I buy my best friend birthday presents for years without nothing in return. He moves to Tokyo to pursue his dreams of finding a Japanese wife (I mean, other dreams too, but, that’s the one that counts).
There’s a point at which he emails me in a panic because every Japanese condom he has tried breaks. I guess they are a bit smaller than he is used to, and also they’re not as well made as the ones in USAmerica. I trundle myself down to Costco and buy a family-pack of 120 Trojans and ship them to him.
And it’s for this, all the birthday presents, and being such a good friend in general, that he calls me one day and offers to give me an 8 day, all expenses paid trip to Tokyo to visit him. I gladly accept. Tokyo trip!
Tokyo is the first place I visit outside of the US, Mexico, Canada, or Europe. It blows my mind. This is 2002 and the tech-enabled age is upon us. Tokyo is a decade ahead of the United States, and I love it.
We hit the city hard during my Tokyo trip, going to all sorts of events, seeing all the sights, and meeting people. We visit Shinjuku, Shibuya, Akihabara, Asakusa, Harajuku, Rappongi, Ikebukuro, and Ginza. It is constant motion.
Later we also visit Kamakura to see the big Buddha, and we take mushrooms to go hiking in the mountains. It ends up being a very light dose, but makes the mist and the mountain paths seem even more magical than they are. A true Tokyo trip.
Soon after meeting my best friend’s Japanese girlfriend, I take him aside.
“If you don’t put a ring on her immediately you’ll be making the biggest mistake of your life.” I say. I can clearly see that she is the one for him. He waits too long for my estimate, but luckily not too long for her. They just celebrated their 17th wedding anniversary.
Back to Tokyo.
Strangers don’t approach each other in Japan, so I really enjoy not being hit on in bars and having only intentional meetings. There’s one exception to this, however.
I’m in a park with my friend and an older man comes up to us, excited. He’s holding One-Cup-Sake – which is exactly what it sounds like. Sold in the ubiquitous vending machines, it’s a foil covered plastic cup with one generous serving of Sake inside. He smells strongly of booze and I realize he’s only saying hi because he’s a drunk. And probably homeless.
“HELLO! I am Okinawa! Where you from?” he says, beaming.
“I am California!” I reply. He gets excited, but that’s the extent of his English.
“I am Okinawa!” he repeats.
“I am California!” I repeat. We smile and go our separate ways. It’s a highlight of my Tokyo trip.
This conversation is echoed next year at Burning Man, when I awake to find two of my friends sitting on top of a parked Art Car with a Japanese woman in their lap. They’re drinking Sake and beer. They are all three very drunk.
“I like Sake!” one of my friends says.
“I like beer!” says the Japanese woman.
“I like Sake!” says the other one of my friends.
And so on.
Since this time, I have seen this repetitive conversation occur countless times between Japanese and USAmericans. I love it. I think there’s some special chemistry there and it always seems like both parties are simply highly amused by one another and creating conversation out of two languages that have very little overlap.
My best friend is at this Burning Man, and I can’t resist waking him up and making him come be a witness to this scene. He sits quietly watching their volley of beer and Sake love. Then eventually the Japanese woman says something more complicated, and he responds in fluent Japanese.
She is startled, dropping her now empty bottle of Sake.
“Oh you speak!” she says in English. She gets up and tries to sit in my best friend’s lap instead.
Everyone is laughing as he tries to politely decline. He is now a few years into his relationship with his soon-to-be Japanese wife and strictly monogamous.
Back to Tokyo.
One of the friends whose lap that Japanese woman was first sitting in tells me to look up his former roommates in Tokyo, and I do just that during my Tokyo trip. I introduce them to my best friend and they end up being his best friends in town after that.
We visit them in one of their tiny Tokyo apartments. I marvel at the efficient use of space and just how small central Tokyo apartments can be. I can’t sit on the toilet with my legs on the floor, in front of it is the shower and there’s not enough space for my big USAmerican body.
