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Te Love Japan

We visited all the old gold samurai pagodas with creaky floors for catching ninjas and other stealth assassins in the night.

Story by Teo J. Babini - teo@citizenbrooklyn.com Photos by Icarus Blake

"Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" Photo ©Icarus Blake

Back when I was still a subway scholar at Hunter College, I stumbled my way into a relationship with this half-Japanese girl, Jeshka. Her father was a military man from LI. He ended up stationed in Japan where he met Jesh’s ma and made the island his home, raising his daughter on base.

Smoke and Mirrors Photo ©Icarus Blake

Jesh was a very nice girl, albeit significantly younger than my taste (I usually go for older broads and she was a year younger than I). She loved the color pink, cute shit, and shopping… I dunno exactly what I was thinkin’ at the time, but she let me watch whatever films I wanted without much complaint and would deliver home cooked dinners to my pad (Was living with the family at the time). She was a nice lookin’ gal, tiny with enormous tits, but she was sexually very squeaky (Like taking a Pokemon’s virginity) and unadventurous. She also got a free hipster mullet haircut that, after attempts to correct with Chinatown extensions and wigs, acted as the beginning of the end of my physical attraction to her.

No Smoking Photo ©Icarus Blake

Anyway, back when we were still in the throws of immature romance (Picture her forcing me to hold her hand as she jogs beside me in heels while I speed walk to work), we got the idea in our heads that it would be a fun for us to go to Japan to visit her parents over the summer, and so planned a trip.

Udon Photo ©Icarus Blake

The flight there is impossibly long, and I miserably slept through most of it. Upon arrival, we were greeted by her little parents, and her mother’s well-practiced welcome speech. Papa bear was a rather portly man with a jolly disposition and a funny accent while speaking the national tongue, while mama had a thin, ghostly elegance about her and was mostly quiet except for little embarrassed attempts at communication through one of the bilinguals, quickly covering her shy smile and muffled laughter. We discussed serious Japanese driving over cold barley tea for most of the way home.

Manga Photo ©Icarus Blake

Before turning in for the night, we decided to get some udon noodles (The fat ones) for dinner. It was at this point that I had my first taste of the culture. For starters, all you really need to know how to say is Hai, which basically means “yes”. A typical interaction with wait staff goes a little something like this: Waitress brings tray with water and glasses to table and says Hai as she approaches, poppa responds with a Hai, waitress puts tray down at edge of table and says Hai, poppa thanks her with a Hai, to which she acknowledges with one last Hai on her way off. Now, growing up in an Italian household, I was taught that the youngest gentleman at the table would be showing good form in serving the rest of the table, ladies and elders first. Wanting to display my back of the knife manners, I did just that, but my actions were met with a fierce Japanese tirade from mother to daughter. So fierce in fact, that I decided not to touch anything but my own plate for the remainder of the meal. I found out later that Jesh’s ma was nothing less than appalled by the idea that her daughter would allow me to burden myself with what is clearly a woman’s task. Feminism, anyone?

"Back Up Train" Photo ©Icarus Blake

We arrived at a narrow two-story house full of quaint knick-knacks and a traditional tatami room. I was prompted to remove my shoes before entering (None of the slippers fit me). It was explained to me that space in a very precious commodity in Japan, and an expensive one at that. Then came the ground rules: 1. Since I was of drinking age in Japan, I would be allowed to drink beer and wine with the family even though I was under twenty-one. 2. I was to carry my passport at all times due to the severity of Aikido-trained Japanese law enforcement. 3. “I dunno what you kids do over there in New York”, but Jesh and I were to sleep in separate rooms while under their roof. I turned off the A/C in the guest room and unsuccessfully tried to sleep of my jet lag.

"Kill Bill" Photo ©Icarus Blake

I woke up in, what felt like, a steam room. I learned quickly that, in Japan, even someone as stubbornly anti-A/C as me would succumb to its waves of tantalizing comfort (It wasn’t quite central, and yet far from a window unit). First order of business was breakfast. A delicious spread with rice, eggs, miso soup, and some horrible smelling sticky beans, meticulously prepared by her mother, was ready upon arrival. Next up was the shower room, which is basically an actual steam room, equipped like a bathroom, complete with plants and shower hose. I made the mistake of taking a hot shower, and just never really dried off again after that.

Shushi Style Photo ©Icarus Blake

We met up with Jesh’s school friend, who was in town visiting from California, at the local shopping area. After a quick sticker-pic stop, I smoked all the three-dollar a pack Seven Stars and ate ramen while the ladies caught up (Ramen would become my go-to in between meal snack for the duration of the trip). It need be mentioned that one of the stark cultural differences between them and US is the approach to smoking. Indoor smoking is so commonplace, I feel like you could request an ashtray in the doctors office. On the other hand, outdoor smoking is prohibited except near the “Smoking Manners” public ashtrays, which are usually surrounded by twenty to thirty chain smoking Japanese business men. Apparently some little girl was blinded when she ran in a smoker walking with a loosey in hand by his hip, so the cops are pretty serious about it. That night, poppa fired up the grill and cooked up some steaks, the leftovers of which would join the eggs in my rice for breakfast.

"Tokyo!" Photo ©Icarus Blake

The next day we had a big hang out with Jesh’s military brat pack. It started with three gals and I at the local izakaya, where you pay per hour to drink and eat beer snacks. The only thing I knew how to order were Gin and Tonics, and the waiter was kind enough to make them “gaijin style” (More gin, less tonic). He even went and bought us cigarettes from the bodega. Once we’d run our clock, we met up with a buncha fellas, mostly nice guys, and bopped around with them for a bit. By the time we finished hangin’ out, the trains had stopped running (this happens at around twelve) and so we rented a karaoke room for the night where the girls sang, while I slept. Poppa scooped us up from the train the next morning.

