We found ourselves on a very rainy Tuesday, drunk in the depths of fluorescent lit and vice fueled Shinjuku district of Tokyo. We were coming off the high of a spectacular show at Robot Restaurant, recommended by none other than Sir Tony himself.
The 200 microbars of Golden Gai were as enigmatic as they were enticing. A cultural booze propelled Russian Roulette for kankoukyaku (tourists) like us. Microbars seat between three and six customers at a time, and are notorious for giving the locals-only-stink-eye that sharply implies “get the fuck out.” So undoubtedly, we were nervous, and eager to choose correctly. If selected wisely, the microbars could unveil a truly unique experience of the Tokyo underground.
Our boozey brains took us down three of the six alleyways, cutting between buildings and watching from beneath our umbrellas as Japanese salarymen and young hipsters alike slid between sliding doors and blacked out basement portals. A glimpse of flashing lights. Screams of drunken karaoke. Puffs of Seven Stars cigarette smoke. Finally, a barely noticeable black sign with the words “Ghetto Suntory” carved in gold caught our attention. The hymn of angels sang out to us immediately and we stumbled up the narrow staircase to the second floor bar.
We were welcomed with “konnichiwa” and the next thing I remember I was cracking up with a sweet Japanese girl, my arm around her shoulder, taking pictures of a Japanese 20-something trying on S’s new tweed jacket, and ogling at our friend J’s Japanese language conversation with the salaryman in the corner. They were exchanging business cards. The microbar was at full capacity with laughter, smoke, beers, selfies, and barely-comprehensible-Japanese-phrases.
This city of the future is far from being another Singapore. Japanese culture is one of the strongest I’ve encountered and its presence in every day life is extraordinary. By day you see thousand-year old temples and learn about the traditional rock gardens, tatami floors, samurais, and the powerful culture of honor that has compelled the people of Japan throughout history. Ancient tradition is respected and continues to flourish— it’s common to see Japanese women dressed in traditional Geisha costume.
And then there is Japan by night, where the line between anime and reality are blurred so dramatically that it is hard to tell if you are dreaming or just really drunk. Japanese girls prance around in extravagant outfits sporting all sorts of “kei” or styles ranging rom “dolly kei” to “ cult party kei.” My impression is that most are trying to replicate the look of Little Bo Peep as accurately as possible.
Technology is integrated into your most basic everyday activities. Artfully made food can be purchased from a vending machine at any hour of the night. In fact, a vending machine ordering system is a prerequisite for superior ramen. When your Kirin beers start to catch up with you, treat yourself to the Japanese toilet experience, complete with a heated seat and automatic flushing sounds upon sitting for your “noise privacy.”
Nowhere else in the world do you see the seamless blend of ancient cultural tradition and ritual, stand with such boldness next to the 21st century futuristic technology and wacky fetish culture. Japan is a place of effortless peace, die heartedly dedicated people, and an impenetrable curiosity for the peculiar.