Thursday, January 4th, 2007
by Elizabeth Koch
Part travelogue and part convoluted love story, The World Tour Compatibility Test is a series of true stories set in exotic locales, as two American writers decide whether to break up or move in together. Click to catch up on Shanghai and Beijing.
On the flight to Tokyo, Todd sleeps with his head in my lap. His cheek is soft and pink and quivers slightly. When I run my finger across his forehead, he stirs, hugs my thigh and kisses me. There is something magical about airplanes—the cramped seats, the recycled air—that makes my love for him so stark and raw I cannot imagine how it happens, how I so easily fall away from him.
Back in New York, while plotting the trip, I’d argued against going to Tokyo. In my mind, the city was a fire drill of blinking billboards and pulsing light machines, a stampede of little people with sharp elbows gutting their way to the nearest Nintendo store. As far as Japan went, I was in it for the teahouses, for the temples and shrines and holy deer in Nara, for the Buddhist monks pacing beneath cherry trees in Kyoto. I did not want my senses assaulted by teenagers in Spice Girl garb parading around sushi counters with their barking robotic dogs. I wanted to meditate until my body dissolved into pixels.
“Please just trust me for once,” Todd had said. “If you hate it, you can eat the crust off my dinner rolls for the rest of the trip.”
“I’d do that anyway.”
The plane lands in Narita International Airport, located a 75-minute Bullet train ride outside of Tokyo’s sprawling metropolis. Inside the terminal I breathe cautiously, expecting fiberglass air to rip through my lungs the way it did in Beijing, but it doesn’t. I’m encouraged.
We buy Starbucks coffeecake and board the Shinkansen— “The world’s first Bullet train,” Todd tells me. It’s an albino snake of a machine, known for whooshing the bulk of Japan’s 126 million inhabitants around the country at speeds up to 186 mph. I clutch Todd’s arm and watch pink metallic homes with slatted roofs race past, a blur of emerald green grass and lime green leaves, glossy black birds perched on streaking electric wires, horizontal billboards with paint-brushed letters saying what I imagined to be happy things. I feel something close to excitement, but I don’t want to get my hopes up, so I just press my face to the glass and try not to blink too much.
We turn down a wide street called Meguro-dori, and I look around for the chain-smoking pod people and whirring electronic things, but all I see are low vintage buildings with art deco lampshades and sleek wooden chairs for sale.
Todd points across the street to a stone building with a wooden awning and sliding glass doors.
“Hotel Claska,” he says.
A bell rings, and there’s a girl standing beside us on the sidewalk with a flamingo pink bicycle balanced between her legs. We step aside, and she pedals past, red tassels streaming from the handlebars.
“Could you tell how old she was?” I ask. “Fifteen? Thirty?”
“I have no idea. People don’t seem to age here.”
We stand there a bit longer, watching the leaves blow in a circle beneath an iron bench. I lift Todd’s arm and wrap it over my shoulder.
“Thank you for bringing me here,” I say softly. His cheek is hot against my forehead.
The concierge, Armando, wears a navy blue suit that’s several sizes too small, which makes his head appear several sizes too big, which seems very Tokyo to me. He greets us with tile white teeth and runs from behind the reception desk and takes both of our bags.
“Armando?” I whisper to Todd. “Isn’t that a Spanish name?”
We chase after him, and I unzip the leather fanny pack that I bought in Shanghai to embarrass Todd.
“You don’t tip here,” Todd whispers, again embarrassed.
“That’s ridiculous,” I say, and hold out 1,000 yen, about $8, to Armando.
He bows. “It is not customary to tip in Japan,” he says sadly. “Would you like to book a massage?”
I look to Todd.
“Can you cope with the guilt, dear?” he asks.
“I can put it off for a while.”
Todd is weak with hunger, so he leaves to find food. By the time he gets back, two masseuses have arrived. They wear gloves made of paper and lay Todd and me down on the twin beds.
“That was the most delicious white rice I’ve ever eaten,” Todd says with his face in a pillow.
“Plain white rice?”
“There was nothing plain about it.”
The masseuses leave and Todd crawls into bed with me and we fall asleep. I wake to Todd kissing me, to his hands clutching my hipbones and breasts. There’s a pulse in my foot, a heat and a throbbing, and I feel dirty suddenly, infested with bacteria and disease. I want to disentangle from his limbs, from the crisp white of the linens, from the hands that threaten to rip through the sutures and sinews that hold me together. This is a major worry of mine, that Todd’s hands will tear me in two.
