by LENA DUNHAM
I awake the next morning feeling like I need a blood transfusion. Our guide Shiori arrives at noon, chipper as ever and ready to take us to the airport where we'll board the plane home. She hands me a gift. "From Kazu. To remember last night."
A pleather nurse's cap.
My goodbye with Shiori is bittersweet — we have truly become friends, despite the uncrossable cultural chasm, a chasm evidenced by the fact that she is shocked by frank discussions of sex but was not at all surprised by what we witnessed last night at the S&M bar in the Rappongi district. "I love you," she says, handing me a bag of "bean sweets." I promise to send her the ugg boots she so desperately wants.
"Remember to e-mail Tada," she says. The sleeve of her raincoat is still dotted with red wax from a candle wielded by an obese dominatrix. "The gift he gave you was very expensive. He says you promised to take him to all the clubs of New York."
Did I? I don't remember that. I guess, like so many of my Japanese exchanges, it was lost in translation.
Ground Control To Major Mom
We've come to Japan because my mother is having a small retrospective of her photographs at a gallery in Tokyo.
Traveling with my mother has its challenges. She's adorable, a real gem, but she won't shut up and she generates little bits of trash and she is very nervous about Japanese customs — for instance, her guidebook tells her that the Japanese don't like public nose blowing, which she adores, and that's been a real source of anxiety.
On the 14 hour plane ride she watched Lost In Translation on her in-flight entertainment system. Good movie, but it is now a near-constant point of reference, and likely will be for the entirety of our time in Tokyo. After all, she was quick to note that I am a recent grad with hair vaguely the color of Scar Jo's, traveling with a working photographer. Only my shutterbug partner-in-crime is not Giovanni Ribisi. She gave birth to me.
When we land at Narita Airport twenty tiny men in scrubs and gloves and white rubber rain boots come aboard wearing masks, and announce they're going to take our temperatures as a precaution against the spread of swine flu. They have syringes in their fanny packs and I actually get very scared.
We are greeted in the airport by Shiori, a young representative from the gallery where my mother's work is being shown.
"I will be your guide," she says. Our friend Matthew warned us not to bond with any gallery girls because "you'll never lose them" but I like her. She insists on carrying my suitcase even though she weighs about seventy-three pounds and has hands like paper cranes. The taxicab's seats wear a cloak of white lace. The driver dons matching gloves and takes your Yen (thousands of them!) on a small silver tray.
I once saw a movie in which Toni Collette has hot sex with a Japanese businessman who then dies. She spends the next hour lugging his lifeless body through the Australian outback and crying.
Judging by the medical mod squad and this cab driver's stiff posture, I can't imagine a passionate affair with a native man. A few minutes after we check into the hotel the maid comes into our room to turn down the beds. Panicked, my mom stuffs her dirty underpants into my purse to keep up appearances.
Japanese American Princess
Shiori, helpful gallery girl extraordinaire, has a rival in my new friend, manga artist Miyu. Although thirty-one, Miyu looks approximately fourteen and wears an Anne-of-Green-Gables-inspired hat that only Audrey Hepburn or Audrey Tatou could pull off outside of Japan. She makes beautiful comics about coming of age. She gives me her books, but I cannot read them.
Miyu brings me to 7-11. In the US, 7-11 is just a burial ground for coke slurpeez and microwaveable pizza. Here in Japan, it purveys complex sushi rolls, tempting noodle bowls and delicate pastries with thousands of flaky layers (the label on the yummiest reads "A Taste of The Bread").
I know I said I could never imagine a Japanese affair, but I've changed my mind. Kazu, the art handler hanging my mom's show, is gorgeous like the strong, sexy, dreadlocked Mongol in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (causing my sister to email the instruction: "Yeah, girl. crouch that tiger, hide that dragon. P.S. That's a Chinese movie").
