Gary Singh

Journalist / Author / Poet

Roppongi Vignette

“As long as we don’t stay in there longer than an hour, we’re fine.” Dennis waved his hands to the rhythm of his speech as we paraded up Gaienhigashi-dori, a busy thoroughfare in Tokyo’s Roppongi neighborhood. “As soon as one hour passes, they jack the prices up and you get stuck.”

“After an hour?” I asked.

“Yeah, everything goes up and they start charging you ridiculous prices.”

Dennis said he was a seasoned CEO in the international telecom industry and a frequenter of Tokyo. His expensive bifocals, medium build, slick white hair and reddened face certainly gave him an executive look, if anything. Dennis also proclaimed himself a veteran of the scene in Roppongi, Tokyo’s flamboyant all-night party playground. As we walked, he spilled the lowdown on scams perpetrated by some of the seedier karaoke joints. Once midnight hits, he told us, the prices go up and you never know what you’ll get charged.

“Businessmen are here with ten thousand dollar expense accounts,” he said. “So for them it’s no big deal.”

I pulled out my wallet and looked inside. Nothing but a five-thousand yen note—the equivalent of maybe 55 U.S. Dollars. I didn't know whether or not that was cause for worry. My flight and hotel were subsidized but I had no extra spending money. Both of us were in town on business, staying at the Shinagawa Prince hotel, not too far away, attending the same event, although I struggled to fit in from the start. A gray blazer from JC Penny was the only business-looking jacket I had. It worked OK with a cheap black dress shirt and jeans. But I was still worried about everything else. Money. Clothes. Emotional maturity. Power networking. All the crap you’re supposed to exemplify on a business trip.

The third person in our party, a Japanese-American flight attendant named Fumiko, didn’t appear worried in the least bit. She was mature.

I had no idea where our party was even headed, and I didn’t care, because Fumiko’s hairdo, along with her accent, and the exact timbres of her laughter all provided a hall of mirrors, reflecting a recent ex-girlfriend that hadn't left my mind yet. The reflections bounced every which direction every time Fumiko spoke.

A 24/7 nightlife circus, Roppongi was filled with dance clubs, street vendors, neon signage, hostess bars, smoky jazz clubs, karaoke joints, and hordes of young fashion victims dying to be seen. Cars flew by on the expressway overhead, and people chattered at near-excessive volume levels. As with everywhere in Tokyo, noise reigned supreme. Aromas of smog, motor oil, and cigarettes dominated the atmosphere, except for an occasional tang of fresh noodles creeping in from a sidestreet vendor.

As we waltzed past the Almond Cafe, right on the main central intersection of Roppongi, Dennis informed us of the joint's legendary meetup status. If young Japanese folk were hovering in front of this place, explained Dennis, it means they’re waiting to get picked up.

“In Roppongi, this is where Japanese twenty-somethings come in order to practice their English,” he added.

“Because of all the foreigners?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

We indeed found a huge percentage of gaijin in Roppongi, largely due to the plethora of government embassies in the surrounding area. As a result, a predominance of ex-pat bars were strewn about the urban landscape. Drunk jocks and military brats seemed to emerge everywhere. The neighborhood didn’t feel that much different from America, except that the beers ran about ten dollars apiece and ten different languages seemed to explode from every corner of the universe. Tourists or residents from Australia, Egypt, Brazil, Canada, the US and Germany were everywhere.

I wanted to gawk for awhile, but Dennis and Fumiko insisted on continuing down the street. The karaoke bar was waiting.

As we turned left on Roppongi-dori, directly underneath an archetypal overhead concrete expressway, Dennis repeated his oration about the karaoke bars. “As long as we don’t stay for more than an hour, we’ll be O.K. After one hour they start charging you more.”

“So you’ve got the ‘in’ on the joint?” I asked.

“Of course. I come here all the time. I know the owner.”

Fumiko flashed me a wry smirk and started looking into her purse for something, probably to see if she had enough money. A moment later she pulled out her wallet and peeked into a gold money clip.

Within minutes, we reached our destination: a narrow stairway leading up off the sidewalk. The stairway led to a door blacker than the ace of spades and with no sign on it. Dennis yanked opened the door and we followed him inside. An even narrower hallway took us past what looked like a ticket office or a cashier booth and we arrived at a square-shaped room with tables along the perimeter of the wall. It was the kind of club where the karaoke machine is wheeled around the room and brought to each individual table. The room was dark and gloomy and exuded no aroma whatsoever, except maybe for old carpeting.

A huge orangutan of an individual, probably Samoan and apparently the host, approached us like iron particles to a magnet. He stretched out his arm toward a corner table, palm open, and motioned for us to sit down. An orgasmic-looking woman then appeared from somewhere behind the ticket office and sauntered straight up to Dennis. He put his arm around her and introduced us.

“This is Kelly,” he said. “She’s from Manila.”

The Samoan again motioned for us to sit in the corner table and we obliged. Without even asking what we wanted to drink, Kelly sat with us and began pouring Sapporos for everyone. I didn't even see where the beers came from, but Dennis and I started drinking heavily while Kelly and Fumiko spoke Japanese to each other. The only other patrons in the establishment were two salarymen in the opposite corner.

