Roppongi: High Touch Town

October 01, 2002

“We seldom went to places off the established ways. It was as though, having come so far, we didn’t want to move about too much.”
V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River

Roppongi brings out the worst in everyone. As soon as you get off the train, you become the scumbag foreigner you’d tried not to be. No matter how hard you try to do the right things with your toilet slippers and chopsticks, you’re a baka gaijin the minute you hit Roppongi Crossing. You’re reduced to the lowest common denominator, instantly becoming a national stereotype. It’s the melting pot from hell, some bizarre school exchange that went gloriously, horribly wrong. But there’s something about it. You know how nasty it is, you know how dirty it will make you feel, but there’s something that drags you back there.

It’s like the scab that would heal if only you stopped picking it, the tiny cut on the roof of your mouth that your tongue always touches. Like your smelly old trainers, it’s comfortable, it’s got a few good memories attached to it, and you can’t bear to say goodbye. Every time, you promise yourself that it’s the last time. You tell yourself that you’re never going back to any of those filthy dives ever again. But it does have a perverse appeal. Maybe it’s just the cheap drinks and loose women, but the place does have its temptations. It’s easy, and you know you’re not going to be confronted by any unidentifiable parts of fish. You won’t have to spend ten minutes trying to decipher the drinks menu before settling on a beer. And you might pull.

At five o’clock on a chilly autumn morning, though, its appeal was fading. After a night of indecent booze and cheap proposals, I just wanted to be on the first train home. My friends and I had got drunk enough to think that staying out all night was a good idea, but not drunk enough to be right. We’d run out of stamina at about three, and couldn’t afford a taxi back. We were stranded. As my friends dozed on the pavement I fended off the massage parlour girls, who were becoming more insistent than ever. I tried to keep my eyes open, and had an unpleasant epiphany, as the Travis Bickle in me came out. Everything was for sale, and I couldn’t afford it. I started to moralise about exploitation and all that. I started to wonder when the rain was going to come, the rain that would wash the scum off the streets. But then I realised the rain had already come and gone a thousand times, and the scum had bought umbrellas. In fact, their umbrellas were nicer than mine, which made me wonder if I was in the wrong business. It appears that the wages of sin are not, in fact, death. I suspect that sin probably rewards its employees fairly well, although I don’t imagine that there’s much of a pension plan. But who says I’m better than them?

We’re all the same, the African touts and the Thai tarts, the Russian hostesses and the English teachers. What’s the difference? Everybody’s selling themselves. They’ll all bend over for the mighty Yen. They give the punters their time, pretend to be interested, but the meter’s always ticking. The punter pays, the pimp takes most of the money, and you let them do their worst. An English school isn’t so different from a massage parlour, really. It imports workers whose only skill is being themselves, pays them far more than they could hope to earn back home, and puts them in a grubby little room so punters can queue up to have a go on them. Except half the punters have trouble getting it up. I wouldn’t compare my lessons to an orgasm, nor would I pretend to be the EFL equivalent of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, but you get the idea.

My head rolled, and my belly grumbled. I looked up through hooded eyes, and caught sight of the freeway overpass, proudly displaying the carved motto – “Roppongi: High Touch Town”. What could it mean? I turned the phrase around in my mind for a while, but couldn’t find anything. those thoughts were soon forced out by the desire for a dirty burger. There’s a time and a place for enjoying the subtle delights of Japanese culture, but the fag-end of a night out in Roppongi isn’t it. I needed something familiar, something easy, something unhealthy. I could hear the irresistible call of the golden arches. I bumbled across the street to sink my teeth into Ronald’s finest and count the minutes until the first train back to civilisation.