Saturday, June 19, 2010

Club Ai (The Host Club Bus Tour)

So, yesterday was the much anticipated ‘Host Club’ Bus Tour and it lived up to the anticipation, though it was quite different than I’d hoped/expected. I got done up, and my host mom, her friend and myself met up at our local train station around 3:30 and made our way over to Tokyo station, which is where the Hato Bus Tour’s main hub is, and where we get on the bus for our tour. The day was a dismal rainy day with the added torture of violent humidity. Evidently this season is called ‘Ume no Ame’ which means Plum Rain. The technical part of it comes from this season being plum season and also being Japan’s rainy season (much like April in States), but with the added bonus of torturous humidity. Every time you step outside it’s like stepping into the locker room at an indoor pool, or standing directly in front of a heater. And it makes you sweat something terrible.

So, we arrived at Tokyo station, the largest station in the city, and wound our way around to the South Marunouchi exit, which is where you have to exit out to find the bus terminal. We had a little time to kill, so we wandered through the many sweet shops within the station, forever debating on what to buy for one of my mom's friends (as it was her birthday we were celebrating by going on this tour). We debated over some banana baumkuchen, which is only sold at that station, but eventually through what seemed to be shrewd rationalization, my host mother decided against buying anything. That killed about 45 min. and we plunged out into the rain, found the various bus’ leaving points and then waited inside a small shack area on benches with other tour patrons for the rest of our party to get there.

When it hit 4:55, an announcement sounded and we all piled back out into the rain, springing our umbrella’s to life, and found our particular bus at #2. There were actually quite a few people with us on the host club tour, somewhere around 35 in all. Our party was seven, there was a party of four younger girls who had dressed up for the occasion, and then a bunch of older ladies ranging between the ages of 50 and 70.

We set off.

Passing the Imperial Palace and the Diet building, our young guide girl tried desperately to keep our attention with her explanations of the Tokyo sights, but no one was listening, finding their own party’s conversation to be much more lively. We wound through busy streets into Roppongi, shops on either side of us springing to life as their signs all lit up for the early dinner rush. We pulled into a covered maze that was half-road, half-parking garage and then we took a turn into a small alcove that opened onto the Grand Hyatt hotel. There were no parking spaces in this small area paved with bricks rather than cement. Instead, there were about 8 cars reclining at their leisure in the space: BMWs, Rolls Royce, Jaguars, all manner of sleek, expensive cars.

We hopped down the steps of the bus and into the marble-floored side entrance of the Hyatt where the wooden walls extended up two stories and glass vases as tall as myself boasted reed-looking plants or muted-colored stones. We made our way past elite looking men in suits to a staircase and found ourselves at the front desk of the restaurant. It seems that the perk of the tour is that you get to dine before the restaurant even opens, so we were immediately led inside by a smart looking woman with short hair and a black suit. We walked past a luscious bar of mahogany or some such other wood, where the bartender in his vest and tie was getting ready for the dinnertime rush. Our party was seated at a long dining table at the back beside a window, though with the rain pouring down, there wasn’t much to see. The wall facing me had three tall square niches with a glass shelf and a tall glass vase that held a reed and limes, playing to the modern, minimalist fashion of the whole hotel. Off to our left were two massive glassed-in wine coolers that stood a story tall, such that a stainless steel ladder was built to slide across from one to the other, should one need a bottle at the top. There must have been over a hundred bottles of wine in each, perhaps two.

We all ordered drinks, the bulk of us asking for beer and in short order a waiter in a black suit and tie, like all the others, came out holding a frosted glass in one hand and the bottle in the other. Our dinner started with a long, thin, diamond-shaped roll, then the appetizer which was a small bit of salad and three slabs of some cold meat concoction that harbored pork, dark sausage and was ringed in chicken skin. I wasn’t a big fan. Next came a cup of cold soup that was orange, but tasted rather like cream than anything else. Then was our main dish of a grilled scallop and grilled Tai (which is a Pacific Sea Bream eaten in Japan, usually for times of celebration), with some cut vegetables and a small dollop of mashed potatoes. Then we had coffee and dessert, which was raspberry sorbet and a cake filled with raspberry cream and mango (or passion fruit, not sure which). All in all, it was pretty tasty and quite fancy. You know as soon as you sit down and see an assortment of forks, knives and spoons, that you’re in for fancy fixins.

