Take the California roll. Please. Seaweed half a step above construction paper, stuffed with a fistful of rice, cucumbers and something tantalizingly called a “crab stick” probably isn’t what most Japanese order when they’re craving sushi. They can’t. A California roll does not exist in Japan unless there’s a California-centric restaurant somewhere in Nippon where all the staff squeal “hella” before every adjective. But the California roll may be one of the best examples we’ve got of Japanese culture refracted through an American lens. Apologies to Mr. Miyagi.
Every emigrating culture has its turn through their destination’s prism. The path ain’t straight and sometimes the results are messy. If Pizza Hut tried to set up shop in Naples they’d probably be chased out of town by ladle-wielding paisonos. There are always cries of inauthenticity between every bite of a Taco Bell burrito but really, even what people consider “authentic” most likely started out as a bastardization of whatever came before it.
But food aside, (wait, who wrote that?) there’s something interesting about what Japan did to Christmas. I was there in December yet not for a second did I expect to see images of slightly Asiatic (yet just as jolly) Santas. Trees on the streets of Tokyo and Osaka were strung up with Christmas lights; bright ones, blinking ones. Stores and shopping malls proudly proclaimed Christmas sales and implored everyone that walked by to have either a “Merry Christmas,” or a “Happy Merry Christmas.” Sometimes a “Happy Happy Christmas.”
Japan amplified the holidays. The cities bled bright red. Christmas music broke through the normal department store commotion. All the usual standards were played but sang by Japanese singers in English. These weren’t creative covers but painfully strict interpretations of the originals. “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” never sounded so solemn and joyless. “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” had all the warmth of a tornado warning.
With the exception of the occasional outdoor church display, Christmas was generally spelled with an ‘X’. No mangers, no baby Jesus. The honesty was refreshing and the true spirit of Christmas — unbeatable deals — was never impeded by silliness such as loving your fellow man. It was just naked commercialism in swaddling, yet fashionable, clothes. But unlike the collective guilt about such things in the States, nobody in Japan seemed to mind. Christmas was merely an occasion to be festive about something; an excuse to badly decorate.
My brothers and I didn’t need tinsel to get a little festive ourselves. As annoying as that cliché is about working hard and playing hard, Tokyo may be a living, stumbling embodiment of it. Large groups of salary men don’t even bother changing out of their cheap suits before getting over-sauced. They knock back beer and highballs, a whiskey and club soda potion I grew to love, at a pretty mesmerizing clip. There was something endearing about two suits holding up one of their fallen comrades, white shirts un-tucked, as he threw up in a bush.
In the movie Lost In Translation, Bill Murray spends a night being led around Tokyo’s bar scene by some Japanese friends of the nostalgically voluptuous Scarlett Johansson. They all rock-and-roll till the early AM and the later AM is predictably dreadful. While Scarlett was sadly absent, Dave and I were also led around by some of my brother Mike’s colleagues, specifically to an area called Golden Gai, nestled in hopping Shinjuku. ‘Gai’ is Japanese for ‘outside’ and Golden is English for ‘golden’.
One of my favorite areas in town, Golden Gai is a warren of ramshackle former whorehouses, now bars, built in the early to mid-part of the 20th century. Two and three-stories high, these rickety structures have absurdly steep staircases and barely enough room for a small handful of patrons, sometime as little as six at one time. They wouldn’t come close to passing an American building inspection and I can’t believe they would pass a Japanese one. Like a pimple on a prom queen, Golden Gai is an ugly dot beneath the glistening, vertical reminders of the Japanese economic miracle. In fact, bar owners and loyal customers guarded Golden Gai day and night when the bulldozers came to try and level the area during the booming 80s.
Walking down the Golden Gai’s tight alleys, makeshift signs jut out at you with names like Aces Bar and Flapper. Mike and his colleagues were big fans of Aces yet when we pushed open their flimsy door the five people who were inside looked right at us almost with a claustrophobic fear. They were crammed so close to the bar that they seemed to cohabit the bartender’s pants. His pants weren’t big enough for our group of seven so we moved on.
Nearby Bar Albatross could handle us. The bar was a dimly lit imagining of what Prince’s bathroom must look like. Garage sale chandeliers shone on purple, maroon and dark wood. We climbed — and it really was a climb — steps just narrow enough for the balls of our feet up to the second floor where we slid onto a narrow bench a little too short for the bar. The barman prepared highballs and our team sat on the bench, laughing and chatting with the nearest person we could crane our necks to see. In between our orders, the man behind the bar prepared drinks and handed them up to patrons on the floor not two feet above us.
After the Albatross, came Rocket Bar a comparatively spacious den of rock music and more highballs. The proprietor had a hell of a record collection and was spinning the Stones when we walked in and up. Our group had grown with the addition of more of Mike’s colleagues from all over the world. Everyone was in good spirits, lubricated by the same. We were cracking jokes and I got to hear a bunch of life stories flavored with accents and colors. It was that kind of group; easy friendships made friendlier by wit and whiskey. The whole scene was one of my favorite slivers of time spent in Japan.
Past midnight the group was reduced to a small male core refusing to let it all end. Someone suggested going to a club in very trendy Roppongi which seemed agreeable to the group. Not usually a clubber myself the many highballs I ingested convinced me to wave aside my reservations and go where the flow flowed. Besides, we were in a foreign culture, our home norms be damned! We piled into a too clean Japanese taxi and within fifteen minutes we ended up in Tokyo’s answer to Times Square.
The guys we were with, Mike included, knew where we were going. We came to a nondescript building just spitting out bass. Up some steps and we hit a crush of clubbers packed into a space that barely contained them. The music was loud and all of it sounded painfully familiar. By human osmosis we were squeezed toward the bar and we ordered a round of cheap whatever. We quickly became a bubble unto ourselves. My brothers and I huddled together for protection from the little ravers bouncing off of us and trying to cleave their way through us. Some of the guys in the group, the younger ones, wore smiles and held their drinks proudly like a conquering flag. I held on to mine like a homeowner does a bat when he hears an intruder. Every detail I can’t stand about nightclubs, which is all of them, threw themselves at me as hard as the five-foot Japanese girl who mistook me for a pillar.
As my internal organs shook like a rattle, I kept checking my phone wondering how long we needed to stay to maintain the ever-thinning veneer of etiquette. When the hundredth person lost their balance and fell into me I realized it was time to go. My brothers and I bid farewell and got out of there as if the place was on fire. Freedom couldn’t be sweeter as we headed toward the faint outline of a kabob skewer in the hazy distance.
The Japanese rendition of “Silent Night” may require some serious tweaking but their impression of a shitty American club was more than spot on. Some things translate perfectly.
WHAT: holiday cheer, lost in translation.
WHEN: December 6, 2013
WHERE: Tokyo, Japan