from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Random #45: Nomanakya Naranai, Part III

with 4 comments

This series is getting long and is unrelated to the theme of the blog so I’ll try to wrap it up with the next installment. I also feel like I’m spreading myself too thin so I haven’t been able to polish these entries or get much work done on the book.

     Michi is leading us down a side street away from Kawasaki Station. The street is lined with bars and grills. It’s softly glowing with incandescent orange, and large signs advertising cheap food and drinks crowd the sidewalk. Attractive young girls in mini-skirts and leg warmers hand out flyers and packs of tissues with advertisements tucked inside. This is more like it.
     We take a turn down an alleyway and wait at the corner of a small intersection while Michi makes a call. A yakuza-looking motherfucker walks past, shaved head and gaudy jewelry visible above the collar of his flashy button-up shirt. This is the Japan I prefer to experience, the seedy underbelly of a country that seems almost too clean and orderly from the surface. When I travel, this is what I’m interested in: how people really live, how they party, how the side that most people don’t experience is.
     Once Michi gets off the phone, we backtrack a couple minutes and Michi waves to a young woman smartly dressed in a low-cut blouse under an ivory jacket-miniskirt ensemble. She has a decent, homely face and the trademark crooked teeth. He introduces Taka in Japanese and Japanese formalities ensue, the exchanging of bows, terse sentences in introduction, business cards. Michi then explains who I am in Japanese.
     “This is my friend, Sakiko,” Michi tells me. She smiles and waves. She speaks in decent English, something I haven’t heard besides my friends and the counter staff at the hostel.
     “Come on,” she says, starting down a different alleyway.
As we walk, I ask Michi how he knows her. “I’ll tell you later,” he responds enigmatically and smiles. A big Japanese guy in a black and gold luchador mask walks, no, struts past. Nice.
     We stop at the entrance of a building, and after a short discussion, we double back to stop by a yakiniku place decorated with a Mexican wrestling motif. The luchador from earlier takes our order of various kinds of roasted meat—galbi, pork, chicken, and gyuutan. Taka and Michi remember that I don’t like seafood. They heard that I’m not a fan of gyuutan, but I tell them they can get it if they want. We don’t sit down. “They’re going to deliver,” Michi tells me as we head back out the door.
     We go back to the building and take the elevator to the third floor. The establishment is called Anklet. It’s a kyabakura, a cabaret club or hostess bar. The place is small, about the size of my studio in Seoul. There’s a small bar against the far wall and tables and black velvet-cushioned seats around the inner two walls. There are no other customers and a few girls in tight business suits mull around the bar.
     It seems like Michi is a regular here. The mama comes out and greets him and takes us to a table in the corner. She’s attractive, maybe in her late-twenties. A pretty face, an ample bosom, and nice, long legs. She takes our order—we’re starting off with beer—and leaves.
     Sakiko is sitting with us—she works in IT days and here nights—and two more girls join us. The one on my right is practically bursting out of her red, satin jacket and mini-skirt. She has nice, soft features and a mass of auburn-dyed hair swirled around her crown, held in place with a handful of hairpins. She tells me her name but I don’t catch it and just nod and grin stupidly.
     Red hands me a hot towel to wipe my hands with while the mama comes out with the beer. I say my arigatou and smile sheepishly, the foreignness of the language and the situation making me self-conscious. Her smile and sexuality making me self-conscious.
     “The mama’s the best-looking,” Taka says. I nod, but Red has got my vote.
     She says something to me, none of which I pick up. I look at Taka and he asks her what she said. “She said she thinks you have a nice smile,” Taka translates. I know the words for smile but I didn’t hear it. The self-consciousness is plugging my ears. I thank her and pull out a cigarette as my go-to in awkward situations. I make to light it and she stops me, asks her co-worker for a lighter, and lights my cigarette.
     I keep busy with smoking and drinking and occasionally attempt to join in the conversation in Japanese, which becomes easier as the drunkenness overpowers the self-consciousness. The food comes and we eat and drink together. I’m content. I’m drinking Japanese beer with my friends, eating good food, and having good times, pure sex appeal in a red dress sitting next to me.
     As far as I can tell, kyabakura are the equivalent to chakseok bars in Korea. You pay a little extra for the alcohol or in the form of a tip for girls to sit and drink with you. There isn’t anything shady going on (there couldn’t be because you’re out in the open, in plain view of all the other patrons) unless you consider paying for someone to drink with you shady. Some people may say that they don’t like situations where the girls are being paid to talk to them but my opinion is that it’s more honest this way. I’ve paid for my share of pasta dinners and coffee or anju and drinks on dates in Korea and many of those dates were hardly good company. Most of them I didn’t bother contacting again.
     Red says something to Michi and he leans over and says to me, “She says you can put your hand on her leg.”
     “You can put your hand on her leg.”
     I look at her and she’s smiling and I look at her legs, crossed right over left, netted pantyhose over smooth, perfect thighs. I’m sure I’m staring but I can’t help it. I’m mesmerized. I can put my hand on her leg. I can put my hand on her leg. But I can’t. My hand is frozen to my knee. Is it really okay? Is Michi fucking with me?
     I’m interrupted by a commotion at the door and a large group of large guys and girls barge in. Fuck. The trance is broken and the opportunity is lost. The mama walks over and asks us to move over to make room for the newcomers. There are nine or ten of them and there’s barely room for all of us. We oblige and mama calls Red and the other girl over to take care of them. Fuck.
     The new table is rowdy in the way you can only find outside the big city. They’re thick, both men and women, the kind of thick that comes from being country-fed. Thick, meaty arms and rolls and rolls of scruff where a neck should be, both men and women. They’ve cost me enlightenment but I like them immediately. Not enough to talk to them, but I can appreciate the atmosphere they bring. Another aspect of culture I haven’t seen in Tokyo. They order their drinks and, once they are liquored up, make use of the karaoke machine. Taka and Michi listen politely and Sakiko sings along softly.
“This is a famous song in Japan,” she tells me. “All Japanese people know it.”
     I nod and try to read the lyrics as they light up on the screen. Every so often I look dolefully over at Red at the other table. She’s not talking; the group is having fun amongst themselves. She’s sitting politely, occasionally pouring a drink.
     Taka wants to drink highballs. We order a bottle of Suntory. Kaku, Taka says. What’s that? It’s what we call it. Because of the shape of the bottle.

