The Almond Diet
I saw the two of them outside Shinjuku Station looking as whitebread and indistinguishable as when I had met them the day before. To my dismay, they had already eaten dinner. My vision of watching them squirm as they sampled sea urchin, raw horse, fish eyes, and more of the most unappetizing cuisine I could successfully order evaporated in an instant. They told me they had heard good things about Kabukicho from a Japanese man they met while working on behalf of Uncle Sam, it was a shady area of town but nowhere in Japan was scary enough that I had any qualms about leading employees of the state there. I took off in the vaguely correct cardinal direction wondering what these vanilla diplomats were looking for on their last night in the Far East. They were both young enough that I felt comfortable dropping the occasional distasteful word into our conversation but just a little too old and serious for me to suggest we stop at a convenience store and grab roadies for the walk. We marched on, sober and silent.
I was thankful that no one was forcing conversation amongst our suit-clad trio, the best way to enjoy Tokyo is to just shut up and take it all in. There is such a massive sensory overload that conversation is an unnecessary distraction. At any Tokyo second, the twentieth most interesting thing in your field of vision is still going to be worth going home and telling your friends about. The first ten minutes of the walk our necks were craned up at the ten-story tall impossibly narrow buildings, each floor containing its own bar suited to a very specific taste. When there are 30 million people crammed into a relatively small space spending all day pretending to be emotionless robots, the evening is a time to let loose in whatever manner suits you. There is a bar for everything and I mean EVERYTHING. Want to watch girls in bikinis and robot costumes fight under strobe lights? Done. Want to watch replays of the 1978 Japanese Women’s national soccer team beat up on Mongolia? Boring, but done. Want to watch Pikachu and Sailor moon Jello wrestle in a kiddie pool? You’re going to have to choose between five bars for that.
The Japanese social law of subtlety added an extra layer of intrigue to picking a place to imbibe. In Japan if you are telling a female coworker they are dressed too casually it would be rude to say “Wow, that’s a short skirt!” instead you go with “You must be cold!” which really means “you look like a prostitute and your slutty outfit is distracting myself and the rest of the office.”. As the token white guy, I chose to blatantly ignore the subtlety. My bosses and coworkers often said to me, “Eh higue sigoui!” (Wow, that’s a strong beard!). The Japanese response would have been to cover it with both hands, cower and say “iie, iie,” waving your hand back and forth in front of your face before running home and shaving it all off. However, my response was typically something like “arigato gosaimasu, mai nichi mizu dozou,” (thank you so much, I water it everyday) which I thought was hilarious but never resulted in more than a puzzled expression from whomever was attempting to tell me to stop showing up to work looking like a caveman.
When this law is put in the context of bars things get tricky. The names are typically written in one of the two phonetic alphabets so I had no problem reading them but that didn’t help much, for example, the anime Jello wrestling bar might be called Pokemon Playground Bar, the bikini robot bar Megatron vs Hal 9000 Bar, neither of which is very helpful when it comes to being an ignorant tour guide. As our walk took us through progressively seedier neighborhoods our eyes drifted down to street level to notice the utter lack of homelessness and the thriving population of blackout drunk men in suits throwing up in the middle of the street at 8:30 on a Tuesday. Greg and John remained silent trying to take in the overload of sights, sounds, and smells with an occasional gasp or point of the finger and I lost myself in a hypothetical negotiation with a Japanese Pimp, if these two had chosen this area with a hidden agenda I needed to be prepared.
John brought me back to reality in the middle of trying to explain to the pimp that Greg was looking for someone with bigger boobs dressed as Squirtle. I zoned in with both of them staring at me. “Sorry, what? I was trying to remember how to order a beer in Japanese.” I figured a lie was better than the alternative unless Greg really was looking for a buxom robot from outer space, then he would be relieved his guide was so well prepared.
“I thought you spoke Japanese?” John asked wearily.
“Uh, yeah I do but where I live the dialect is totally different if I spoke like I did at the bars up north, no one would understand a word I was saying.” Although that was mostly true and the dialect was wildly different, I could find a beer at an 8 AM Monday morning, Mormon AA meeting, no language barrier would keep my tour sober.
“Oh, that’s crazy man, so what do you do here again? No one at the embassy really knew.”
“A lot of random stuff, I work in a town government office in a small town up north. I actually work for the town in Oregon that I’m from, Hood River’s, sister city. I go to schools, events, give speeches, but mostly just walk around and be as foreign as possible.” It was a tough job to explain and I usually just shortened it to token white guy.
“You go to work like that?” He asked skeptically.
“Yeah, I’m supposed to be a weird American so it works perfectly.” They nodded, more confused than ever. Nowhere in my job description did it tell me to be weird but I took it upon myself with gusto to demonstrate to the people of rural Japan how crazy the big wide world really is.
“You guys lookin to see some titties tonight?” A big black guy butted in much to my relief.
“Nani? Ego wakaranai.” I responded, telling him I didn’t speak English and trying to look confused.
“Konbanwa, Opaai hoshi?” he asked immediately in perfect Japanese.
“Lo siento, no hablo Japones,” I responded, suppressing a grin.
“Chi chi quire mirar este noche*?” he replied without skipping a beat.
“Fuck! You’re good man but I think we’re alright, I’m about to take these guys to Kabukicho.”
“Awe, I see so you’re looking for more than titties tonight, I can help you with that too bro” I returned his fist bump, ignored the statement, and ushered my confused followers onward.
“What just happened?” asked Greg as soon as they caught up.
“There are tons of Nigerian club promoters and pimps here, they all speak like ten languages and scare the shit out of most of the Japanese people.”
Both nodded too confused for questions and reverted back into their own thoughts.
