After re-reading my previous post, I realized that I use the word “Roppongi” fairly often without ever having explained its meaning. Roppongi is the name of a district in Tokyo that’s famous for two things: nightlife and foreigners. As a result, it’s become recognized as one of the most dangerous areas in the country. Which in Japan means that there’s an occasional piece of litter on the ground or scribble of graffiti on a wall. If you don’t watch your back, maybe you’ll get hustled into a bar and end up spending more on drinks than you’d intended to. But unescorted young girls can still be seen walking even the darkest alleys at all hours of the night.
Ah Japan, how naive you are. It’s no wonder half your residents are too afraid to vacation in the US 😛
Because of Roppongi’s high foreigner population, many long-term expats tend to shy away, but personally I love it – you get a uniquely international flavor that makes for some really entertaining nights out. Not just in one area, but in one single building you’re likely to find a Japanese izakaya above an Arab hookah bar above a Mexican salsa bar. Next door you’ll find an all-you-can-drink nightclub full to the brim with European models, and next to that a Thai “massage parlor” offering all the conveniences money can buy. Whatever your thing is, Roppongi’s got it.
So after two consecutive nights of partying till dawn, I awoke on the evening of December 31st with just an hour and a half until my appointment at the Asahi TV building…for my debut on live Japanese TV. I’d come halfway across the country for tonight’s rare opportunity. But as excited as I thought I’d be, the closer midnight drew the less I wanted to go through with it.
This is partially because I was nervous that I’d get asked some question I wouldn’t understand, instantaneously embarrassing me in front of half the nation. And partly because going on TV would mean giving up the chance to spend New Years Eve out and about in Tokyo, one of the craziest cities on the planet. The decision wasn’t made any easier by the fact that a quick pop-in to the hostel lounge revealed an even more rowdy crowd than two nights earlier; in less than half an hour my phone managed to fill up with over 15 numbers and emails of Japanese tourists, American English teachers, European skiiers, and Australian backpackers, all planning a wild night on the town together. And I was about to turn it down to watch a 6-hour political debate? Was I nuts?
Apparently. But I’d already given up my chance to bike to Tokyo for the sake of this opportunity, so I couldn’t cop out just because a bunch of drunken backpackers were egging me on. With their shouts and laughter fading in the background, I headed off…to an evening that would indirectly make the rest of my winter vacation one of the most insane and crazy weeks of my life.
When I arrived at the studio, I was immediately ushered into a meeting room filled with 50 or so Japanese college students. Realizing that I was the only American there (for a debate on US-Japan international relations), I took a deep breath, tried not to think about how little political vocabulary I actually knew, and dug into the boxed lunch and tea they’d provided. Then the guy next to me looked over and said in perfect American English, “Hey man, how ya doing?”
I almost peed my pants.
It’s a bit tough to describe how living in a society as homogeneous as Japan affects one’s perceptions of the world around them, because in the US there truly is no “type of person” that stands out among the rest. But in Japan, you start to notice anyone who’s not Japanese. If you see someone with blonde hair from a block away you can’t help but stare. And after enough time hearing nothing but horribly accented English, the sound of a native speaker actually starts to become surprising. Even during my first few months back in the US after a year studying in Japan I found myself occasionally jumping at the sound of an English conversation from a passing couple in a parking lot or shopping mall. It’s really quite a strange feeling.
Anyways, the guy next to me turned out to be a Chinese-Canadian whose parents are now working in Tokyo; we spent the next ten minutes or so chatting about how nervous the both of us were, until little by little a few other foreigners started to trickle in. Phew, what a relief.
Soon everyone started to count out loud. Backwards. In Japanese. Then they cheered. I was confused. And I realized that it had just officially become 2007. Which meant that it was time to get on stage.
