Tokyo Casam

Tokyo Casam

A Story by GordieVan

A small quake in downtown Tokyo sets the narrator off on a search for adventure and meaning through the city streets. Meandering both mentally and physically through the cityscape.


Barstools don’t offer much lumbar support’, I think, hunched over. My stomach slightly protruding over my belt line.  The belt edge digging into the underbelly and the pressing waistline on my kidneys is creating a discomfort. Straightening on the stool, loosening the belt a notch, linking thumbs under the belt and waist line I hoist my pants high over a rapidly expanding gut, and feel an immediate relief.

I remember something I had read or heard recently about John Wayne, iconically remembered for his cowboy walk with thumbs tucked into the waistline of his wrangler jeans ambling confidently. Supposedly the tucked thumbs were not ascetic but utilitarian, to relieve the pressure on his kidneys, sore and swollen from the beers and whiskey consumed en masse.

With my new found comfort and mobility I bend down to my rum and coke and sip through the short red cocktail straw. Too thin, I discard the straw pick up the glass and take a long swallow, look around the empty basement bar and light a Marlboro Menthol.  This wasn’t the scene as how I had imagined it walking in the massive throng of displaced salary men and office girls as we traversed the Tokyo streets. With the strength of Yahweh, through the neon wilderness we trudged each to their own Mount Sinai.  It was supposed to being going off in here, a pre apocalypse party; loud music, unabashed laughter, loud lavish stories and torrid confessions, drunken lascivious women throwing themselves at me on this our last day on earth.

“Not exactly the land, flowing of milk and honey like I’d hoped, eh”, I say sarcastically to the bartender. He smiles politely, in a manner which communicates ‘I don’t understand a f*****g word you say to me!’.  He turns away slightly and returns to drying highball glasses with the white dishcloth.  

How I’ve gotten to this den of disappointment began just under an hour ago, deep in the surface of the earth and then in my minds eye.  I was just out of work, leaving my first convenient store of the afternoon, with my first can of Shochu and carbonated water flavored with grapefruit, a Chu-Hi. I was walking to the station when I felt the ground beneath seem to warp. The glass on surrounding buildings shook in their frames and a couple of bicycles lent against a nearby wall crashed to the ground. Everyone froze for what seemed like minutes but what was really just seconds. I like those around me froze and then braced ourselves with knees bent and arms out. After the brief shaking had stopped we stayed in this, just stood up on a surfboard for the first time, pose for a few more still passing seconds. Then just like that everyone assumed their activities which were so rudely interrupted by mother nature’s belch.

I proceeded on to the station but as predicted the signs read that trains were stopped. It was a small quake, a hiccup rather than a scream, but after any quake over a given magnitude the tracks have to be checked for cracks, so I assumed my position among the growing throng of Tokyoites on their trek.  As I shuffled with the herd along streets that followed the Yamanote line tracks, my mind chugged along its own meandering path. ‘All of us confronted, even ever so lightly, with our own morality there must be a collective cognitive consensus that it’s time to take life by the balls. Wine, women and song, shant this be what’s going on? These suckers on street level plodding along obviously didn’t get the cosmic message that today was one to celebrate life, to break the confines of the drudgery of our daily lives.' With this logic firmly solidified, somewhere between Yoyogi and Shinjuku, I found the first open bar, and proceeded in, to where I now restlessly sit.

I am quickly giving up my expectation that the floodgates will open and the revellers will come flowing through the wooden door of this basement bar any minute now. Clearly my thought processes were in the minority. I figure it is probably cultural. Firstly, a quake like we experienced today is par for the course for your average Japanese. But on a larger scale perhaps my priorities and search for meaning is out of whack with the human condition. I’m now convinced it’s all happening out there on street level and by sitting here in this empty bar, I’m missing out.

I finish off my second rum and coke, pay the bartender who hands me white piece of paper with 1000 written on it. I pay with a single 1000 yen note with a quick glimpse at Soseki as I pass the note. We go through this whole procedure without me or the well coiffed bartender having to exchange any words. As I stand up from the stool I feel the khaki’s fall and settle on my hips, I quickly adjust the belt back so as for them not to fall to the floor when I start walking.  As I turn to leave the bartender shouts a formalized ‘Arigato gozaimasu’ that seemingly echos through the empty establishment.

