When I took my trip to Japan in late December, I had no idea what would happen next. All I knew was that despite other people in China trying to discourage me from going, I had to do it or I’d never feel satisfied.
I landed in Haneda airport the early morning of the 30th. A quietness filled the air. Various men in suits could be found sleeping next to open containers of beer; some homeless, others exhausted businessmen stuck waiting until the metro opened. The first thing I noted about going to the bathroom were the toilets; all equipped with warming seats, bum washers, and other buttons I didn’t know how to operate. Two women standing at the sink counter next to me held a conversation in Mandarin. That’s when I realized that despite my lack of Japanese ability, hanging out in China for two years would prove incredibly useful in Japan.
I arrived at Iribashi Hostel near Shinjuku around 8 in the morning. The front desk informed me that check-in time was at 4 p.m. So, I dropped off my luggage and tried to find a way to occupy myself for several hours. Upon walking outside, I noticed that all of the shops were closed and the streets empty for blocks. Only 7/11 was open. Unlike the 7/11 in China, where absolutely nothing tastes like the junk food back home, this one had corn dogs and cheese popcorn which I eagerly devoured back at the hostel. I had genuinely missed real American-tasting junk food so much that my first two days were spent scouring the city, munching on the likes of Denny’s, Cinnabon, and convenience-store corn dogs. By day three, my body wanted to kill me. I decided it was time to taste some real Japanese food. After all, what kind of loser spends their foreign holiday eating the same crap they can get in their own country?
The Iribashi hostel had an unwelcoming atmosphere. It wasn’t like other hostels in large cities. The staff were uninformative and a bit rude, the beds were expensive, and it felt impossible to meet other solo travelers. Fortunately, I met Greg*, a friendly German guy, while sitting in the lobby and he taught me how to order a traditional Japanese breakfast from the hostel for 500 yen.
That same day, we decided to explore the city together. At Akihabara, we walked around a bunch of electronics shops. I’ve never been a DBZ fan, but it was cool to get a dragon ball from one of the machines. In the comic store, there was only one other girl and it sort of confirmed just how large of a role gender still plays in Japanese society.
Then we went to a sex shop. At first, I wanted to buy a dirty manga but found it hard to justify blowing 1500 yen on such a thing. The dildos were everything you’d expect; all colors, shapes, sizes, price ranges, and models. Every floor had dildos, including the 4th floor, which we found out rather embarrassingly is off-limits to women after being accosted by a flustered clerk. Eventually, I settled on a pair of black cat ears, clipped them to my braids and continued walking around Akihabara.
That night, Greg invited me to a local New Year’s Eve celebration at another hostel. We went with two locals, a Singaporean, and a Korean guy. There were food vendors everywhere, a large temple crowded by tourists, and musicians playing in the streets.
As we walked, the Korean guy spoke to me in perfect English. “Can you speak Japanese?”
I shook my head and told him I’d studied in college but gave up on it after almost failing the class twice. He told me all about how he watched Japanese language videos on YouTube.
“The food is better in Korea, though,” he said.
Then he disappeared from the group for twenty minutes.
The Singaporean girl, Rina*, carried on with Greg about law school and Asian society.
We’d roamed to the middle of some crowded street when I began to hear the countdown:
10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2…
The day after, Greg and I went out for sushi. For both us, eating sushi in Tokyo was a life-long aspiration. He talked about his work in law school and how he’d make it his mission to settle in Japan. I was considering the same thing.
“What are you gonna do when you get older and you can’t work in clubs anymore?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied, “I don’t want to think about it. It scares me.”
I’m a creative soul in a world that’s working very hard to make us obsolete. I’m not gifted in math or science. I haven’t got anyone in my family who could help me pay for the cost of going back to school and after how hard it was to get through my Bachelor’s program with crippling depression and no meds the first time, I’d rather not do it again. At 26 years old, I know what I can do and what I can’t. I’m a storyteller and I’ll need to work damn hard to figure out how to make a living doing it before I get too old for my current job.
After sushi and beer, my German friend mentioned he was unaccustomed to drinking during the day. I informed him that everyone day-drinks in New York, but he insisted that I’m an alcoholic. I laughed it off as we walked towards the subway.
