One of the great paradoxes of life in Tokyo is that bars can stay open as long as they want, but the train stops running around midnight. This poses a dilemma for the serious bar-goer. You can cut the night short around eleven thirty and catch the last train, thus revealing a general weakness of character. You can catch a taxi later, but taxis in Tokyo are absurdly expensive, particularly if you live in a suburb. It is worth taking a Japanese taxi at least once in your life, though, since all the exposed surfaces are covered in polite lace doilies and the drivers are impeccably gloved like old-world chauffeurs.
If neither of those suits you, there is also the option of slamming Kirins at 500 yen apiece and powering through until dawn when the trains start running again. I did this plenty of times, spending those halcyon hours in a club in Ikebukuro. The owner was a Nigerian who named his son Michael Jackson. Those were some of the best nights of my life, picking up Japanese phrases in the guts of Ikebukuro and dancing to the heady beats of American pop music in between games of darts and all-out drunken Japanese brawls. The Japanese have reached untold heights in eliminating the need for human social interaction during commercial transactions, so it was always easy to stumble to a ramen place at seven in the morning and order a bowl of noodles from a vending machine.
But for those who don’t want to spend a fortune on taxis or irreparably damage their liver with all-night binge drinking, the most reasonable thing to do is spend a few hours in an all-night internet café until the trains are running again. Throughout Tokyo, there are all-night internet cafes where you can rent your own private cubicle by the hour. They are dark, smoke-filled dens of a decidedly nerdy character where you can read manga, smoke, drink coffee and stream Radiohead’s Reckoner on Youtube for hours on end in a drunken stupor until the entropic force of time’s arrow extinguishes every vestige of heat from the universe. A quick cultural note – in Japan if you are in the bathroom and someone taps on the door, you are supposed to politely tap back to indicate that the bathroom is occupied. Do not yell: “WHAT DO YOU WANT? GO AWAY!” This will only produce a never-ending stream of polite taps from the other side.
One night, after whiling away the hours drinking in Golden Gai, I missed the last train and ended up stumbling around Shinjuku looking for a place to kill some time. I found an internet café that doubled as an all-night karaoke place for youngsters. There was a man in a bear costume outside energetically directing passersby inside so I went in and asked if I could go online for a few hours. The girl was hesitant but took my passport and began to type into the computer – that is, until the man in the bear costume came in and slowly shook his head “No.” The girl apologized and handed my passport back. This is how I learned about Japan’s strict internet laws. OK, fine. The law is the law, after all. But there is something that has always bothered me about that whole situation…. Who put the bear in charge?
Having been blocked from using the internet by a man in a bear costume (statements like this become surprisingly normal when you live in Japan), I soon found myself in the redlight district looking for a place to crash. Amidst all the elderly women of ambiguous ethnicity asking me if I wanted a massage, I spotted a sign that said “Internet & DVD” and rushed up the stairs.
As advertised, at the top of the stairs was a DVD shop. But not the kind I was expecting. There were about seventeen shelves filled with pornographic films – along with one, lonely shelf of regular movies. At this point it was quite late, so I grabbed Public Enemy (the Dillinger biopic starring Johnny Depp, not the off-colour sex romp about criminal deviants) from the shelf and went to the front counter. The counter was designed in the following way: it was a solid wall, with only a single small window cut out at about stomach-height. In this manner, the customer and cashier were able to transact their business without ever having to look each other in the face, ensuring anonymity and privacy and reducing the amount of shame they no doubt were feeling. Naturally, that wasn’t going to work for me so I stuck my head all the way through the little window, much to the surprise and alarm of the Japanese guy working on the other side, and asked if I could get a room.
He didn’t understand English that well and had to go in the back and get help. Thus, I found myself with my head stuck through a pervert window in a sex shop in Tokyo in the middle of the night asking three Japanese guys how much it would cost to rent a room for a few hours and watch a non-pornographic movie starring Johnny Depp. Somehow it all got solved. I was given a key, and a little goodie basket containing condoms, lube, wet naps and a few other items. This was yet another puzzle, since I was very obviously by myself.
I went into the room which came equipped with a very comfortable reclining leather chair, a big screen television playing a single channel of censored Japanese porn, a computer with internet access, and a bed that could be retracted into the wall. This was the moment of epiphany when I figured out I was in a place where salarymen brought hookers and had sex with them, presumably while watching porn. But if that was the case, why was there one shelf of regular movies? It’s often like that in Japan. When one door closes, two more open. And they lead you into weird places.
I put Public Enemy into the DVD player, and reclined the chair which in all fairness was very comfortable. This being Japan, I’m sure it was thoroughly cleaned after every occupant. I’m serious – say what you want about Japan, but they are meticulous about that type of thing. God I hope so anyway. Halfway through the movie I fell asleep. It was one of the soundest sleeps I’ve ever had in my life.