Friday, September 07, 2007

Tempting Fate in Tokyo

On a recent trip to Hong Kong and then Japan I was surprised at how well my body stood up. Jetlag was not a factor as I quickly adjusted to the new time. I was expecting some problems from eating the local cuisine, as is my custom when I visit foreign places. For the most part I stayed regular. It was only towards the end of my trip that my bowels loosened. Not diarrhea, per se, but not as solid as I prefer. Only once did I have what could be considered an emergency and it was partly of my own doing.

I just finished eating with a friend who lives in Tokyo. We went to a local neighborhood establishment and had what he described as “bar food”. It consisted of various types of sashimi (some still with the entire fish), various cooked fish, some noodles, and an order of chicken wings. It all went down well with some Kirin beer. He had to go take care of some family business so I went to walk around the Shibuya area. (An anecdote from that walk-around can be read here)

After my walk I made my way back to the subway to go back to my hotel. As soon I got onto the subway car I started to feel cramps. Sharp twinges deep in my abdomen mixed with a roiling in my stomach. It meant trouble. I took the worn subway map out of my pocket to count the number of stops I had left. As the rumblings continued and the cramps grew I tightened my body against any unwelcome (and unexpected) expulsions and continued to count the subway stops. As clean, efficient, and outstanding Japan mass transit had been the entire trip it certainly was not going fast enough for me now. My eyes bore a hole in the subway map in attempt to get me to my destination quicker.

Finally! I was there. The crowded car emptied and I waited my turn and exited briskly without shoving any Japanese passengers out of the way. Even at a moment like this I did not want to be pegged as the “ugly American”. I was walking briskly yet awkwardly. My butt cheeks were clenched together providing me with a stiff-legged gait. I held my hand to my side in a further effort to control this gastric disturbance. This station, which was directly across the street from my hotel, was large. I had a ways to walk and an escalator to navigate before I would be outside. I thought of just making a beeline to the station restroom. Public restrooms in Japan weren’t nearly as filthy and disgusting as the ones in New York. I reviewed my options. My hotel had a “super toilet”. It comes equipped with a seat warmer and bidet and spray options built within. Very nice. Better than the comfort of my own home.

In the stalls in the station there is no toilet. Rather, it is like a urinal is placed horizontally and lowered into the ground. A person is to stand above this and drop the kids off as it were. I could either use “super toilet” or a porcelain hole in the ground. As I felt this movement was going to be a bit too sloppy to be standing during its occurrence I was determined to get to my hotel room.

I exited the station and got lucky with the crossing signal. It was flashing, indicating it was to change any second, but I picked up the pace, and throwing caution to the wind I unclenched my butt cheeks, and jogged across. Boy, now I felt better. Whether it was unclenching or the bouncing I do not know. While I was still feeling something I wasn’t cramped up anymore and I allowed myself a leisurely, unclenched walk. But this newfound confidence almost did me in. I get into the elevator and push the button for my floor. I begin to realize that I would like a drink. Wouldn’t you know it: there was a vending machine directly outside the elevator. Now, I should state that I wasn’t looking for a mineral water or a soda. I meant a drink as in alcohol. Beer happens to be sold in vending machines in Japan. I was so happy with this that I felt compelled to buy a beer every time I passed one. As the elevator glided upward I stuck my hand in my pocket to see how much change I had. Not enough for a beer. I liked the Asahi for 350 Yen. But I did have a 1000 Yen bill.

I exit the elevator and take the few steps to the side and stand in front of the vending machine. On the elevator ride up I was starting to feel cramps again. Despite this, the feeling of having conquered (or at least controlled) my body’s natural functions left me thinking I could take a couple moments to get a beer. More likely it was just laziness as who wants to leave their hotel room and walk 100 yards down the hall again when I was passing the vending machine right now. Either way I was tempting fate.

All it would take is giving the machine money, having a can of beer shoot to the retrieval den at the bottom, grab my change, and walk down the hall. Easy as pie. I inserted the 1000 Yen bill. No problem. I press the button for my desired beverage. Everything is O.K. except the rumblings are coming back. The can arrives at its designated location. I bend to pick it up. Rumblings some more. Clenching begins again. I don’t hear any change coming out. I look at the machine. There is some Japanese characters lit up in green and next to it in red it states 650. Under pressure from the cramps that are getting progressively worse I quickly deduce that the machine is not giving change and I still have 650 yen to spend. I make a decision and press the Asahi button again. Another beer in the retrieval den below. The green light stays lit and it now reads 300. I don’t have enough for one more beer but then I lose 300 Yen. I am now jumping up and down in front of the vending machine like a little boy on Christmas morning. The jumping either takes my mind off the fact that I am seconds away from soiling myself or actually works to prevent the aforementioned soiling. I dig into my pocket and come out with a 50-yen coin. I place this in the coin slot and hit the Asahi button again. The third beer comes out. I grab it and race off down the hallway, hopping stiff-leggedly (the jumping seems to help) and juggling three beer cans. I continue hopping around anxiously as I have to balance the beer cans and find my hotel key.

The key goes into the door and I enter. In one fluid motion I drop the beer on the bed as I undo my belt. In a flash I am in the bathroom looking at “super toilet”. I am jumping like mad as I try to lower my pants. The anticipation is killing me. The cramps increase in magnitude and duration. My stupid mind relays to my body the proximity I am to the toilet and I can feel myself emptying. Oh, god, why did I get those beers. Finally, I am turned around and get the pants lowered. The warm toilet seat isn’t the only relief I feel.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Elusive Sushi Search in Tokyo

Nighttime in Tokyo. I am walking in the Shibuya area. The bright lights bathe me as I people watch and peer into various storefronts. I allow myself to get lost. I follow small groups into alleys and side streets. I pass the love hotels and strip clubs. I observe the kitchen workers and delivery boys smoking at the back doors of their shops. I notice dance clubs with pictures of people I don’t recognize in hip-hop poses. But as a universal sign of their exclusivity, the front doors of these clubs are barred by velvet ropes and beefy black bouncers looking serious with crossed arms.

Occasionally I pop out onto a main street seeing the neon glow before I actually get there. It is on one of these main streets I see them walking in my direction. An American couple. College aged, maybe mid-twenties. Like the typical frat-boy he walks with arrogance and she has the blond demeanor of a cheerleader who has reluctantly given up the pom-poms. Holding hands they walk abreast down the sidewalk not seeming to notice anything around them.

“Hey buddy, you speak English?” he shouts at me.

Bewildered I respond that I do speak English. I don’t dress out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue but I do think I still look decidedly American.

“Know any good sushi restaurants around here?”


Astonished and frustrated he lets out, “You don’t?”

I am annoyed at his frustration. I laugh at his astonishment. “I’m just visiting, man.”

“So are we” the girlfriend chimes in.

Still holding hands with her, he walks both of them in a circle forming a little arc as he looks up to the Tokyo sky. No directions to a good sushi restaurant are forthcoming from the neon lights.

“Just walk around and go into one that is crowded with Japanese people,” I offer. I recall how unapealling a conveyor belt sushi restaurant full of non-Japanese people looked to me earlier in my trip.

He makes a sound that confirms he heard me but that he doesn’t think much of the advice.

I leave them in their desperate search for a good sushi restaurant in Tokyo. I spot another alley I have yet to explore. I duck down it leaving the bright lights behind me.