Chapter 11: Temptation

Chapter 11: Temptation

A Chapter by Philip Muls

No Illusions


I have been in Japan for the better part of a month now and my flight back to Europe leaves at noon tomorrow. Anxious to go home, I find it impossible to sleep.


It’s 3 AM and I decide to take a stroll down Tokyo’s Shinjuku entertainment district to have a final taste of the hustle and bustle of this great city. 


Today is the eleventh of the eleventh month, and this is celebrated throughout Asia as Bachelors’ Day. As the digit 1 resembles a stick, symbolizing someone who is alone, 11/11 is considered to be a lucky day for singles.


On Alibaba, Asia’s answer to Amazon, countless bachelors today have bought more than two hundred million anti-Valentine’s gifts at this year’s Single’s Shopping Festival. 


Funnily enough, many available single people find each other on this special day and are henceforth no longer single. Even at this late hour, the streets are filled with happy couples, determined to paint the town red tonight.


I feel energized just by watching this late-night public display of fun but I can sense it is fueled by booze and a certain kind of desperation.


The Japanese are known for their work hard, play hard attitude. They even have a dedicated word, karoshi, for death by overwork. Not just the strenuous office hours, but also the nomikai or after-hours drinking parties installed by management to build better connections between coworkers are known causes of sudden mortality through heart attacks.


On the few occasions this past month when I found myself on the very last train leaving Tokyo center at night, it was full of near-comatose salarymen. Not a pretty sight.


Especially here, in Shinjuku’s red-light district of Kabukicho, the stress that gets accumulated during a horribly long workday at one of the soul-consuming Japanese corporate behemoths like Sony or Toyota finds an escape in adult entertainment of a type that we, Westerners find bizarre yet intriguing.


I walk past all-night karaoke bars, decadent cross-dressing cabarets, hot strip clubs, erotic massage parlors, and of course the infamous soaplands, which are in reality typical Tokyo brothels, disguised as ritualistic bathhouses.


The men that frequent the Shinjuku soaplands pretend to go there to get a spa treatment but everybody knows what really takes place and how the soap gets applied. The unavoidable probing the next morning for feedback on a foreigner’s first soapland experience never fails to trigger giggles from the Japanese office ladies and knowing smiles from the Tokyo hosts who arranged the escapade for their unsuspecting visitor.


The many places of vice that I walk past are filled with Tokyo salarymen, but I also see many Western men, eager to get a taste of the excitement. Abundant drinking takes away all their inhibitions and even if they might regret their promiscuity the day after, for now, they are enjoying the female company.


It is a well-known fact that Japanese ladies love tall white foreigners as companions for the evening, especially because Europeans and Americans are more likely to openly pursue women, compared to the more passive, introvert Japanese men.


While all these thoughts are running through my mind, I still know better than to enter one of the Shinjuku bars. The new and improved me absolutely wants to keep it clean. I am only here to observe and enjoy the unique ambience.


I stroll up to Love Hotel Hill or Dogenzaka which is sprinkled with miniscule, rent-by-the-hour lodgings with bizarre decors. I look at the screen displays near the doors of the love hotels and I see some even offer extras like costume rental to play out any desired fantasy. I marvel at so much kitsch concentrated in one place.


I walk on and soon find myself in Golden Gai, a time-warped collection of two hundred tiny theme bars tucked away in six alleyways in old Tokyo, which form the core of the hard-drinking party scene. Each bar can barely fit ten people and has its own particular vibe and outlandish decor. The buildings are ramshackle and dwarfed by high rise developments all around, but this place has something magical.


I peek my head in one of the bars and see that it is crammed with five couples listening to a girl with a violet hairdo playing 80s vinyl records. Weird does not even begin to describe this.


This place fascinates me, simply because it is a no-go zone for someone in recovery, someone like me. It feels great to bite the forbidden apple for once. I keep telling myself that as long as I stay dry, there is no problem with being here. In a couple of hours, I will go to the airport and that will be that.


But on some deeper level, I can’t help but wonder what brought me here on my last night in Japan. My going off the beaten path tonight does somehow feel intentional. As if I want to prove that I’m back amongst the living and nothing is off-limits anymore. I’m hardened and can handle myself in any situation.


But I know I have to be cautious since my senses are already in overload, just by being exposed to the sheer restlessness of these streets. The annoying bell sounds originating from the many vertical pinball machines in the pachinko arcades trigger my nerve endings. The loud drunken laughter, the Karaoke singing and the constant rapid chatter in Japanese coming from every bar are just overwhelming.


Despite the frantic nature of the surroundings though, I find myself enjoying the dizzying freedom that comes from wandering all alone in a completely alien city, deep into the night.


