. And yet..

when I got home I knew I had about 3 minutes to trick him into confessing to something before he shot out the door so I went right to the point. Who the hell was here and why was she wiping foundation off her face?! I hope you decide to confess to having used some of my hole filler if you are going to tell me you've done nothing! And on and on. Poor sweet man.

We walked to the door together, going back and forth, him realizing my impending nutdown and me my weak and unfounded argument (I had a quick peak at the two samples that had dried since morning and what do you know, similar in look, feel and smell). He started laughing as he got in the elevator, which of course got him a why are you laughing! Because you know the jig is up?! The interrogation then ended abruptly with blown kisses and love yous and I was left to ponder how peaceful my life would be without stress, frosting and breakouts.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The nod

Do you know the nod? I know the nod.

I don't know if you can experience the nod unless you are a visible minority somewhere, for it seems to be a requirement that you are in an environment where your fellow nodee and you share the same minority looks, thus making it OK to give the nod in the first place. I think I initially read about the nod a long while back on GaijinSmash, penned by a fantastic and entertaining writer. It made me laugh because one of those inevitable conversations you end up having with other foreigners here is what to do when you see another foreigner. I realize this does make us kind of paranoid and narcissistic but that's the effect Japan can have on some of us.

I once had an older white man come up to me on the street in residential Nakano and ask if I thought there was anything strange about his appearance because people had been staring and pointing the whole day. Without a hint of anything I told him, No, you look completely normal to me. This man had cut his hair off with what I can only imagine were blunt scissors, save for a chunky patch of hair off centre from his crown. It also crossed my mind that this could be me years from now.

The conversation usually follows the same course, with people taking up different camps and talking shit about those in the other camp. Everyone wants to believe they are not one of "those" foreigners, the ones who think they arrived with Commodore Perry and thus can lay sole claim to the island chain. But doesn't this conversation make us just as bad, for we are obviously trying to show that we are "better foreigners," whatever the hell that means. Back to the conversation. Basically you start with one participant's experience earlier in the week, where they found themselves on a quiet residential road with no one else in sight, except for the figure of another foreigner coming down the road towards them. When they are far enough away to inconspicuously scope the other out, they do so, but when they get closer they begin to panic over whether they should make eye contact and nod, look straight ahead as if struck with a sudden case of tunnel vision or look at their feet as they share a square of sidewalk.

According to gaijin legend, if you pretend to ignore the fact that you and the other gaijin are alone together in this cruel Japanese world, you are one of Commodore Perry's original crew members. You supposedly like some kind of Japanese art or culture and have made it your mission to become Japanese and shun those around you with similar physical features who dare to breathe the same island air.

If you make eye contact or god forbid, say hello or NOD, you're showing yourself to be too friendly, practically like a tourist (or an English teacher) (no offence). How did we make it to this point people? I am at the stage where if I make eye contact with someone in public and we smile, I get a high that lasts for DAYS!

Don't even get me started on coming across another foreigner when said foreigner is part of a couple with one of the natives. People feel this unbelievable urge to check each other out, perhaps smugly thinking that the single foreigner can't get a date (the fact that they are simply alone that day not crossing their mind) or scoffing that one member of the couple isn't good looking enough to be with the other. Why has this kind of competition permeated the foreign community here? Does a similar phenomenon occur in other expat communities? There are of course, shining examples of successful gaijin, who rise above it all, and may we all be like that some day.

This brings me back to the nod (or does it?). My most recent story occurred a few weeks ago in my neighbourhood. Returning home from the conbini late one night I crossed paths with a foreign guy. Thinking he had to be a resident of the area to be walking around at that hour, my internal debate began. Should I look ahead and pretend not to have seen the huge purple elephant, or make eye contact but with a completely blank face so as not to give too much away? Should I smile and risk him thinking of me as a lonely white girl who can't get any and thus has to resort to giving men the eye on the street at night?! I compromised as I often do, which generally leads me to look at the other foreigner until I get fairly close, and then slowly avert my eyes with just the hint of a smile on my lips while nodding my head in a downward direction, to show I come in peace, I accept their existence on the island but I am not looking to get lucky. Who's paranoid and narcissistic now?!

