Thursday, March 1st, 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, Beijing, Tokyo, a little more Tokyo, two entries in Nara, and the start of Kyoto.
At the end of the Philosopher’s Path we come to a small parking lot. At the top of the parking lot is a temple the size and shape of a hut, which perhaps makes it a shrine. We climb under the rope and stand in front of the structure. Hundreds of pieces of paper are strung across a wooden billboard, which together look like a giant lace bib.
“Look, a proverb board,” Todd says. “Let’s write one.”
He steps up and starts scribbling. I take a piece of scrap paper and wait for inspiration, but I can’t think. My plantar warts are throbbing. I imagine a parasite rooting around the bottom of my foot in search of a place to lay eggs.
I write: “Life is good when you can no longer feel your plantar wart.”
Todd hangs up his note and walks back down to the Philosopher’s path. “Read my note!” he shouts from below.
I unfold his paper. “When the lady I love laughs, I have no complaints in the world. I will make her laugh today.”
My throat swells with sadness and I breathe deeply, knowing the moment will pass.
It starts to drizzle, and Todd tells me he’s tired, that he’s going to go back to the ryokan now. The temples and zen gardens failed to move me, but the area is so peaceful and clean, I’m not ready to leave it. I plan to walk all around Kyoto with no map and no mental route and let my intuition guide me back to the ryokan. How pleasant it is to wander around aimlessly in foreign countries, quiet in the mind and numb in the body, in no hurry to be anywhere or accomplish anything
I wait with Todd at the bus stop, and we hold each other close. I miss him most in moments like these, when he’s about to walk away from me. Five buses come and go and we keep holding one another as the rain falls all around us. A young boy with a mangled harelip scar sits on the bus stop bench, watching us with bewildered fascination.
When I get back to our room, soaking wet and chilled, Todd is jumping up and down on the mattress on the floor. Empty hangers chime in the closet.
“Todd, you’re going to get us kicked out!” I say.
“Germany is winning, baby! We’re gonna see Germany play in Munich!” He laughs like a hyena and tackles me to the ground. “I bought you a present.”
He dumps a bag of Chupa Chups on my chest.
“Don’t look so sad! I bought them to make you happy. Are you happy?”
“I’m happy,” I say unhappily. “You do so many nice things for me.”
He kisses the top of my head. “My poor little guilty one.”
I strip out of my clothes and turn on the shower. The hand-held nozzle flips off the handle and whips into the air and slams itself so hard against the wall it cracks the tile. I try picking it up three times, and every time it rips free from my hand and bangs against my kneecaps.
Todd opens the shower door, laughing. He’s naked. “Sounds like you need some help,” he says, and laughs even harder when he sees me. “You look like a wet lab rat.”
“I wasn’t going to wash my hair,” I say.
“Oh, poor thing,” he says, massaging my back, “you only washed it last week.”
“Does it smell?”
“A little like road kill.” He hands me the nozzle and squeezes shampoo in his palm and begins scrubbing my scalp. It feels good to let Todd take care of me, and for me, good isn’t the most comfortable feeling.
At the reception desk, Metal Mouth has been replaced by a twenty-something kid with floppy 70s bangs. We ask him where to eat that’s not too far, since it’s after 9 p.m. and we have to be in by midnight. He suggests the Gion district, the geisha area where young women paint their faces white and are expected to provide government officials and businessmen with such services as “making light conversation.”
“Sexual favors, you mean,” I say.
“Just conversation.” I don’t get it.
The Gion district is too far, so the receptionist writes down the name of a restaurant in the popular Pontocho area, which runs alongside the Kamo-gawa River. “I’ll call you a taxi,” he says, and gives us the Ryokon Shimizu card. “Please be in by midnight,” he says.
We go outside to wait, but it’s still raining, and the taxi is taking too long, so we walk out to the main street. After five more drizzling minutes, we spot a free cab and hail it.
“This is bad karma,” I say to Todd in the car. “The other guy will probably pull in right after we leave, and then the ryokan guy will get mad at us, and we’ll be forced to sleep outside with the gnome and the plastic cat.”
Todd smiles gently and touches my cheek.
“You look so pretty,” he says.
“You’re just saying that because my hair’s clean.”
He laughs, and kisses me.