In typical Japanese fashion, the staff spent what felt like 20 minutes making sure everyone lined up in perfect order before leading us into the studio, only to rearrange us several more times once we got to our seats. Myself, Eli, and Dan, the three Americans, were positioned in the front row directly behind the announcers. Gee, I wonder if that could’ve been intentional? 😛
Then the theme song started playing, huge cameras on cranes flew across the room, and the 放送中 (Now Broadcasting) lights flickered on. Two well-known TV personalities stood no more than two feet in front of me announcing the day’s news to the world. That’s about the time that it really hit me, what a unique and interesting situation I’d managed to get myself into. Again.
I couldn’t help but look over at Eli and whisper “Holy sh*t dude, look where we are! We’re sitting in the audience of a live TV studio in Tokyo! Have you ever done anything like this??”
“Bro, I’m a poor Mexican from the ghettos of Oceanside, what do you think?” he replied.
I spent the next six or seven hours trying to keep my eyes opened as a group of people who’d obviously never been off this tiny island argued vigorously about international situations they clearly didn’t understand. Even to someone as uninterested in politics as myself this was amusing. But to Eli, a pro at the Japanese language and a political enthusiast, it was enraging. Thanks to his quick explanations during our coffee-chugfests (aka commercial breaks) I vaguely began to understand why.
Then, around 6 or 7 am, it was finally time for some Q & A. The hostess walked over and put the mic right in my face. I indicated her over to Eli. The camera zoomed in and he started talking.
And for that, I went home with $100 cash in my pocket. I wonder if the Japanese audience members were pissed that the foreigners got $100 and they only got $30…?
Yeah, the xenophobia over here can get irritating at times, but I think in the long run Westerners come out way ahead 😛
When the whole ordeal finally came to a close and I stepped out into the freezing morning air, the sun had just started to rise behind Tokyo Tower (fourth picture above). My new friends and I were all beyond exhausted, so we said our goodbyes and headed home to our nice, warm beds.
Eli, Jing-Jing, Dan and I headed up the hill and into the heart of Tokyo to check out the aftermath of New Years Eve. And guess what: There were still drunk people everywhere, and a block-long line at the entrance to Velfarre, one of the city’s premiere nightclubs. But we all agreed that it was far too late (er, early?) to pay the hefty admission fee, so we had a few beers at a popular bar called Wall Street followed by a quick ramen breakfast at Tenkaippin and the obligatory visit to Meiji Shrine (a tradition for New Year in Japan).
As we made our way across the city towards the shrine, Dan and Jing-Jing listened as Eli and I exchanged stories about crazy experiences, ex-girlfriends, family histories, and so on. We clicked almost instantly, and I felt like I’d just met up with a lifelong best bud…for the first time ever. It was interesting to learn how despite our strikingly similar personalities we’d come from such opposite backgrounds. While I was raised in a well-to-do household with attentive parents always urging me towards good grades and a bright future, Eli grew up in a very poor Mexican family, hanging around with gangs, picking fights, and eventually getting kicked out of high school. But at some point he made the decision to turn his life around, and by the time he graduated he’d taught himself fluent Japanese and earned a full college scholarship – the first in his family. He’s become just as obsessive a student as I, and spends his free time doing volunteer work and giving speeches at continuation schools about how it’s never too late to turn your life around. The very definition of a “self-made success.”
Now, I like to consider my group of friends pretty diverse, and although I feel equally close with all the members of my “core group” there are clearly certain activities that go hand-in-hand with certain people. I’ve got a best friend who I party with and another who I play video games with; one to lift weights with and another to watch movies with. But since reuniting with Nick in college, I don’t think I’ve met anyone as compatible with my style of partying as Eli. Aside from a short mid-week excursion from the city (which I’ll write about next time), I found myself spending the week sleeping on his couch, the two of us staying out until 10am or later every night until I had to return to Kyoto for work. And every single night seemed to offer a more unique, memorable, or shocking experience than the previous.
Going back to a quote earlier in this post, it was my by-chance meeting with Eli that would go on to make the rest of my winter vacation one of the most insane and crazy weeks of my life.