I've now come to my last and possibly final point. It's laughable to think about the petty competition between some hetero foreigners here, the one that makes me wonder if I am friendly to a foreign man he will immediately think of me as jealous and desperate. There are some jealous and desperate men and women in the gaijin community, but I would tend to think that for the most part, the men are content to date Japanese women, and the women are content to date Japanese men, and then of course there are the supposedly rarer double-foreign couples, but no one ever hears about them (for that would ruin the stereotype). It's a shame some foreigners here have fallen into the trap of mocking the opposite sex for, what is it? The men being first class losers who can't find women outside of Asia to date them, and the women for being unkempt uglies who are forced to date Japanese men (who are of course, not real men) because the foreign guys won't have them. There I said it.

What I'd really like to know however, is how much of this competition and bickering is real. We've all heard of something from someone, or read gaijin forums online, but how much of this is an experienced reality for gaijin in Japan? We've all fallen prey to nasty thoughts about others at one time or another, but whether we let that affect our experience in the long term is more interesting. Aside from my occasional paranoia I am pretty comfortable with myself these days. Individual and coupled foreigners will always check each other out with their side vision, but I think (hope) a lot of that is simply recognizing someone akin to yourself, in a country where you stick out like a sore thumb. How can you not look?

Most recently, my "what I love about J-girls" post was picked up by someone on JapanSoc, and the accompanying blurb said: "They are annoying to foreign girls cause they are sexy and thin but even the jealous white girls like some points." I know the writer didn't mean any harm but it does embody one aspect of the "gaijin competition" above. Reading that, I had to sit back and ask myself, do I come off as a jealous white girl?! Do other foreign women come off as jealous from their remarks about our Japanese sisters? Probably. I of course feel the irresistible need to respond to this (and possible put my foot in my mouth at the same time). I have had some body-image issues in Japan, but these were issues I brought with me in my carry-on luggage, not something I picked up once arriving here. Aspects of some Japanese women frustrate me, not because I find them sexy and thin, but because I have a hard time relating to them as my fellow women. Some of this actually stems from the fact that we seem to have a different idea of what constitutes "sexy" a lot of the time. I like myself (feminist hear me roar bla bla bla) most of the time, so I apologize if I come off as jealous of Japanese women, it's not jealousy, it's so much more complicated than that. I say let's turn down the tension and maybe consider implementing an annual "nod to a gaijin" day. The next time you share some concrete with another foreigner and are wondering how to react, rest assured they have spent time thinking about the same thing.

**When I speak of foreigners above, I am of course referring to those tending to hail from Europe, North America and the South Pacific. There are thousands of other foreigners in Japan, some of which are not visible minorities. But that is a whole other story.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

She proposed and I said...

"Let me check with my boyfriend first." Because really, things couldn't get much stranger around here right? Wrong.

I received a personal letter to my office last week, the first ever. It came in a plain white envelope, with the opening on one of the shorter sides, different from Western envelopes. My name was scrawled vertically down the front in Japanese handwriting and I didn't recognize the sender's name either. I actually allowed myself to have a mini-panic before opening the letter, imagining all sorts of demons that could come off the page at me: the beau actually has a secret wife and children living in the countryside and this letter is from the former, I have a stalker who is sending a death threat, or simply a big black spot in the middle of the page like in pirate times. Why? Oh I don't know, because crazy shit like this happens in Japan and I seem to be a magnet for it? Or simply the fact that I was receiving a clearly personal letter from someone I don't know. And we all know I don't know that many people in Japan so my mental Rolodex is fairly easy to flip though.

Imagine my surprise when I read through a full-page typed letter from a 63-year old woman inviting me to have an "omiai" meeting with her son! I'm still not entirely sure how she managed to find me at the office, I think maybe from a review I once wrote for the School, but the details she included about me made it clear there was no mix-up. I showed the beau and he scoffed at it, declaring her a rude old hag for being so presumptuous as to make such a request to someone who could be engaged or married. Doesn't she know this young lady is spoken for?!