I see another patron as I head to the exit.  A japanese man in his early 50’s. He has full head of salt and pepper hair. He wears a well pressed black suit but he looks worn. I think of him suiting up everyday like he’s going to the office only to wander the streets and hide out in a nondescript bar in the vicinity of the office he’d been laid off from, to save face and not bring the shame of being jobless upon himself and his family.  There he sits, alone drinking whisky to getting up the gall to throw himself in front of a train, the modern day sempai. Perhaps today was the day? Then, the quake happened. Now, he is sitting and contemplating what it all means this cosmic intervention. Or maybe, like me, he just needed a drink.

Emerging from the top steps back into the burgeoning Tokyo eve. We traverse a sort of Casam between the elevated tracks of the yamanote and the large Takashimaya department store, up further the departo and station merged into one, forming a the plateau of shopping and commuting. The normally subdued pedestrian path continues to be packed with the office drones as they proceed on what now has more the feel of a bataan death march than the liberative exodus of earlier.  I walk past the west exit of Shinjuku station, and approach the Alta screen. Here it is the absence of people normally streaming from the station exit which gives the odd sense that the cogs of the city are slightly amiss.  The other thing that strikes me is a specific silence. The lack of trains rumbling past causes all the other sounds that are normally drowned out by the constant roar of a working railway to now percolate to the surface.  The blood in the circulatory system of this city has ceased to flow, and the lethargy of the metropolis is palpable.  I take a seat on the tiled steps of the small pedestrian island facing the Alta screen, currently running an 8 by 12 J-Pop video. I inhale smoke and the abberrative atmosphere.  

A  yellow train slowly crawls out of shinjuku station and heads toward Nakano. People immediately begin to stream toward and into the station, like a remote had been pushed to unpause the city. I walk toward one of the public ashtrays set near the street, chuck my butt and continue away from the station into the bowels of Shinjuku. Emerging from the first pedestrian thoroughfare I arrive at the place of permanent dawn.  Where the neon signage pulsates so brightly that whenever, either by rail, foot or taxi cab, one emerges upon this spot they are struck by the sense that it is dawn. I have had to check myself on numerous occasions to ensure I haven’t misplaced yet another evening in an attempt at a Celinesque ‘journey to the end of the night.’

Crossing the street I enter Kabukichō, a collection of back streets and alleys sprinkled liberally with hostess and host bars. Hostesses in mini dresses tottering on stilettos hustle down the streets to dim lit bars where they will sing karaoke, light cigarettes, pour whiskey and seltzer water for salary men hoping to carve out an oasis from their daily drudgery and the hostesses if they can capture a fancy enough hope to be rewarded with gifts of Prada and Louis Vuitton.  The hosts in imitation designer suits and overly gelled hair rove in effete gangs of 3 or 4.  There are a spattering of yakuza bars throughout the red light district where low level thugs smoke in infront of black tinted window mercedes awaiting the evenings orders and misdemeanors. Lifelong punters or just bored housewives waiting for their lucky break and escape from monotony, sit in front of slots in pachinko parlors chain smoking in the loud doldrum of fleeting dreams.  The rest of the labyrinth is a hodgepodge of sexshops, soaplands, happy ending massage, beer halls, whisky salons and convenience stores. To each their own seeking their particular kick and fleeting escape. These are Shinjuku’s soldiers of the night, waging war on loneliness and tedium.

As I walk and observe a song lyric pops into my head, or more like was retrieved from filing cabinet in my mind, having been filed there from times ago heard, and retrieved for just this situation.  With each step the lyrics flutter in and through my head like pigeons in an abandoned rundown church.  ‘Where the streets have no names, where the streets have no names’, this followed by another lyric, ‘and I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’. Not much for lyrics, slaughtered brain cells and short term memory damage, and all, I think they were from different songs, maybe the same artist.  We’ll call it a remix, a mental remix, now part of the soundtrack of my life, scoring this moment, this place, these emotions, this state of mind.