The Pontocho District is packed with kids. A group of drunk boys in Beatles suits form a human chain in the sidewalk that no one can pass. I march up to one of them and show him the name of the restaurant. He glances at me, then at Todd. “You two married?” he asks. His friends find this hilarious. The kid wraps one arm around my neck and the other around Todd’s, and leads us to the corner. “There,” he says, and points to a second floor restaurant with a bright, Wal-Mart glow to it. Todd and I walk up the stairs and peek inside. The booths are so stuffed that people’s legs stick out in the aisles. The waitress kicks a napkin wad on her way to the cash register.
“It’s official: Japanese locals have the worst restaurant ideas,” Todd observes.
We cross the street to a parallel neighborhood with more upscale restaurants and shops, but just as many drunks shouting and throwing bottles at buildings. A waterway runs through the middle of the sidewalk, and a group of kids sit on the edge, their legs dangling. One leans over the side and pukes.
Todd points to a white couple walking away from us. “Look at that hippie guy. What’s he doing, kneading bread?”
A bony man with dreadlocked hair has his hand on his squat girlfriend’s butt. He’s juggling her ass cheek with unusual panache.
We try our luck down an alley so narrow we have to walk through it one at a time. Todd reaches behind me for my hand and manages to clock his elbow.
We end up at a sushi bar, one with a taller ceiling and fancier waiters than most sushi bars. We sit at the counter and watch the chef toss back a shot of sake with two businessmen seated at the other end. The chef shouts something in Japanese, then picks up a butcher knife and hacks away at a large piece of tuna.
Todd nudges me. “It’s John Belushi from Samurai guy.”
A man in a tuxedo jacket takes our order, and is perplexed by my request for cooked shrimp. He excuses himself to ask the sushi chef if such a thing is possible, and the sushi chef appears to glower at us. But perhaps he is simply drunk.
“He’s going to come over and hack off all our fingers,” Todd whispers. “And then you’ll probably eat them.”
Dinner is delicious and so is the sake, and when we’re through, the chef comes over to our section and drapes his arm around our tuxedoed waiter’s neck. “Good?” he asks us.
“Delicious,” I say. “May I take a picture of you and the other nice man?”
“Nice man?” the chef asks, and points to tuxedo man in mock disbelief. He grins. I take a picture. Tuxedo man smiles warily.
The chef reaches into his pocket and pulls out his cell phone to take a picture. “You scoot,” he says to Todd, and waves him out of the way.
“Jesus,” Todd mutters.
The chef takes a picture of me, then leans across the counter and motions me nearer. “You married?” he asks.
“Am I even here?” Todd shouts.
When we leave, Todd is still angry and muttering.
“Let’s go have a drink,” I say.
“Do we have time?”
Finding a regular bar is unbelievably difficult. We walk in and out of a strip club, an empty art gallery, and a smoke shop where a man is sleeping with a pipe in his mouth. We finally find a place to drink. Todd orders us two shochus on the rocks. I unwrap a Chupa Chup and dunk it into my drink.
“Sometimes I think you drink hard liquor as an excuse to eat candy,” Todd says.
“No question,” I say.
Two sips in we ask the bartender the time, and he shows us his watch: 11:40. We gulp down our drinks and race outside and spend ten minutes we don’t have trying to hail a cab. When one finally pulls over, I hand him the ryokan card. He frowns and mutters to himself.
“Do you know where it is?” I ask loudly.
He says nothing. We pull into traffic and he turns a sharp corner, winding through neighborhood after pitch black neighborhood as the car’s digital clock counts to midnight. We are quite evidently lost.
“I told you this would happen!” I shout. The driver jumps. “Bagging on that other cab was bad karma!”
“Elizabeth! Calm down!”
“Fuck!!!!!” I scream.
The driver swerves into a dark alley and slams on the breaks. He turns around and shakes his index finger at me. He then picks up the ryokan card and lifts up his glasses and starts dialing on his cell phone. A light comes on outside the building just ahead of us. In the doorway we recognize the receptionist who recommended the crappy restaurant.
“I can’t believe we made it with one minute to go,” Todd says as I pay the driver. The receptionist smiles merrily as we approach him.
“Japanese water,” the receptionist says, and hands each of us a glass mug. The two guys standing behind him crack up. I don’t get it. Todd races up the stairs.