I've roughly translated some juicy morsels from the letter for your reading pleasure below:

"Please forgive me for sending this letter to you out of the blue. From what I have heard of you, I am very impressed. [who wouldn't be] My daughter is married to a Canadian who graduated from *ivy league school* and I have come to know his mother very well through her visits to Japan and I now feel an affinity with Canadians. When I heard about you I immediately thought "if only a woman like this would be my son's wife..." [get in line honey] and it was like a god had just come down from heavens [singing in phony opera-angel voice] that these thoughts popped into my head.

My son is single and works in NY as an investment banker [not for Bear Sterns I hope] (he just turned 40) [=47]. Recently he has gradually begun to think seriously about marriage [translation: you have begun to badger him about marriage]. As far as I know, his work keeps him very busy and as a result he doesn't have many opportunities to meet women [he either enjoys manga in his spare time or pays for sex...]. My son is a person of integrity and a modest man. His appearance isn't bad either [we'll let me be the judge of that].

Further, his way of thinking is Western and he is looking for the same in a partner. However, I am worried to the point that I believe if I don't show him there are women all around him, he may never marry [maybe he doesn't swing that way baby]. It may be extremely presumptuous of me to be sending this kind of request to someone who may be returning to her home country and might not even be considering marrying a Japanese person [yes and no], but if it would be alright, would you consider an arranged marriage meeting with my son? I'm sure you know that "omiai" is a meeting between two people with the assumption of eventual marriage, which is a custom that has come from a long time ago...[a long, looong time ago]

I've included my contact information below so if it wouldn't inconvenience you, by all means please contact me."

I couldn't make this shit up if I tried. So...anyone else been propositioned lately?!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Playing dress-up

This title will no doubt attract more unwanted traffic from people looking for "dress-up games where you take off their bra". Moving on though...

During a recent kitsuke lesson I learned how to dress a bride for iro naoshi (literally "changing colour"), which is when the bride will change her kimono or dress in the middle of the wedding here. Not literally in the middle however, that would be a bit too titillating even for Japan. Generally if they are changing to another kimono they will change into a furisode with the hem left long so that it drags along the floor. This is quite a popular look at the moment and many brides choose only to wear furisode and not the white ensemble with the hat that hides their "horns" from the groom (I'm not being sassy, this is true).

While my teacher was showing me how to dress my mannequin, she remarked that she would love to see me in this bridal outfit and I figured she meant in the future, if I get married. Towards the end of my lesson she mentioned it again and I obliged by saying "I'd really like to try wearing it sometime" in that tone women take here when they want something, which I can only liken to an adult version of a child saying "I have to do or or I'll just die" with a hint of desperation in the voice and too much enthusiasm. You know the one. Before I knew it, her and my other teacher were ordering me to undress down to my kimono delicates while they started unraveling my bridal masterpiece on the mannequin. I guess that means now, I thought.

I was then subjected to their mercy as they dressed me in under 10 minutes (trust me, that is fast) amid squeals from two other female students over how the red kimono was a real match for my lovely whiteness. Nothing makes me want to snort-laugh like people fussing over how freaking white I am, it just seems so wrong. Have you ever seen the cartoon character "Lovely White" or "Gentle White"? I came across her in China on stationery with captions that read "Let us be bosom friends to cherish forever. You cannot dream the wish to make." My friend and I cackled over this stuff and over her white porcelain face that was oddly void of a mouth. That is how I feel when Japanese people comment on my skin, like a little porcelain doll whose mouth has been frozen in a supplicating smile.

It's a great experience to be dressed by professional kimono dressers and feel the difference between dressing yourself and being dressed. Some people complain about kimono being restrictive and tight, but to me it feels supported and elegant, you can't help but have excellent posture. Once I was dressed the school room went into photo studio mode, with my teachers rushing to clear a space in front of the wall and to arrange my sleeves symmetrically ("Hold your hands like this to make them look as small as possible," I was told, which made me think of carnies). I was half-expecting professional studio lights to come swinging down from the ceiling or at least some confetti action. Frankly, I wouldn't have blinked if one of the students had come by to drape a satin sash across my chest bearing the words "Miss Lovely White 2009". I had to grip that fan extra hard to stop myself from practicing my Queen Wave in the mirror amid the gasps and sighs coming from aforementioned female students.

