Wednesday, October 29, 2008


I knew that would get your attention.

I took my guitar's virginity last night. And let me tell you, she was squealing when I played her.

The night began lost in Shibuya, wandering the streets almost aimlessly trying to find a bar called the Ruby Room. I ended up uniting with a Yale friend and together we were able to find the place, tucked away in an inconspicuous alleyway who's entrance was guarded by ever indistinguishable neon lights and Japanese signs.

Inside, the place was a cozy and smokey dive bar, complete with dim pinkish red lights, a few leather couches, a bar table, and not much more. The tiny stage was walled in by an impressive sound system powerful enough for a joint at least double the size. The bar was heliocentric, with everything revolving around a central disco ball that cast its fragments of light on us as we passed through on our orbits.

Tuesday nights are open mic at the Ruby Room. I signed up for an 11:30 slot, sat down at the bar with my friend, and ordered us a few drinks. Looking around, I saw that the room was half Gaijin and half Japanese, with the same ratio of musicians to non-musicians.

The first few acts were of typical open mic mediocrity, a few unimpressive bands and a guitar strummer, drama queens without much talent who still took their time setting up and complaining about the sound system.

As the night went on however, Gaijin began to leave one by one, and the place filled up with more Japanese. That's when the action began.

The first act that really impressed me with this guy, Hiroge, Hiroshi, Hiro? I can't remember his name but his guitar shredding is still vivid in my mind. He played his own version bluesy rock. To make up for a lack of American soul, his wild fingers injected a noisy and untamed freedom that from my perspective was distinctly Japanese. The grunge of his distorted electric guitar was mesmerizing. He ended his set with guitar fireworks and flashy runs.

Next up was Jerry (obviously not his real name, but that's how he introduced himself to me). His group was more informal, they had just met a few days earlier and wanted to jam together. I spent some time talking to his drummer, Keio, who used to DJ in Long Island. He also spins in Tokyo under the name DJ Smokiyo.

Last up on the bill was myself. I took the stage around midnight, plugged in, and played my own breed of rock and blues, my standard tunes for an event such as this. I threw in some Police, some John Mayer, and iced the cake with a little Weezer. The Japanese groups were toughs act to follow, but I held my own with my own American rock sensibilities. Excalibur seared the night away. Her pickups were hot, grungy, and dirty, much livelier on a fully amped stage than in the music shop that I bought her.

The Ruby Room was an awesome joint and definitely an 'in' for me into the Tokyo underground. All night long, groups were plugging their shows at other bars and clubs. Even the bartender was a DJ, DJ MeiMei. She even put my on the guest list for a Halloween party that she'll be spinning at in Shibuya on Friday.

I'll be returning next week. I think I've found my scene.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Street Musicians

I was hanging out around Ikebukuro station last night, walking around, taking in the sights, and enjoying some amazing sushi, seriously like the best sushi I've ever had, and it was from your average stop-and-go sushi restaurant. While walking through the tunnel under the tracks, I found myself drawn to a strange mix of Western and Japanese folk music. On one side was the woman, wailing in a traditional singing voice while plucking at the shamisen, a tradition guitar-like plecturn instrument with a hollow yet haunting sound. On the other side was the man, playing and slapping chords on a guitar in open tuning. They appreciated having a one-man audience and chatted with me in between songs. The woman even explained to me about the makeup of her instruments. I'll be sure to catch them next time they are in town.

Society from the Future, Problems from the Past

Homeless Japanese preparing for bed. They set up their boxes by the huge gates of a concert hall to steal warm air through the chilly night.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Cool things from Harajuku

Harajuku is one of my favorite parts of town. In contrast to Roppongi, which I described earlier, Harajuku is most definitely "J-style". You see young people everywhere donning styles from goth-punk to Armani chic and everything in between. There are surf shops, NY hip-hop shops, S&M shops, hippie stores, just about everything trendy you can imagine. Takeshita Dori is the famous alleyway street loaded wall to wall with novelty shops. Amazing music blasts from the stores while clerks shout welcome greetings to passerbys looking for the latest gear. When I walk down Takeshita Dori wearing some of my coolest American cloths, I still feel that my style is bland in comparison to the colorful and exciting cloths that hip Japanese wear. Here are a few things I picked up.

