Japan: land of the rising sun. The ancient empire we nearly blew off the map in World War II. Home to high-quality electronics, bizarre game shows, and vending machines that dispense beer and used girls' panties (not together…yet). The country teeming with room-clearing avant-garde noise experimentalists and garage-rock revisionists. The Simpsons went there in one episode, and in another, Homer's likeness appeared on a box of Japanese detergent called Mr. Sparkle.
Until a couple weeks ago, that was basically the sum total of my knowledge of Japan, and at least one of those tenets proved to be untrue. (In a crackdown on sleaze, Tokyo's mayor banned the vending machines that hawked used undies. Rest assured, though, that the city still has sleaze in spades.) On April 11, my wife and I undertook a fact-finding mission to Tokyo and Kyoto (hey, you can't write it off if it's a "vacation") and returned with an inordinate amount of food for Taste Test, a few words of Japanese, severe Mexican-food withdrawal, and these notes on the nation's pop culture.
1. Dave Grohl, Chicago (the band), and the universality of shitty music
Our 12-hour flight from Chicago to Tokyo had a cluster of aging Boomers who looked like any other golfing aficionados flying to Japan for business. But there was something perplexing about them: A couple of them dressed a good 20-25 years younger than dignity/good taste would dictate, and they had some younger, rocker-looking guys in tow. One of their louder, chattier members sat behind us on the flight, where his incessant talking quickly revealed that he was a crew member for an aged touring rock band–I guessed
Chicago. A quick trip to their website later and the Chicago tour poster at a record store confirmed it was indeed the band behind "Saturday In The Park" and, uh, "You're The Inspiration." Seeing the members of Chicago on a flight from Chicago? Talk about being in the right place at the right time. (It reminded me of a bit on Todd Barry's on awesome new album about seeing the bassist of the Spin Doctors reading Bass Player magazine.) As I stood in the line behind them for customs, I had two thoughts:
1) Do they have state fairs in Japan?
2) Dudes in bands are the same no matter how old they get: the mischievous "we're on tour" twinkle in their eyes, the jocular teasing among bros, the slight awe that they're getting to go to another country to play music.
Bad music honors no borders, as confirmed by the Muzak and terrible American country-pop and moan-rock blaring from stores' speakers. More startling: New Kids On The Block reunion aside, boy bands are passé in the States, but their Asian counterparts still seem to thrive–or at least exist–if the posters we saw everywhere are an indication. Also universal, at least in Western/Westernized countries: creepily sexualized young pop starlets.
Regardless, the record stores I visited had plenty of good stuff–though my wife saw Jimmy Eat World placed in a "hardcore" section alongside the likes of Converge–and we saw the Foo Fighters play to their largest audience ever in Tokyo at a cavernous convention center on April 13. I know some people like to rag on Dave Grohl & Co., but I love 'em, and I wanted to see how the Japanese arena-rock show differs from its American counterpart.
For one, Japanese shows start really early: 7 on the dot, over by 10 p.m. at the latest, often without support bands. Tokyo's vast subway system inexplicably stops running at midnight, and cabs are exorbitantly expensive, so it behooves the public to see early shows. Speaking of exorbitant prices, that's the second difference between Japanese and American shows. Sure, Americans probably wouldn't grumble too much about paying $80 for general admission at an arena-rock show like the Foo Fighters (though it's still pricey to me), but how about $65 to see Minus The Bear at a club? I don't care how awesome Heller thinks Planet Of Ice is, there's no way I'd pay that–but Dan, my friend and host in Tokyo, did a couple months back.
Tokyo's vast subway system–which is immaculate and generally runs on time, a culture shock to us Chicagoans–and the Foo Fighters' early start time conspired to make us late for the show: We left late, got lost on the subway, then had to take a $70 cab ride (!!!) to the venue. A set list at the will-call table confirmed the show was half over when "My Hero" drifted into the foyer.
Dave Grohl is a chatty guy, and he wouldn't let a little thing like a language barrier keep him from spending seven goddamn minutes yukking it between "My Hero" and the Taylor Hawkins-sung "Cold Day In The Sun." When Hawkins mentioned, before the song, that the backstage crew was laughing at them, Grohl yelled, "Muzzle those fuckers!" You first, Dave.
Still, the band sounded pretty great, and there were a lot of them. Grohl brought along the line-up from 2006's acoustic tour, adding original FF guitarist Pat Smear, a percussionist, and a violinist to the mix. Thankfully, they only played on a few songs; the band pared down to a quartet for the hits like "Everlong" and "Monkey Wrench."
There's no denying Grohl knows how to work the crowd: With his long hair and beard, he looks every bit the arena-rocker he is, and the gigantic Japanese crowd hung on his every word, even if they couldn't understand all of them. The band closed the show–at 9:01 p.m.–with "Best Of You," one of the standout tracks from 2005's In Your Honor. Before the "whoa-oh-oh" bridge toward the end of the song, Grohl abandoned his mic for a long runway that led deep into the crowd. Raising his arms, he sung mic-less with the crowd, whose collective voice nearly drowned out the band.