We had a grand old time taking some pictures that I was instructed to send to the beau's family and before I knew it I was stripping down again to end my lesson. The colour palette isn't one I would ever choose for myself (and the length is too short); I'm more about statement black with huge white cranes when it comes to Japanese bridal design, but I finally got a sense of how my mannequin must feel, especially when I desperately clutch at her hips to steady myself when I'm trying to stand up "hands-free."

Let's walking

For those ladies (and gents) out there hoping to lose weight by doing nothing, you're in luck! Wacoal has introduced tight bike shorts that apparently burn calories just by going about your daily business. Great! Really?! I don't know, but it seems a little nuts to me. Whatever happened to good old fashioned exercise?! I see the posters for these "Crosswalker" bike pants every morning on the train and I'm kind of expecting to see an ad for a saran-wrap body suit one of these days.

Monday, November 2, 2009

And a sprinkling of MSG

I'm just going to come out and say it: I've been unknowingly adding MSG to my food for the past few months, thinking it was salt. We are talking a sprinkle here there and every fucking where and it all came to a head last night when I was slaving over some meatballs and a hot stove, not my usual position on a Sunday night. The beau tasted the red sauce I had made and then wanted to know where the salt was. When I indicated that it was right in front of him and he continued to look around I said it again, getting a little impatient. That's when the ball dropped. This isn't salt, it's ajinomoto, he said and wanted to know how much I had used and where was the damn salt. That is the fucking salt and I've been using it as such for ages, trying to keep my tone from going shrill. Nope. Fuck me.

I also couldn't explain why I hadn't looked at the label when using it. Why would I look? The beau bought it when we were running out of salt, it looks exactly like the salt bottle, why would I read the label? The beau was shocked and incredulous that I hadn't at least discovered it's non-salt like quality after tasting some of the many dishes I had made with it but no, my whitie palate is obviously not delicate enough to distinguish the ajinomoto, or essence of taste, from plain old salt. Nope, I just thought, MMMmm MSG. So I did what I always do when facing this kind of situation, I told the beau he should get himself a Japanese girlfriend who won't have these kinds of issues. I consider my lesson learned but it didn't stop me from blubbering on the kitchen floor while the beau ran out for salt and beer.

Please put on your mask at home

How cute and subliminal is the most recent poster? Despite this being recycled material I do love the personal grooming manner posters, although perhaps they could run one with a man doing some, well, man-grooming. I hope one day these are either released for sale or I grow some balls and permanently borrow one because I wouldn't mind a few of these adorning my future walls. Do you think we can expect more repeat themes from now on? I really don't think they've exhausted the possibilities as my new pet train peeve is men's jackets. Why must they allow the hems of their suit jackets to drape over my lap? Or worse, leave them trailing on an empty seat so that when I sit down I have to sit on the offending portion, thus pinning them down and making me feel like I have an ass made out of lead when the salaryman in question has to do a little jerking movement to remove the suit from under me upon exiting the train. Le sigh.

After pondering the cuteness of this poster and the superman-like transformation from dowdy OL with freckles (or spots of dirt on her face from the night before in Roppongi) to a rather fashion-forward, if not severe, young lady about town. Although the message seems to be don't apply your make-up on the train, I can't help feeling that it's actually saying don't show that face outside the house until you are so made up you look like a different person. This poster reminded me of a somewhat nasty story I have heard repeated about the gaijin guy who takes a hot Japanese girl home one night only to find the next day that she has a freaky-in-a-bad-way face after removing the make-up and had misrepresented her assets using various forms of undergarment trickery. I realize I am only perpetuating this story by repeating it but I would be fascinated to know if it has actually happened to anyone. I don't wear a lot of make-up nor have I had any friends who wear so much they look completely different with a naked face so I may not be in the best position to judge, but it does seem like there is a lot more transforming going on with make-up here in Japan. Rather than "accentuating your best features" as we are told in the West, the mantra here seems to be "make yourself look different."

Take for example, this nose shaper to help you achieve a "higher" nose. I have seen this and a similar device that fits inside your mouth (god knows what for) at most drugstores. I suppose this and eyelid surgery, and Japanese women think they look Western, when what they should do is appreciate the features they already have. I've never seen a group of women more interested in appropriating the physical features of another ethnic group as here. It seems a shame that some Japanese women are preoccupied with the much-touted high nose and big eyes, when similar arguments could be made for the beauty in their small noses and almond-shaped eyes. If (and a very big if) I ever have some half-babies of my own in the distant future, I would hope they won't feel the need to look more European or Japanese. Can anyone offer some insight on their own or their children's self image here in Japan?

