Wah-Ka-Ri-Ma-Sen : Finding the “Know” of Tokyo

“Wakarimasen” or “I do not understand”, was probably the most common phrase I found myself using during my four or so days in Tokyo. I think “Wakarimasen” is still the lens I use when thinking about Tokyo, even after my crash course in this particularly foreign universe … one ever scintillating, ever distracting, ever scary in its break-neck pace towards becoming something else, but what I’m not sure.

If I didn’t mention before, I found myself lucky enough to go to China for work again, less than a month after my last trip to China that consequently ended in a fascinating two-day lightning visit of Hong Kong. Having a second go at things, I decided to take advantage of the free trip to Asia again, seeing if I could re-route the return trip flight path in order to have a lay-over in Tokyo, another city that I have always wanted to visit, but realistically had no intention to in the near future. Lightning did indeed strike twice luckily enough, and coincidentally the re-routing in the end cost my company less money. So no qualms about using company funds for “personal” reasons. In the end, I ended up staying a bit longer than I would have usually … that is longer than another two day lightning visit … due to the availability of flights. But the four days in Tokyo I had proved to be completely needed in order to visit what I hope to describe as a city that combines the best and worst of American cities, and then throws in things only “Tokyo” has to offer.

Ultimately, I found myself concluding that Tokyo is beyond New York in terms of its penchant towards “avant-garde” metropolitanism … putting shame to a city I do love and honestly would rather call “my” home in its pursuit of “what’s hot” and though to a slightly less degree, “what’s not” (since everything seems to have some place in Tokyo). Now I am making that statement with an intended implication that such pursuits balance upon a proverbial double edge sword … a samurai blade that should only be wielded by those who know such arts. I also found myself concluding that Houston (or LA) could not match Tokyo in terms of its voracity of urban sprawl either. The “concept” of Houston … a city American urban theorists have seem to have taken special pleasure in disdaining as a horrific failed example of the poly-centric city where no place is “a place” … seems to have manifested in to a kind of strange success in Tokyo. Strange in the sense that it is successful in the sense that Olympic athletes whom are doused with steroids are successful … ridiculously ripped and highly performing, yet ultimately artificial and sterile.

Everything in Tokyo I found overwhelming, sensory-overloading, and just plain fucking crazy. A gentleman I met on my stay there told me that Tokyo is like Times Square in New York City, a celebrated place full of madness and loved because of it … but beware, Tokyo … is Times Square … but EVERYWHERE.

Tokyo I think, is a work (in-progress) … an on-going experiment … in contrasts and damn outright contradictions. Here is a city where people walking on the streets live in individual invisible bubbles, somehow avoiding each other with internal magnetic repulsion, where simple “excuse me’s” or even “get the fuck out of my way’s” when you do bump into each other are forgone (you simply pick up and go)… but then simultaneously street signs everywhere dictate what are called “street manners” … no smoking, or drinking, or eating while walking. There are defined smoking locations equipped with ash-trays canisters and sometimes little barricades on certain street corners … that people really do use. When it rains , EVERYONE is courteous enough to close their umbrellas when they walk under roofed areas of sidewalks … so water does drip on the person walking next to you. You see a daisy field of multi-colored umbrellas open and close like in some freak spring and frost. There are almost no trash-cans, yet the streets … relative to a city of over thirty million people … are impeccably clean (people simply carry their waste to wherever they are going and find appropriate receptacle inside). Tokyo-ites are a tribe where what we might call “suits” … “salary-men” … walk side by side with “harajuku girls” (young teenage girls probably on the social fringes in school who live alternate lives in their free time by dressing in ridiculously outlandish garb and then prance for camera-snapping tourists who eat up like candy). Tokyo is a place where the overt pursuit of haute couture (or what seemed more like to me “gangsta bling”) is not only reserved to the young women walking along Omete-sando, which is their version of 5th Avernue also outfitted with Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and that ilk, but equally to their boyfriends walking next to them … who’d probably have more expensive and trendy outfits that the girls.

Tokyo young men display metro-sexualism to the n-th degree. As a gay man, I found this immensely dis-concerting (beyond what you’d see in NYC metros even) because here “fashion” for men includes things like seriously distressed (to being shades of orange) long, shaggy hair, skinny jeans with gay gay gay belt-buckles, lots of dangling, seriously Liberace style, jewelry, and outright purses, not “man-bags” mind you … Louis Vuitton PURSES! For fuck sake, I couldn’t tell which cutie was gay or straight, and even if they were paired with a girl, I then couldn’t tell if the guy was really a guy or not. Such is the pains I could imagine of being a gay man in Tokyo.