After that we went in search of the bathroom and finally found it, after having to stop a lady passing by in a rush to ask where it was. Because there were 7 of us, it took us some time to all get done and we were late getting back to the bus, but nothing was said of it. Again, we took off, back into the rain, toward Shinjuku and Kabukicho. It was 7pm when we took off, and the prime time for traffic in Tokyo, so despite the distance between Roppongi and Shinjuku not being all that far, it took us about 45 min. to get there, and after unloading onto the sidewalk of the busy main street in front of Kabukicho, our chipper little tour guide led us through the winding back alleys for about 15 min., to Club Ai.

I am convinced that one can see Club Ai from outer space. The shop is like the Vegas Strip, beaming neon blue lights and glitter. If one were to imagine that Vegas ate a particularly old piece of confetti birthday cake and then threw it back up, you would have Club Ai. That’s the unofficial origin story of the place, at least as I tell it.

I was urged to go first and thus took the lead in going down the steep, straight stairway past mirrors and gold random things and all other manner of knick-knacks, to the man waiting below who asked for the number of our party. Then some host who I didn’t even get a real look at led me through into the club, past a standing line of 10 guys who rang out the customary ‘Irasshaimase’ (Welcome) as I jaunted by. Now I am going to try to compare/contrast Club Air (the one I’ve been to before), and Club Ai for you.

As the man held out a hand for me, showing me which were our seats, I was confronted with old, 70s or 80s fashioned sea green leather sofas, the sort that you can no longer buy anywhere because they went out of style about 10+ years ago. We piled in, myself and the birthday girl sitting at the end, and in due time, our hosts (six of them) sat down opposite, an old, gnarled wooden table, scarred and stained, sitting boldly between us. Above, behind, beside, beyond, the place was covered in mirrors and neon Christmas lights and plastic chandeliers and random knick-knacks (we’re talking picture frames that still have the picture of the married couple in it that came with it). And the place is lit up like the waiting room in a hospital, the florescent lighting killing any and all ideas of mood lighting. So, the interior was a main topic of conversation as our host sporadically filled our soju glasses with tea from a plastic pitcher that you can get at a dollar store (literally, cause I have the same one). I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, I know it does.


In contrast, when you walk into Club Air, everything is sleek and black and eloquent. The lighting achieves a romantic glow, light enough to see everything but dark enough to make the atmosphere intimate and away from prying eyes, such that you feel like you and your little group is the only one in the room. The walls are either black wood or obsidian tiles, the seats that the customers sit in, an upholstered black and you’re served out of decanters.

Likewise, the hosts themselves are different. At Club Ai, our host, Yamato, was remarkably young in comparison to the majority of his co-workers, though there were a few that seemed to still be in their twenties. Most, I would guess, are somewhere around the mid-30s mark, and not many that would make you stop and stare after their good looks. In following with this, their overall images didn’t seem to me to be nearly so sleek or trendy, most of them having normal hairstyles, little to no accessories, and all of them wearing the typical black suit like you’d wear to a wedding or a funeral. No silk suits or perfectly spiked hair like you see at Club Air. So, moving on.

We sat down and just as a conversation started to get rolling between my host mom, myself and our host, Yamato, someone came to interrupt, though his appearance was a pleasant surprise.

Back 1970 (as this year is the club’s 40th anniversary), Club Ai was founded as the very first host club in the world by a man named Takeshi Aida, evidently a mattress salesman at the time (ironically). Now, even to those who know next to nothing about host clubs or the mizushobai (businesses like those of Kabukicho), still know this man’s face. With the big sunglasses, the cheezy mustache and being dressed like an old-timey mobster, it would be hard no to recognize him. All he’s missing is a fat cigar between his bejeweled fingers.

And it was he that came wandering up to our party, plopping down in the middle of us and posing for the cameras. Meanwhile, upon his approach, all of the hosts stood up from their stools and, almost as one, stepped back into a line formation as if giving him the spotlight. They obligingly took our cameras and snapped photos of him with us, laughing uproariously at anything he said.

He started down at the other end, then wobbled over to sit between me and the birthday girl, my host hurriedly dragging the heavy, scarred table out of his way as he ambled over and plopped down, placing a lecherous hand on both our legs. When he heard it was her birthday, he called for someone to bring us a free fruit plate, which was very kind, and then presented her with a small Dom Perignon cake thing in a tiny pink box (though later she said it was nasty to the point of being inedible). We took a few more pictures with him and he tried to talk to me, at first in English, then in Japanese. I’m not sure whether he was horrible drunk or just senile (he’s not a whippersnapper anymore after all), but everything he said came out slurred and barring on incomprehensible.

