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How to stand guard at a Tokyo bathroom

“I don’t speak English,” the ñato said, pressing an index finger to his nose. Ñatos is what we Cubans called flat-nose people. In English we might have called him pug-nosed, but it’s not the same. I don’t think ñato is an offensive word, some men go by that nickname, but I wouldn’t go crazy with it.
“I don’t speak Japanese,” I replied, fighting the urge to press an index finger to my nose. For all I knew the gesture was a Japanese insult.
It was my third night in Tokyo. Before boarding the direct Pan Am, JFK-Narita flight, I’d promised myself that I would eat whatever was placed in front of me—I was a picky eater—and would be extra careful to avoid cultural gaffes. I didn’t want to offend anyone, least of all my new friend, who in broken English had told me he’d boxed professionally, as a welterweight. Judging by his boneless nose and the constellation of scars around his eyes, I could tell he’d used his face to stop many a punch.
This 1981 business trip was my first visit to Japan. I’d been tremendously excited, never imagining I would get to travel to such an exotic place. As a bonus, I got to stay at the luxurious Okura. The hotel, which features an ever blooming, Japanese cherry tree in its foyer, was located across the street from the American embassy. Also across the street was Rudi Bey’s, a peculiar bar at which, for some reason, we were sitting drinking beer.
I did know the reason: Kennedy. He liked nothing better than beer and that made Rudi Bey’s his preferred choice; a German rathskeller where one sat at long communal tables hoisting steins of beer while belting-out German lieder. I didn’t know what was more disturbing, the waitstaff—skinny Japanese boys wearing ledenhosen and zaftig Japanese girls wearing Bavarian dirndls—or that the all-Japanese clientele knew the lyrics, or that Bauer, one of my colleagues, also knew all the words to the German songs, or that I was one of the bar patrons, or that the songs were performed by a Chilean band.
The previous night we had enjoyed a traditional twelve course dinner seated on tatamis. Our hosts had arranged for a fabulous meal in a restaurant in an ordinary looking building in the middle of the city. But once inside, we were transported to a different world, to a traditional Japanese restaurant whose rooms opened to a perfect garden surrounding a coy filled pond and populated by peacocks and flamingos and cranes and other wondrous creatures. It had been my first Japanese meal and I’d been apprehensive but the dishes were exquisite and the service outlandish. Kimono garbed women served each of us, one by one, kneeling and bowing when entering the room, kneeling and bowing before serving each of us, kneeling and bowing when taking their leave and once more before exiting the room and sliding the shojis closed. (Those women must have had great abs and calloused knees).
Naturally, I’d expected that on our first free night we would expand the experience by doing something Japanese, like visiting a typical bar to sip warm Sake.
Instead we ate at the hotel and walked across the street to this German bar in Tokyo. To dial-up the bizarreness of the evening, someone informed the Chilean band—certainly not me—that a Cuban was in attendance. The band leader called attention to my presence by requesting that I stand and take a bow and calling for a round of applause from the audience. I had to take not one, but two bows. In my honor, the band leader announced that the next set would consist entirely of Cuban songs.
I was stunned. Had they never seen a Cuban? Of course I was touched, and amazed. I would have been even more impressed had I recognized any of those obscure songs, if they were Cuban at all. But hey! It’s the thought that counts, I told myself.
Not that it mattered. The crowd went on drinking and humming/singing along and laughing and my boxer friend was mighty pleased to learn I was Cuban and therefore a boxing aficionado, considering the many great boxers Cuba had produced. I did a lot of nodding and clicking of beer steins and so much smiling my face started to hurt.
After a few more beers and many kampais, we finally—and thankfully—called it a night. We followed Joe, our leader, to the front, to settle the bill with the cashier, who did double duty behind the crowded, gleaming, wooden bar. Kennedy was warned to stay away from the large bell at the end of said bar; striking it meant the ringer would be buying a round and there must have been well over a hundred people at Rudi Bey’s.
While Kennedy contemplated the bell, my Japanese-boxer-friend asked me to guard the men’s room door while his woman-friend used the facilities. Apparently she couldn’t wait for the Lady’s room to come free.
I am not sure how I get into these situations. Even before agreeing, I spied her entering the men’s room. I was considering how to point out that he would be much better suited to guard the door when I noticed that he too had slipped into the men’s room.
Kennedy rang the bell. Some animated discussion followed between the barman speaking Japanese and Kennedy, whose command of English wasn’t great, even when sober. He continued the discussion with a typical Kennedy response; he rang the bell again. Joe had paid and was urging us to leave but I couldn’t: a young Japanese man wanted to use the men’s room.
I speak a couple of languages and can communicate in a couple more, but none of them were Japanese.
I realized my predicament as I tried to explain the situation in English, augmented by improvised sign language. It only frustrated the man who decided to slip past me using some fancy footwork. I managed to keep my body between him and the bathroom door until, eventually, no doubt viewing me as a lunatic, the type of crazy, ugly American he’d been warned against, he gave up and returned to his seat.
By the time a cackling Kennedy rang the bell a third time, I had had to turn back another two men. I was being pulled away from the men’s room door by Bauer while Joe tried to get Kennedy out when the boxer and his woman-friend emerged from the men’s room.
He waved the two men into the bathroom and bowed his thanks to me.
It was a relief to step outside. It was brisk and the coolness on my face felt good. Best of all was the sudden quiet. Joe wasn’t pleased with how the evening had proceeded. He was a thoughtful, measured, serious man, not given to outbursts, but he didn’t approve of Kennedy’s behavior. He felt it reflected on him, on us, on Americans.
Joe, a tall, white haired man, had served in the Navy during the Pacific campaign. That afternoon, while he, Bauer and I were enjoying a boat tour of Tokyo bay, he mentioned that it had been thirty-six years, almost to the day, since he’d first been on Tokyo bay. Back in 1945 he’d been on deck of the USS Missouri witnessing Japanese dignitaries in formal dress and top hats signing the WW II terms of surrender. Since then he’d been to Japan many times. The Japanese treated him with deference, which he returned but, by the way he’d told us about the Missouri, I suspected he had mixed feelings.
I made it back to my room, my head spinning, feeling confused. I had only slept a combined six hours the previous two nights and, between the excitement of being in Japan, the beer, the spending an evening in a German bar in Tokyo and my tiredness, I didn’t feel like myself. I felt weird, as if it wasn’t me on that bed, as if I was living in an alternate reality.
The one guy I knew for sure was happy was ñato, my new Japanese friend. He and his woman-friend had emerged from the men’s room with big smiles on their faces. They were enjoying whatever reality they were living in.

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