For the last twelve days I have been out of Prague. I spent ten days in Japan, one day in transit, and one day in Paris. This first entry is about my time in Paris:
On my way to Japan I decide to return to Paris for a night, because of a standing invitation from a British girl to stay at her place.
When I land I take three trains into the center of Paris. It startles me to hear French, and my natural reaction is to respond in Czech. Which complicates things, because by then they’ve realized I’m not French, and have started speaking to me in English. Everyone is pre-drinking in a small, very Parisian flat, which is in full view of the Eiffel Tower. The Tower is lit up, and has a spotlight on top circling in the night sky.
I drink a lot of Cognac and 1664, and then we go to an Erasmus party. The girl I know gets drunk, and grabs me a lot on the dance floor. We leave with her friends, she lives in the suburbs of Paris, and it’s a long expensive drive that I have to pay for because she is too drunk to look for her money.
Even at night I can tell that I like the buildings in this suburb: simple brick and white walls. France often looks to me how I imagined Europe would look when I was young. Their flat is big and located in a grade school. She has set up a bed for me in the main room, but we go to her room. In her bed, she tells me doesn’t want to do anything. That pisses me off. I fall asleep before I can try to change her mind.
We wake up late, and I half-heartedly try again, and she says the bed is too loud. We dress, walk around the small cute town, eat some quiche, drink espresso and then go into Paris. We meet her friend, hang out around the Arc de Triomphe, eat again and take some pictures by a pond. I take pictures of the Louis Vuitton flagship, because it’s ridiculous, but without shame. At the top of the store they fly the Louis Vuitton flag, which is a bold and hilarious move in the Champs-Elysées.
The girl tells me that they never check tickets so the whole time in Paris I sneak into the metro with her pass. Of course, on the way to the airport I get stopped by metro security and have to pay a twenty-five euro fine. I don’t blame the girl though, I should have known better than to not buy a ticket while carrying luggage. On the train we say goodbye and kiss awkwardly. I’m two and a half hours early at Charles de Gaulle, but I almost miss my flight because the monorail to my terminal breaks down. A German girl who can speak French saves me, and I get to my gate as my flight is starting to board.
Somewhere in the thirteen hours between Paris and Tokyo I get sick, really fucking sick. It’s not food poisoning, but flu sick, and it starts with me thinking there is a chill in the plane. Then the blanket isn’t enough; I’m asking for more and sweating at the same time. I can’t sleep because my stomach is a mess. I go to the bathroom constantly, and the whole time I’m just trying not to throw up on the well-mannered, and terrified, elderly Japanese couple sitting next to me.
They take me to a nurse’s station immediately after the flight. A young nurse takes my temperature, and a look of shock comes over her face. She shows me the thermometer- “39.6”. The fuck if I know what that means. I motion high with my hand, and she nods her head. She goes into the back room, and I creep out of the room. At immigration, they scan my eyes and fingerprints. I pretend I’m fine, and try to smile. Once I’m through I find a chair and collapse. I stumble and sleep on floors until my flight to Osaka. My original plan was to sleep in the train station at Kobe, but I’m not in any shape to do that, so I pay a hundred dollars for a tiny hotel room in downtown Osaka. The room is clean. I shower, and in the morning my sheets are soaked through with sweat. My fever has broken.
I drag myself to the Kobe Harbor to meet my sister. The Japanese are wonderful, and make up for their lack of English with a genuine desire to be helpful. I’m still in rough shape, but hopped up on medication I bought through sign language, so I feel all right. Our original plan was to go Tokyo, but I’m exhausted, and my sister is sympathetic, so we decide to spend the night in Osaka. We have dinner with her friends, hosted by John, an acquaintance through the Semester at Sea program. He lives in Tokyo, and tells me that I can crash at his place next week, because his roommate is gone. Something is slightly off about the whole thing, I have momentary visions of Hostel, but he seems cool enough. I tell him ‘I would appreciate that’.
The next day we go to Tokyo. We have slight delays due to misunderstandings in English, but everyone continues to be amazingly considerate. Tokyo is massive, but it clicks, and I have the feeling of being at home. A feeling I’ve not felt since the first time I came to Prague, years ago. Our hotel is in the Shinjuku district. I sleep, and when my sister wakes me my eyes go wide, and I sit straight up in the bed. The fever is gone, but my stomach is still fucked. There is an arcade close by, and we play guitar video games.
Seven hundred students are on my sister’s cruise ship so when they descend on a country, even one as large as Japan, they take over, and everyone ends up concentrated in a few places. Tonight it’s Roppongi: the club district. Most stay at TGIFriday’s and karaoke bars, but I see them on the streets. My sister and I go to a few places recommended by John, and then head back somewhat early.
The Park Hyatt Hotel, the hotel where they filmed Lost in Translation, is close to where we’re staying. It’s gorgeous, and we have lunch looking out into the courtyard with affluent Japanese families. The lobby is on the 48th floor, the view is impressive, and we take pictures staring at the endless metropolis. We travel the city looking for a FedEx to overnight our signed tax returns. Before leaving for Kobe we go to the Harajuku district; famous for oddly dressed teenagers, and despite the weirdoes, it’s some of the best shopping I’ve ever seen. That night we have sushi in Kobe, tuna so good that it melts on the tongue.
I see my sister off at the ship the next day. At night I go out into the Osaka bar district. I lie, and tell people I’m writing an article for Vice magazine. I meet two Russian women in their early thirties, one is half Korean and speaks English well, and the other is white with red hair. In the morning I exchange emails with the redhead. I tell her I have nowhere to stay until Wednesday; she tells me I can stay with her. I drop my stuff off at her studio apartment, which she shares with her Korean friend. Usually they sleep together on a mattress on the floor, but her friend has found somewhere else to stay for the night, and leaves for work. She makes dinner, and after I take a nap. We watch baseball when I wake up. She is more affectionate and talkative than when we first met. Around ten we leave to go to her work, and as we’re walking she tells me she’s a pole dancer. I had assumed. We agree to meet at two when she’s finished.