A dramatic increase in sleazy bars and people trying to sell us “services” on the street signaled we were in Kabukicho the streets became narrower and windier but the Japanese men stumbling around were the exact same ones that had spent their days trading on JPX and planning the newest Tokyo subway addition. We meandered down random alleyways for a few minutes, some of them so narrow the three of us couldn’t walk side by side. It seemed neither of them was going to suggest an endpoint so at complete random, I picked a bar “Ichiban Scato baru”
“Nani baru desu ka?” I asked the man at the door who was flanked by two bouncers.
“Scato Baru, sen en desu,” he responded robotically.
“It's a scat bar, whatever the fuck that is and it costs 1000 yen so there will probably be some form of entertainment,” I told Greg and John as I reached into my pocket and fished around for the correct change.
“Hmm, scat, maybe isn’t that a kind of Jazz?” Greg asked no one in particular.
“Yeah, I bet there will be some great live music,” I said sounding hopeful but knowing that the only live music we would find was the squawking of Whitney Houston in one of the ten thousand Tokyo karaoke bars. I didn’t know what would be in this tiny bar but I was sure it wasn’t live Jazz. I waited patiently while they struggled to locate and count the appropriate coins.
Once inside we took a seat and were instantly approached by a scantily clad overly friendly waitress. There was a row of booths, a bar lined with stools, and very little in the way of decoration. Blue and purple lights ringed the bar and tables, it was modern and bland and looked like what I imagined a sophisticated business lounge looked like. The rest of the clientele were suit-wearing Japanese men either alone or in small groups, everyone sipping drinks and talking quietly or sitting back playing on phones. No one paid us any attention as we sat down.
“What you like to drink?” She asked trying to stay enthusiastic while struggling through the English.
“Nama biru mitsu onagasimsu,” I held up three fingers and pointed at the picture of a draft beer to avoid any confusion. The Asahi came out in frosty glasses with an excess of head as the Japanese preferred. We mostly sipped and let our eyes wander although there wasn’t much to keep them busy, it seemed like our ten dollars had gone to waste at one of the bars catered towards actually just sitting in a bar and not being bombarded with lights and noise.
About 15 minutes into our drinks, the time to order more beer or cut our losses and bail was upon us. I was disappointed in myself at the unmemorable sendoff John and Greg were having and was about to suggest we move on when the already dim lights went dark and the conversation went from a murmur to silence. A dull blue light flicked on in the room above and I realized the ceiling to the bar was made of glass and the entire second floor was now visible, the empty room above was a 3-D canvas for the owner of the bar to project his vision of the world to his drunken patrons. The diplomats looked at me, I shrugged and downed the rest of my beer.
All eyes were on the ceiling expectantly. With no introduction or warning a gorgeous Japanese woman strutted out into the middle of the room above wearing nothing but a pair of ten inch stilettos. She did a quick flick of her long perfectly straight shining black hair, squatted in the middle of the floor hands on her knees and unleashed a gigantic, elegant, soft serve shape dump. From our angle we could see, as the sculpture was being created, the concentration laid heavy on the artist’s face. From another angle it would have looked just like the smiling poop emoji, as perfect as I pile of shit could be. When finished, as elegant and confident as she walked on she strode off, hips swinging. The lights dimmed upstairs and the outline of an old hobbling janitor was faintly visible sweeping the masterpiece into a bucket and running a mop over the spot on the floor where the elegant excrement had lain.
The reaction of the crowd was subdued, none of the other clientele looked impressed and the three of us were wearing the only shocked expressions in the bar.
“So I guess that’s what a scat bar is,” I said trying to judge the mood of my two guests.
“Ummm, is that normal?” Greg looked as if he had just seen his grandparents having sex.
“I honestly had no idea that was a thing,” my genuine look of shock brought my point home. The two of them downed their beers waiting for me to give them some direction after the stunning shitshow had immobilized them.
“I’m gonna go talk to the bartender and see if I can wrap my head around what just happened, I’ll meet you guys outside in two.” Relieved they could return to the relative normalcy of getting accosted by polyglot pimps, they shuffled out averting their eyes from the ceiling and the other spectators.
I turned, took the two steps to the bar, and struggled to formulate the appropriate question to the waiting bartender. “Cheku, onagisimasu.” I said after drawing a blank and asking for the check to keep him from directing his attention to a less shellshocked patron. “Sare wa nan desu ka?” I asked, gesturing to the vicinity where the picture perfect dump had sat minutes earlier. After a short explanation from the bartender and a patient Q&A session regarding several new Japanese vocab words I thanked him and left. Satisfied with the explanation and seeing the humor in the situation now that I didn’t have the terrified faces of the state officials to bring down the mood.
John and Greg were still looking out of it when I found them across the street, taking extra care to avoid talking to anyone that was trying to get them to witness the unknown horrors of another bar.
“So,” they looked up at me, “This isn’t the only one, it’s a scene, the bartender said there are quite a few around Tokyo and probably in other parts of Japan. Each girl works once every three or four days and eats nothing but almonds. That’s all I’ve got for you guys, want to head somewhere else or has Japan scarred you yet?”
“I don’t think I can handle anymore, besides we have an early flight in the morning,” John said relieved I gave them an out.
“Yeah I feel like the night could only go downhill from there anyway,” I laughed at their still horrified expressions. “I’ll grab a cab for you guys, do you have the address?”
There were plenty of cabs in the area so they were gone in minutes after a muted farewell. I started the long walk back to Tokyo Station where I could find a bus to take me the 9 hours back home and eyed every bar I passed with a new appreciation for the creativity required to sustain a twenty seat bar in a city with thirty million people.
*I butchered virtually every translation on this page, if my Japanese was any better, I probably wouldn’t have ended up in a scat bar. Embrace it.