Check Spelling

Friday, October 30, 2009

Birthday treats and melting meats

There was no paid conversation to kick off the birthday festivities this year or coiffed men lighting my cigarettes with gold Cartier lighters; instead I opted for something a little more low key in a forgotten corner of Kagurazaka. There were a few things to navigate before being able to relax with my champagne, namely an old student I ran into while trying to navigate the cobblestones in 4-inch heels and not a lot of shoe. Why is Tokyo so frustratingly tiny sometimes? I used to do private lessons with said student to pay the bills when I was in school here and had just screened his calls a month or so back, thinking he was going to ask me out drinking. So I did the only acceptable thing, which was to turn on a mega-watt smile and gush about how great it is so see you, how are things, did I change my number? no, that's strange, maybe it was disconnected when I switched phone companies, anyhow, technology these days, do keep in touch!! Then there was the bar we went to with the impertinent slash creepy slash condescending man who decided to ask if I had just oh my god spoken English to the bartender, and then proceeded to strain his little neck to listen in on my English and Japanese conversations. He was definitely one of those looking-for-free-English-"conversation"- lessons types. After these minor hiccups though, I was free to enjoy the rest of my evening of conversation and bubbly (thanks friend!).

Apologies in advance to you herbivores, but I have to talk about the sukiyaki I had for my birthday dinner. The beau took me to Daruma in Azabu-juban, it was the second time we had been there in three years. Part of it's the money, but it's mostly the fact that you just can't eat meat that good on a regular basis or it will spoil you for life. I may have said it before, but it's worth saying again: I used to think that chocolate was the only thing that should melt in one's mouth but that was before I discovered thinly cut wagyu. I don't even consider myself much of a carnivore, eating meat maybe once or twice a week but damn. was. this. sukiyaki. dreamy. It goes without saying that the veggies and tofu were also delish.

Daruma is a bit of a deceptive restaurant and there seem to be a lot of them in Tokyo. It's neither overly Japanese or Western looking, simple and clean, but at first glance you would definitely not think "expensive" or even "melty meat." Then you open the menu and see the sukiyaki courses starting at 8000 yen per person (which frankly isn't that bad when you factor in other restaurants and the meltiness) and ebi tempura for 1800 yen. Or you could not even read the menu and just turn your attention to all the white space. A sparse-looking menu with lots of empty space surrounding a few artfully painted Japanese characters also spells "pricey," just not with a P R I C E or Y. The waitresses in kimono might have tipped you off too, although I've been to some pretty cheap-and-nasty soba places with waitresses in kimono so it's not always a reliable clue. Alternatively, if you know something about expensive ceramics you would know to be very careful when navigating your ass around the large decorative plate perched on a low wooden shelf. I was even a bit mesmerized watching our waitress cook the sukiyaki for us at our table, nothing beats a woman skilled and graceful in the art of serving with chopsticks. The chef/owner also runs Anbai in the same neighbourhood, the himono (dried fish) restaurant I've mentioned before, and he popped by our table to say hello, in kimono no less, which he apparently wears every day. The beau, bless him, is no longer in his twenties but it reminded me of a line in an old Sex & the City episode: "Twenty-something guys always know the really important "B" people. Busboys, bouncers. Plus, they have cute butts." The beau does have a cute butt, and he does know all the important people - bartenders, chefs and designers. It certainly ensures good food and drink when we go out and is one of the (I would sometimes say few) perks of him working in the mizu shobai. But I digress as usual. "Understated elegance" I guess you could call it, and the service is truly seamless.