I get drunk on 7-11 cocktails that come in a can. I waste time in Tower Records listening to bands that sound like Radiohead, and try to sober up at Starbucks. When I go to meet her she is eating a hamburger at the bar. I say ‘hi’, and she stands up to leave. It’s immediately apparent something is wrong. Normally I would assume it’s because I’m drunk, but it’s too quick, too definite. We meet her friends on the other side of town and then go home. She showers and I brush my teeth, we lay down into bed, and I try to ask questions, but any trace of the girl from before is gone. We sleep a foot apart; in the morning I pack my bag and take an umbrella as I walk out.
The rest of the week I crash with John in Tokyo. He has a gorgeous and large flat close to Tokyo Tower. It doesn’t take long to realize that it’s not his roommate that is gone, but his live-in boyfriend. It’s never a problem though; John’s a friendly and generous host. He has a bed set up for me in his media room, and the amount of times he hits on me is tolerable. During the day I wander the streets of the city, buying video games, shopping for clothes, and visiting temples. John usually has to work, but occasionally he joins me. At night I get drunk with his friends, most of whom are European, and we talk, and watch it rain on the skyscrapers from his balcony.
We spend a lot of time discussing Japanese culture. I say I like the people, that they’re wonderful, and the girls are very pretty. I ask about the men; I wonder how they had become so quiet, so passive.
“After World War Two they took away their samurai swords, and gave them teddy bears,” he quotes.
He explains to me: how his boss spends his time in his office reading samurai stories, how Japan has the highest teen suicide rate in the world, how you can never totally be accepted as a foreigner, their fetish for pre-pubescent girls, and the resentment for a life spent working that they carry hidden below the surface. I don’t doubt any of it.
“I think it’s a wonderful place,” I say. “As long as you can stay above that. Live here, but not become entrenched in the culture. Stay an American in Japan.”
I feel guilty for saying it, but I know it’s true. As much as I love it here, I could never, and would never want to be Japanese.
My last night in Tokyo is a Saturday. I thank John by spending a couple hundred bucks on dinner at a French restaurant. We drink another bottle of wine at a bar close by. I tell him we should go scam on girls.
“I can’t, I’m tired, but if you find one, you’re welcome to bring her back,” he says. “Do you have a condom with you?” He hands me one. “Japanese girls don’t use them…”
In Roppongi I try to talk to girls on the street. Mostly they look wide-eyed and scared, and pretend that they can’t hear me. I get some looks from the American/European girls on the street, pickings are pretty slim for them here, but I’m looking for a Japanese girl.
I was told by John, ‘They have no concept of bases. If you can kiss them, you can fuck them.’ This was the tame part of his conversation, there was more, the sort of stuff that makes you squeamish. Still it has my curiosity; I can’t imagine that it’s true.
I have a lot of luck on the street in Prague, but it’s no good here. I give up, and go to a bar called Heartland. Spatially it’s an open bar, with no walls on one side, allowing people to move in and out. At the bar in the corner I see a cute Japanese girl by herself. She’s eating olives out of the garnish tray. I move next to her.
“Hi, did you come with anyone?” I ask.
“Hi!” she says. I realize she didn’t understand me, but she seems happy.
“Hi,” I say again with a big smile. “Did you come here with anyone?” I motion around the bar with my hand.
“No, from work, for beer.”
“I like very much,” I say, pointing at my beer. “Very good beer.”
We laugh together about nothing. She’s fun, and even with her terribly broken English it’s easy to keep it moving. She’s from the South of Japan and moved to Tokyo for work. She understands that I’m American, but has a hard time understanding that I live in Europe.
“I’m an English teacher in Prague,” I say.
“You’re an English teacher? My English teacher!” We laugh and she grabs onto my forearm.
I like her style: a cream and dark purple-stripped sweater, we laugh again because her purple matches mine, and a long slim cut feminine blazer. She is tall for a Japanese girl, probably 5’6”. She makes a few comments about my height, but she is more amazed by my hands. Her feet are tiny, and I comment on how cute they look next to mine. Cliché things, but they seem right in the moment.
Often when she laughs she claps her hands and jumps up and down, which is adorable. She continues to touch my arm, and doesn’t mind when I put my hand on her waist, as I lean in close to talk.
With my hand on her hip, and my lips close to her neck, I try to kiss her. There is a pause, and she moves her head away slightly. Weird. She says she has never kissed a foreign boy, and I tell her that it’s ‘ok’, and lean over and kiss her. After the first kiss she moves closer to me, and when we kiss she kisses back passionately. We talk for another hour and drink several more beers.
“Do you want to leave?” I ask.
“Where should we go?”
“Let’s go to Tokyo Tower.”
During the night, I’m worried that she will wake John; but in the morning when he wakes me he is surprised to find her sleeping next to me. In broken English I explain why she has to leave at six-thirty in the morning, she writes her email address on a sticky-note, and I walk her downstairs.
“That was easy,” I say to John.
“Just that, the whole goodbye thing. No guilt. She was all smiles.”
“They’re like that. Did she even give you her number?”
“Uh, I asked for her email.”
John agrees to mail a Hello Kitty poster that I stole from the wall of a metro station to my sister. I say my goodbyes, and meet my taxi. In my pocket I have about ten-thousand Yen, and a chapstick called Gatsby, that smells sweet, like nothing I can place.