From what I could gather on the Japanese cultural psyche, it seems that it can be summed up that Japanese sexual culture does technically “allow” homosexuality in a very “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. What is ultimately the prime directive it seems of the Japanese revolves around extending lineage. Such is understandable as it’s a particularly Asian mentality, that of the contract of marriage and then consequently (or post-requisitely) that of childbirth and lineage extension. Just as long as those objectives aren’t violated, it seems men (only men mind you … as Japan is indeed a misogynistic society, as is the US) have free reign on what they do (and apparently who and do) in their “free time”. Men are THE providers apparently (and since they are given over 30% higher incomes for the same work as opposed to women … similar to the US) and so as long as they pay for their wives Gucci purses and their children’s Harvard educations, they apparently can never come home and fuck anyone then want. Short end of the stick for the chicks huh?

Anyways, lest I digress into a serious anthropological enquiry, I found Japanese culture, the culture prancing on the streets (the one I could only really experience) ever fascinating in its interplays of what is OK, and not so. Another perfect example of this “you must be in the know” protocol is the gay scene … which like what New Yorkers call the West Village, Tokyo-ites call “Nichome”. Technically on the map the area is called Shinjuku-Nichome which means the second quarter of Shinjuku, but Nichome does has a classy sound to it … almost French, but not really. It’s a strangely non-descript neighborhood … no rainbow flags out except one or two at night when the homos come out of the woodwork … and many heterosexuals can be found walking along oblivious of the homosexual decadence behind blacked out windows. Unlike the overt display of fashion on Tokyo streets, “gayness” still seems kept behind closed doors. The only way you would know that Nichome was “gay” … would be if you were “in the know”.

In the guide books I read briefly before coming to Tokyo, it made the assertion that Tokyo had the highest “density” of gay bars of anywhere in the world. And density is the key word, as Nichome is probably no more than 3 city blocks in area, but if there were not less than 150 individual bars I’d be surprised. What does this mean? A “spacious” bar in Nichome might hold maybe 15 patrons … basically it’s a bar with 15 stools lined up, maybe enough space behind the stools to walk … and that’s that. That’s spacious! The typical bar may hold 5 customers and someone told me that he saw a bar that was basically a closet onto the street where when the doors rolled up it was a counter and the “bar’ was just some stool outside on the street. When real-estate is at a premium, the bars also migrate skyward, as the typically four or five story buildings of the neighborhood (each being only about 20 feet wide) house individual bars on each floor. What I could not understand, is how would anyone ever “find-out’ the bar on say the four floor? Of course, if the bar is only supported by the five customers that could physically fit inside it … I guess the business model doesn’t rely on walk-bys.

Other than the physical environment of Nichome, another thing you seriously need to be “in the know”… or be with someone “in the know” is the simple aspect of bar culture in Nichome. In short, its VERY cliquey… maybe the logical outcome to the situation of limited space … priority is given to “regulars” … and many bars apparently outright do NOT welcome non-regulars. You might be a non-regular if you are a foreigner, not Asian, not Japanese, not the right Japanese, or simply not an actual “regular”. You see why its hard to simply just “check out” a bar? What I also have heard is that the majority of the bars also type-cast themselves in terms of their gay clientele. Unlike in the US where there maybe the occasional leather bar here or there that is “particular” in some way, in Nichome, each gay desirous “type” seems to have its own bar … maybe good for personalization, but not so good if you just want to explore. Ergo, there are the potato queen bars where local Japanese with white fever go (and conversely whites who like japs), there are bear bars, fat bars, twink bars, etc, etc. Oh yes, I think there is also one or two lesbian bars in the mix somewhere, but who cares about them right? Not hairy and fat and walk into a bear bar? You’ll get some mean looks and probably eventually be less than politely asked to leave (or at the very least simply not served and ignore).

Unfortunately, what this meant to me, was that I ended up being psyched out of actually entering any of the Nichome bars, lest I be cast out onto the street. In retrospect I should never have read the guides, or simply made the resolve to just take my chances. I wasn’t in a brave moment I guess on this trip, so I simply was a touristic observer of the cornucopia of tiny lighted signs that crawled up the building facades, blending into a wall paper of stripes and colors (and again, why even have a sign if the only way you knew a place was if you “knew” it?). Despite not experiencing bar culture directly, walking around Nichome did prove eye-opening simply for its built environment however … so I didn’t walk away completely empty-handed. Maybe next time … and I do feel like this trip to Tokyo warrants a round 2.

I did happen to meet one guy on my trip who shared his experiences of being an American ex-pat who had only lived in Tokyo for about seven months. Overall, he said, it had been a good experience, but we ended up agreeing in the end … that Tokyo… is a hard nut to crack. But somehow, I guess the hard ones are more satisfying when you finally consider yourself “in the know” … for the moment. Tokyo morphs at a dizzying speed, and even native Tokyo-ites never seem to completely know their home town. Every New Yorker knows Times Square and the real “places” are all sort of well documented and visited … but in a 30 million plus city, where every place vies to be “a place” … I think even being a real Tokyo-ite only confers onto you a very limited and transitional knowledge of what’s going on, unless you are particularly adroit at the urban flaneur, which in itself requires a great stock of courage, wit, and plain street smarts (knowing the language also doesn’t hurt).

Or you can just reply to everyone “Wakarimasen”.


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