This first item I couldn't resist. Evangelicals, I hate to break it to you, but you're deity isn't convincing to me. I've read way too much Nietzsche. Consider an alternate deity. Rock n' Roll Jesus. Then I might just see the Light!
Second up is this t-shirt I bought:

A Japanese friend had to explain it to me. So there are two characters under the pig, the first is 美, bi, which means beautiful. The second, 豚, buta or ton, means pig. Together the meaning is beautiful pig, but there is a double entendre. Read together, the characters sound out "biton", which is how the Japanese pronounce Louis Vuitton! I got a big kick out of this. I'm wearing the shirt right now and I think people are giving me funny looks. They are probably thinking "Hen na Gaijin!" (Strange foreigner!)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wise Words

I've been a lonesome cowboy up until last evening and was feeling quite a bit of solitude. While riding the train to Shibuya, I dreamed up a list of the best advice and most inspiring words that I've ever heard.

1) "If you don't have anything, they can't take anything from you." - Brian Robinson, manager of the YSO
2) "Be reckless." - Prof. John Szwed, my Avant Garde Jazz and Film Noir professor from Yale, a super accomplished academic who researches all things hip.
3) "C'mon, it'll be an adventure." - Anonymous. I can't remember who said this to me, but with the "A" word, they easily enticed me into doing something that I didn't want to do.
4) "You're practically glowing." Shivon Zilis upon learning a month ago that I had plans to jump ship and head to Tokyo.

I'll keep this list going as I recall more wise words.

What are the most valuable words that you've ever heard? Please, add them to the comments section!!!!!!

I'm getting f'clempt. Talk amongst yourselves....

Saturday, October 25, 2008

I'm a Hustler Baby

I'm a hustler
A Tokyo hustler.
You've got to get off this lawn baby,
'Cause I've got two nickels in my pocket and they are about to mate.
Shit is gonna go down,
Go down my way,
'Cause it's my hustle.
So be prepared,
Because the ground is about to shake,
Tremors at every step I take.

六本木 - Roppongi

六本木, Roppongi, now officially the worst part of town. I say this in jest. Actually, the area around Mori Tower is known internationally for its groundbreaking architecture and urban planning, a micro-city straight from the future. Even the view from the base is inspiring. Tokyo Tower emerges from the Horizon like an asian Tour Eiffel protruding from the river Seine.

The area is also rife with classy restaurants, clubs, and bars, all interwoven by a network of neon signs and elevated highways.

What's frustrating about Roppongi, is the sheer volume of Gaijin (the rude word for 'foreigner') roaming the streets every way you turn. Hey, Gaijin are okay in my book. Once in a while, young and rash Japanese girls call me "Gaijin-san" which is like "Mr. Foreigner". Gaijin are my compatriots in this city. The Roppongi Gaijin however are a different sort. They are all yuppie Gaijin with starched shirts, gelled crew cuts, loafers, designer jeans, and that boring ex-frat boy attitude. These are the guys who live her for 3 years, get laid all the time, but never learn a word of Japanese.

On top of that, you see Japanese women decked out with American yuppie-style clothes chatting up the dudes in question. LAME!

Honestly, it's as if my least favorite bars were uprooted from their foundations and imported to Japan, patrons included. Syracuse people, I'm talking about Ohm. New Haven people, I'm talking about Toads and Hot T's. You know exactly what I'm getting at.

I once had a laugh with my Japanese friend Masako about "J-style". Roppongi, my friends, is most definitely not "J-style".

Friday, October 24, 2008

stealing wifi

I'm stealing wifi outside a Gaijin bar in Roppongi right now. These guys are losers! Total losers!

Fortunate to Have Good Friends

My friend Nobu, who's sons I went to high school with, works here in Tokyo at Adidas. This past year on his trips home to visit his family in Syracuse, we would meet up and talk about my future dreams of heading back to Japan. He shared lots of advice with me as well as contacts in his industry. His wife, originally from Mexico, can whip up the meanest Japanese Hispanic fusion dish this side of the border/Pacific. His two sons are also the only people I know who can assimilate in Japan, Mexico, and the USA. Ken, Kiyo, we are wickedly jealous.

So this afternoon, I met Nobu at his office at Adidas and we went out to dinner at a classy Sobu restaurant. During the meal he said to me, "We're going to get you a cell phone." We proceeded to drive to a 4 story camera/electronics store in Ikebukuro that had as many cell phones as the music stores had guitars (see earlier post). In appropriate Japanese fashion, the place is called "Big Camera." With me by his side trying as hard as I could to pay attention, Nobu bartered with clerks about which cell phone plans were best. When he finally picked a phone, we went through another hour of running through the contract specifics and setting up the service. My Japanese has been coming back to me gradually, but I have to say, I was almost completely lost throughout the whole process.