Tokyo Noir Photo ©Icarus Blake

Our first excursion was to Kamakura. We had to take a bus to the train, but we missed it, so we walked (Swam). Walking through less urban parts of Japan has a very Americana feel, with kids playing baseball all over. We finally made it to the train and I had sweat so much my passport’s still crusty to this day. By this time, I’d gotten used to taking trains everywhere. They are relatively expensive and the tickets are so small that I had to keep them in the little fifth pocket of my jeans, so as not to lose them. That being said, they are quite charming, and a great way to see the natural portion of the environment. The funny part was that my height required me to bend really low to get inside, and I would often raise back up to strangers bowing back, at first I tried to explain, but eventually I just excepted the kind gestures with a nod and a smile.

Kyoto Photo ©Icarus Blake

Kamakura is home to the Great Buddha, a gigantic bronze Buddha that rests, weatherworn and peaceful, in the center of a temple. It was by far the most visually beautiful thing I saw while there, and the only picture I took with my own phone. Although the tourists (girlfriend included) annoyed me, I had a moment of peace there, gazing at the statue and the clear sky behind it. Walking back through town, we tried the signature blue yam ice cream (their cones are triangular as opposed to circular). We were supposed to take the monorail to meet poppa at a bowling alley, but the sign was so old that Jesh couldn’t understand the kanji (written characters). So we stopped in the pub at the station to ask and ended up staying for a Guinness, a rare find in Japan. It felt a bit like Bukowski’s “Nirvana”. There was a mad drunken sushi chef, red faced and loud, eager to make our acquaintance. The captain was a quiet man who enjoyed the company of high-ranking US military officers who came from all over to enjoy the Guinness and the old timey music. He even showed us his snow globe collection, and I vowed that if I ever made my way back to Japan, I would bring him one from New York. I still have the business card.

Shinkansen Photo ©Icarus Blake

Our next destination was Tokyo. What… a… fuck house! Man, I am a born and raised New Yorker and I still felt flustered by the chaos. Just too many people, all over you, all the time. Not to mention a lack of street names, so that finding your way around is basically impossible. We took the Cheerio train to all the famous neighborhoods. Harajuku felt just like a gigantic Saint Mark’s Place with a law in place for women that the space between the knee and upper mid-thigh always be exposed. The general uniform was knee high socks and unbelievably short skirts. Shibuya was a lot like SoHo, except that when you enter a shop everyone screams at you, which, by the way, you are not to acknowledge… I learned this the hard way. Akihabara has a weird mixture of electronics stores, cosplay sex shops, and arcades, one of which we paid a visit to. We took the elevator to the top floor and stepped in to a room full of sweaty men playing pornographic video games, I spied one of the employees wiping down the machines with a mask and gloves on and realized we had made a mistake, but it was too late. All eyes in the room turned on my girlfriend, probably the only female to ever enter the building. We ran down the seven flights as fast as we could.

"Cafe Lumiere" Photo ©Icarus Blake

By night, Tokyo is an even bigger shit show. Any idea you have in your head about Japanese people being overly quiet and polite is completely incorrect. Only in the back alley’s of Genova and Istanbul have I ever seen such reckless displays of mass public drunkenness. People scream, vomit, sing, and dance around the streets like it’s the fuckin’ apocalypse. Wanting to get in on the action, we went to an izakaya, but I got wind that they were trying to hustle us, so we stormed out without paying (Good luck tryin’ to stop me, little man). We finally settled into a grill-your-own-meat joint and I won all the Jack Daniel’s sponsored prizes with my cocktails. I guess it was my lucky night.

Modernity Photo ©Icarus Blake

Our last big adventure came about from Jesh’s pop’s military diligence. He discovered that a ticket on the Shinkansen is cheaper with a tourist package then the cost of a regular ticket, “Punch Drunk Love” style. And so we shot off to Kyoto. Riding on the “bullet train” is very hypnotic with scenery blowing by at breakneck speeds. It was on this journey that I had another Zen moment when I realized I was listening to “Jay Love Japan” on a train, IN JAPAN. That was when it hit me that I was fulfilling one of my life-long dreams.

"Hagakure" Photo ©Icarus Blake

We decided to do the tourist thing for at least this one day. So we packed into a bus with a bunch of obnoxious assholes and a hyperactive tour guide who spent the day running around pointing an umbrella at the sky, wearing a silly hat. She also said “you know” a lot, the record was twenty times in five minutes. We visited all the old gold samurai pagodas with creaky floors for catching ninjas and other stealth assassins in the night. After that we had some takoyaki (octopus balls) and Okinawen ramen before visiting an old movie studio, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I felt like I was living the black and white movie magic of Kurosawa and Ozu. In the end though, Kyoto is a great city to just get lost in, such a contrasting mixture of old and new, it is the single most accurate microcosm of the country as a whole. Unfortunately, the restaurants are very expensive and when I also refused a visit to the sex motel, we had our first fight of the trip. She got back at me by exploding into my bedroom and period raping me the next morning when I was half awake ‘cause her parents had gone to run errands.

Emperor's Throne Photo ©Icarus Blake

On our last day, we visited the military base and I flew the flight simulator poppa was now employed to maintain as a civilian, followed by a night of conveyor sushi (Special orders are made on a computer and sent out to you from the kitchen on a little express train). I had earlier bought some sneakers and souvenirs from the hundred yen store (Think of a Walmart sized ninety-nine cent store). Poppa gave me one of his vintage bowling shirts and we had our finally meal at the fried food joint at the airport (All the restaurants are divided by type). And people say you can’t properly explore a country in a week… Watch me.

Cherry Blossoms Photo ©Icarus Blake

 

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