The lyrics bring on a ponderance, in this moment of aimless wandering through the back streets of Kabukichō. I’m forced to contemplate if I am searching for something lost or seeking something I have yet to find. In shinjuku’s back streets as dusk turns to dark I prowl like a cultural peeping tom. No one’s expecting me to adhere to their strict cultural norms, my existence remaining unnoticed, unknown and unquestioned. I exist outside their world, in the bushes in the dark looking through this window into their world to puzzle it out and pass judgement.  I look upon their actions and indiscretions but they don’t see mine, when they look back all they see is their own skewed and distorted reflections. This is a great freedom of the expat existence one can choose to transcend or exploit. I get to pass through their world as an aberration, a gaijin, which literally translates to alien. Was this translucent existence what I’ve been looking for?

Heels, yellow. Dress tight short and blue. Hair long curled and dyed blonde. Make-up liberally applied. I do a bee-line for her. From the onset, I know this mission is destined for failure. The hostess bar girl is a tough nut to crack. Breaking through the cold exterior is difficult enough for the wealthiest and suave of japanese businessmen.  A downtrodden, half drunk foreigner like myself doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell. I hold no illusions I’m going to actually pick her up, it isn’t about that, I’ve been so stuck in my own head, floating through this world for so many hours now like a ghost, I need some tangible connection I can grab onto and draw myself back into the here and now.  Like grabbing a shrub to pull myself up over a cliff edge, so that I can confidently stand flatly and firmly again in my own existence in this world.  

She’s buried in her phone screen as I approach. Inch long nails, piled incredibly high with decorative bling, furiously tapping away.  “Konban wa, genki desu”. No acknowledgment that anyone has spoken to her, she remains transfixed in a texting trance. “Sugoi annata wa sexushi desu...onamae wa nan desuka?” This blurt of remedial Japanese gets just the slightest tilt of the head and maybe the smallest tinge of a smile.  I’ll take it. “Have a good night”, I say with a turn, taking with me the predictable rejection and a small hit of lust to carry me out the a*s end of Kabukichō and into Shin Okubo.  

I walk past the budget department store with a cracked out penguin for a mascot and the same annoying jingle playing throughout 24-7 ‘Don Don, la la la’, past Korean bbq joints and shops selling k-pop idol memorabilia.  The pulse of the city has slowed here in Okubo.  I have walked out and drunk away much of the angst and anxiety I harboured.  Two blocks from my small studio apartment and soiled futon yet another convenience store and yet another final drink call to me with her blue green glowing sign.    

I come out of the covenie with a cold tall can. I cracked it and sipped the foam. The first gulp catches mid throat but I force it back and take another.  I post up next to the cylindrical metallic ashtray set off to the side out front next to the green plastic pay phone. Light a cigarette and let the smoke of that first drag hit the back of my throat.  Drink and inhale, drink, inhale, as a fog sets in.  All day caught in the current of life and this city, I finally had washed up on the bank, for a moment of respite. The office workers, students, shop girls, and elderly, the music makers or artist, the forgone and the forgotten, the seeking and the found, they walk, drive or bicycle by.   And I watch the stream of life flow by as I wait on the shore for an opportunity to jump in.

Suddenly I catch a whiff of excitement in the air, the energy of the city.  It travels through me and settles in my stomach as a nervous anxiety, like an actor might get before taking the stage. A thought strikes, ‘surely the quake will have unsettled peoples nerves enough that they’ll want some drinks after work or at least to celebrate that we’ve all been granted another day, I think there’s a small shot bar three blocks down I’ve been meaning to check out. I bet it’s all happening there!’ Drink in hand, back off into the night I charge, once more unto the breach...

© 2018 GordieVan

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Added on February 14, 2018
Last Updated on February 15, 2018
Tags: short Story, Tokyo, Japan, Travel Literature, life, introspective




Love Reading, trying my hand at writing. Literature Snob. Been living abroad for over a decade. Originally from Canada more..