I’m drunk and thirsty, so I gulp down the Japanese water as I climb the stairs. “Jesus, this is sake,” I say. “It’s good!”
I look up and bump into Todd, who is standing on the steps right in front of me.
“What are you doing, freak? Go!”
He looks over his shoulder, pushes his butt into my face, and farts loudly.
Todd is a very clean person. He showers first thing every morning and most nights, too, even if his only activity of the day was to walk across the street for a sandwich. He lectures me when I leave tea wrappers in the kitchen, or apple stickers inside of the sink. He sends me texts messages throughout the day that say things like, “I cleaned up all those little white socks that smell like your feet that someone left all over your apartment.” Never once has he farted near to me.
I start laughing so hard I spill most of my drink. “We have to…wipe…wipe…” Todd’s laughing too, snorting really, but he gets my meaning. He bends down and uses the tail of his blazer to mop up the floor so no one slips and breaks his neck in the middle of the night. We laugh our way to the room, where I fall on the mattress, and Todd lifts up my $35 Tokyo dress and heaves it over my face. I think of Ben Franklin’s autobiography, where he writes about wanting to put a bag over his wife’s face during sex, which makes me laugh so hard I make Todd stop doing what he’s doing, because I fear the overstimulation of it all will kill me.
The phone rings the next morning, so loudly that I cannot believe the sound is coming from a phone and not a fire truck. I pick up. It’s the receptionist. He tells me that departure time was an hour ago.
“I think we need a minute,” I say.
“How many minute?”
I lift up my head and look around. My dress is draped over the television. Todd’s blue bag is hemorrhaging clothes, and there are wrappers all over the mattress from lollipops I don’t remember eating.
We’re out of our room in half an hour, but the receptionist charges us for an additional half day, which pisses me off.
“I think the sushi chef poisoned me,” Todd moans.
We head straight to the train station because we remember the gluttonous mess of delicious food options the Tokyo station offered, and we assume the Kyoto station will offer the same. But the Kyoto station is nothing like the one in Tokyo. If Tokyo is the land of Oz, Kyoto is Armageddon.
“What kind of fucking idiot of an urban planner would think that cramming a hotel, a fourteen-story mall, and the country’s second largest train station under one roof would be a good idea?” I shout to no one in particular. “This is a perfect example of the clusterfuck of misery that results from central-planning.”
“Go free market,” Todd mutters.
The restaurants are not conveniently located on the first floor as one might imagine, but are tucked into random corners of the 7th and the 14th floor. The elevator is so crowded with pregnant mothers and baby carriages that we have to wait through three heats to get on. Todd suggests that we get out on the 7th floor because it’s closer. We wander through a maze of lingerie and men’s cologne stands for ten minutes only to find one noodle shop with grease spots on the walls.
By the time we reach the 14th floor, my thirst is so extreme that I imagine snatching a toddler’s baby bottle and racing out of the elevator with it. After passing ten fried fish restaurants that all look the same, we eventually find a Japanese-French bistro, which is perfect because Todd craves French toast, and the only thing I want in the world is sparkling water.
The restaurant is out of sparkling water, and I handle this information poorly.
“I’m going to search this entire fuck-hole mall until I find sparkling water.”
“If you tell me to relax again I’m going to tear your fucking head off.” I leave him and ask every third person where I might find some sparkling water, which leads me to a pizza place that serves Pellegrino. I ask the host if I can order a large one to go.
“Hold on,” he says, and disappears for three thirsty minutes.
He comes back and shakes his head. “We cannot allow ‘to go.’”
“I’ll pay double. Three times.”
He shakes his head no.
“We just cannot.”
“What’s with the rules in this fucking country!” I shout, and storm back to the restaurant where Todd is waiting to lecture me for acting like a lunatic. We’re talking so loudly everyone in the restaurant has stopped what they are doing to watch the crazy Americans go at one another.
On the way back down the elevator, Todd stands as far away from me as possible, and neither of us says a word on the bullet ride into Tokyo. I think about how strange our relationship must seem to an outsider, what with the aggressive silence and stomping around like grade school children. How odd that my reckless temper, my carelessness with his feelings, doesn’t seem to dent Todd’s determination to make this relationship work. No amount of arguing has caused us to examine the ultimate point of our couplehood. We simply are together, and neither of us questions it much.
Next, back to Tokyo…