I take a deep breath of night air and look up at the sky. I cannot see the stars because the neon lights are blinding my night vision.


I feel hungry so I walk into a steaming ramen shop and order a hot bowl of kakesoba, the delicious Japanese lobster noodle soup. The uncut ocean flavor of the seafood ramen at this time of night somehow strikes me as fully congruent with the strange and unfamiliar settings I find myself in.


I cannot help but smile while eating my soup and watching the passers-by. It feels good to be completely anonymous and yet part of the scenery.


When I leave the ramen shop, I wonder what to do next at this ungodly hour. I definitely do not feel sleepy and I decide to pull an all-nighter. I can sleep on the plane home.


I feel a piece of paper in the pocket of my suit. An expat colleague has given me the address of a fabulous skyline bar at the top floor of the Tokyo Park Hyatt where Coppola’s indie movie Lost in Translation was filmed.


I start to walk slowly in that direction until I find myself standing in front of the majestic hotel. I hesitate to go in. Why am I going to a bar? Because the view is said to be fantastic, of course. And I just love that movie, I think I’ve seen it five times because it captures life in a strange city to perfection.


After some further deliberation, I cross the imposing but empty lobby and take the elevator up to the fifty-second floor, straight into the glorious bar where Bill Murray first saw Scarlett Johansson sitting on her own, feeling bored while her husband was out working.


I have a soft spot for Scarlett and I imagine myself in the iconic movie scene right when Bill offers her a Suntory single malt Japanese whisky - For relaxing times, make it Suntory time -  and she teasingly orders a G and T instead, with that flair of feminine defiance that would become her signature expression.


I look around me and to my surprise, the bar has a glitzy Gatsby theme going on with the women dressed in the iconic 20s flapper style with bobbed hair and dazzling short sequin shift dresses.


I am immediately attracted by the atmosphere of the place and as nobody seems to stop me, I walk up to the bar.


An elegant blonde in a flamboyant red Roaring Twenties dress is singing Lana Del Rey’s Young and Beautiful, accompanying herself on a white Baby Steinway. While she’s an absolute stunner and a great singer, nobody pays any attention to her. Nobody but me, that is. In fact, I cannot keep my eyes of her. That risqué red dress has me in a spell.


After a couple of minutes, I do start to feel like a voyeur and pull my gaze away from her.


I cannot help but notice that the guests are sipping from Vintage 1920 Prohibition Cocktails like Highballs and Old Fashions, Daiquiris and Side Cars. The stylish drinks look cold and enticing and seem like the perfect catalysts to stir up the intended wild and carefree 20s ambience.


It’s an oddly international crowd. I hear male voices talking Swedish, English and German, while the female sounds are distinctly Russian, Balkan and Japanese.


The girls are wearing gold pumps with stiletto heels under their sleeveless, short-skirted flapper dresses with deep open backs. They have feathers in their hair and some are wearing diamond tiaras and long pearl necklaces. Most are smoking long cigarettes, although smoking is strictly prohibited here. Nobody seems to care.


Most of the men are wearing 1920s tuxedos, while some others are in striped suits and flashy neckties, sporting Vintage Rolex Oyster and Vacheron Constantin watches.


One impressive-looking man with silver hair and a heavy Australian accent is apparently the host for the evening. He is dressed in all white, just like the Great Gatsby himself did. Our host is walking around with a cigar in his mouth, a smile on his face and a Martini in both hands.


The woman he’s with has clearly gone to great lengths to be a perfect Daisy Buchanan, Jay Gatsby’s dream girl. She’s wearing a fantastic, bejeweled dress in taupe, fingerless lace gloves, an Art Deco headband and a pastel blue fur collar. She’s laughing and spills her drink while slowly dancing to the music, clearly in a state well beyond tipsy.


I find myself alarmingly aroused by all of this. Somehow it feels like coming home.


As I stand there watching this upper scale crowd, I cannot believe that I actually party-crashed a glamorous jet set extravaganza in a Tokyo skyline bar at four in the morning and nobody stopped me. Maybe because of the late hour, they do not care anymore who joins. Or maybe I just belong here. Thank god I’m wearing a black suit.


The contrast of this elegant venue with the seediness in the streets below could not be bigger. And yet, the whole sequence of events of this Tokyo night has a kind of surreal logic to it, as if I’m in a lucid dream where all of this makes perfect sense.


I look through the bar’s high windows at Tokyo’s skyline. It is truly formidable and I feel drunk with excitement.


