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No Translation Necessary: Tokyo In The Dark

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"Whiskey?" she asked. She grabbed my arm and started gently rubbing my pinky finger. 

For reasons I still have trouble understanding, my father took me on a trip to Japan when I was 15 years old. We went under the guise of a business trip, but after our fourth or fifth meal of delectable sushi, I understood that business was quickly being trumped by pleasure. It’s funny thinking about how calm and collected I was on the sixteen hour plane ride into Tokyo, considering even watching a flying scene on television makes my palms sweat nowadays. Upon our arrival, we were met by a burst of light and sound—enveloped by the simultaneous clash of cultures and striking familiarity of traffic and neon. 

Let’s get something straight about Japan: every stereotype you’ve heard in film and television is, um, true. There are vending machines fucking everywhere. The game shows are outlandish and ridiculous. The people are excruciatingly polite and well-mannered. If you’re an American, people will point and stare at you as if you were a hundred-foot-tall destructive green fire-breathing Mothra-hating prehistoric lizard. And there is porn. Oh my, is there porn. 

The porn situation in Japan is complicated and intriguing. Upon first glance, the general population seems to be somewhat asexual. It’s not common to openly talk about sex, yet you could walk into a regular department store and pick out a variety of pre-pubescent looking sex dolls. There are enormous condom stores on every side street and I’m sure everyone has heard about those vending machines that dole out “used schoolgirl panties” for only a few bucks. 

This odd microcosm of confusing sexual activity was a lot for my little 15-year-old brain to take in. After all, this was still during a time where porn was readily available in America, but it was still delivered at horrifically slow speeds. So one night, after a particularly exuberant lunch of shrimp and noodles, my dad and I decided to part ways and meet up at the hotel in a few hours.

Wandering around Tokyo at night was cathartic and invigorating. It was the first time a rural Connecticut boy such as myself had ever been exposed to city nightlife by my lonesome, mixed with the rush of being in a foreign place where the extent of my vocabulary came from the pages of take-out menus. I remember finding myself in Harajuku Square, the St. Marks of Japan, and focal point of Gwen Stefani’s short-lived solo career. I was surrounded by young Japanese punks sporting giant swastika shirts (which I later learned was merely a twisted ironic statement) and dolled-up girls with rainbow hair and combat boots, wrapped in Hello Kitty apparel. I was an aimless American abroad who felt like I could’ve been on the surface of the moon with my level of culture shock. 

I remember walking into a karaoke place and making friends with this skittish-looking younger guy in a beige fedora. He asked me if I was American and I said I was. His excitement bordered on unsettling and he asked me if I wanted to be a model. 

“A model?” I asked, “For, like…what?”

“Model! Model!” He said, pulling out his cell phone. On his screen were five or ten pictures of kids my age, shockingly wearing clothing, flashing peace signs. 

Well, he can’t be too bad, I thought to myself. After all, he wasn’t showing me kiddie porn on his little camera-phone. So, like the attention-starved 15-year-old ham that I was, I agreed to be this stranger’s child model. I flashed my best “punk face” as he instructed and let him take a picture of me. Him and I ended the night by singing a duet of Green Day’s “When I Come Around” and I left feeling an odd boost of confidence. 

Looking back, I realize that he could’ve easily photoshopped the picture onto any number of gay porn screenshots, fixed to a splayed nude body as I make my classic “punk face.” But also, looking back again, I’d probably do it again. 

My second favorite run-in with a prostitute happened as I crossed a street corner to go buy a soda at a store called AM/PM. A woman approached me and asked me, in extremely broken English, how my night was going.

“Good.” I said, fumbling my words. Again, at 15, this was like…the second woman who had ever spoken to me.

“Whiskey?” She asked. 

“What?” 

“Whiskey. Whiskey.”

I deduced that she wanted a whiskey and, furthermore, was asking if I wanted a whiskey. 

“Oh, um, no thank you.” I said, willing my face to lose its flushed dark red color. She grabbed my arm and started gently rubbing my pinky finger. 

“Let’s get whiskey.” She said, tightening her grip on my arm. 

“I’m only 15.” I said, “I don’t think I can, like, even drink here.” I remember looking into her face and being reminded of that scene from 1984 where Winston writes about a time he had slept with a prostitute three years prior. He’s going in for the kill, but makes the mistake of looking into her eyes. As he surveys her face, he realizes that this woman is far more older and haggard than he, but decides to have sex with her anyway. That flashed through my head and I looked at this woman. I remember wondering what was under her caked-on makeup and how she looked without her shimmery black business skirt. 

“I really can’t.” I said, as I unhooked her hand. I briskly walked away and got my soda, feeling relief, disgust, and curiosity course through my body. I had read about these women, I think they were even called “whiskey girls” or “whiskey women” or something. They would ask you for a drink, get you into a bar, proposition you for sex, and you’d spend all your money pumping away on a soiled mattress in one of those $20 an hour sex hotels. 

Oh, anyway, my first favorite run-in with a prostitute happened nine years later in a motel in Memphis. She was the size of an orca and clad in a leopard-skin dress. There was a guy next to her with a huge hat and I surmised, based purely on the hat, that he was her pimp. 

After that, I really needed a palate cleanser, so I walked back to my hotel and flipped on the television, where I was immediately met with a video of a woman getting “gang-raped” by four guys in a forest. 

I remember laughing out loud at the fact that rape-fantasies were so big in Japan, yet they weren’t allowed to show any up close shots of genitalia. I watched the blurred fantasy for a while, curious if pornography came standard with every room in Tokyo. 

My next stop took me into the subway and walked in an area of town I think was called Shibuya. I walked into the shiniest store on the block and found myself in, what I think, was the Japanese equivalent of Costco. I remember the walls of candy, barrels of soy sauce, and endless aisles of Hello Kitty bullshit souvenirs. I wandered upon an odd looking section of pink tubes and cocked my head in curiosity. 

I looked around and saw a number of uncomfortable-looking suit-clad men scrutinizing the tubes. I picked one up and inspected the product. 

“Stick your dick in me for excellent pleasure.” Ah yes, I thought to myself, it was a sex toy. I stepped back and took the time to analyze the section of the store I was in. I looked around and saw walls of condoms, sex dolls, porno videos, and lubes every color of the rainbow. Of course. 

I felt really thrown off at how accessible all this stuff was, considering I had never even seen a vagina anywhere outside of the Internet, let alone one made out of plushy realistic silicon. Naturally I bought one and walked down the street with my fingers stealthily hidden inside of it. I remember it was warm and vaguely reminiscent of the inside of a banana. I inconspicuously tossed away the $5 sex toy and spent the rest of my night inside of a McDonald’s, where I ate the best chicken sandwich I’d ever eaten in my life.

It’s funny how sex is thrown at you in different cultures. Very rarely will you walk into a phone booth and see hundreds of flyers for hookers scattered on the ground. Very rarely do you walk down the street and peer down a set of stairs to lock eyes with an elderly Asian man smoking a cigar amongst a cellar full of discount porno videos. I probably won’t get the chance to schmooze with prostitutes or test out sex toys in SoHo, on my way home from work. I really miss Japan’s twisted perverted nightlife. My mind always wanders and I think about what would happen if I were to go back. Would I punch that dude in face for asking me to model? Would I get whiskey with that woman? Would I stock-up on faux-vaginas? I don’t really know. I would, undoubtedly, go back to McDonald’s and get another one of those chicken sandwiches, though. Say what you will about sex addiction, but the journey back would be worth it for that delectable chicken sandwich.