I'm Big In Japan
I get drunk fast on sake. I haven't eaten meat in ten years but this beverage tastes fleshy somehow. I can't stomach much of what is brought to the table at a seven course meal with uber-friend Shiori and Tomio, mom's squat art dealer.
Toshi brings along a well-known Japanese painter who informs me that he comes at his art from a very "passionable" place. I learn that he is also very passionable about Buffalo Springfield, Burt Reynolds ("to most, he is sexiest man") and the Jack Black vehicle Nacho Libre.
He would like a friend in New York, as his only friends are Yo La Tengo and they are always on tour. Poor guy.
After the Party is the After-Party
At 3 a.m. I hear my sleepless mother sighing.
She is sipping chardonnay by the computer. I tell her to take an Ambien and I fall back asleep. Big mistake. Girlfriend takes an Ambien. And she follows it up with a healthy Ambien-inspired nosh session that encompasses two mini-bottles of vino, a tube of Pringles, a box of Ritz Bits, a smattering of mixed nuts. Then there's a mug of sake and a salmon-flecked rice ball. The contents of the mini-bar have been eradicated. When I awake at 9 a.m. she is snoring peacefully, surrounded by wrappers.
To See What There Is To See
We spend the afternoon wandering through the Shibuya neighborhood, which is like if Soho and Times Square had a baby and then moved to the moon to raise it. It is also where many of Lost in Translation's most memorable visuals were captured: filmed, I'm told, from the window of the mega-Starbucks at Shibuya crossing. I'm beginning to resent Sophia Coppola's subtly fascistic dictatorship over our travel experience.
Every linguistic foible, every longing glance out a cab window at dusk — if my mother doesn't say it, then I feel it. We are in someone's else's movie.
There are so many businessmen and business-ladies in Shibuya, all over Tokyo really. A sea of briefcases! Japanese people look so young — fourteen year olds in ill-fitting suits. What kind of business could they all be doing? When they cross the street it looks like a music video, or the cover of Abbey Road. They are so orderly and leave a foot of space between themselves and the next office escapee.
The White Man Cometh
We attend an opening at the Hara museum, all art by hip young collectives, and I develop my second Japanese crush, on a mophead in a t-shirt that says "Hustler: Hardcore since '74."
Being the only Caucasian in a room, you almost feel invisible because you are so visible. When you're in Mexico or someplace, at least they want your paper dollars. But here, we are uncouth, smelly, hairy. We have swine-flu. Our currency is inferior and our history is short. Yet the Japanese also love Sid Vicious, cowboys, birthday cakes, bagels.
It's such a confusing dynamic.
Memoirs of a Geisha
It's a complex process to even get near the hotel pool, one that involves a mandatory shower and a key that you strap to your thigh. But I am immediately thwarted when I see a sign announcing that no tattooed persons may enter the water. My mother is not content to either follow or ignore this rule, so she presents me to the locker room attendant, pointing to my arm and announcing/asking "THIS IS OK!?"
The sweet-faced girl looks vexed, turns a bit red, pulls out a roll of medical tape and proceeds to cover up all my tattoos — even the one my lower back, which she claims to find "kawaii" (cute). I do twenty laps and shed all the tape in the water, mummy-style.
Night On Earth
My mother's opening is considered a smashing success, although attendance is estimated at approximately twenty.
She is interviewed by a Japanese TV crew while I spend a long time talking with a bald Canadian man named Todd who says he is a "thought-leader entrepreneur at the forefront of the meeting between business and education." Todd says it's good to move to Japan because you can get famous more quickly. For instance, he regularly plays ping-pong with the princess Masako, and attends her wine tastings.
At the post-opening dinner, I drink a bit too much sake and have to take a genteel vomit break. When I return from the bathroom, all red and shiny, Shiori is waiting with a knowing grin. She is seated near my crush Kazu, who looks like Heath Ledger and James Iha merged and then put on a ruffled blue blazer. I have been informed that he loves to get high and was waiting for signs of drug use, but it turns out he "doesn't need no drugs, just a trance music." Shiori is looking at him, then back at me, over and over.