I get out of bed.
“Where are you going?”
“I have to deal with my plantar warts.”
He sits up, his hair spiking in a fashionably Japanese way. “Now?”
“Look how swollen my foot is! I’m going to buy a knife and lop it off.”
“Please don’t. Let me go find some medicine for you.”
“No, no, I need to get out of here and walk around a little,” I say, and fumble with my wallet to avoid the hurt in his face. I’m always hurting Todd. I wish I could go to him and hold him and let him love me the way he wants to, but I’m a terrible faker. I tell myself I will learn to be a better faker.
Armando explains the way to the nearest pharmacy, and I follow a path that takes me behind Claska and past a bicycle parking lot, where row after row of metal frames and wheel spokes glisten like a silver sea. There’s an attendant in the bicycle tollbooth. I wave to him, and pretend he smiles even though he appears to be meditating with his eyes open.
The outdoor shopping center is paved in green DecoTurf and lined with toy stores and purse shops and take-away food places with sticky buns and seaweed petit fors in the window. I find the pharmacy and try to buy a scalpel, but the store ladies don’t understand my stabbing motions, so I buy scissors and hydrogen peroxide instead.
When I get back to the hotel, Todd has made reservations at a restaurant called Gonpachi. I try not to ask questions, because Todd is sensitive to my negative assumptions, but I have a feeling the place is going to suck.
“What kind of food is it?”
“Delicious. You’ll like it.”
“Sounds perfect.” I sit on the floor and scrape and treat my plantar warts, which have grown a protective callous thick as a manhole cover.
“I’m going to be sick,” Todd says. “I’m waiting outside.”
“Well that’s an inspired response,” I shout after him. I’ve had these warts for five years now, and he’s right—they’re disgusting. But it’s not his job to point out the obvious. Todd’s role as self-crowned perfect boyfriend is to adore my pockmarks and grossities while I continue to act like a lunatic. We are getting off course.
We walk through the outdoor shopping center to the Gakugei-Daigaku subway, and stop in front of the wall map. Todd seems to make sense of it, but to me it resembles a ratted hairball. I do not understand how 20 million people find their way around it every day. He gives me change and we ride in a sterile, tomb-empty subway car to a trendy area called Nishi-Azabu. Todd assures me it’s a safe distance from Roppongi, the Times Square of sleazy sex shops and the humping red-faced businessmen that frequent them.
Gonpachi is a rustic, open-air restaurant with three floors of balcony seating. We sit on the top floor and look over the bamboo railing to the wooden banquets beneath.
“This place is amazing,” I say.
“It inspired the Kill Bill stage set,” Todd says.
“Never seen it.”
“It’s also where the president of Japan took George Bush that one time.”
“Oh good. A little something for everyone,” I say, and flip open a menu. We order one of everything—skewered pumpkin cubes and grilled shiitake mushrooms, wasabi-glazed shrimp and peppercorn peas, spicy ginger toro garnished with edible purple flowers.
“Here’s a useful phrase for you,” Todd says. “Iga kiri-kiri itai.”
“What’s it mean?”
“I have a sharp pain in my side.”
And tonight, we hardly fight at all.
After dinner we hold hands and wander through the neighborhood behind the restaurant. The area is dark and quiet and appears residential, with its curbside flowerpots and narrow red doors. Todd points to a poster that says, “Research Detective: Fickleness Investigation. Shop for making it separate,” with a man practicing karate under a sunset. I take a picture. We pass three teenagers in school uniforms huddled together on the sidewalk, reading hentai, nudie comic books. We round a bend and stumble over a transvestite with a giant blond wig the size and shape of a conch shell. She motions for us to follow her down a narrow staircase.
“Isn’t Japan supposed to be a repressed culture?” I whisper to Todd on the stairwell. “Where are all the bowing people in silk robes?”
“Not at the transsexual dance club,” Todd says.
The stairs lead to a pitch black room lit by a blue neon bar. White leather seating areas are separated by glass partitions, on which Britney Spears music videos are projected. But the music isn’t Britney Spears. The music is Jesus and Mary Chain and Nine Inch Nails. I love this place, where Britney’s schoolgirl camp is appreciated, but not her music; where porn appears in the form of temporary tattoos and watercolor drawings; where men in business suits talk on cell phones with Kermit the frog charms hanging from them.
“Let’s stay in Tokyo an extra day and push back Nara,” I say to Todd.
“Fine by me,” he says, and it is.
Everything is always fine for Todd—even when it shouldn’t be.
To be continued… here!