I suppose some would feel cheated out of their money dropping cash at a place like Daruma, where there is no feeling of glamour or views of Tokyo Tower, just quiet and understated good quality, but it was nice for a change to feel tucked away from it all. The razzle dazzle came a few hours later at the Maduro lounge bar at the Hyatt in Roppongi Hills. I believe the description on their website says it all: a luxuriously appointed bar, dramatically accessed over a bridge spanning a pond. Oooh, appointed. They have a live jazz band every night and a very charismatic singer on Sundays, I couldn't take my eyes off her! If you are looking for a dark and sexy rendezvous, one of the corners of this spacious lounge would be a good place to start. We considered going to the NY Bar in the Shinjuku Park Hyatt (aka bar from Lost in Translation), which is aaallll class and has a Tower view if I recall, but opted for somewhere we hadn't been yet.

It was really the birthday date of dates but I would be remiss in neglecting to mention that I tried out for the role of "Japanese princess" earlier that day while shopping in Ginza. Living close by I often walk around Ginza but rarely go inside the stores, I don't see much of a point in lusting after stuff I can't afford, but that day I found myself trying to wipe the smug look off my face when exiting the boutique of a European designer with a large white paper shopper swinging from my shoulder. So this is what it feels like, I thought, savour the moment because you likely won't have one like it for at least another year. I half-expected a mob to come down the street throwing stones and shouting Label Whore!! Consumerist Pig!! but it was just as peaceful on the street as it was when I walked in twenty minutes earlier, a luxury bag neophyte. I even resisted the urge to squeal and clap my hands together like a small child when the white-gloved shop assistance handed me the bag. Not bad, not bad at all.

Postcard from the Kaisha: Health Edition

To don or not to don, what is the general consensus people? I don't think I would be caught in public wearing a sick mask even if I had Ebola, but with my new desk mates at the Kaisha I admit I've been giving some thought to wearing a mask while at my desk. Obviously not all the time (I'm not so paranoid that I think they are deathly afraid of my foreign germs), only when I have a cold like today. Unfortunately I can't run away from my desk every time I cough and there is no such thing as "sick days" so I am left to cough and generally make a racket when I have a cold. I'm sure my desk mates are recoiling inside their heads (AGH! It's godzirra with swine flu!!!). These are women who hang up the phone receiver without making a noise, in fact, they hardly make any noise at all. I feel guilty for clearing my throat, how ridiculous is that? You can imagine how red my face gets when I accidentally bang my knee against the metal cabinet under my desk, which sends the noise of impact thundering through the office. It's so silly you just have to laugh sometimes. In what universe am I when I have to worry about the sound of my purse zipper or whether other women can hear me peeing when I am in the bathroom, the designated place for such activity. I mentioned the sound princess to my parents the other day on the phone and they were howling with laughter at the thought. You can imagine how free I felt in NYC last month, where I peed with reckless abandon.

In other news, I got totally passed over on an omiyage round yesterday. Someone came and gave out omiyage to the two secretaries who are (still) sitting within spitting distance from me and then magically disappeared around the filing cabinet without making a stop at my ghetto station. What manners, who raised these women?!

Just to round it all off, this morning I decided not to pump the "close" button on the elevator as it was early and there were only a couple others in the elevator with me and what do you know? Some uppity bitch standing behind me decides to usurp me as Button Bitch-apparent and reaches over my shoulder to press the button. If that wasn't enough (and by that I mean the mini daggers coming out of my eyes), when she got off with two others, she let them off first and then proceeded to press the "open" button for as long as possible (over my shoulder) while trying to snake out the door at the same time (my neck is in the middle there somewhere). The sheer physics of it are exhausting. I am trying really hard, I am, to think vanilla cupcake thoughts and be in a place where I am more enamored with Tokyo than not, but these people are making it really hard.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Great Expectations

I went by my old language school today to order some transcripts and found my eyes starting to sting with tears as we neared the station. If I had to put my finger on it I wouldn't call it nostalgia, it was much more like getting a whiff of a smell that you associate with unhappiness or anxiety. I immediately recalled the feelings of awkwardness I had going to school in the mornings and the unshakable feeling of loneliness that was so palpable I could roll it around on my tongue like my old piercing. Let me remind you that I was 22, not 6 at this time, and yet I still called my mom after school on that first day and cried to her. The school had turned out to be such an unforeseen disappoint for me on that first day and I was left wondering why I had just spent $7000 of hard-earned money on tuition for this school in Tokyo, where I had returned by myself to nothing and no one with an optimism fueled by fond memories of my exchange year at Waseda. I had gotten myself into a major year-long fuck up.