"What?" I demand.
"You must go talk to Kazu to learn he is a PUHVERT. I think he's the gay, but he very nice guy. Go sit behind him to learn why he the PUHVERT."
"But I don't speak Japanese, so I don't know what he's saying. Is it about sex?"
"NO, NO!" She blushes. "He very nice guy. Go sit behind him. He the PUHVERT, though. At the clubs he go crazy. You think he's the gay?" I am thoroughly confused and ready to let this whole exchange slide. But outside, after dinner, Kazu motions me over to him.
Quietly, he speaks. "Late this week, we go to the club?"
"Sure" I say. "Are you going out tonight?"
"We cannot," he tells me. "You are wearing wrong shoes. So we will go Thursday together to the club."
"OK. Great." I smile.
Shiori hurries over. "Did he talk to you? Now you see how forward he is!" It is surreal to get into a taxicab with your slightly tipsy mother and look out the window to see fifteen smiling Japanese people in leatherette formalwear waving goodbye joyfully from a street corner. They all bow in unison, over and over, until you are out of view.
An American Werewolf in Japan
My mother wants to go for a drink with Shiori on the 57th floor of the Park Hyatt hotel, where Lost in Translation was filmed.
I really do like that movie, just as much as the next recently-teenaged girl, and I'm not sure why my mother using it as a constant reference point makes me so crazy. There are several Hyatts near this Hyatt and we spend almost an hour riding up and down the elevator of the wrong one, wandering the darkened halls of its conference center, before we realize our mistake.
When we finally arrive we enjoy an uncharacteristic martini, listening to the smooth sounds of the resident jazz band. "In the movie it's a band called Sausalito and Bill Murray sleeps with the woman. Remember?" mom asks.
That red-haired vixen isn't here tonight. It's a Vanessa Williams look-alike crooning Cole Porter. It's very interesting to hear Shiori discuss concepts such as "honor" "respectability" and "modesty." Her former colleague (a word she pronounces cawl-eee-gew) had an affair with Kazu, art handler crush, and it was a great dishonor, not only for that woman's husband but for everyone who knew either cheater.
Once Shiori was in a club chaperoning a visiting German artist and he kissed a Japanese girl who then fainted. I ask why and Shiori says "because he pulled all the energies from her."
Oodles of Noodles
Manga-artist Miyu giggles constantly, as if any question ("where this street is located?" or "what is that root vegetable called?") is the most embarrassing thing that has ever befallen her. She often knocks on nearby pieces of wood for luck. She has, I hear, published three books, two of which are bestsellers. She lives in a tiny cottage that once belonged to her now-hospitalized grandmother. She dresses like Daisy Buchanan and claims never to have googled herself. She has no idea how many books she has sold. She makes it all look so effortless.
Speaking of effort, I've stopped trying to imitate Japanese manners and now I consume "A Taste Of The Bread" right in the streets, cream on my face, ravenous. Eating in the street is considered very rude here, but I spotted a commuter munching a sandwich in the subway so the jig is up.
Too Much Hospitality
Sometimes, when you've been in Japan for ten days, you start to get a little funny. First, you'll stop noticing the preventive flu masks around you. A businessman will stand out in a crowd because of his Bon Jovi-esque haircut and not because he is wearing a mask over his face.
You will start bowing to people who hold open a door or sell you a honeydew yogurt or inform you that there are fish flakes on some crackers you're not sure you want. You will flash a peace sign and assume a pigeon toed stance whenever someone aims a camera at you.
You have adopted/adapted all these traits, yet you're also low-grade tired all the time. From trying to avoid beef broth. From making sure to remember that L's sound like R's and vice versa. From the outrageously reliable Japanese friends you have made — they are always early and always offering to pick things up for you at the convenience store and always buying you sweet treats that you claim not to want, but that they know you will eat because you're an American with as many stomachs as a cow. It's enough to make you miss the enervated flakes you surround yourself with in New York City.
