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Gaijin on the Road
By Paul Peczon
Japan is fucking expensive. Try eight bucks for a fresh cup of coffee at a nice cafe, and six bucks for starters the second you get into a cab. Blinking sadly in the street at nine story nightclubs with forty five dollar covers, I felt like a Mexican with a pocket full of pesos looking for an affordable pair of pants at Bullocks. Three hundred bucks doesn't get you very far when some of the covers are a hundred and beers are going to start at maybe eight bucks.
Actually, the first thing that really screwed me up about Japan was the fact that they drive on the left side of the road, not that I did a lot of driving. I kept on trying to get into the wrong side of cars, and always got freaked out when we took turns onto the wrong side of the street. But the fun part was trying to cross the street and looking for cars the wrong way. You know, you expect the cars to be coming from the left on your side of the street, you step off the curb, and look right for cars coming on the other side of the street. But you just got it backwards. Japanese drivers know who's got the right of way and don't expect pedestrians to jaywalk. Kevin almost got run over that way a couple of times.
We knew just enough Japanese to be polite. Sometimes during our trip we were with Japanese friends who spoke a little English, and sometimes we weren't. I always had a million questions, which generally went unanswered when a native translator wasn't around. Unfortunately, when they were around, their answers to my questions sometimes made things more confusing.
For example, try this puzzle. Rent in and around Tokyo is more expensive than New York City. A parking spot costs around four c-notes a month. The average Japanese salary pays just about as much as the same job in the US. Most things cost about twice as much as they do back in the US of A, and some things cost a lot more. But somehow Japanese people save a lot of money, and buy a new car every three or four years. The answer, I think, is that taxes are low, the employment rate is high, and salarymen get big bonuses twice a year. I like this two huge bonus concept.
The only things that I could figure out that cost the same in Japan are combination sushi lunches, CDs, new cars, and motorcycles. Used vehicles are dirt cheap. Japanese people like to get a new ride fairly often, and most rigs over four years old either get junked or exported. I know about this because I'm involved in the import/export thing, and we were here for the Classic and Custom Motorcycle Fair in Tokyo. We export classic Kawasakis, Harleys, Ducatis, and Triumphs, mostly, to Japan, and were on a mission to investigate buying up slightly used two stroke racebikes to import to the US.
When you buy a car in Japan, you have to prove that you have a parking space, which we already know is expensive. Motorcycle parking is free. You can drive between the lanes and stop at a special stop line eight feet in front of the cars at traffic signals. Then there's the stylish wheelie, and you're off.
Unfortunately, there's some kind of problem which makes it impossible to rent motorcycles, so Kev and I took the subway on our days off. Like everything else in Japan, the trains are neat, clean, and efficient. You pick out your fare off the confusing map overhead, and buy a little ticket from the bank of machines built into the walls. Hopping over the little plastic gate of the ticket machine would be extremely easy. The whole thing actually runs mostly on the honor system, like a lot of things in Japan. The little straps that hang off the overhead rails are thin vinyl, designed to keep you from falling over when the train is too packed for decent footing. The little straps are designed with efficiency in mind, not vandals, idiots, and lawsuits. A lot of things about the whole place are like that.
The whole place struck me as being more efficient, more homogeneous, like a colony. I kept thinking of The Neuromancer and Blade Runner. Japanese work hard, long hours (like 'til midnight) and make all kinds of neat stuff. We went to this area called Akihabara, famous for it's electronics, where we saw the hardware of the future. Unbelievably high definition televisions with doublewide screens in every store. Beepers about as big as four credit cards stacked together, and cellular phones about as big as a pack of cigarettes. But the really neat thing was the mazes full of tiny electrical component kiosks. One guy had all kinds of old fashioned vacuum tubes, and another guy had hundreds of microswitches. You can buy circuit boards, microchips, and boatloads of little electric Jah that I don't even know what to call. The scary thing is that thousands of Japanese people go to Akihabara, buy little baggies full of stuff, and then go home to make who knows what. For God's sake, they can already buy just about anything electronic. Most Americans can't figure out how to program their VCRs. Maybe we're in trouble.
But then again, maybe not. Maybe we have more fun. I can't imagine Japanese college students having huge keg parties at off campus apartments the way I did for many of my funner years. We did not find an underground honeycomb of live band bars and not-so secret rave parties like you do in other cold cities like Chicago and Boston. There must be something going on somewhere, but to the best of our knowledge, the nightclub scene sucked. When we were with people we knew, we generally had long, late, drunken dinners. Nights cruising the bars were generally conducted unescorted. Two foreign guys checking out the nightlife. Adventures for boys, that kind of thing.
Rappongi and Shinjuku are the two major Tokyo nightclub districts we hit. Multi story bars highlighted by neon and huge panels of flat screen television. High definition advertising larger, brighter and louder than real life. Streaming under the bright lights, thousands of people are out to spend money. Ten o'clock on a Wednesday night and people are pouring out of the subway in a blur of sharp wool winter outfits. We checked our gear into one of the handy coin-op lockers in the sparkling clean underground mall of the train station, and hit the streets.
In January, Tokyo is butt cold. Maybe it isn't sub zero, but when the winds hits, it sure feels like it. All the different kinds of places are jammed side by side. Pachinko bars and casinos next to nice restaurants, Kabuki theaters, and strip bars with hundred dollar covers. Lots of live girlie shows, and video peeps, where you get to pick out your own video and jack off in a private viewing booth. To the best of our knowledge, this fine service cost between twenty and forty bucks for half an hour. There's this deal called a "sitting bar," I think, where you pay between thirty five and eighty dollars. For half an hour. You get to sit next to girls, who I assume are hookers that you can subsequently take out to the closest love hotel. There is also telephone one on one sex where you can actually see the girl. We weren't interested in this either, but thinking back I wish we'd peeked into one of these places just to see what it looked like. I keep imagining little pairs of phone booths. Speaking of booths, the latest thing is box karaoke, where the singer sings inside a little box, so that he or she doesn't have to look at the rest of the crowd in the bar. It's a compromise between the two faces of Japan - quiet, hardworking and polite by day, and obstreperously loud sexual deviant by night.
