Tokyo, June 1996. Satoru-san is already at the izakaya near Mita Station when I get there, and I’m early. Despite the swelter, he’s unflinchingly dapper in his charcoal blazer, gray shirt, and silver tie. “I’m sorry I’m early,” he says, perhaps his standard greeting when he isn’t late, which he probably never is. “I benefit from my freedom. My wife doesn’t allow me to drink. Like many Japanese, I lack the enzyme that breaks down alcohol.”
Entries in Culture Shock (23)
Tokyo, June 1996. Ji is the word for “hemorrhoid.” I looked it up. The sound is identical to chi, “blood,” and only the Japanese can distinguish them. My problem is I’ve run out of hemorrhoid ointment. A wiry lady in a lab coat, the only person in the small pharmacy, greets me apprehensively. I greet her in my best Japanese. “I’m sorry to trouble you,” I add, a fixed expression used in front of a question. It comes out smoothly, and I feel more confident. Her apprehension grows.
Tokyo, June 1996. Satoru-san, wearing a chocolate blazer, cinnamon shirt, and hazel tie, is already at the Nishi-Azabu intersection though I arrive before 6 p.m. He greets me with a handshake and a nod. “I’m sorry I’m early,” he says. Is this a translation of something that makes sense in Japanese? Or is it one more aspect of the Japanese art of turning apologies into subtle accusations?
Tokyo, June 1996. We go see the French film Le Zebre, and afterward at a dining bar we discuss it, how great it is, how French love stories have a special charm, how they’re more honest because they don’t have happy endings but French endings that leave you confused and searching for answers. Our lips are moving on autopilot while our hearts are communicating via our fingers that are intertwined across the table.
Tokyo, June 1996. Wouter the Dutch guy’s words course through my head like a refrain in a traveler ballad: You’ve got to go to Russia, you’ve got to go see Inga in Irkutsk. And I’m researching the first steps in that direction at the Maruzen Bookstore in Ochanomizu, which has a gaijin corner with a Lonely Planet shelf. I pull out Russia. But next to it are other evocative titles, like Vietnam, China, and Mongolia.
Japan, June 1996. With 40 minutes left before the departure of our train, we make a beeline for the restaurant, a boisterous Formica-steel-and-plastic kind of place. Izumi orders mountain-vegetable pilaf. I order deer sashimi, a mountain specialty. The thin slices of raw deer are served with raw onion rings, fresh garlic, fresh ground ginger, and a vinegar-soy sauce. Possibly the best meat dish I’ve ever eaten. But I shouldn’t have eaten it.
Japan, May 1996. The joys of eating cement us together, and the harmony between us emboldens me. We finish the fifth course, sautéed almond trout, and as I’m pouring the remainder of our bottle of wine, I broach the subject that has been on my mind for weeks and that I’ve broached in subtle ways before without getting a response. Now I want to violate yarikata. I want to communicate with her clearly and directly, with personal pronouns and all.
Tokyo, May 1996. At the immigration office in Otemachi, I’m asked to write my request in English on a piece of paper and submit it. After a wait, I’m directed to an office. A middle-aged white woman with puffy cheeks and a gray-blond perm thrones behind a desk.
“So, you want to stay in Japan longer,” she says with an icy British accent.
Tokyo, May 1996. My relationship with her exhibits all the characteristics of the one-sided trade relationship between the US and Japan. I pay a fortune to be in her country. Though I’m learning Japanese, she refuses to speak it with me. She has seen every aspect of my life in Japan. But I’m not allowed near her house, and her parents don’t know I exist. I haven’t met any of her friends, don’t even know their names.
Tokyo, May 1996. One of the newsstands at Takadanobaba station carries the Wall Street Journal Asia. Before 8 a.m., the wrinkled prewar archetype has two copies. By 8:45 a.m., he’s down to one. By 9 a.m., he’s out. And now that I live a few minutes away, I get there in time to grab the last copy. Surely, the same two guys have been buying them for years, and now I come along and muck up their system. I feel like a thief.
Kyoto, April 1996. We hike up the alleys to Kiyomizu-dera Temple. They’re lined with noodle shops, cafés, snack shops, and souvenir shops in wooden buildings, some with multilayered curved and pointy roofs and patinated copper gutters—when two geisha in flamboyant kimonos, theatrical makeup, and dramatic hairdos hobble arm in arm out of a side alley.
Tokyo, April 1996. The problem is money. It dematerializes in multiples of 10,000-yen bills. There’s even a word for ten thousand: man. Anything less is change. You pay two man yen for dinner and drinks, plus one man yen for a love hotel, plus one man yen for breakfast, lunch, and miscellaneous expenses. You’ve blown four man yen, or about $400, without having done anything fancy.
Tokyo, April 1996. Takano-sensei is mysteriously pleased with my progress or has changed strategy and is using false positive reinforcement to motivate me to work harder. Either way, it emboldens me, and I’m in high spirits when I enter an Internet café and ask in Japanese if they have AOL.
Tokyo, April 1996. Cacophonous cawing of crows weaves itself disconcertingly into my dreams until it wakes me up altogether. It’s 5:45 a.m. Even the dual building walls of the love hotel fail to deaden the racket, and when you’re half asleep, it’s almost scary. But in front of my eyes is a tuft of black hair. She sleeps without sound, without movement, her arms contorted underneath her. I inhale her chemistry as if it were a controlled substance.
Tokyo, April 1996. Mr. Song has already left. Mr. Kim is watching a garish talk show on TV. The kitchen sink is full of dirty bowls, utensils, pots, and pans. Vapors of grease and kimchi hang in the air.
“I’m going to walk to school,” I tell Mr. Kim.
Now he has what he has been looking for: incontrovertible proof that I’m crazy.
Tokyo, April 1996. I scour the alleys of the entertainment quarter of Takadanobaba for love hotels but still don’t know what to look for. Instead, I find a business hotel for the underlings of Japan Inc. It’s modern and impeccable. The rate is reasonable, and so I book a room for tonight. I’m elated, having accomplished something on my own. I’ll spend the night with Izumi. The logistics are in place.
Tokyo, April 1996. Our fingers laced together, we mosey from the Imperial Palace through Hibiya Park to Ginza’s shopping avenues. She picks a café on the second floor, and we settle into Viennese-coffeehouse armchairs by a floor-to-ceiling window. I’m the only male in the place. On the menu, only the prices are legible.
Tokyo, April 1996. 4:45 a.m. Daylight shines through the opaque windows. I slide one open. My new neighborhood: sheds pieced together from rusting corrugated iron, green corrugated plastic, and weathered wood; tiny yards cluttered with junk; and concrete buildings finished with brown tiles. Windows are opaque for a reason. You don’t want to be confronted with this on a daily basis.
Vibrating with irrational post-flight euphoria, I place my feet on size 24 yellow footprints painted on the floor at immigration and wait. Travel lore has it that Tokyo Narita is a congested and problematic airport. But at 8:25 a.m. I see no congestion and no problems—until an immigration officer waves me over. He studies my ticket, doesn’t like it.
Bali, 1996: The taxi driver honks his way from the airport through Denpasar’s polluted, dusty chaos and drops me off at a walled compound in Kuta by the beach. From the gate, I see a tropical garden, a pavilion with a pointy ceramic-tile roof, a swimming pool, and two-story guest buildings. A girl in red flowery sarong and sheer blouse....