No One Can Take A Joke
I spend the afternoon with Nanako, a teeny art critic in a deconstructed blazer and Harry Potter glasses. I'm stunned by this culture of hospitality —everyone we meet offers a tour, some tea, a red bean cake — so I jokingly tell Nanako that if my life in the US doesn't deliver I will just move to Tokyo and act on Japanese soap operas. Todd the Canadian thought-leader says everything is easier here. But Nanako is stern. "You'll never get respect that way, or long term satisfaction."
They Might Be Giants
I go to Harajuku Street hoping to spot G. Stefani's muses but am informed that the look is out of fashion. What's cool now is dressing like a secretary — cardigans, pearls, practical pumps. At Uniqlo they don't sell jeans in a size bigger than 27. There's a boutique with a window-full of baby-colored mini-dresses. They'd make nice pillows in the Real World Malibu Barbie house, but they won't suit me. The salesgirl doesn't agree and insists I try on three.
None fit because I am not a Japanese woman and my stomach(s) need some room. I am developing a rash, sweating, can't bear to explain myself so I buy a silver mesh tank top with bells on it. The armholes are far too tight. Returning to the hotel, grumpy and huge, I yell at my mother when she makes the Lost in Translation reference that breaks the camel's back.
Are You There, God? I'm In Tokyo
I'm going to a club with Kazu. What do I wear? How do I dance? If he did kiss me, which he won't (will he!?) then would he want to use tongues? I haven't seen a single dog here, and the streets are so shiny and clean. People have different house slippers designated for every room, so I really can't imagine the use of tongue. Germy. But this is also the country that spawned bukkake, tentacle-rape porn, and Sailor Moon.
I'm starting to understand my resistance to Lost In Translation references. Firstly, it sort of makes me feel like one of those women who visits New York and takes the Sex & The City bus tour. Secondly, as a filmmaker I like to believe that anything I do might be grist for some future movie-mill, but a twenty-something blondish girl wandering Tokyo is someone's private property.
What Happens in Rappongi Stays In Rappongi
We begin my final night at the opening of Tada, a hot commodity in contemporary Japanese ceramics. He's considered sort of an enfant terrible in the ceramics world, and he further cultivates this image by wearing a turban and pounds of silver rings.
"Tada is very sexy, no?" Shiori asks. "A cool kind of big deal artist!" She insists that we stand very near him and just sort of slump and smile.
Afterwards, we are guests at the seated-on-tatami mats dinner to celebrate Tada.
Kazu, is there, wearing a frilly collar that makes him look like a sad clown as re-imagined by Commes Des Garcons. But his body is so long and sinewy, and his ponytail so well done, that I take it in stride. Although neither of us smokes, my mother and I bum cigarettes off a table-mate and someone calls us "naughty women."
Tada and I speak a bit with the aid of a translator (a giggling red-faced Shiori). Outside, it's pouring rain. We are all handed clear plastic umbrellas, and it's beautiful when everyone stands together and chats and there is this sort of anti-rain ceiling covered in droplets and illuminated by Tokyo's myriad neon signs. I tell my mother that if I were to make a film set in Tokyo, I'd want to capture this clear-umbrella phenomenon, but guess who already committed this savvy detail to celluloid? Sofia Coppola, that's who.
Kazu announces it's time to hit the clubs, so I bid mom farewell and wander through the wet streets with Yasu, a disarmingly chatty guy with Buddy Holly glasses and a messy bun. Tada rolls deep with a bad-ass ceramicist dude-crew, and Yasu is the standout. He is wearing a raging bull t-shirt and attended an American University as an exchange student, where he "majored in smoking." He tells me all about his wife, who is at home because she's eight months pregnant.