The two Japanese friends have another friend with them, who they are constantly making fun of and hazing. It’s a cute dynamic and they speak English well enough to do so. They force him to take the train clear across Tokyo and back to pick up a tiny amount of hash, at great risk.
He does. When he gets back, one of my new Japanese friends promptly drops it into the shag carpet. They all blame the dumb guy, chuckling at the irony.
We despair, but then get distracted sharing conversation and constant laughter. My stomach hurts from laughing so much, and at one point we are all rolling on the floor. Then the same Japanese friend who dropped the hash startles.
“Wait a minute!” he says, staring at the carpet. He feels through it and picks up the piece of hash.
We all cheer for him.
“Amazing Discovery!” he exclaims, laughing. Later my best friend tells me that this is one word in Japanese, and that that’s the best translation for it, but it’s not exact.
Still, now, almost twenty years later, if I find drugs on the ground the first thing to come out of my mouth is:
It’s the best souvenir from my Tokyo trip.
The hash is pretty good, but since there are five of us it doesn’t go far. Still, at the time hash is rare and very illegal in Tokyo, so I am quite grateful to get to try it.
The two new Japanese friends talk about how much they miss California, and it seems mostly for the drugs. California is druggy, druggy, druggy. They tell me of the time they did DMT there, with the friend who connected us.
Almost everyone I know who has done DMT sees either angels/demons or aliens. Not these.
“I went to Arabia!” says one.
“On a magic carpet!” says the other.
We all laugh.
Later that week I have the classic Tokyo experience of staying out all night because the trains don’t run 24 hours. My best friend and his girlfriend (now wife) and I go to a rave/belly dancing performance and dance the night away, having a blast.
On the train home at 6am I see how this plays out. There’s only two kinds of people on the train, those going to work and those coming home from a night out. My best friend’s girlfriend calls house music “Zoe music”, because throughout the night every time the beat would start I would start bopping.
She falls asleep on the train with her head on my shoulder and I smile in the glow of Japanese friends and a sweet ending to my Tokyo trip.
A couple years later the two friends who got me the hash also join me at Burning Man, bringing in addition one of their friends who they make fun of the entire time. I learn from our mutual friend that this is how they roll, they also had another dumb third wheel when they lived in California that they would tease constantly.
Their friend passes out in a chair for most of the week. Every time I see him he’s sleeping with a grin on his face.
My friend who both lost and found the hash in Tokyo brings his girlfriend. One day I am dressed in a piggy costume and run into them in camp.
“You so cute!” says my friend. He looks at his girlfriend “Isn’t she cute??” he says to her.
I am not used to being called cute by a man in front of his girlfriend, but later my best friend tells me that this word also has a specific meaning in Japanese. Whereas in English it can also mean you are sexy, in Japanese it does not, there’s no connotation for anything but adorableness.
Through these experiences I come to love the Japanese. And so when the friend who lost and found the hash emails me a few years later and asks me to bring an ounce of weed to Burning Man for the friend that was passed out in the chair all week (he sends me photos of him passed out in a chair to remind me who he was), of course I agree. I can’t quite fathom how anyone would need an ounce of weed at Burning Man, but I comply.
I tell everyone the whole week to look out for the Japanese guy.
I’m sitting in camp one day and a procession of people in Kimonos and other traditional dress arrive. They have scarves and lanterns for everyone in my camp. They are dancing and moving in unison and it’s an amazing scene of beauty.
They have children with them. From their midst emerges the guy who slept in a chair for all of his first Burning Man. Somehow, for his second Burning Man he managed to convince his wife and children and 14 other Japanese people to join him, and is managing them all in his own camp. None of them speak English. I’m impressed, it’s no easy feat and he was supposed to be the dumb one.
I give him his ounce of weed, which now doesn’t seem like enough, and my camp-mate brings out a couple popsicles for his children.
“I like these!” says one of the kids.
“I like weed!” I say, knowing that the kid doesn’t understand what I’m talking about.
“I like these!” says the kid, and we giggle together.
Since my Tokyo trip, I’ve never met a Japanese person that I didn’t love, and didn’t immediately break into smiles with.