It was the same old story every time. Mum would put me to bed and we would watch the clock, waiting for Dad’s call. It never came. I would usually fall asleep to the sound of Mum’s tears that ran in time with the changing traffic lights outside my bedroom window. Mum would tiptoe back to the living room and I’d be left there, clutching my cat-bear, not understanding anything.
In the little hours, through the crack in my door, light filtered through as Dad stumbled into the hall. On good days he’d glance into my room and whisper goodnight. Mostly though, Mum and him threw words back and forth and in the morning he’d always be gone before the crack of dawn. They always argued about ‘Golden Gai’. One afternoon after school I decided to ask Mum what ‘Golden Gai’ is. I imagined it to be some kind of spiritual play house for grown-ups. Later, in my teenage years, I learnt I wasn’t far off, aside from the spiritual part. Despite the tension that had grown to an unnatural high in our house, Dad continued to frequent this play house for grown-ups throughout my entire adolescence. I assumed he went there with his colleagues to blow off some steam, to shake off the shackles that office politics can bind you into.
He went there for the women. All the women in all their different forms. Prostitution was rife in the Golden Gai quarters and my Dad was more than well-known in those alleyways. This isn’t something that Mum told me over a bowl of miso soup. Dad didn’t confide in me during our Sunday walks in the park. I discovered this from a stranger on a rainy night in 2004. I was in my 2nd year of art school and exams were looming. My best friend Yuko suggested we head to Shinjuku to eat some BBQ. As soon as I stepped out into the drizzle, I knew she’d cancel. Yuko has incredible hair and the smallest sign of moisture in the air leaves her glued to her Korean TV shows for days. You can’t mess with Yuko and her hair. Regardless, I didn’t feel like staying holed up in my dorm. I didn’t fancy sitting in a rowdy BBQ bar by myself either though, so I decided to take a walk in the direction of the love hotels. I’d only been here once before, a year earlier, when I had my first encounter with a man. OK, a boy. His name was Satoru and he was in my art history class. We wound up there one summer’s night, the scent of whiskey leaking from our pores. We chose the cheapest hotel we could find and he left before I woke up. He never spoke to me after that night.
I spotted the 7/11 store where we had stopped to buy ‘essentials’ on that summer’s eve. I decided to turn right, I wasn’t ready to jaunt down memory lane quite yet. That’s when I noticed the gates of Golden Gai, bright red neon flashing in my face, luring me in. Maybe I could share a taxi home with Dad, I thought and laughed. The humiliation. I slipped through the gates almost knocking myself out on a nearby lantern. Voices and the tinkle of glasses spilled out into the small lanes. Couples were everywhere. Men in sleek, black suits and women in the opposite of kimonos. Legs bare, red toes poking out from stilettos too small even for a child. Tight black skirts and see-through shirts. I suddenly checked myself in the steamed-up window opposite. I had on my olive-green poncho and a pair of washed-out jeans. I never wore lipstick and I wasn’t about to start. Whatever, I kept walking. Bars lined the tiny streets, piled on top of one another, doors perched open giving prospective patrons the chance to select the place best suited to their tastes. One moment jazz filled the air, the next minute blues. I preferred post-rock. I walked into the darkest bar I could find and plopped myself down.There was no music, just the old barman and one other patron lurking in the shadows. They both looked up and then straight back down. I felt awkward. My bar stool squeaked and I dropped my umbrella on the floor. I ordered a scotch on the rocks and gulped it down. A light warmth spread to the tip of my nose and I smiled. The barman made some simple small talk with me but I could tell he couldn’t care less about discussing anything deeper. I thanked him and left some coins next to my melting ice.
I tried again. I walked back towards the jazz corner and decided to choose more carefully. One more drink and then I would take the last train back to campus. I noticed two bars overflowing with foreigners. Americans, probably. My English was severely limited and to be honest, I just didn’t feel like the effort tonight. Up ahead a beaded curtain enticed me forward. I peeked in and liked the look of the mosaic-tile bar. There were 5 stools and it was empty. Perfect. I shuffled in and took the stool at the end. It was broken and lurched me forward but I didn’t want to make a fuss, so I stayed put. The barman was busy changing the music, fiddling with discs below the bar. I waited patiently. He was wearing a hat and had a beard. This put me at ease. He stood up when I coughed and banged his head on the bar. He laughed and his eyes lit up. I smiled and laughed with him.
We talked about the rain. My hair was wet and he fixed me a hot cup of sake to warm me up. I’d made a good choice. We cheers’d and I looked around. These little bars were so intimate. I felt like I was sitting in this man’s living room, just the two of us, and yet, five minutes before he was a total stranger. The small, cosy space pushed you together and forced you to interact. I didn’t mind though. This man seemed nice. He smiled with his eyes and he seemed genuinely interested in my art studies. He waved a hand around his bar and joked about buying some of my work to brighten the place up a bit. At least, I thought he was joking. I blushed. He fixed me another cup of sake, this time making himself one too. He sat down and said it had been a quiet night. He took his hat off and ruffled his greying hair. He had small curls and bushy brows that wiggled when he laughed. I guessed he was in his mid 30s. I was 21. When I thought about this I looked at the clock and told myself one more drink, then I must go. He caught me glancing at the time and told me not to worry, he only closes at 3am.
I missed the last train. We talked all night and he walked around the neighbourhood with me until the first trains started. We sat on a bench near the love hotels and watched as guilty-looking men snuck out of back exits, adjusting their ties and smoothing down their hair. We made up stories about these random people and their lives- what had brought them to this part of the city and what they did for a living. I felt older with him. He treated me like a woman and listened to what I said. He made jokes and I felt like I was laughing, really laughing for the first time. Who was this man?
He told me about himself. Where he’d grown up and how long he’d been running his bar for. He had met so many different people, from all around the world and in comparison I felt so sheltered. I’d been to Nagoya once on a school trip, but otherwise I rarely left the stomping grounds of Tokyo. I needed to get out more. With the first glimpse of morning, I felt like I’d been all across Japan and back. This man had stories. I didn’t want them to end. But I had class a mere four hours later and he had to get home before another long night shift.
He asked for my full-name and I scribbled it down onto the receipt from our breakfast noodles. I wrote my number too and he winked at me affectionately. As I walked away, he called out to me, “Ayame Hayashi, I don’t suppose you’re related to Yori Hayashi are you?”
That would be my Dad. The following day he still called me.