We arrive at Club UNIT, the pulsing crowd full of Japanese hipsters in suspenders and fedoras. The DJ's are German youth who have clearly moved to Tokyo to be worshipped as gods of fun and style.
Their plan is working. Club-goers bum rush the booth, fighting to get near. The DJs, in turn, take digital photos of their disciples. Kazu and Tada insist on buying me drinks and, more unexpectedly, carrying my purse.
When I protest, they tell Shiori to tell me that "We will show you how a Japanese man is. You are a princess." They think I am a loose girl from the land that birthed reality TV and Cheetos. Shiori says Kazu has a "thing" where he only "has the sex with girls who have never had the sex. He thinks any other way is dirty."
Tada asks my age. I say "23, last week." He's excited. "HOPPY BIRSDAY!"
Suddenly I am faced with a huge bottle of Dom Perignon and a bald man who just keeps pouring it while Tada yells "HOPPY BIRSDAY," again and again. He hands me a pewter mini-vase of his own creation and says "my gift of you." New Order comes on. I let my hair down and dance. Kazu lets his hair down too and tries to waltz. I roll with it. He delivers a long monologue to Shiori, who looks at me and laughs. "What!?" I demand. "He says you are sexy." I'm flattered, considering I'm roughly the size of ninety-one Shioris lined up in a row. S. Coppola really did nail the phenomenon of a Japanese utterance that sounds like an epic and translates into nothing more than a sentence fragment. Recall the scene of Bill Murray being screamed at for minutes by a rockstar director, who has really just asked him to tilt his head slightly.
Now it's time to head to the bar. "A special bar" Shiori says. "A bar for the sadistics." We take a cab to "Fetish Bar." As fetish bars go, this one seems pretty weak. It's about the size of Puffy's Tavern, the bar down the block from me in Manhattan that sees fifteen customers on a good night. Cocktail waitresses wear leather thongs and carry dinky, sub-par whips. One of them is very fat, an oddity in Japan. A sort of big pun den mother, I hear her demand that an ornery client "shut a fuck up." Tada immediately asks that I put on one of the sexy outfits hanging by our banquette. I demur for almost an hour. Shiori sets in. "Why not? This will be the fun. Just a nurse one." I say no. Again and again I say no. I watch Yasu get tied up and "whipped" by our cocktail waitress and I keep saying no.
I allow her to burn my arm with a candle, don't flinch, and I still say no.
"But you are such a sexual person," Yasu informs me. No.
"Can I kiss you?" he asks. "I will not tell my wife because I am my own man of pleasure." No.
"Do you think we're so fucked and inside of ourselves because we are Japanese? We cannot get loose?"
"I don't know," I say. This is making me sad.
So they keep asking about the vinyl nurse's uniform, and I keep drinking. And finally it's just, like, why not? This is the only part of my Tokyo experience Scarlett Johansson can't touch, and anyway, interesting people need to have stories like this.
Shiori and I step into the bathroom, where we stand with a middle-aged salary man wearing only shrunken trousers, his hairless chest covered in red wax. She zips the "dress" on and we emerge. A waitress shouts "KAWAII!" Tada says " LIKE BRITNEY SPEARS!" A random guy in a French maid's apron says, "You so sexy, RENA."
Yasu is awfully wasted and squeezes my butt cheek so hard under the table that I cry out in pain: "NO." For all this talk of honor, there is a surprisingly huge problem with unsolicited ass-grabbing in Tokyo. During rush hour they designate a ladies-only car on the subway.
Yasu goes to another part of the bar and allows the waitress to spread his ass cheeks open and pour hot wax inside.
When his penis comes out, he says "It's not so big — Japanese size! But it can get bigger. Sometime." I am ready to go home. At which point things suddenly get formal.
"It was honor," Tada says, bowing.
"Please you enjoyed Japan," Kazu says.
"Such a nice girl," Yasu slurs.
In the cab back to the hotel, I think that I am starring in a movie about a girl who has just experienced something foreign.