Tokyo: The Highs and Lows of Shinjuku

We spent the day exploring the happening Shinjuku area, known for its hole-in-the-wall bars and masses of humanity. Our intent was to go bar-hopping among the intimate closet-sized bars of Golden Gai, and I guess we technically achieved our goal by going to exactly two bars in Shinjuku. We were informed that nightlife doesn’t really get going until 11 P.M., which was way too late for a couple of old geysers like us, who had been roaming the streets and avenues of Shinjuku since 11 A.M. I didn’t want to be anywhere but in bed at 11 P.M. Especially when, after having for dinner two of the largest buckets of udon known to mankind, we wandered into a “concept bar” called Heaven around 7 P.M. It was hidden at the top of a narrow flight of stairs and when we opened the door into a cramped, dim, and rather dingy bar crammed with shelves of Japanese DVDs, I wanted to head straight out and back downstairs. I have no idea what concept the owner/bartender was going for; it was decidedly not heavenly. The male bartender and a lone female patron ushered us in, so, being too embarrassed to leave, we sat down at the bar and ordered drinks. Turns out the female patron had attended university at UC Santa Cruz and spoke terrific English, so we engaged in conversation with her and she acted as a translator between us and her bartender friend. When I first (reluctantly) sat down, the patron and the bartender exchanged some words in Japanese, and I heard them say the word “beautiful” in English as they nodded toward me and then at each other. Then the patron said to Tom, “My friend [the bartender] says that there are many pretty girls in Japan, but they are not beautiful. She [motioning toward me] is very beautiful.” At that moment I thought they were the most delightful people I had ever met and the bar was charming and exactly where we were supposed to be. What can I say, I’ve always been a sucker for compliments. When the bartender later expressed shock at the fact that we’ve been married for 14 years and have two children, his follow-up compliment of thinking that I was in my twenties was almost as good, but a woman never tires of hearing that she’s beautiful. It totally made my day and I would return to Heaven in a heartbeat. Maybe its dim lighting was particularly flattering or maybe the bartender was just really clever.

After Heaven, we stopped at one more bar and then decided to make our way back to our hotel. As we were walking down the lane that led from the Golden Gai area to the main drag, we approached a row of American tourists taking a picture of themselves at the end of the lane. As we came up behind them, we sidestepped the row of bodies but must have ducked too slowly because one guy (who looked like a stereotypical frat-boy) yelled at us, “Hey, you fucking ruined the picture!” I turned to look at him in shock, but as always, my anger came too slowly. Only after several seconds had passed and we were well down the block did I think of an appropriate retort: “Your fucking face ruined it! Don’t be such an obnoxious American, it’s embarrassing!” Maybe he had reduced inhibitions about swearing at strangers because he thought we didn’t understand English. Maybe he was subconsciously playing the role of the irreverent American in an uptight Asian society. Maybe he thought he was just being a smart-ass when he’s actually a dumb-ass. I realized I was furious, and kept kicking myself for not chewing him out. After further thought I decided it was probably for the best that I didn’t get into a verbal sparring match; I wouldn’t put it past a redneck hick like him to hit a woman.

Before this incident, Tom had just been telling the patron and the bartender at Heaven how impressed we were with the city of Tokyo. As he often does when he’s trying to enhance a compliment, Tom was overly critical about the U.S. and his fellow Americans. He suggested that Americans were, in general, ruder and more obnoxious than Japanese people. I disagreed and reproached him for his unfairly harsh assessment. I told him I was proud to be American, and living in Southeast Asia for several months has reinforced my belief that Americans are, on the whole, eminently practical, logical, friendly, and polite.

Then a stupid frat-boy cursed at us for accidentally walking into a picture. As we were walking away, I watched him and one of his companions climb onto the railing dividing the lane and bow to each other in mocking parody of Japanese people. Tom remarked in disgust that people like that were the type of Americans he was criticizing while we were at Heaven. I had to agree. As mad as I was at the stupid frat-boy for his rudeness toward us, what upsets me the most is knowing how much damage he’s inflicting on the reputation of Americans globally. He and people like him represent such a small fraction of who Americans are as a society, but he and people like him make the rest of us look bad. I believe the vast majority of U.S. citizens are decent, respectable, and respectful people, but unfortunately it’s the occasional asshole who makes a lasting impression.

See our entire day in Shinjuku here:

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A former corporate attorney who is now happily retired and does whatever she wants.

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