I chose this school on the basis that it would hook me up with a one-year visa (very few language schools will do this), it is rigorous and everything is taught in Japanese and most importantly perhaps, an African guy I was "involved" with and his friends had gone through this school and ended up in university and graduate school in Japan in Japanese. As an exchange student at Waseda I had yet to see any non-Asian foreigners that had mastered Japanese and seeing this group of cool guys from Senegal, Kenya and Malawi doing university courses as regular students impressed the hell out of me at the time. Actually, I recall thinking it was impressive that they could banter with the bronzed Japanese girls who hang out at First Kitchen on Center-gai in Shibuya after clubbing all night. If I had had a menu in front of me I would have said I'll have what they're having.

As with everything here in Japan, I had to send this school everything short of a vial of my blood for inspection and their application process made it extremely difficult to apply as a private individual (many students are sponsored or on government scholarships). Possibly as a result of the make-up of its student body, there is sparse information online and the school itself offers very little concrete information on timetables, rules, courses, etc. until you physically show up to the school to register before the year begins.

The first day I showed up for the placement test I was a little nonplussed by the third-world squatting toilets and sparse hallways. "We're not at Waseda anymore, Toto," I thought. I did however, hold back my final judgment, saving that for the first day of school when I later went crying to my mom. Maybe I just haven't seen the whole school yet. Maybe this isn't the whole student body. I repeated these assurances to myself as I walked to the train station after the test was over.

The first day of school confirmed my suspicions; I arrived to stares far past a length that could be deemed polite and giggled whispers. There were no North Americans, no Europeans. I was being gawked at by students from Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Laos and Turkey. It felt at that moment that every culture on the globe was represented at this school except for mine. Oh that's right, there was me. It wasn't just a cultural thing though, a lot of these students had never left home before, many had yet to enter university and I had arrived back in Japan to pick up where I left off at university. Clubbing in Shibuya, I believe it was. Possibly hard to believe, but I'll add "difference in maturity levels" into the mix.

Today I left the school to stares I've long since blocked out, and comments. The comments were a first. I don't speak Arabic but paraphrasing from the looks, nudges and tone with which they were said, I'd say the comments were along the lines of look at that hot mama.

I did become friends with some of my classmates but we never met up outside of class. Explaining concepts like gay marriage and affirmative action turned out to be a lesson in my own cultural history and arguing with people in my class that a woman dressed sexily doesn't mean she's asking for it wasn't something I had come to Japan to accomplish.

Lunch time was the worst. At the beginning I somehow found myself eating with a quiet girl from China whose Japanese I couldn't understand because she wouldn't open her mouth wide enough so I ended up preferring to be alone rather than force conversation. I had too much pride and would have been mortified going up to random people and asking to have lunch with them. I even lied to my friends in class when asked what I did for lunch. To avoid a piteous stare on these occasions I gave vague answers like "met up with a friend" or "had to do some errands." In retrospect how easy it would have been to swallow my pride and allow myself to enjoy connecting with another human, even if not on the level I would prefer, to balance out the cramp-inducing fear I had of being called on to read in class and not knowing how to pronounce the kanji. As I walked through the clustered residential streets on my way to the school today, I recognized the narrow lanes I would walk down at a geriatric pace, if only to make lunchtime feel shorter than it was. I would never allow myself to be seen eating alone so I would either hide in the library and scarf something down, inhale chocolate along said narrow lanes or sneak an onigiri between the warning bell signalling the end of lunch and that telling us class had started. How do you say social eating issues in Japanese?

I craved friendship that year. If asked by people how my year at the language school was, I am hard-pressed to come up with anything more descriptive than "scary." I had come back to Tokyo knowing that there was no one left from the previous year but confident I would start again at this new school, build a new group of similar-minded friends and go from there. When faced with the impossibility of this, I completely shut down, and became unable to create a Plan B. After three years of an extremely sporadic social life, at this point it seems laughably easy to have walked up to people at the School and ask them to have lunch. At that time I preferred to hide in the streets surrounding the School rather than risk looking like a loser. Now I tell people that I am a loser, but only because I don't know how else to explain my non-existent social network of people after three years here without seeming troubled. People laugh it off or think I'm being modest but I have had an extremely hard time building up any kind of network of people here and I trace the beginnings of it back the the School, followed by the Kaisha where I am the Lonely Whitie as you know, with nary a chance of meeting other foreign females.