Later in the day, we went to Ueno Park. Swarms of gulls, crows, and other assorted birds gathered near a crowd of people throwing bread.
“Wow, Japanese people are so kind and in tune with nature,” I said.
He nodded as we stood there watching the birds, fluttering through the air and settling on peoples’ hands. A trust existed in this place between humans and the natural world in a way I hadn’t witnessed anywhere else on earth. A long-haired man with a pointed beard came to Greg, giving him several pieces of bread. The birds settled on him immediately. I snatched a few pieces and stood patiently with my hands out. No birds came. Perhaps, they could sense something unsettling within me. The residual energies hadn’t dissipated yet. I knew it wasn’t my time so I didn’t force it.
On our way home, Greg joked about finding a love hotel. You know, for the novelty of doing it in one while in Japan. I laughed until I realized he was serious. I just wanted to be friends. I felt insecure because he was younger and more successful than me. After a bit of drink, he kissed me in the elevator. I made an excuse about needing to do something, hurried back to my room, and laid down to stare at the ceiling for hours.
The next day he told me he’d be leaving for Kobe soon and we should probably go to a love hotel before he goes. I told him I just wanted to be friends. I didn’t want to be pressured into random sex on my vacation.
The day after he left, I couldn’t find anyone else in the hostel to hang out with. They’d all come in tight-knit groups, left early, and came back late. So, I decided to do some things by myself. First, I went to Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens.
After the gardens, I explored a music street and bought a harmonica.
Later, I went to a sauna with a girl I’d met in a hostel in Taipei. She’d been studying tea culture in Tokyo for years. Unfortunately, Japanese hot springs and saunas don’t allow people with tattoos to enter so we had to get creative with covering the three big ones on my upper back, outer thigh, and upper arm. We stopped at a pharmacy to buy large bandages and put them on in the bathroom.
Inside the hot spring, I’d never seen so many naked women in one place. Honestly, most of them looked fabulous. My friend and I made a quiet joke about a girl on the other side with huge, buoyant breasts that seemed to float in the water like life rafts. After the sauna, we went to the changing room where we met a Chinese family who chatted with us until we got to the metro station. I got to meet this cute mixed girl:
Because I’d been cheated out of my salary in China the month before, I needed to be careful with my money. This meant only buying a few small souvenirs, skipping Disney Land, and using a Chinese app to find guys to take me out for dinner some nights.
Enter the MoMo equation. I couldn’t afford to go out every day so some days were spent in my room texting guys on this app out of boredom. Eventually, I ran into a Japanese guy. I didn’t think much of it at the time. Due to Tokyo’s large Chinese population and it’s proximity to the mainland, many people in the city can speak and understand Mandarin. The end of my trip was near and I felt drawn to this guy. There was something about him that seemed quite special. I told him that I’d done everything I wanted to do in Tokyo. The only thing left was a night out in Roppongi.
That Saturday I stood nervously near the exit. My phone had no 4G so I needed to bum WiFi from a cafe nearby. I got a notification on Line. Looking up, I saw this tall, smiling, handsome Japanese guy.
“Wow,” he said.
I tried not to act flustered as I adrenaline-spat several sentences in Chinese. Then I realized his spoken Mandarin wasn’t quite as good as mine, but it was enough.
A Japanese guy and an American girl walk into a bar. They order drinks in English and speak to each other in Chinese.
We ordered several shots of vodka and talked about what a fucking stressful chaotic mess of a time we had working in China. I told him my dream of moving to Tokyo, showed him the harmonica I’d bought at a music store on Day 4, and some pictures of the food I missed cooking.
We decided one bar wasn’t enough so going to a dance club was the next mission. The first one wouldn’t let him in because of his shoes and their dress code policy. The second place let us in because the bouncer liked my hair. In the club, I got drunk as hell and introduced him to twerking. Then I puked.
Slightly hungover, we went to a pet shop to stare at over-priced cats and dogs, then we got sushi. While we sat down, a few strange glances came our way as some people wondered why a black girl and a Japanese man were speaking in Mandarin.
“My name is Akira,” he said.