"I often look ridiculous in Japan. There's really no way to eat in Japan, particularly kaiseki in a traditional ryokan, without offending the Japanese horribly. Every gesture, every movement is just so atrociously wrong, and the more I try, the more hilarious it is." - Anthony Bourdain
I was standing in the middle of Center Gai Street in Shibuya, Tokyo, wearing a rain soaked white nightgown and a scraggly black wig when I realized what a dreadful mistake I had made.
Swirling all around me was a tidal current of strangers dressed as bananas, devils, aliens, monsters, Mario brothers and anime characters that I would never understand. The constant stream of people ebbed their way down the street with no apparent beginning or end. I scanned the faces that weren't hidden behind masks for one I recognized. No dice.
I reluctantly pulled my phone out to see if it was still alive. The bastard had decided to stop charging after a few days on my trip. Three years without fuss, my phone had given me, but the second I truly, unabashedly depended on it - here on foreign soil - it had betrayed me. The perfect moment for the biggest "fuck you," I suppose. The little Android had been hanging on by a thread the last I checked, with 3% battery life. I pressed the power button. It was of no use, the little guy was dead.
My companion, Jamie, who was prone to situational unawareness, had disappeared after I turned around for a minute to take a couple of pictures with a pair of space girls with glowing antennae and Jason Voorhees. I was in the belly of the beast, the biggest Halloween street party in the world, and I had no way of contacting my lost travel partner. She was dressed as one of the many, many bloody undead nurses, the most common costume of the night, so tracking her down was something of a task.
My only hope was to stand on the side of the street and have her notice me. My disguise of choice for the festivities was Sadako from the Japanese horror film Ringu, or Samara from the American remake. As far as I'd seen, I was the only jackass dressed as this particular character. This was reflected in the dozens of times citizens caught a glimpse of me and a look of pure terror crawled across their face. I'd be lying if I said I didn't love the feeling.
"ALAN!" a dismayed - yet familiar - voice cried out from behind me. I spun around to see the bloody nurse I'd been looking for. Jamie pulled her red soaked face mask down to reveal a dangerous scowl. I wasn't a fool - I knew immediately how it looked. She was lost for 15 minutes in another dimension, no way of communicating to the monsters around her, and here I was… taking pictures with the locals, living it up and untroubled.
"There you are! I was waiting for you to find me." A beat passed. "Look, take a look around. You tell me how many nurses you see. It was more likely you'd find me standing here than me wandering up to 27 zombie nurses."
Jamie nodded but said nothing. I turned around and rolled my eyes. She knew I was right, but was upset that she didn't have a legitimate reason to be mad at me. Let's pause here for a moment, in case this makes me sound like some sort of self righteous asshole. I mean... I am, but I still want to shed a little light here.
Ten months prior, Jamie and I had been dating for over a year. She shared excitement in my life long dream to visit Japan, so we bought tickets and booked an AirBnB. Flash forward four months later, and we find ourselves with an insurmountable relationship problem, and we split. She moves back down to Los Angeles, from the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. I very quickly learned the plane tickets aren't exchange or refund eligible. After something of a cool down period, we assessed the situation as best two ex lovers could. We landed on still taking the trip, but to stay out of contact in the months leading up. Familiarity breeds contempt, and so on. I was well versed in her bullshit, and she was in mine. Whether or not we got along most of the time, we do definitely understand one another and decidedly were still decent travel partners.
The trip, up until this particular moment, had gone well enough, at least in regards to getting lost or stranded. There were already enough strange times had, but I'll get to those later. Now, though, was the height of the uncertainty. We were without phones, not for direction but for translation. I had the Japanese vocabulary of a nine month old baby. English enthusiasts were around, but I hadn't encountered a whole lot.
An hour or so prior, at the height of the Halloween chaos in the streets, two Japanese women approached us. One had what looked like a television news camera, and the other had a microphone attached to it. Something told me they didn't work for any television channel.
The woman hailed us over and pointed to the camera. She said "It's okay?" I assumed this was asking for permission to record. I shrugged and nodded. Why the hell not?
The camera woman said something to the "reporter" who than parroted it to us.
"How do you like Halloween?"
Suddenly, almost any and all Japanese I'd known had vanished. I gave two thumbs up like an idiot. "Japan does Halloween right!"
The reporter looked confused. I tried again, this time with hand motions. "Japan Halloween BIIIG. America Halloween small." The reporter looked at the camera woman and she translated, and then she looked back to us and smiled and nodded. "How do you like Japan?" I didn't know what, or more importantly, how to say just about anything. "Japan is great?" I unconfidently said. I dismissed myself after Jamie finished adding her piece to what can hardly believe called an interview. I wasn't paying attention to what she said.
Now that I could change my attention to looking for Jamie, I took in my surroundings once more. A Winnie the Pooh being guarded by a six man secret service came barreling through the sea of people. "This place is a nightmare. I never want to leave," I said to her. She gave a chuckle that indicated the petty frustration was on it's way out. We decided it was best to start heading back to our cozy rented apartment in Ayase, a quiet neighborhood in Tokyo. We'd been on this freak tour for five hours, and after the minor separation incident, we were hungry. Besides, the rain had start to come down at a miserable rate at this point. We ducked into the closest thing we could find to an American embassy: a McDonald's across the street.