Then the house lights came up, and we tried not to get trampled by 20,000 or so people literally running to the coat check. From there, everyone squeezed up two small stairways to leave. Needless to say, it was a slow process. We didn't bother looking at the shirts, which probably cost $40 a piece.
2. Psychosis-inducing Pachinko parlors, and Tokyo's odd smoking laws
Hey, what if you filled a room with blinding lights and a deafening wall of noise, then pumped it full of cigarette smoke? You'd have a pachinko parlor, where the Japanese gather to play an odd sort of upright pinball that's a sort of gambling. Take the most obnoxious casino you've ever seen, add a hyper-caffeinated Japanese-game-show aesthetic, and you've got a pachinko parlor. To step inside one is to invite psychosis.
Speaking of smoking, Tokyo has it reversed: You can generally smoke in restaurants and bars, but not outside on the street. Like a restaurant has a smoking section, so does the outside world. You can't just walk down the street smoking: It's only allowed in the immediate area around designated smoking kiosks. So: Smoke all you want in the confined indoors, but not outside. Signs painted on the sidewalk helpfully remind you of the rules. Like the song goes, signs, signs, everywhere there's signs: There are signs on escalators advising you not to walk; inside the subway to tell you to stay to the left; and more like these:
3. The bar with the vibrating mugs and the café where you pay to pet cats
YouTube has a few clips of Kagaya, a bar in Tokyo's Ginza area, but none really captures the whimsical strangeness of proprietor Mark Kagaya. One guide likened him to a Japanese version of Robin Williams, which it presumably meant as a compliment. (Regular A.V. Club readers wouldn't take it as such.)
Drink orders are accompanied by themed sketches Kagaya performs, though none entails homeboy, gay man, or John Wayne impressions. Before all that, though, customers first receive traditional warm towels, delivered via remote-controlled robot. Then Kagaya explains the drink menu, which he has written in crayon. Each order requires customers to select a nationality for their drinks: French, Japanese, American, Russian, Brazilian, and others I'm forgetting. Your choice dictates the skit Kagaya performs as he brings your drinks.
We selected French first. Cueing some accordion music, a beret-wearing Kagaya brought out an easel and drawing pad. After licking and nearly deep-throating part of the easel, he drew a quick sketch of my wife. Drinks came next, served in mugs that shook heavily when you pick them up. (You could flip the power switch once the novelty wore off.) When we selected American for our second round, we were treated to Kagaya's most abstract performance yet: a green frog onesie.
Like a lot of Japanese bars, Kagaya is tiny, only three or so tables with a capacity of four to five people, so the whole experience is awkwardly–but enjoyably–intimate. Kagaya socializes with everyone when he's not bringing out toys, from those old make-your-own-balloon kits to some game that shocks the shit out of you when you do something wrong.
Kagaya serves sake.
Also bizarre, but in a different way, is the Cat Café in the Shinjuku area. Here, customers pay 1,000 yen ($10) to hang out with cats for an hour. Sure, there's a vending machine dispensing free coffee, a Wii, and Internet access, but make no mistake: People are here to see the seven or so cats. From what we could tell, it's uncommon to own cats in Japan, though there are boutiques everywhere that sell dog clothing. The Cat Café is a new phenomenon in Tokyo; rumor has it there are several others in the city, and if the line outside was an indication, there's a demand. Here, feline-loving Japanese can frolic with cats so docile they almost look drugged. When we were there, most of the cats slept–in baskets, on a cat tree, in bowls–undisturbed by the camera-wielding Japanese surrounding them and, occasionally, stroking them gently. When the manager let a black kitten loose, everyone squealed with delight. The little guy charged around the room, playfully batting the other cats and being painfully adorable in general.
A café where you pet cats, a bar where every order comes with a one-man routine inspired by nationality… the restaurant where you catch your own fish was pretty normal by comparison.
4. Fishing for dinner, the quad Big Mac, and the shrimp patty
I think that place was called Zauo; it's in the Washington Hotel in Tokyo. Armed with a fishing rod and a couple little critters for bait, customers fish in a giant aquarium that rings around the main dining area. The old "catching fish in a barrel" chestnut says it should be easy, but the fish at Zauo weren't biting. Had they figured out the scam? Were they too well-fed? Whatever the reason, my first time fishing in 20 years was much like the last time: a lot of nothing. Smacking the fish in the faces with baited hooks didn't work, either. Finally, we gave up and just hooked a flounder and rockfish that lurked in a boxed area of the aquarium.
