tomorrow 明日

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.


The Milkmaids of Osaka

She sat down at the bar and ordered a glass of milk. Her skin was ghostly pale and her lips were painted a berry red. She glanced in our direction and smiled, before turning back to her friend and giggling. I took a swig of my passoa and orange juice- reminiscent of teenage house party days- and wondered what had brought her here. I immediately asked myself the same question. I mean the music was good, the barman shared my love for Alt-J, Miyazaki animation and Japanese fiction, and yet it was a S&M bar. Neon pink curtains splattered with faded black polka dots blew gently in the dusky air, occasionally shielding the naked mannequins and their nipple tassels. If you ignored the giant papier mache penis painted a garish silver, you could almost believe you were just in a colourful, quirky bar as opposed to the stark sexual reality of it. The taps in the bathroom were male genitals. The bar had a basket of tenga eggs on one side. There was a shelf of naked barbies in provocative positions. And yet, I think it was the best night out we had on our travels.

The girl who ordered milk was celebrating her 21st birthday. Her friend chose the perfect moment to hand over her gift and the typical ‘oooohing’ and ‘aaaahing’ of the Japanese tongue flowed forth in exclamations of enthusiasm. I noticed the birthday girl’s friend staring intently at the giant, plastic male genitalia perched on the edge of the bar. The birthday girl gave her an encouraging look and she reached out to touch it. I laughed and looked away. When I looked back she was still clutching it tightly. For at least five minutes she didn’t put it down. The barman gave us all a shot of tequila and then they were gone. They left contented, their ice cubes a murky white from the remaining milk.

Pretty soon their spot was taken by a short man in a smart black suit. He ordered a glass of red wine from the bar girl with blue hair and the longest, most layered fake eyelashes I’ve ever seen. He seemed completely at ease and happily sat in silence. We continued to chat with the barman about music and the tiny guy next to me joined in. He used a translator on his phone to tell us that in Japan some people think Totoro is a symbol for the Grim Reaper. He asked us where our favourite place in Japan had been so far? Before I could get the word “Kyoto” out of my mouth, the barman screamed “OSAKA!!!!” and we all laughed and cheered. We ordered green tea liquor and the barman showed us photos of his 3 children dressed up in traditional Korean clothes. While his Korean wife read their children bedtime stories, he worked the late shift in the S&M bar he’d been running for more than 10 years.

We continued to sit there despite our looming tiredness and the inevitable sinking feeling that comes from knowing you will leave a special place the next morning. I felt like we’d known this small crowd of eccentric characters forever. We fitted in. From the outside this bar looked like the kind of place that only strange loners would frequent, but actually everyone there was just a normal human being enjoying a night cap, whilst discussing art, music and travel. There was nothing more to it. They didn’t ask us why we were there and we didn’t question their motives either. No judgements. We were all at peace in this kooky place.

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Dear Japan

Let me just begin by saying what a promiscuous little madam my heart is. She lays herself bare for any country to snatch up into its dreamy claws and ravish her until she can’t bring herself to leave. Show her your charm, your beauty, your quirks and she’s yours forever. It’s a constant battle as she has ongoing affairs with numerous countries, especially South Africa and Taiwan. Occasionally she opens herself up to China and Hong Kong, and now Japan has been hopelessly thrown into the mix too, and well, what’s a heart to do?

Dear Japan,

Oh, you got me good. I’m yours. I have absolutely no idea why we didn’t meet earlier. I’m guessing the universe knew that I’d fall head over heels for you at first sight, and well that wouldn’t really be fair on the rest of the world, would it now? Usually it takes at least a few hours, or even a couple of days before I declare my love for a new country, but with you it was the moment my toes touched your perfectly-clean streets and my nose inhaled that sweet smell of jasmine that emanates around your streets of Kyoto, mingling with the cinnamon incense that swirls up into your ocean of a sky. I felt light and was washed along in a continual spiral of excitement and awe as the days drifted by.

Your people are so good Japan. At first I was surprised by how polite and attentive everyone was, this isn’t something I am used to. Pretty soon though, it felt natural. Why are we not all like this? I like bowing. I like using both hands to give and receive objects. I like making eye contact and smiling sincerely. I like being in a place where everyone seems to be completely selfless. Everything works like clockwork and everyone oozes calm. People still read real books when they are commuting, even if they can only use one hand to turn the page because they’re squashed up against the door, noses stuck to the glass of the subway. In Tokyo rush hour, no-one stood on my feet, no-one shoved me. Everything just flowed.

And your food. Don’t even get me started! The epitome of exquisite. Every bite of fish, each sip of miso soup, each gulp of sake and hot plum wine left me giddy with joy. I ate and ate but I never felt horribly full. Your food is designed to live a healthy lifestyle, isn’t it? Ah, and your matcha, that green goodness. I’ve been trying to master the art of brewing the perfect bowl ever since my return home, but alas, it seems I will have to come back to your shores one day to learn from a real matcha legend.

Quakes of the earth aside, is there any reason why we wouldn’t all want to live on your land? You have the most dignified toilets on the planet, the fastest trains that can transport you from the temples of Kyoto to the glittering streets of Tokyo in a flash, the quirkiest quirks of any place I’ve ever been, beautiful mountains and ocean and all four seasons in all their delicate forms.

Golden leaves drizzled the banks of your canals and I can only hope that one day soon I can walk amongst your showering of cherry blossoms fluttering towards the earth. I imagine a mug of warm sake on a snowy, winter’s day would also be a real treat.

I already feel guilty for not taking more photos to capture the real you, for barely scribbling a daily haiku or jotting down my thoughts on your culture. I didn’t read even 1 page of my book. I forgot I packed 6 films, along with 2 of my analogue cameras. I didn’t want to miss anything that you presented me with. Not the two old men wearing matching hats and suits meditating in the deer park, nor the giggling girls in mini skirts high on life in Shinjuku; I didn’t want to miss any of those moments. I can really understand now why my favourite writers are Japanese or foreigners who experienced expat life in Japan. Every corner of every street is a palette of inspiration. I created so many short stories in my head while walking your streets. Everything in your world is so full of life, whether it be a vibrant life or a zen life. And these polar opposites work alongside each other in perfect harmony. The gritty sex bar perched above a tea house. A Geisha buying milk from a vending machine. A monk on a bullet train. All of it fits. Your society works. As someone ‘passing through’, it’s easy. Aided with only a few basic phrases I was worried I’d feel completely ‘lost in translation’ but with the help and guidance of your people there were no glitches on my journey.

Japan, I will say sayonara for now, but I will be back. I merely scratched at your impressive surface and my curiosity and my heart need more. I’ll continue to attempt to master the matcha every morning. I like the idea of that little ritual. And I would like to get creative with some bento boxes. Somehow the routine of nibbling on little bits of food turns lunch into an entirely new experience. I like that. And of course I didn’t bump into Murakami this time so I’ll have to search a little deeper when I visit again. Keep being your lovely self Japan!