"Without a phone in Japan," he said to me, "You are nothing."

Nothing indeed. The lack of a cell phone has certainly been my Achilles heel since I've arrived here. Now that I am fully connected to the Japanese business/interpersonal network, I am completely ecstatic. To thank Nobu, I wrote the following letter:

"Dear Nobu,
In order express my true gratitude for you help, it would be hard to address you as the professional adult that you are. I need to address you as one of my own kind. So here it goes...

DUDE! SWEET! Holy Shit! I like don't even know what to say! Way to hook a brother up! I owe you big time! I mean BIG time! Like big time mafia yakuza style where I have to mutilate your arch nemesis and offer you my severed pinky finger... You are the Man! Like Humphrey Bogart and Steve McQueen! This is like the end of Top Gun, "You can be my wingman any day!"

Unstoppable forces have now been set in motion! Thank you soooooo much!"

I can think of one appropriate song for the occasion. "Call Me Up" by Chromeo:

Nobu, this one's for you.

Office Hours

My office is located in the Second Floor McDonald's to the right of Ikebukuro Station. Please find me here every day from 11:00-12:00 and 20:00-21:00.

A New Flat in Ikebukuro

I moved into a flat in Ikebukuro yesterday. The apartment is expensive, small, noisy, and sterile, but somehow homely. I unpacked the few amenities I brought with me and the empty space quickly started to fill up. It'll certainly be a great place for some writing, minus the fact that I have no internet connection. McDonald's wi-fi will suffice for now (yes I get to munch on Japanese Shrimp Burgers while I write these things!)

Ikebukuro is a noisy and hectic part of town, less dense than Times Square, but inundated by almost as many bright lights. I picked the apartment because I wanted to be closer to the action. My wish was granted. The flat is a matter of blocks from these spots:

After nightfall, the place comes alive with all kinds of people. Carefree youngsters out shopping, salarymen getting drinks with the boss, musicians playing and self-promoting on the sidewalks, beautiful women strolling around looking at the latest fashions, homeless men waiting in line for handouts at the shelter, even a drunk woman harassing a police officer. Not too many foreigners however.

I'll be living in this atmosphere amongst these characters for the next month while I look for an opportunity that will keep me in Japan.

This afternoon. I have a meeting with a fellow who works in digital media at Adidas.

Wish me luck. :)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The "I Love Me Campaign." Sounds exciting.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


I returned to Ochanomizu to pull the sword from the stone. Behold, Excalibur!
I was daydreaming about this guitar all day after playing it. I had to go back to buy it. A part of me feels more complete. Now I just need a job, an apartment, and a girlfriend.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


First, let me say that I've been to Shibuya many times on my last trip. I was just being poetic in the last post.

When traveling throughout Japan, I often get the feeling that I am in an Anime. The expressions on old women's faces, cute kids running free in the park screaming, trains flying by like planes overhead, modern buildings soaring into the sky with endless lighting, ubiquitous ads and signs decorating every street--the mayhem is straight out of an Anime. Today, while shopping in Ochyanomizu, a double-rotor military helicopter flew by directly overhead. The blades beating the in wind pounded my chest. I half expected a team of special forces to belay out of the chopper to the roof of the nearest building.

Shibuya. The Future.

Shibuya. The Future. Shibuya, a land I've thrice encountered. First, my dreams. Second, in science fiction. Now, in person.

Guitar Pornography

Did some guitar shopping today. Online forums describe the Tokyo music shops as "Guitar Pornography." No kidding! There was a whole street full of music shops oozing with guitars in Ochanomizu.

The sign says, "The Sound is Different! Pure Japanese!" These guitars are all Japanese reproductions of popular American models. I tried out a few and some would melt your face, Raiders of the Lost Ark-style!!!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Some Things Are Universal

The stream of events leading up to now are worthy.

I woke up yesterday to an email from a Yale alum who I knew from Japanese class inviting me to a Yale Club event. As it so happens, President Levin was scheduled to visit Waseda University and would later be speaking to the Yale Club at a private reception at Shinsei Bank.

My jaw hit the floor. It was pure serendipity. I hadn't yet been here two days and the possibility of making real connections had just slapped me in the face. The momentousness of the occasion was also marked by an Earthquake. I kid you not, there was a small tremor in Tokyo. I lost my quake-ginity.