Eventually he wandered off and our hosts resumed their seats and things continued on. I talked a little to our host, asking how long he’d been doing it, how many hosts worked there (100), and maybe one or two more questions, but he spent most of his time trying to draw my host mom into conversation (picking up, I'm sure, on the fact that she has a lot more money than me).

His talking to her made up the bulk of our visit, though there was one interlude, a trip to the bathroom. My host mom and a few of the ladies voiced that they needed to go, and when I declined the offer, Yamato insisted eagerly that I should go and at least look at the bathroom. So I agreed and followed him past numerous tables, over a scarred dance floor, before the live band with a crooning woman at the microphone (yes, they had a band and a dance floor), past other tables where hosts sat by themselves looking bored or reclined along the booth, taking a nap, and I entered the bathroom where I found more chotckies, mirrors and pictures of the owner with various celebrities and other well-knowns, only one of which I knew.

I went back to the table with the others and before long, a rotund man in a suit with a booming voice announced that it was time to go and we all piled out and made for the front staircase again. There was a traffic jam at the bottom of the staircase, and the gaggle of idle, waiting hosts (about 10 of them), standing around, didn’t help. They all thanked us and one guy pushed his card into my hand as I was trying to make my escape.

Somehow we got past the wall of men and I started my ascent back out into the drizzly, humid, night-studded Kabukicho, Yamato following close behind, every so often warning me to watch my step. We all poured out of the opening like a damn breaking, and reassembled on the glittering pavement, Yamato and one other host following us out and chatting a little longer with us as the rest of the tour followed behind. When we were all back together, everyone said their last round of ‘thanks’ and ‘goodbyes’ and then we started wandering around the back alleys of Kabukicho, getting lost.

Eventually we hit upon the now-familiar pachinko complex/karaoke place where my host and I went that night a few weeks ago, and I realized where we were and how to get out, so I took the lead. And eventually we were going under the famous Kabukicho lighted, red gate and across the main street.

Now to my reflections/opinions about Club Ai. As far as a host club, I have to admit that I'm glad I went to one of my own choosing, on my own rather than relying on this experience to give me a good representation of what a host club is. I'm far from an expert on the matter (having only been to 2), but from things I've seen (heck, even from the host scouts on the streets), I think its fair to say that most other host clubs are like Club Air, to varying degrees, what with their cooler-than-live looks and attitudes. As I explained it to my mom, Club Ai seems to be where you go to chat and have a cocktail and complain about the stuff that bothers you about being a Japanese housewife. Club Air is where you go to fall in love, or rather, to enter into a fantasy, perfect relationship (whether it be love or friendship), with your perfect host who becomes whatever sort of person you want him to be. And I suppose, that difference shows why Club Ai is so different, yet still popular. As my mom put it, Club Ai is probably geared for ladies of an older crowd, older than the 20 or 30-something OLs (office ladies). The women who go to Club Ai are probably in their mid-40s or older and they want somewhere where they can drink and have a nice guy listen to their woes about their husbands and their children and all the other hardships about being a Japanese wife (I'm not being sarcastic here, it is tough for them as I've seen). And they want a place that's over-the-top, with older music where they can cut a rug. And being such a space, the hosts don't need to look like models, and have every hair perfectly in place, their eyebrows drawn on just right. Women of a certain age aren't usually coming to Club Ai looking for a love affair, they're coming to let there hair down and talk to someone who does, or at least pretends to, care. These ladies aren't impressed by bling.

Club Air is the opposite, as is reflected in the age of most of its patrons. So, while I'm glad I got to go to Club Ai, I wouldn't recommend going there if one wanted to go to a host club, especially through a tour because I don't feel it's a good representation of what they're like. But, that's just my two cents.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hospital Visits and Drunks in the Streets

So, I think I shall report the much happier news first. As of about 50 minutes ago, Japan won their first soccer match in the world cup (against Camroon) 1-0, and there are still choruses of victory yells echoing up to my window. Finally succumbing to curiosity, I went out and perched on my balcony, overlooking the street below. There are three drinking establishments within one block of my apartment, but it wasn't difficult to see which one the happy drunks were pouring out of (or rather, standing deliriously in front of). From my viewpoint it's hard to see much amid trees and buildings of what's directly below, but even so I could make out a rapturously happy young man (drunk I've no doubt) who was running in and out of the closest lane of traffic, dancing and high-fiving passengers driving by with their arms stretched out. As the light turned to red, he went out and stepped in front of a truck toting a Big Cat, which (whether planned or accidental I'm not sure), tapped him on the behind. The happy drunk then proceeded to go to the passenger side, open the door and hurl himself in with the driver, purloining the man's construction had and yelling 'We won! We won!' as the man agreed cheerily. As the light turned, the hat was returned and the drunk took off running down the sidewalk towards the uproarious voices of his friends farther down the street, pausing only briefly to do a handstand. As you might have guessed, Soccer is big here in Japan.

