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Ikebukuro Nights

There's a great deal I want to say, and yet I've had a hard time putting things into words recently. Part of this stems from the fact that when you're in another country, and communication becomes difficult at the best of times, the last thing you really want to do is try to reach out, one more time, and try to connect with people. Instead, you just want to go to bed.

But tonight's been very strange. I'm not sure yet if my jetlag is getting some visceral revenge, or if the poet I keep trapped inside me has rabid indigestion. Nonetheless, I spent the night awake and wandering Ikebukuro.

I was supposed to go to Akihabara today--more about this above--to purchase some electronics. Instead, I sat in and read The Club Dumas, which my girlfriend had gifted to me before I left. (Those who've read the book--or seen The Ninth Gate--will understand why she felt it appropriate.) Between that and some dozing, the day passed to sundown.

Since then, I've been walking my neighborhood. I normally do this when I'm going to be living somewhere any amount of time. I go out and just start wandering about aimlessly, with about a hundred dollars in my pocket and no particular agenda. I want to learn what's where and who's who, and sort of make the place my own. So here's what I've found.

Ikebukuro isn't Shibuya, with its nightlife, fashion stores, and style, nor Ginza, which I've always felt was much the same thing with a higher price tag and better branding. It's not Roppongi-esque in its youth, nor Akihabara-techy. It's just sort of...there.

That's not to say that it's unexciting. It's just that if Ikebukoro has a theme, instead of being a mish-mash of Tokyo all stuck in one place, I don't know what it is. If I were to post pictures, you'd see the same tall buildings with the same brand names--MacDonalds, Bikku Kamera, Tobu--that you'd expect to see elsewhere, although thickly packed on densely-built buildings. There's ramen-ya, a good tonkatsu place right across from my apartment, and enough places to sing while getting drunk to accommodate the entire sixth fleet, none of whom come here on an evening. Just tonight I've been in "Who's Food?", a restaurant specializing in bit of cooking from across the globe; a cafe that desperately wanted to be French open at 3 AM; a billiard parlour; a reflexology clinic; and finally, this web cafe. I don't think any of them close before 5AM.

Indeed, Ikebukuro is relatively gaijin-scarce. When I walked through Ginza the other night, I ran into six or seven; walking through Shibuya, another half dozen. But apart from the owner of a 'British' pub--the owner might be a Brit, though his accent and skin tone make it impossible to tell--I can only recall seeing two foreigners walking around. (Not counting two hostesses emerging from one of the clubs.)

This gets more-so as the night wears on. One thing I forgot about Tokyo--it's got one heck of a nightlife. And that's not to say pubs and bars and clubs and such, though there are those, but just life at night. Combine subways that shut down shortly after midnight with ramen bars that stay open until 5AM and streets that are actually safe to walk in the early hours, and you've got the recipe for a real people-watcher's paradise.

So that's what I did. From about 12AM until 4:30 or so, I sat in the park outside Ikebukoro station, on the concrete under a streetlight, and split my time between reading about Lucas Corso's adventures in summoning Lucifer and watching my neighbors lives go by.

By about 1:30 AM, most of the salarymen out for a party have gone home, although there's still a few wandering about. The later it is, the more drunk they are, but they tend to take taxis when it's this late. Either that, or they're retiring to hotel rooms (or internet cafes). There's still a few streetwalkers about, and they'll hassle the salarymen every so often.

(The interesting thing about the streetwalkers is that they're not dressed that differently from any of the other women hanging about, and don't seem to have any noticeable 'tells' in their clothing: it's not like they're all wearing stockings or something. Normally they stand on a corner and ask passing men if they'd like a 'massage,' and are almost always near a young man dressed as if he were a concierge at a just-above-downmarket hotel.