I found out that Jamies phone was toast. The thing was completely shattered from a previous accidental drop, but the rain had gotten into its insides through the cracks. I pulled out my charger pack and haplessly fiddled with the cable. Maybe some specific, horrendously contorted angle would make it work? I messed with it for a while, in between shoveling french fries into my mouth.
The craving for American food is something that reared its ugly head sooner than I'd like to admit. The food in Tokyo was delicious, don't get me wrong. But the body of an American with bad dietary habits has an expectation for a specific amount of greasy slop. Deny it that, and after a while, the hunger sets in. McDonald's was the cheapest and most readily available fix for this shameful act.
A tiny ray of hope suddenly beamed from my phone's screen. A tiny white lighting bolt. It was charging. I froze and made note of how the charger cord was positioned. I tried to leave it be but it stopped. I folded the cord over once again and the lightning bolt came back. "I got you, you bastard. We're not done yet." We finished our meal and headed back outside to try and navigate back to Shibuya Station.
The festivities had begun to wind down at this point, and the crowds were dispersing. There was actually room to walk without being in physical contact with four other people. It seemed that everyone had gone to the famous Shibuya Crossing, as even in this late hour, it was still a zoo when we made our way across.
As Jamie and I approached the station, I heard an excited shout from my left. "Ahh! Sadako!" I turned, slowly, the wig still covering my face. Approaching me was the most out of place person I saw tonight: a normal looking businessman. Everything about you appearance suggested this man was a background player. Clean-cut black hair, a charcoal gray suit and a black satchel bag slung over his shoulder. The embodiment of living scenery on a busy city street in Japan.
I didn't move, and stared at the man. This was probably my 34th time doing this shtick tonight but people loved it. He did, too. He started laughing and cowered a little. It was funny, but strange to see an adult man, with no one around, doing this. He cautiously walked up to me with a grin.
"Gaijin?" he tried to peek through the wig. He moved it out of the way and nodded when he saw my makeup covered face. "Ahh, gaijin! Italy?"
I was taken aback. I was half Italian. I shook my head. "Amerikajin desu." I unconfidently stated. "Oh, American… yes, yes. Welcome to Japan." My knee jerk reaction was to say that I'd already been here for a few days. Instead, I bowed and said "arigato gozaimasu," despite him just speaking English to me. I was never sure of how to respond when a Japanese person said something to me in English, but I could only assume it was polite to try and respond in their tongue if at all possible.
"Sadako, I like it! It's a good choice," the stranger said to me. His English was near perfect.
"Thank you. I was worried, for a little bit, that it wouldn't be appropriate." I saw a look of confusion take over his face.
"I was scared it was the wrong thing to do. Because I am not Japanese." I clarified. This made him laugh. He tapped my shoulder. "You are good!"
"My name is Alan. This is Jamie." I motioned to my silent partner. Handshaking didn't seem to be much of a thing on my trip, so I didn't extend mine.
"Fumiaki." He extended his hand. I was caught off guard but shook his hand firmly. "Nice to meet you."
He looked to Jamie and pointed out the fake blood all over her. "You must be a bad nurse!" he burst out laughing at his own comment. She chuckled but seem put off.
"Where's your costume, Fumiaki? Not into Halloween?"
He threw his hands into the air. "I LOVE Halloween! Halloween is number one! I had to work late. I'm going out. I need to shop for a mask before too late. What are you doing?"
I shrugged. "Just going to head home."
He looked at a very expensive looking silver watch on his wrist. "It's not even 11! Why are you going home?!" He clapped his hands together like he just got the best idea of his life. "Come with me! To the ghost bar!"
This piqued my interest. I was a huge advocate of anything relating to creepiness. I was planning on visiting the house where Ju-On: The Grudge was filmed, as well as hitting a few supposedly haunted sites. I could feel my eyes light up.
"What's the ghost bar?"
Fumiaki laughed yet again. It was easy to please this guy, apparently. "It's your home, Yurei!"
I recognized that last word, yurei, as the word for ghost. In my current getup, I guess I did belong in a ghost bar. "You should come. You both!"
I didn't need any convincing, but Jamie was definitely not on board for an expedition. "You go, have fun. I'm done for the night. I'll just watch Netflix on my laptop." Whether or not this was some sort of passive attempt at guilting me into not going, or genuine ambivalence towards how the night proceeded, I wasn't concerned. I was going to the ghost bar. With a clear set of instructions on which trains to get off at, I sent Jamie on her way. I double checked my belongings and headed out with this strange little man.
Off in the distance, "Take My Breath Away" by Berlin was playing. This struck me as odd as almost nothing but Halloween related songs had been the music of choice for any establishment for the past 48 hours. This particular song, in this particular setting with costumed strangers all around me gave me a slight feeling of unease I couldn't explain. This feeling would set the tone for the freakshow merry-go-round of a night I was about to endure.