We weren't too successful in finding good nightlife on our own. Shinjuku had a lot of clubs which weren't interested in gaijin (non-Japanese) customers, and nobody could understand what we were talking about when we asked for rock and roll clubs. There were lots of pretty girls everywhere, but I'm pretty sure they were mostly club hostesses. Japanese girls all have beautiful legs, and the girls all over Shinjuku were wearing knee high boots, miniskirts, and fur coats. After staggering around in the bitter cold for awhile, we found a disco. GB Rabbits had a million dollar dance floor, with lotsa lights and nice furniture. For thirty bucks we watched six girls doing this weird hand-thing dance. It looked like a cross between aerobics, pathetic hula, and Vogueing. After an hour, we got our hands stamped (bars of the world know this one), and split for awhile. A couple of hours later, it looked like maybe fifteen people had hit GB Rabbits. We determined that the scene was beat, and left for good. Two of the chicks that had been dancing were in the elevator. They thought that they were some hot stuff, but a bad attitude makes any girl ugly. We blatantly discussed this in the elevator right in front of them. If you are gaijin you can talk out loud about anybody, knowing full well that nobody can understand you. Lots of Japanese can read English, but not many can understand it when you talk at full speed.
Theres a lot of signs that say something in English, and lots of it on product packaging. It's mostly for advertising, and some of it is like advertising greeking. Greeking is the nonsense text ad agencies put on their mockup print ads before the copy is written. Hello Kitty meets "Sexy Voice." Some, but not a lot of the street signs have English on them. The air is pierced by noise devices on the ubiquitous (and very handy) vending machines, speakers from bars, music from the stores, and street hawkers for clubs. Cyndi Lauper and Bon Jovi are surprisingly popular there, but most of the music is home grown, from Rap to Japanese versions of Crystal Gayle. The Japanese are very fond of what I call Jazz Fuzak. There was one song from a band called Mad Capsule Markets that sounded like the Sex Pistols met Motley Crue and did a Guns and Roses cover that was actually kinda catchy.
Actually, we stumbled by complete luck into a fun night in Rappongi. We were looking for someplace to get a bite and maybe some sake when we heard laughing behind a door with a sign on it. It turned out to be a private club for members only, and that night the members were glad to have some visitors. It was a little tiny bar, and the hostesses were not of the "for rent" type. They sat down with us, and acted like they were hostesses at a little post dinner party. The businessmen there were bombed, and pretty funny. They tried their English out on us. I cracked them up with my correct pronunciation of McDonalds, which is Macudonaldo. Ice cream is iso cureemo. There are hundreds of private clubs in Tokyo, and this one was filled with funny people who got us drinking and tricked us into singing karaoke.
On one day off we were directed to this place called Harajuku, which I suppose is the Japanese version of the Melrose area. It's the young hipster part of town, full of music stores and American rock and roll type clothes. Yes, we did see a pair of old Levis for sale for $3000, but in all honesty, they were extremely old, like maybe pre-WW I vintage. Most of the used jeans we saw were like $60, and I guess they greatly prefer old jeans without holes that are legitimately old. So much for liquidating my numerous pairs of ratted out jeans. The old flannel shirts were about the same price as they are in American trendy grunge stores, and old leather jackets were actually a little cheaper than they are in Melrose.
We still didn't buy anything except bikes since Kev and I are motorcycle people first and foremost. Motorcycle guys only need a few certain pieces of basic gear, a bike, tools and a garage. Drop forged steel, leather and trick alloy bike parts last a long, long time if you take care of them. All of a true biker's discretionary income is spent on food, gas, and bike stuff. That and yuks.
For yuks the local bikers like to get together all night long to hang out between runs on the highway. One night some local moto-journalists named Ted and Sato took us out to a large rest stop on the highway by the Yokohama Bay Bridge in some place called Daisankeihin Hodogaya. It was easily below O degrees Centigrade, but there were still about three or four hundred bikes there. Harley guys and squid suicide sportbike riders get along in Japan. Likewise, bikers get along with guys who drive cutting edge sports cars. They race for yuks on the twisting highway at Wide Fucking Open.
Everyone knows approximately how fast every machine will go, and the consensus among the folks we met was that the fastest thing on the streets of Japan is in fact a car. Nissan makes this one car called the Skyline that apparently makes the 300ZX turbo look slow. 200 legitimate miles per hour, but fully usable in the real world, unlike the F40 or 959 which are among the few cars that can also make this claim. A few modified bikes can do it, too, but anything over 170 gets hairy after awhile on a bike. For everyone else, the finer points of what is faster is decided by the sporting young biker crowd on a nightly basis. There's nothing like it in the US anymore. The night biking scene of Tokyo is more like the 50's cafe racer scene in England.
I have to admit that I honestly don't understand how much of Japan works after spending a couple of weeks there, but in the end, I have to say that I liked Tokyo as much as any of the other top cities I've been to. Manila has better bars, and LA has better beaches. Austin has good music going on, and Tokyo has a better motorcycling scene than even San Francisco. The girls all have such pretty legs, and the food was the best I've ever had, although I still haven't been to Italy. Actually, I hear that the market for classic sixties and seventies streetbikes is soft in Italy lately...©1995
My Friend Greg Riley also went to Japan, but not Tokyo and here's what he had to say.
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Created by Paul Peczon