Turning Off The Lights In The Red Light District

“It is a fact that fish will not live where the water is too clear. But if there is duckweed or something, the fish will hide under its shadow and thrive. Thus, the lower classes will live in tranquility if certain matters are a bit overlooked or left unheard.”

From the 17th century Hagakure, the Book of the Samurai

When we come out of the metro station, daylight has faded and gone. Yuko goes off to find her husband so Sachiko and I wait amongst the crowds of people hanging out near the exit of the station. We’re in Kabukicho, often referred to as the Red Light district of Tokyo, except that with electricity being rationed in the wake of the March 11th earthquake, many of the neon and red lights have been turned off. A minimum of lighting has been left on and among the shadows that fall, we can just about discern the congregations of hip youngsters surrounding us: guys with extravagantly styled hair, designer jeans and pointy boots mingle with girls wearing mini-skirts, vertiginous stilettos and glitzy make-up while innumerable hosts, promoting their bars and restaurants, circle around. We’re in a dark pit of hedonism.

When Yuko returns with Katsuhiro, the four of us gather together to discuss where we’ll go. None of us know the area, or have a particular venue in mind. With the instinct and timing of a bird of prey, a salesman host with a droopy palm-tree hairstyle moves in and begins an animated conversation with Katsuhiro. After five minutes of wheeler-dealer talk, Katsuhiro takes out his wallet and hands ¥2000 to the fellow who then goes on the phone, has a brief conversation and after hanging up, nods to us with a gesture indicating that everything has been taken care of. Such is the setting for this transaction, I’m tempted to believe that a drug deal has just been struck. The man disappears and we go walking; our destination: an izakaya bar for which Katsuhiro has paid a deposit to secure us a seat and a discount.

Like any entertainment district, Kabukicho has all the usual food joints, bars and nightclubs, but what give it a sleazy edge is the proliferation of strip bars, sex shops and host & hostess clubs. The crowds are out too: it’s end-of-term for a lot of colleges and so we see lots of young students all dolled-up and out for the night. Also thriving in Kabukicho, I’ve been told, are the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, but with insufficient cultural training I’m unable to identify them; this somehow reinforces the assumption that the area is safe, at least for a small gaijin and group of Japanese tourists like us.

After a walk through the seedy streets we reach the building which houses our izakaya bar; there we ascend to the fourth floor and walk to the back, passing through a large open plan area of Asian lamps and bamboo dividers that delineate multiple bars and restaurants. When we arrive at our venue, we’re given a minimal welcome and shown to a table in the middle of the bar: everyone around us is extremely young and all liquored up.

The staff of the izakaya bar have an ultra cool-nonchalance and they serve us a starter of pickles, gherkins and chilly, frothy beer. We order some yakitori (skewered grilled chicken) but it’s too greasy; for the first time in Japan, I experience mediocre food. Compared to all the other punters, we’re a good bit behind in the inebriation stakes. We have to talk loudly to be heard above the dire J-pop that resounds around the bar and even then, our conversations are repeatedly drowned out by the semi-hysterics of the twenty-year olds at the table beside us. All in all, it’s a lousy place to relax and as the drunken exuberance around us reaches fever-pitch, we decide to leave.

Compared to the polished class of the izakaya bar we went to last night, this place has a lot of rough edges. I guess it’s what happens when you don’t have a local to show you around and you end up being persuaded by a host who clearly violates one of Hank Hill’s rules: “Never trust a man who spends more than $10 on a haircut”.

Although deceived by the description the host gave us, when we do leave we get our ¥2000 deposit back. We enter the elevator, descend two floors and go into the Shirokiya izakaya bar, a well-known chain of izakayas which right now represent dependency. Inside Shirokiya, it’s much quieter, the tables all have semi-private cubicles and there’s some cool jazz playing at a low volume. At ease, we dine on yakisoba, sashimi and gyoza, drink beer and sake and generally enjoy the rest of the evening.

Yuko and Katsuhiro entertain us with the story of how they started going out. Through a mutual circle of friends, they met at a bar on a night when a competition was being held to correctly guess the weight of a watermelon, just by lifting it. Everyone had a go, but Katsuhiro with some experience working as a chef in a restaurant, had an advantage and with the best guess, he won the prize. As Yuko tells it, this was enough to win her heart and now, many years later they’re happily married and laughing at how they met. The evening winds up and we leave the izakaya and walk back towards the station and our respective accommodations.

At the end of the night, I’m sorry that after so much picture taking during the day, my camera battery has died so unfortunately I wasn’t able to photo or capture any of the sights. Thankfully others have been better prepared: see here.

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