Fish and Friendship in Tokyo

by Jules Older

On our last visit to Japan:

  •  An American businessman told me, “A bunch of hippies got together for three days and took drugs.” He was talking about Woodstock.
  •  We looked out the window of our ryokan and gazed upon a 13th-century pagoda. On the television in our traditional Japanese room, man was taking the first steps on the moon.
  •  And our twin daughters were conceived on a futon in Tokyo.

*  *  *

It was to Tokyo we were returning, decades later. Our friends – Eipan and Hirame, Eiichi and Hiroko – still lived there, and it was way past time to re-une. And we wanted to see the city we’d been so taken with all those years before. How had it changed? How had it not?

When I tell Hirame on the phone that I’m looking for changes, she says, “Expect to see a lot of blonde Japanese.”

I chuckle. “Not your daughters, I bet.” Despite his years as a grad student (and my roommate) in New York, Eipan is very traditional, a samurai businessman with a 6th degree black belt in Judo. I can hear Hirame’s quiet smile all the way from Tokyo. “They’re brown-hair Japanese.” 

It doesn’t take long to spot other changes, other sames. First stop on the bus trip in from the airport is the La Floret Hotel. As the bus doors open, a young woman in a sharply pressed uniform bows deeply. Score one for the same. On the other hand, where the massive hotel – and dozens like it – now stand, there used to be only small shops. The Tokyo skyline has pushed skyward.

At our friends’ home, there’s a similar mixture. We still take off our shoes at the door, but Hirame greets us with a kiss, not a bow. The ofuru, the ubiquitous Japanese hot tub, still awaits, only now it’s kitted out with bubbles, programmable water jets and digital temperature controls that can be operated from the kitchen.

The next day, we decide to take a bus tour of Tokyo that includes the Imperial Palace. But Hirame asks, “How would you like a Japanese massage instead?”

A massage, after the longest plane ride in the world? Don’t ask me twice! 

What with jetlag and lack of sleep, I’m pretty sure I'll fall asleep as soon as the masseuse’s relaxing fingertips touch my skin. That shows how very little I know about Japanese massage. Because:

A. The masseuse turns out to be a masseur, and

B. Clad as I am in hospital pajamas, he never touches my skin, and

C. He’s not of the relaxing-fingertips school of massage. Instead, he’s into Shiatsu, which roughly translates to Excruciating Pain.  

Did you know that the human body is a mass of pain receptors? Neither did I, but I do now. Every thumb prod produces a new pain in a new place. It hurts so much I start to laugh uncontrollably. Oddly, though, the pain and my tiredness disappear as soon as the massage stops. 

I feel so good that we spend the evening walking the Shibuya district, the gathering spot for Tokyo’s rebellious youth. This has always been a city easily scandalized by youth; this year’s scandal is the Ganguro, the Black Faces. They’re high-school girls who sport blonde hair, dark make-up (thus the name), Prada handbags (these aren’t the children of the downtrodden poor), miniskirts, and six-inch platform boots. They stroll the streets, shocking the citizens who come to stare at them in disapproval. 

I think they’re adorable. Eipan does not. He shakes his head in disgust and mutters, “This is the new Japan.”

I'm not a shopper. But Hirame takes us to Ameyoko, an outdoor market that thrills me. Stall owners loudly hawk giant octopus tentacles, a dozen kinds of seaweed, cheap ties, live crabs and hot chestnuts. Exotic sights, foreign sounds, strange tastes – my kind of shopping. And those chestnuts are a treat to eat.

My favorite place to eat is the sushi house. It’s New York deli meets Kabuki theater. When you enter, half a dozen employees shout, “Welcome!” When you leave, they shout, “Thank you!” In-between, they shout at each other.  

On Wednesday morning I say, “I really should take that bus tour. I still haven’t seen the Imperial Palace.”

“Forget it,” Eipan answers. “We’re up early. Let’s go to the fish market.”

The Tsukiji Fish Market is no palace. Picture an anthill whose narrow corridors are filled with busy worker ants; they race madly about, hauling seafood, cutting seafood, occasionally grabbing a bite of seafood. Now chill the hill with blocks of ice and put the ants on bicycles, motor scooters, forklifts and miniature trucks, all driving at top speed, racing past each other with inches to spare.

“Time for that bus tour,” I say yet again on our final day in Tokyo. “Well,” Hirame replies, “I thought you might enjoy seeing something you can’t find anywhere else.”

That’s why, for the first time in my life, I find myself in a beauty shop watching a perm. But it’s not head-hair that’s being curled this day — it’s eyelashes. Eyelashes! For decades, Reike Katsumo has been putting spring in naturally straight Japanese lashes. One customer regularly flies over from Hawaii for the treatment.

The beauty shop visit reminds me how much I enjoyed getting a Tokyo haircut and razor shave all those decades ago. I remind Eiichi of my time with his barber, he says, “Believe it or not, I still go to the same shop. I'll make an appointment.”

He calls back. “When I explained that this was for an American friend, the barber asked, “Is this the same guy you brought before?”

This trip to the barber is a treat; a meticulous haircut, the best shave I’ve had since my last visit, shampoo, head-neck-shoulder massage, ear trim, oil change, wax and lube. My cheeks are now as soft as a baby’s bottom. 

So. In a week in Tokyo, I get a haircut, watch an eyelash perm, go shopping, see a fish market, eat raw fish, take a hot bath and endure a pain massage. I never do get to the Imperial Palace.

*  *  *

On our last night in Tokyo, we’re all basking in the warmth of reunion and delighting in how fast we get back in the comfortable rhythms of friendship. Hirame smiles her quiet smile: “Between real friends,” she says, “time means very, very little.” 



Jules Older’s travel-humor ebook is DEATH BY TARTAR SAUCE. It’s $3.99 on all platforms.

[photography by Effin Older]

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