Image taken from Google ImageSearch

     The mama brings the bottle and sits next to me, pouring drinks for us. She gives me her business card. Her name is Mitsuki. By now, I’m buzzing nicely and manage to carry a decent conversation with her. She’s no Red, but she’s far more attractive than the other girls. The whisky is pretty good. The Japanese know how to make alcohol. Sakiko leaves to help with the other table and I take the opportunity to ask Michi how he knows her. “I met her at the gym,” he says, but something tells me there’s more to the story.
     When it comes time to pay, Michi pays for everything. I take out my roll but Taka tells me to put it away. “Michi’s rich,” he says. “He’s got money to burn.”
     It’s around eleven, just enough time for us to catch the subway back to Ikebukuro. It’s too early to call it a night so Michi and Taka come up to Ikebukuro, where we wander around. We go down another side street with an arch above the entrance. I read the lettering on the arch: Romance Street.
     We go into another kyabakura. This one is a lot darker and busier. The walls are lined with customers. The girls aren’t as pretty. We order another kaku and there’s a bottle of Jinro soju on the table. I say hell no. Taka says we don’t have to drink it. It’s “service.”
     We drink and talk to the girls. Michi is absorbed in conversation with the girl sitting next to him. Taka is in pain. The girl sitting next to him is very homely and very chatty. The girl I’m talking to just came back from a trip to Korea. She tells me about the places she went, Myeongdong (of course) and Club Volume in Itaewon, and about the celebrities she likes. Time flies when you’re faded. We’ve somehow finished the bottle of Suntory and a couple more beers and we decide to call it a night. It’s half past four.
     Once we’re out on the street, Taka sees a ramen place so we go to have some post-drinking ramen. He knows that it’s one of the things I want to eat while in Japan. We sit at the island in the center of the restaurant, drunk and tired. Taka and I order ramen and rice, Michi opts for gyoza. Taka orders beer but I’m thinking that we’ve reached our limit.
     The ramen is thick and greasy, how I like it when I’m sober. It doesn’t agree with my stomach while I’m drunk and I throw up a good bit of it in the toilet. I come back out and finish my ramen and wash it down with beer.
     Michi and I put Taka in a cab and I walk with Michi to the station. It’s a little past five and he says he’s fine to take the subway. “I only had gyoza,” he says. We part ways and I double back to my hostel.
It was a good night. I feel bad because Michi paid for everything and am relieved that I didn’t because, considering how inflated everything is, it must have cost a small fortune. My Japanese friends are too kind.

[This section contains mature content. I don’t know if mature is the right word, but you’ve been warned.]