The bar tender has noticed me and gestures me to take a seat. Before I can ask him whether this really is the Lost in Translation cocktail lounge, he nods affirmatively and points to a specific bar stool. I am obviously not the first guest to recognize the bar from the movie.


When I ask “He or she?” he answers with a tired smile ”She”, while pointing again to the exact bar stool that Scarlett occupied in the iconic scene.


I take that seat and order a Kirin Ice beer with a very exact 0.0% alcohol.

I have been sober for fifteen long months now, and I’m here on the premise that I’m sufficiently ruggedized to be trusted alone in a late-night Tokyo bar like this one. I realize I did not discuss this upfront with Dr. Lavorter and something tells me that I should have.


But who am I fooling? Deep down, I can feel the familiar sting in a place like this. Like an old love lost but not forgotten, it still eats at my core.


It cannot be a coincidence that I go back to waterholes like this. I’m deliberately seeking the thrill that comes with this type of place.


Well, I might as well try to enjoy it while I’m here.


Three pretty Japanese girls, all in black and white Tuxedo dresses with little black bow ties, are entertaining five German business men at the far end of the bar, away from the party.


I wonder whether these girls are hired extras. They seem too beautiful to be true. They look like identical triplets, in their pristine dresses and impeccable make-up. They even have the same height and near-perfect proportions.


I cannot help but wonder at this arrangement.


On the surface, the men look like predators. They are Alpha males, in town this week to close the deal. They’re loud and over-confident.


The girls seem too young and outnumbered. They display a look of vulnerability but my gut says this is all make-believe. It seems choreographed to perfection.


I watch as an $800 Jeroboam bottle of Roederer Cristal Champagne gets passed around in their small circle and keeps them going.


After a couple of minutes, I realize that it’s actually the girls who are in the lead here. The men are powerless and can only give way to their primal instincts in this age-old ritual of seduction. The girls are flirting shamelessly, as she-wolfs in their natural habitat. Female power is the dominating force here.


I know this little scene that plays out here before my eyes all too well. It triggers an old ambiguity in me. I want to watch and look away at the same time.


With both shame and fascination battling for my attention, I sense a familiar but uneasy duality. But why should I care anyway? This has nothing to do with me.


The bartender is minding his own business and I too turn away. But only reluctantly so.


What I’d really want more than anything else is to step into this scene. I want to join the posse and sharpen my hunting skills. I want to give way to my inner predator. I want to drop the façade and follow my deeper drifts, go where the undercurrents takes me.


I want to drink and feel alive and connected.


I am now utterly confused as I can feel an old fire within me gaining strength. I want a drink, there is no denying.


My eyes settle on a glass cabinet with expensive cigars on display. Each cigar is wrapped individually with an impressive label that reads Caliber & Carat in an elegant font.


My mind connects dots which are not there.


Caliber as in lethal weapon, and carat as in flawless diamond. Or carat as in flawless girl and caliber as in character strength?


I feel a flash of anger coming up suddenly. What type of man would mess around with girls this young, very late on a week night? But then I wonder whether that man could be me under different, less sober circumstances.


Anger quickly turns into guilt. Am I really considering a drink after fifteen months of hard work? And would I really chase those young women, fueled by liquid courage?


My gaze drifts back to the three Japanese girls at the far end of the bar and I see to my surprise that one of them is also watching me. She gives me a look of defiance while she pulls one of the German men closer by his tie and kisses him on the mouth without hesitation. Then she teasingly looks over her shoulder back at me and her black eyes dare me: “You want a taste of this?”


I suddenly feel totally freaked out, as if any minute now, I will be exposed as an imposter.


I am out of place here. Surely, the entry ticket to this bar must be a real drink, an adult drink! And that is the one thing I cannot have. Whoever has let me in here, made a serious mistake. I feel like a total miss-cast, a fraud.


With thoughts spiraling down into a familiar, destructive pattern, I quickly pay for the fake beer which I did not touch. The barman really does not care and gladly accepts my tip.


It occurs to me I am still a dry drunk, full of resentment and anger.


I’ve come so close, so very, very close to giving in. The remaining barrier between me and a drink is only wafer-thin. My defenses are down, I’m completely exposed.


It’s clear that this place eats at my resolve and I need to leave.




I put on my raincoat and leave in a hurry. The higher pitched broken English of the girls follows me into the corridor and seems to resonate all the way down the elevator ride. 

The elevator construction in glass is mounted against the front of the building and as I descend the fifty-two levels, I look outside at Shinjuku’s nightlife, coming up ever closer. Seeing the party crowd on the streets no longer lifts my spirits, quite the opposite. It looks like a real threat.


Once outside, I walk briskly all the way back to my own hotel feeling deeply sorry for myself. And god knows that feeling sorry is not a good place to be in, not if I want to make it to the morning without a drink. 