I have eventually learned however, to not worry so much about what others think of me and to stop analyzing conversations and situations to try and figure out why someone hasn't pursued me as a friend. I can't stand "networking" so that's not really an option for me in Tokyo. On the occasion I meet someone who seems cool I will not feel weird asking for their contact info and seeing if they want to hang out, something that would have been hard for me when I was at the School. Often, however, people are busy with their own established lives and don't have time or motivation to go out of their way to include you in that, which sometimes is disappointing.

Last year at this time I was stomping around Kabukicho with the Cowgirl and Other Whitie, and I am truly grateful to have met them and had the chance to pass the time with them in this frenetic city. As the Japanese know, all good things do pass, and both of them are now off in pursuit of new things. So here I am, looking into the window of my 26th year and hoping that it's a little less lonely, with a little more laughter shared with friends. I have big plans for this year and am excited to get started. I hope those of you here in Japan do not feel alone, or if you do, that you feel a bit more encouraged to go out and find some people to share your time with. As for the School, I haven't finished discussing it, and you can look forward to the second installment of this which will include stories of my part-time job where I took my clothes off for money but not as a stripper. Till then gentle readers, have a drink this weekend for me!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Is that your elbow in my cheek or are you just...

Happy October gentle readers. I have outstanding emails and comments to attend to, I know, but I wanted to get this off and out before we hit November. I've a couple excuses for my laxness, starting with a trip to NYC to prop up the economy with shopping dollars. That and to be very bad and eat toasted salt bagels every morning. And to go to dark bars where they play honky-tonk music and you have to ring a doorbell to get in. I think I understand now why some people never leave the island. Manhattan that is, not Honshu. Tell me, where else will a complete stranger say "God bless you, beautiful" when you walk past them in the street? In Tokyo the best I can hope for is a guy from Nigeria on the main strip in Roppongi calling me "baby" and telling me I can get a free shot of tequila at his bar down the block. That or a host with spun candy-floss hair telling me that I can learn all about Japanese culture if I allow myself to be fixed drinks at his club.

I then had a case of jetlag and by case I mean I felt like I was carrying a suitcase full of sumo wrestlers through water. This was promptly followed by a stye, from which the only relief I got was when the Cowgirl suggested I rub my stink eye with my hand before handing each secretary on my floor her NYC omiyage chocolate. And speaking of omiyage who do you think has an almost full bag of mini chocolates on her desk right now? I always feel so pumped about omiyage-giving when I'm on holiday, daydreaming on the plane home about all the new friends I'll make after I just pass them out on my floor. Reality hits when I arrive back to work, my secretary refuses to acknowledge my existence and the whole omiyage goodwill flies back to the US where it came from. Yes, I am in omiyage hiding at the moment. Pretty soon it will be far too late to hand them out and they will end up in the trash. Or I will conduct a ritual burning of them.

But like I was saying, Happy October. There is plenty to love about my birth month: Halloween, miniature Hershey's chocolates, the smell of fall and the Tokyo International Film Festival. One thing I will not include in this list however, is the little devil's pitchfork the guy is using in this month's poster to shovel instant ramen into his mouth. Does the Lichtenstein-esque graphic nature of this poster prevent the depiction of chopsticks? Is it a coy nod to Halloween? I will give them this though: the raised eyebrow and hunched shoulder poise captures that of a Japanese man sucking back hot ramen or soba perfectly. I hear that some foreigners here are put off by the requisite sound of this; I on the other hand think it's a beautiful thing. I should qualify that by saying that some nasty old salarymen doing it is not so beautiful but the first time I saw the beau eating ramen was quite possibly the moment I fell in love. He is a champ at the ramen/soba slurp and makes it look so delicious! Plus watching him brought back memories of watching Tampopo when I was 5 with my parents. If only my 5-year old self had known that watching Tampopo would set off a mysterious chain of events that would one day lead me to my own ramen slurper.

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