     It was a tame night but it’s really all I wanted. I didn’t come to sightsee and, although I appreciate it, I didn’t really come to experience the nightlife. I bought that second ticket to drink with my friends. Soyoung told me on the days leading up to the trip how excited Taka and Michi were and how they had been planning everything out, considering the things I’m into. Honestly, I wouldn’t have minded if we had spent the entire night at a normal bar. This is my fifth time in Japan and third in Tokyo and I’ve done the sightseeing and the nightlife. I’ve seen some crazy shit and I’d feel bad if we had gone somewhere shadier, considering that Taka’s married and Soyoung’s a good girl. I’ve seen some fucked-up shit.
     I visited Taka in 2008 while we were both still in grad school. I was putting off my thesis at the time and had a vacation from work. Taka was busy with something one night and so Sunao, another participant in the summer program, came out and showed me around Shinjuku. He’s a good kid and not much of a drinker, I’m guessing that’s why we didn’t get too close, but he said he’d take me “somewhere nice.”
     We walked down a relatively unlit side street, past several host bars with large posters of the hosts plastering the street walls and an area of hotels where an hour for “resting” was upwards of seventy dollars.
     “Wait here,” he said and walked down a stairwell into the basement of a building that seemed too plain and nondescript relative to its surroundings. After about five minutes, Sunao showed up at the bottom of the stairwell and beckoned me down. He met me at about halfway and stuck a ticket in my hand. “Don’t speak English until we get in,” he said. Apparently, wherever we were was Japanese only.
     At the bottom, we gave the guy at the counter our tickets and walked towards the back of the establishment and through two doors into a dark room.
     It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the low lighting, and when they did, I saw that we were in a large room. There were a lot of older men and they were all standing in long lines that twist around the room. At the end of these lines, subway grips hung from long lines attached to the ceiling and a young woman stood holding onto each of the grips. A Japanese guy said something along the effect of “If you’re not in line, get out of the way,” and Sunao and I retreated toward the back of the room. There were partitioned areas but the partitions are made of clear vinyl and I didn’t really want to know what went on in there. I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to know what was going on out here.
     Sunao and I backed up against a railing and I craned my head in the direction of the end of the line closest to us to see what’s going on. The man next in line walked up to the girl and then started groping her. After he had his fill, the next guy walked up and did the same. What is this place and why did Sunao bring me here? And who is Sunao really? He seemed like such an innocent kid, always acting uncomfortable whenever the conversation turned even slightly crude. It’s the quiet ones you need to watch out for.
     The lights turned toward the back of the room and Sunao said we should sit down. Now that the lights were turned up and the men that had been standing in line were sitting down, I could get a feel for the room. There was a stage that extended out into the room to end in a circular area, which kind of made the setup look like a dick. The seating area surrounded the stage (the head and shaft) and there was a rail between the seating area and the stage, kind of like a Universal Studios attraction. On the left wall, there was a display and the lighted section moved down one step as we sat down.
     A girl came out from backstage carrying a plexi-glass box. She put it in the middle of the circular area and then started to undress. She put her panties around one arm and then stood on top of the box. Minutes passed and nothing happened so she put on her clothes and went backstage and a different girl came out, undressed, and stood on top of the box as the first did. She stood on top of the box completely naked for a minute and then it happened. She started pissing into the box. From a standing position. What the fuck is going on? I didn’t know how to feel about what I was seeing. I looked around and everybody was into it.
     She drained quite a bit of liquid and the level of urine in the box rose. Then she wiped herself off, discarded the tissue in the box, dressed, and walked off stage to fanfare. And that was just the beginning. The display moved down another step and I realized that each step was a part of the show.
     In the next stage, a different girl brought out a mattress and put it in the middle of the stage. Then she called for a volunteer. Hands went up all around me. I didn’t dare put up my hand. Who knew what other crazy shit was going to happen. She chose a middle-aged man sitting behind me and he joined her up on stage. She explained what was going to happen but I had no idea what the fuck she was saying, even with my avid viewership of Japanese cinema. She wiped down his hand and gave him a latex glove. Then she lied down on her back with her knees bent and the guy went to work, finger-fucking her. The stage started to rotate. The guy was working at it, the girl was moaning softly and wriggling on her mattress, and the sucking sound of latex-clad finger furiously fucking her, going in and out of her vagina, was audible above the music. Her moans got louder and louder until the real show started. She started squirting. The stage was turning and she was squirting and it had distance. It was a fucking Gallagher show and her juices were getting all over the front row. I was glad Sunao chose two seats in the second row. The first row didn’t even have a plastic blanket to shield themselves.
     The rest of the show was relatively tamer and I was stuck to my seat, dumbfounded. So this is a Japanese strip club. Other stages included all the girls coming out and line dancing the Para Para, which was popular back then, stripping as they danced, a time to slow dance with the girls, and a short time where the girls sat on the stage and the customers could go up and talk to the girls and pay to have a Polaroid taken of them. At the end of the show, the girls came out in their panties and all the men ran up to the stage and the girls let the men have a final grope of their bare breasts.
     It took me the first couple of acts before I understood what was going on and decided to appreciate the fact that it was an experience very few non-Japanese, if any, could experience. What facilitated that appreciation happened during the Para Para stage. Because each of the previous acts featured a single girl or two at most, I was surprised at how many girls were backstage. At least fifteen girls filed out onto the stage and took their places in three neat rows. The dance music started and the girls started waving their arms around and stepping in unison to the music. Of the fifteen or so girls on stage, there was one who caught my eye. She was gorgeous, one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen, and the way that she immersed herself in the dance was hypnotic, even as strange as the dance was. I swear that she caught my eye in the darkness and gave me a smile but I’m a guy and not immune to the self-delusions of grandeur we allow ourselves to entertain.
     While the other customers were flush against the stage for their final gropes, I stood at my seat.
     “C’mon,” Sunao said. “Let’s go.” To the stage, he meant. Unlike many of the stages, this finale was free.
     “It’s okay,” I said. “You go ahead.”
     He shrugged and joined the others at the stage. I watched my dancer among the girls leaning down to allow the men their goodbyes. We made eye contact and she motioned for me to approach the stage.
     Sunao pulled me over to the stage and my dancer knelt down on one knee. She smiled and I obliged, extending my hand to say my goodbye, a strange goodbye and the end to a strange night.