So first stop was Waseda Daigaku where the President was to receive an honorary degree. The University had designated the event "Yale Day," which also had a series of lectures by visiting Yale faculty.

The President gave a long pedantic speech about developing sustainability on the Yale campus as well as within the American economy. Some of you remember how Levin's dull graduation speech practically stole the tears out of our eyes in spring 2007. This was no different, grandiloquent and didactic. I was expecting to see ever-diligent Japanese students copying down every word in preparation for conquest of the Pacific theater. What I saw instead was a scene straight out of my college days. People were sleeping and nodding off throughout the auditorium! By the way, I went to a lecture by a famous Yale scholar about Japanese Imperialism later in the day and it was no different. I could sense that the Japanese kids wanted to bounce. Some things are universal I guess.

Now the Yale Club party at Shinsei bank was a classy event. Lucky for a sharp guy as myself, I remembered to pack some cuff links, a tie, and a stash of business cards. Actually on the way over to the reception, I was intercepted by a Yale student who recognized me. When we got to the beautiful 20th floor conference room with a soaring nighttime view of the Tokyo cityscape (straight out of Lost In Translation), he remarked to me, "Ethan, there is no way you are not getting a job tonight."

"I'll drink to that." I replied.

I was schmoozing with people way more important than I realized; university presidents, senators, banking CEOs, and respected professors were everywhere sharing drinks and sushi. I was also totally surprised to see a handful of former classmates and alums I knew from back in the day. It was one of those moments that made me think that I should put every effort into staying here. My pocket is now heavy with business cards, notes, and numbers from all kinds of people. Maybe someone will be able to throw me a bone. I went out for drinks with a few of the younger people afterwards, crashed at one of their apartments in Ebisu, and now I'm having a 6am jet lag moment. Worthy, correct?

And it all began less than a day ago with an email and an earthquake.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Finally Here!

The feeling that you are in Japan begins when you get to the terminal at your connecting airport. I arrived at the Northwest Terminal in Detroit yesterday. There were Japanese flight attendants making polite announcements over the loudspeaker, groups of school children wearing stylish J-punk cloths, oziisans and obaasans (grandparents) waiting patiently, young women with lots of make-up and artificially lightened hair reading magazines with their legs crossed, displaying their kinky boots and lace hemmed tights; everything out of a Tokyo subway but misplaced in an American airport. I could feel my journey just beginning. I was thinking of snapping photos of the behemoth 747's lined up to carry people across the universe, but I wasn't in the mood for trigger happy cliches. Somehow, within the hour, we all boarded a gargantuan aluminum tube and here I am 24 hours later on the other side of the Pacific.

I got off the plane and rushed with my luggage to immigration to beat the lines. Half the people on my flight were in transit to China (four more hours seemed almost worse than the initial twelve), and the rest bound for Japan must have been too disoriented from the gruelling flight, since I was far and away the first to make it to customs.

The immigration official was a skinny Japanese man with a typical endearing accent that made him seem like a child. Next to the officer was a computer with a screen, fingerprint scanner, and mugshot camera, but in typical Japanese fashion, its white plastic construction resembled a shopping mall photobooth (pelicula) more than a government identification system. I inserted both index fingers and leaned in for the camera. When it snapped my picture, a friendly digital bell sounded and a thank you message accompanied by flowers and leaves showed on the LCD display. I half expected to see my picture show up on screen with flowers, stars, and other silly effects. With my finger, I would write in some witless message on the touch screen and then the robot would print out 5 wallet sized mugshots of my jet-lagged face. The aura of cuteness completely overshadowed the seriousness of the moment. The ex-Imperial government was watching me, comparing me to list of serial killers and fugitives, confirming that I was just a benign tourist with no upstanding parking tickets. And if I find myself in any legal trouble in the next four months, they have immediate access to my prints and identity. They could search every bag, interrogate me, or even worse, deny me entry due to some flaw of paperwork or formality. At the moment however, all I could think about was how adorable the ID computer was.

I found my way through the airport to the train station and bought a ticket to Chiba. While dragging my bags onto the train, I was struck by the characteristic smell, a light stench of soy sauce, fried rice, and oily noodles. In essence, it was the greasy smell of Japan. I don't think I've experienced the odor since I had last been here three years ago.

An hour went by eavesdropping on passengers, watching bright signs go by, and just trying to hold onto the moment. I got off the train at Inage Station and called Ayako. "I'm here." I said. "You can't miss me. I'm the only white person."