The sake came next.

When the karaoke machine finally arrived at our table, we dove in headfirst. Fumiko and I made our way through a Japanese pop tune from 1963 called Ue O Muite Aruko—a tune stupidly retitled “Sukiyaki” in the West. I don’t speak Japanese, but I once learned how to sing that song in the original language. At that point, I still remembered most of it. The original Japanese lyrics are about a dude whose heart was ripped out and stomped on by his ex-girlfriend. Or something similar.

I had never sung karaoke in my life, but I was now drunk, and knowing that no one back home would ever see this, I asked Fumiko to sing the tune with me. Everyone in Japan knows that song, so she agreed and we rocked the near-empty house, all while just sitting there at our table. I don't know how I managed to recall those lyrics. It would never have happened sober.

“Great memory,” Fumiko said, with a smirk, after we concluded.

I shifted my gaze toward her hands and copped a look at her wedding ring, refusing to acknowledge my obviousness. What a ring. It was a rock, a work of art, probably worth more than my entire wardrobe. Even if that ring wasn't there, I thought, even if she was single, I still wouldn’t have a chance. She actually had a real job, and a house, and money, and a car, and a jacuzzi, and all that stuff, while I was a veritable pretender on this trip, an imposter with no money and just a cheap student job that paid me to travel all the time. In fact, after the trip I’d be going right back home to sleep on a mattress in my friend’s living room. But Fumiko reminded me so much of a previous girlfriend, that the Sapporo and sake seemed to flow even quicker. 

On that melancholic note, the party came alive. Fumiko sang some cutesy J-Pop tunes and Dennis butchered “Sailing” by Rod Stewart. He even stood up and wandered into the middle of the room to sing it, dragging the machine behind him. I refused to sing anything else after Ue O Muite Aruko. However, I did briefly consider asking Fumiko if she knew the Mothra Song (Mosura no Uta), but I chickened out.

Dennis, in the meantime, was on fire. When his arms weren’t all over Kelly, he stole away to the far corner of the room and carried on at high volume with an older Japanese lady, a heavyset woman he referred to as “Ma.” Apparently she was the owner. They laughed uproariously together and seemed to be recounting old times. The Samoan dude stood in the opposite corner like a giant beer keg, eyeing us with restrained precision.

Dennis said he knew the procedure of the joint, but when we decided to close out the tab, the bombshell came in the form of a $680 check. We had been there 45 minutes. I didn’t have anywhere near my share of the tab and I didn't understand how I managed to drink the equivalent of four beers and several shots of sake in less than an hour. I wasn't accustomed to getting hammered with businessmen on expense accounts. Or mirrors of ex-girlfriends with wedding rings.

Fumiko realized I didn't have enough money and shot me a look somewhere between disappointment and pity, a look I was more than familiar with. It brought back every argument I ever had with my ex in the six months we spent together. With her, whatever I said, or did, was always the wrong thing. But at least we'd buy our Sapporos at Safeway—much cheaper.

Dennis, though, had all the answers. He would get us out of this mess.

“Don’t worry about any of this,” he said, waving his hands dismissively. “I’ll take care of it. I’ll take care of it.”

We didn't think he was serious. Fumiko and I sat and watched Dennis bicker with Ma and the big Samoan dude, who was obviously American by birth, since he now spoke perfect California English. Kelly tried to explain the prices to us, but her English couldn’t cut it. I looked at my watch, hoping we would get out of the place alive. Fumiko looked worried too. I considered ’70s crime show escape methods, like climbing out the window and scaling down the building to the crowded street below, while flute and electric funk-guitar riffs drove the scene. This was definitely the last time I would even consider a karaoke bar in Roppongi. I didn't have the money for this shit. I didn't fit in with these people in the first place. Why again did I agree to go along with this?—I asked myself, out loud.

After a brief moment of silence, Fumiko looked at me, noticing that I was fixating on her wedding ring. It was fucking huge. I should have just drank in my hotel room. Why did I agree to go along with these people?

After fifteen more minutes of arguing with the woman named Ma, our man Dennis motioned for Fumiko and I to leave the club.

“I’ll take care of this,” he said. “Just go, I’ll take care of it.” He motioned again with his hand towards the door, as if shooing us away. I followed Fumiko down the narrow hallway towards the exit. She had the same raven hairdo as my ex, but cropped a little shorter.

From behind us, more arguing and then Dennis called us back.

“OK, how about five thousand each?” He said.

“I guess we don’t have a choice.” I pulled out my wallet.

Fumiko and I each handed him a five-thousand yen note and we left the club in search of a taxi, just as Ue O Muite Aruko entered my head again. All I thought about was the minibar in my hotel room. It’d be waiting when I got back. At least that way, I could put it on the room and my boss would cover the bill.

Outside, cars flew by and people sashayed every which direction. Aromas of street ramen and motor oil reigned supreme. Above us, the omnipresent neon signage of Roppongi exploded against the nighttime sky. 

© 2000/2008 Gary Singh