     I walk back to the hostel and get my key from the front desk. The guy working the graveyard shift isn’t as hospitable as the girls that work the counter during the day. I go back outside for a last smoke then take the elevator up to the seventh floor. I stop by the toilet just in case the rest of my ramen decides to come up. Better now than when I’m sleeping on a bunk bed. Nothing comes out. I dry heave a few times and so I rinse my mouth with my saliva and spit it into the toilet bowl. I’m fucked-up but still take a moment to marvel at Japanese ingenuity. The room is too small for a separate sink and so there is a small faucet and basin on the water tank of the toilet which turns on automatically when the toilet is flushed. Nice.
     I try to be as quiet as possible unlocking the door to the room and closing it behind me. Someone is sleeping in my bed so I take the bed on the top bunk closest to the door. I climb the ladder as quietly as my drunken, off-balanced body will take me. The girls are all sleeping, one of them is snoring. I should’ve made my bed before I left. I put the pillowcase on the pillow but give up on the sheets, take my clothes off, throw the blanket over myself, and pass out into Suntory-induced oblivion.

Written by Young

November 23, 2011 at 11:04 am

4 Responses

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  1. “This is the Japan I prefer to experience, the seedy underbelly of a country that seems almost too clean and orderly from the surface. When I travel, this is what I’m interested in: how people really live, how they party, how the side that most people don’t experience is.”

    Quite an adventure. I can imagine you hanging with Anthony Bourdain.

    Kevin Kim

    November 23, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    • I’m not too familiar with Bourdain but from I could glean from Wikipedia, I can understand what you mean. I don’t think we’d get along, however. I’m undoubtably a finicky eater, but my tastes are unapologetically plebeian and un-adventurous, preferring a McDonald’s burger to foie gras any day. I do enjoy your food posts immensely and find my myself wishing I had the motivation to get off my ass and learn how to cook. I’ve had take-out pizza or spaghetti with Prego for almost every meal for the past week.


      November 23, 2011 at 7:05 pm

  2. You’re right that Bourdain wouldn’t go for McDonald’s. He rails against corporate-sponsored mediocrity all the time, and prefers things that are local, organic, and earthy. Foie gras might be a little too frou-frou/chichi for Bourdain, even though his own background as a chef means that he’s familiar with that sort of food. But in the same way that you prefer the gritty underbelly of Japan, Bourdain prefers the less-favored parts of any given animal (that’s where the real flavor is), and he definitely gravitates toward the seedier, less touristy districts when he’s in a big city somewhere. Like many of us when we’re abroad, he spurns the company of fellow tourists in favor of seeing the real country. In my own writing, I’ve called this mindset GOMAS: Get Out of My Adventure Syndrome. It’s what I feel when I’m walking down an empty road in Gyeongju during the off-season… and suddenly happen upon a cluster of Canadian expats or French tourists. This is MY adventure! Get out!

    As for cooking: master the art of making a good grilled-cheese sandwich. That, and learning to make a decent taco salad, will teach you most of the fundamentals right there.

    Kevin Kim

    November 26, 2011 at 4:43 am

    • I like your framing of the concept, GOMAS. I personally apply it to my life in general, which I guess still works in the sense that life is an adventure, albeit a very tame one in my case.

      I’m not a fan of the less-favored parts of the animal, be it tongue, intestines, feet, or skin, but I guess I can start off small with grilled-cheese sandwiches. That’s about as much as I can handle at the moment; a taco salad seems a bit much for someone who only dabbles in instant food.


      November 27, 2011 at 4:59 pm

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