It starts to rain. First only a drizzle but soon it’s really pouring down on me. I almost cannot see through my glasses and I bump into some drunken guy who angrily pushes me away while shouting something in Japanese. The people around us stop to watch as if they would welcome a fight.


The rain is soaking me through and through but I do not mind. This downpour feels utterly appropriate, like a ritualistic cleansing. Like I’m offered a chance to wash the dirt off me.


Once back in my room, I am far too agitated to go to bed. I simply watch the stock ticker on CNN while I gather my thoughts and try to come to some conclusion.


What to make of this? I walked out of an extremely tricky situation, this time. But what about next time?


I almost lost it tonight. Within the hyper-magnetic field of that cocktail bar, my moral compass was spinning around uncontrollably. And the feeling of disorientation was not only about the drinking, there was something greater at stake here. Honor is the word that comes to mind.


But wait just a minute here. After all is said and done, it seems my compass may still be pointing to the North. After all, I did not give in. I did not drink and I definitely did not hit on the girls. It’s not because I was tempted that I should feel bad now.


Yet, the million dollar question remains. In the final analysis, will I drink again?


I’ve just had a taste of temptation like never before. Can it be that the urge will be even stronger the next time and the time after that? Until it is just humanly impossible for me to resist?  


I take deep breaths and slowly but surely I get back on solid ground. I made it back alive from behind enemy lines and back in the DMZ of my room, I now feel better about this whole thing.


I walk to the window of my hotel suite and I see the sun rise on Tokyo’s grand Shinto shrine, dedicated to emperor Meiji and his empress Shoken, who opened up Japan to the West. The shrine is located in an amazing evergreen forest, cleverly hidden within the densely built-up city.


From my window, I can see the towering twelve-meter high Torii gate guarding the entrance of the shrine. The gate, created from a one-thousand-five-hundred-year-old Cyprus tree symbolically marks the transition from the profane to the sacred.


Somehow appropriate, as I feel like I went through a transition myself this past night.


Yes, temptation was a clear and present danger, and yet it did not tip me over. I came precariously close to giving in, and that realization hurts but feels good at the same time.


While I watch the amazing colors of the Tokyo sunrays progress from deep violet to pink and then to bright orange, I know I am and will always be like the moth circling the flame, unable to stay away from the brightest of lights.

© 2017 Philip Muls

My Review

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Every time I read your work I'm amazed all over again at your talent and the generosity of letting us read this on the cafe. Thank you Philip. We owe you a drink. :)

Posted 6 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

phillip it is really taking off my friend,more interesting and detailed with each chapter

Posted 6 Years Ago

Well done. I'm sorry to say that I injected myself into the story and had a few drinks and indulged.

Posted 6 Years Ago

1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

I like the writing. And initially it captured me, but in reality, it’s an essay, titled, “Thoughts while enjoying a night alone in Tokyo”

I read, waiting for something to happen. Our character continues to notice and report, but except for a guided tour, nothing happens that can be called story. That's not the linear progression of events, it's what those events do to the person, and how they react to them. But the character doesn't speculate, doesn't react, doesn't respond to stimulus. S/he acts as a camera. When you say, "I feel a flash of anger coming up suddenly. What type of man would mess around with girls this young, very late on a week night? " it's dispassionate. The character doesn't react to the anger, and we really don't know how a cigar could have caused it.

I’ve read 3427 words, close to sixteen standard manuscript pages and the only thing that happened was that the protagonist didn’t take a drink. So the entire chapter could be summed up as the opening to the next with, “As I packed for the plane I smiled. I spent the previous night wandering from night spot to night spot and was able to resist the temptation to take a drink.”

So in the end, if I’d not been to Japan, I might find the piece an interesting travelogue. But since I wasn’t made aware of why our protagonist was wandering—the character’s scene-goal—there was no tension caused by his/her being in that situation. And since I heard about the temptation but wasn't made to feel the pull, it was data, not an emotional experience.

As I say, you write well, but I’m looking for more story in the story. If you've not read it, Dwight Swain's, Techniques of the Selling Writer might make a significant improvement in how your reader perceives the writing.

Jay Greenstein

Posted 6 Years Ago

Philip Muls

6 Years Ago

Thanks Jay

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4 Reviews
Added on April 25, 2017
Last Updated on April 25, 2017
Tags: Scarlett, Gatsby, caliber, carat


Philip Muls
Philip Muls

Grimbergen, Belgium

Living in Europe, but travelling frequently in US and Asia. I love to combine what I experience during travel with observations and thoughts about the human condition. more..