Yes, fish or fish stock is everywhere in Japan–even the 7-Eleven next to my friend's apartment smelled like fish, thanks to the sushi and rice balls for sale. "But," you're wondering, "what of Burger King? Has America's culinary missionary work saturated the Far East? Do the Japanese know the satisfaction of a Krispy Kreme donut? Are they versed in the ways of the Colonel and his chicken?" The answer is, dispiritingly, yes on all counts. KFC, McDonald's, and Burger King are ubiquitous, with Starbucks bringing up the rear. There's a Krispy Kreme in a mall in Tokyo where locals routinely wait an hour to get the sugary donuts–and they receive a complimentary one to eat while waiting in line.
Of course, it's not surprising that American fast food has permeated Japan–but it is surprising that the Japanese have not only embraced it but also upped the ante. McDonald's in Japan offers a quadruple Big Mac–that's four all-beef patties stacked between its buns for a gut-busting Obesinator that even the most flag-waving jingoist would appreciate.
In the '80s, the Japanese blew us out of the water with their technology and cheap, high-quality cars. Now are they outdoing us in the battle to become a nation of fatsos? Judging by the average body-mass index of the Japanese, we're far ahead of them. U-S-A! U-S-A!
The menus I saw at McDonald's and Starbucks were significantly smaller than their American counterparts, but featured plenty of options you won't find Stateside. In addition to the quad Big Mac, McDonald's offers a teriyaki burger and another made with a breaded paddy of whole shrimp. It looked as vile as you'd think. Not vile, but kinda gross was the Jelly Frappuccino at Starbucks, made with "coffee-flavored jelly." It looked like someone mashed up a bunch of tapioca balls from a bubble tea and deposited them into a Frappuccino. I didn't get to try one.
In the war for Soda Supremacy, the U.S. remains the unequivocal ruler of the world. On my list of items to grab for Taste Test in Japan was the rumored cucumber-flavored Pepsi. Not only couldn't I find one, I couldn't find a regular-flavored Pepsi. A staunch Coke loyalist, I couldn't care less about the Pepsi "Nex" in most of Tokyo's myriad vending machines. Still, a cucumber cola? Could such a thing exist?
In a world where soy-sauce-flavored Kit-Kat exists–coming next month!–yes, but I couldn't find it. In fact, the soda options in Japan basically came down to Coke, Coke Zero, and Pepsi Nex, though Dr Pepper was surprisingly easy to find, too. The non-diet options were made with sugar, not corn syrup, so they tasted a bit sweeter than their cheaper U.S. counterparts.
No, Japan is all about tea, coffee drinks, and the occasional sports drink (like the poorly named Pocari Sweat…mmm, sweat). Anyone looking for Mountain Dew, Sprite, 7-Up, or, damn, even a Diet Coke is pretty much out of luck.
5. Nice hotels that exist strictly for fucking
In Japan, it's apparently customary for people to live with their parents until they marry. (Yes, shuddering is the appropriate reaction.) So what's a couple to do when it feels a little, as Beetlejuice put it, anxious? Visit one of Tokyo's many, many "love hotels" (a.k.a. "fashion hotels") for a couple hours or all night to hit it in privacy. Yeah, it sounds gross, but Tokyo is a bafflingly clean city, and if you can trust any nationality to have clean sex hotels, it's the Japanese.
There's a whole "love-hotel hill" in Shibuya, but the places are sprinkled throughout the city. You've got two options: a "rest" (two to three hours) or a "stay" (overnight). From an amenities-to-price standpoint, it's really hard to beat a love hotel: The Meguro Prince offered a whirlpool tub, sauna, karaoke, DVD/VCR combo, giant plasma TV, an in-room sex-toy vending machine, refrigerator with reasonably priced mini bar, and big bed in an awesome location for about $175 a night. That's an unbeatable price, even if your motivations aren't carnal. (Then the free porn on the TV is just a bonus!) Even better, the hotels are automated or completely discreet; patrons never see the staff unless they order room service or have a problem.
You won't find this kind of vending machine at a Marriott.
Speaking of Japanese porn, wow, is it disturbing. Although my orgy DVD liveblog and Nina Hartley interview may indicate otherwise, I'm no aficionado of the pornographic arts. So maybe I'm a little sensitive about the borderline sexual assaults I saw broadcast over the Meguro's two porn channels. The premise of one had some dirtbag on the street coaxing ostensible amateurs to follow him to a hotel room and, you know, fuck a stranger on camera. I had no illusion that these women were professional ringers, but it was still disconcerting.
6. American celebrities hawking products
Brad Pitt: watches
Cameron Diaz: cell phones (I think)
Scarlett Johannson: coffee drinks
Chloë Sevigny: clothing store
Angelina Jolie: make-up
Tommy Lee Jones: coffee drinks
Check back tomorrow for the first entry in our month-long Japan-themed Taste Test. Ever wondered if there's a cookie out there that will increase the size of your boobs, and if so, what it would taste like? Look no further!