In other news, I've been to the hospital/clinic. Technically the place is a hospital (the 2nd floor has long term patients), though I shudder to truly call it that. The place is old. Picture, if you will, a small village of people on a remote island of Japan. In this small town, everyone knows everyone's name, most of the citizens are farmers and there's only one grocery store and one gas stand. The people are so far removed from the mainland that over the centuries, they've even taken to speaking in a way unrecognizable to the modern Tokyoite. There are no movie theaters and the young people born here resign themselves early on to follow in the footsteps of their forbears. They were born here and they will die here. There is but one hospital and you would have to dig a few feet down to find the plaque that says just when it was built. It's old and in disrepair, duct tape stuck helter skelter in the most necessary places, the ceiling slats sagging more from the years than any weight on them. On file cabinets and drawers, all the labels are peeling off or gone already. The tiles on the floors which once were white have now yellowed and lost their shine. The walls too are a yellowish cream color, though whether painted that way or weathered to be that way, no one can remember. The second floor is a mystery, the abstract place you can only get to by a staff stairway or a shifty, rattling elevator. The first floor has no patient rooms, only two long hallways which meet like an L, and at this meeting is the waiting room wherein sit an overgrown fishtank harboring a turtle, an analog TV and a young lady receptionist sitting behind one of the few computers in the entire building.

Got a good idea of it in your head? Not exactly what you'd expect to find in a techno savvy city like Tokyo, but that's just exactly where I went (more than anything because it is literally next door to the shrine here). Now, I must preface the rest of this by saying that I have been to visit other hospitals, university hospitals here in Tokyo and they are the epitome of luxury, technology and advancement, just exactly what you'd expect and very like the best hospitals in America. This particular place, however, was at the other end of things, and that's why I hesitate to call it a hospital, favoring the term clinic instead. The following account is not at all or in any way meant to be taken as what one should expect if they have to go to the doctor here in Japan. This is an exception.

Because there are no patient rooms, when your voice is called out over an intercom, you walk ahead down the hallway before you (not a long hallway, mind you) to a table the size of your average dining table which stands in the very center of the widest portion of the hallway. In the middle of the table are a collection of highlighters, pens, pads of paper, stamps and seals and two cups with metal instruments in them. A doctor and/or a nurse sit on stools around the table, ordering you to sit as you come in. In this place, there is no such thing as patient privacy. Everyone, you and whoever else is being seen at the time all sit with the medical people around a table and you tell them what's wrong. If you say your throat is sore (as was one of my symptoms) they pull a metal instrument out of one of the two cups on the table and use it as a tongue depresser, peering into your mouth with a mini flashlight before depositing the used untensil into the second cup. If they deem a further inspection of you necessary (more than just your word on the matter), there is a patient table at the end of the hallway (about 10 steps away) with a curtain that pulls around it. As I was having pain in my kidneys, the doctor poked around on my stomach (though didn't bother looking into the pain in my back despite me saying that's what hurt most), and then I was put down for blood tests, a urine test and a CT. How that little, old ramshackle hospital got the money for a CT machine, I've not the slightest clue. So, I got my blood drawn, peed into a dixie cup and then did the CT, the machine telling me in Japanese when I could and couldn't breath. I sat with my host mom in the waiting area, watching the turtle and TV sporadically for about 20 min. and then my name rang out over the speaker again.

I went back and recieved my diagnosis for everything but the liver test (had to go back in 2 days for that) and got a few prescriptions. Then came time to pay. This is legitimate advice for those traveling here. Many places will not take your insurance. No doubt you were made to buy international insurance of some sort from your school before departing abroad, but usually the way this works out is: you pay out of pocket at the time of the visit, keep your reciept, and when you get back home you are reimbursed. Same goes for the meds. The scary thing is, visits can be very expensive, and pills even more so. Even Japanese people with good insurance (like my host parents) complain about the price of medicine. I was lucky, only shelling out a few hundred for the visit and being perscribed cheap (if weak and ineffective) medicine which came out to be basically Tylenol, throat lozenges and Chinese Herbal medicine which tastes like swallowing incense. Luckily, when I went back two days later, having been sick for 10 days without let up, I saw a different doctor who gave me free samples of an antibiotic which seems to have kicked most of the problems. So anyways, that's been my latest adventure, if you can call it that. Let's hope I can hold myself together for the last leg of the race!