I've not figured this one out yet: basically, the men tend the 'fuzoku' (sort-of-prostitution) joints in the area, enticing men inside. These are dotted around liberally, but not strictly districted: there's one two doors down from the British Pub, for instance. But whether the women are their employees, or whether the whole thing is one big ad hoc freelance setup is beyond me. Someone told me that the guys on the street scout for men to go into the clubs and women to work in them at the same time, a kind of an odd 'just in time inventory' system, but he could have been having a laugh.

As a foreigner, the women on the streetcorners will ask forthrightly for business; the men won't look you in the eye. And there's signs on some of the doors saying 'Japanese Only.' It's all noisome, but fairly polite, and dies out about 2:30 AM, at least on a Saturday. As I mentioned, though, the interesting thing is that it's difficult, though not impossible, to distinguish between some of the women 'standing on streetcorners' and others who are just...well, standing on the streetcorner.)

Anyway, that's all on the other side of the street from the park. The park itself has a lot of love, but of the legitimate kind. At least three dozen couples spent some of their time between one and three AM sitting around the same concrete area I was. Most were young, probably still living with their parents and out for a night on the town in order to have some time alone. Some were high schoolers in school uniform, even though it was Saturday. I dimly recall something about school on Saturdays when I was here last, so maybe that's the explanation. Otherwise, I don't know. But in any event, the whole setup was very cute, particularly the two couples who were in a band.

They'd sat down under the streetlight next to me, and two boys and two girls. One pair sat with their arms wrapped around each other, and the other two sat on either side of the couple, the whole thing a crescent-shaped boy-girl-boy-girl. Every so often, the 'single' girl would start singing, in a voice that was pretty and earnest. Hell, it might even have been good, but I listen to country music, so you probably don't want to take my opinion.

When she sang, one of her friends would tap time with his shoe. I think they were writing out lyrics, because they'd stop at odd places, discuss, and go on. Frankly, I could make out only a little of what they were on about: music in a foreign language is difficult anyway, and I do not understand this lingo the youngsters are using these days.

The best bit, though, was what seemed to be some attempt at rap. The pretty-voiced girl started doing some staccato squacking while alternately thrusting her face forward, then her hips, then her face again. The effect was awkward and avian, and the group divided over what to do with it. The couple just broke down laughing. The 'single' guy went with it for a while--I think he was trying to score points--and then finally started cracking up, which led the singer into laughter. For the sake of their act, I hope that one is shelved.

Anyway, they--and most of the park--cleared out about 3AM. Japan's pretty safe at night, but not so much that I'd like to be one of the few people in the park at that time, so I picked up my book and walked around a bit. There's a reflexology--at least, I think that's the word--studio two blocks away, complete with a big wooden sign showing the parts of the foot and a hint of good decor. Since I'd wandered by before, and I'd never tried this style of massage, I figured I'd give it a whirl.

Suffice it to say, if you're one of my readers who likes the massage places in New York, you're really missing out. The prices are about the same at this place as a nice spa in New York, but the decor is nicer, the people were incredibly polite, and to top it all, they stay open until 5AM, for those whose feet hurt into the wee hours, I guess.

After that, there's nothing like a good shot of caffiene, so I ventured over to a coffee shop. I'll write more about that some other time--it wasn't a very good example of the genre. But by the time I left, the sky was already getting light. If I wanted to write, I figured I'd better head out.

By this time, the roadworkers--another group who I'd been watching from the park--had stopped for the night. Two groups had been working while I'd been reading my novel, one putting up a new marquee for a restaurant, and the other laying some kind of cable. All of them wore blue overalls, some with handkerchiefs tied about their heads and most in a hardhat when they were actually lifting or placing something. But when I returned from the cafe, they were sitting in a circle on the abandoned street, both crews sharing a thermos of tea, joking in a quiet voice, happy that their 'day' was done.

They were the last people I passed on my way to this web-cafe. The sun is rising, and today I'll make the trip to Akihabara that I should have made yesterday. But before I started on my day's journey, I wanted to record what I'd seen tonight. It's the advantage of taking these walks--I feel a bit more 'at home' now.


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