International Writers Magazine:
Japan- Hostess Bar
In case youre
not familiar with the concept, a hostess bar is a place which caters to
men. It is a place where the female employees work to boost and enhance
the male ego. Its a devolution of the high-class geisha tradition,
however, today in Japan, many of the hostesses are foreign women. Apparently
a few months working as a hostess could earn me enough money to travel
the world for years. But I never considered the idea, especially as my
older, very protective sister was sure I would be sold into the sex-slave
trade as soon as I got off the plane in Tokyo. In order to prove her wrong,
as all younger sisters want to do, I attempted to stay away from these
unsightly places. Later during my stay in Japan I realized these hostess
bars had been all around me all the time. Apparently Japanese culture
was not as reserved as it would have you believe. Who knew that these
infamous hostess bars could be found in wayside rural towns? Definitely
not I. It took me a while to single them out, but once I learned to see
the subtleties of Japanese architecture I began to see love motels
and hostess bars appearing on every corner.
the Key to Japanese Architecture
The word pub
is misleading to a foreigner in Japan. Please dont forget
this if you go there for a visit. As I learned during my visit to
the land of the rising sun, misinterpreting a simple word can take
you places you never dreamed of going. Honestly, I never intended
to visit a hostess bar as part of my Japanese experience. My goals
were more pure, like experiencing the tea ceremony, a Shinto temple,
a true sushi bar, and Japanese baseball.
Before I continue with this tale I must admit this was not the first time
I walked into a hostess bar in Japan. The first time I made this mistake
the sign outside read "PUB". Thoughts of Irish music and pub
food danced in my head. The sign was extremely misleading to a Canadian
woman who once in a while lost her head and pinned for things western.
The first time I entered a hostess bar it may have been an understandable
mistake. I was new to the country then. Once I realized what was going
on, I was in and out as soon as I could finish my beer,-priorities you
know, youve got to stick to them. As I said, the first time I entered
a hostess bar, it was an honest mistake. I was new to the country and
I was still having trouble understanding the architecture of Japan. Temples
and shrines I knew. I had that one down. But other buildings were often
a mystery. You see, architectural reading is a skill you develop
slowly when travelling in a foreign country. In my case, very slowly .
Let me explain. For a tourist in Japan, its not easy to discern
what kind of place it would be on the inside based on the buildings
appearance on the outside. Thats one of the biggest problems facing
a foreigner in Japan. Because the architecture is so different and the
use of space is so different, a hospital is not obviously a hospital and
a bank is not obviously a bank. Once I remember walking into a travel
agency in the small town of Shizu and asking them if they could change
some money for me. "Uh, no, the banks across the street, honey."
Another time I remember walking into a hospital when I thought it was
a mall. As you can imagine, problems and misunderstandings are liable
You can probably see where Im leading with this. Lets be honest,
I was not to blame for the second incident eitherI was talked into
it. My younger sister, who I was traveling with, was pestering me about
this cool looking bar she had passed by several times. True enough, I
was in search of a new, cool, local hangout, and this one could be it.
Which brings me to another interesting fact about time spent as a foreigner
in Japan (or gaijin which literally translates as alien in
Japanese). Although I was staying in a rural town, it was still crawling
with gaijin from all over the western world. Sometimes it was great to
sit at a bar and talk to other people in English, not Broken-Japanese
and not Jap-lish. Most of the time, however, I wanted to get away from
my kind and see the real Japan. Hence the search for the hangout
that no other foreigner knew about. It became almost a competition between
gaijins. In casual conversation about the weekend you might say to some
westerner youve recently met, "Oh, we just went out for a few
beers to a small place in town ." Be as elusive as possible because
you dont want to give out the secret location. To a close acquaintance
you might say, "You gotta come with me next time I go," and
feel very proud of your discovery. But slowly as you brag and take others
there, the word gets out and the next thing you know its the newest
gaijin hot-spot and you have to start your search all over again. Its
an unspoken yet competitive business.
As I was gazing up
longingly, my sister commented, "Maybe they have live bands."
Oooo, low blow. She knew that seeing live music was one thing I missed
from home. She knew that comment would peak my interest and strengthen
my resolve. Still, I told her, "Im nearly positive its
a hostess bar." "How can you be sure?" she challenged.
She had not been in Japan as long as I had and she had not yet learned
how to read the function of a place based on its architectural style.
Although I was still working on this skill, I had also learned to trust
my instincts after getting into dozens of jams while exploring life in
I finally went to this mysterious bar which was located on the second
floor of a nondescript building. We stood outside the bar for twenty
minutes debating whether or not to go in. True enough, it looked
really cool. Looking up through the windows I could see it had a
disco ball spinning alluringly and painted silhouettes of musicians
decorating the interior. I could see a stage covered with instruments
and plush velour couches.
However, curiosity got the better of me, as it always does, and as my
sister knew it would. She had won, so far. We decided to go in and ask
in our crazy, street-Japanese, if this was a hostess bar or a regular
bar (men and women welcome). So we tried the direct approach. The only
problem was that neither of us knew the word for hostess bar in Japanese.
There had been no need to learn it before now and the handy pocket-o dictionary
was at home. (Later I learned that the mysterious word was snack-u,
a derivation of the English word, snack). So I improvised. As soon as
we walked through the door, two decently dressed women approached us.
"Sumi masen", I began (Excuse me). "Hai, dozo", one
young woman replied (Please, come in). My sis and I exchanged glances
which said, "If theyre inviting us in they obviously think
we belong here, therefore, it is not a hostess bar for men." But
I wanted to be sure. I wanted to make no assumptions. I didnt want
a repeat of my first experience at the pub. As the veteran
between us, I was supposed to be learning from my mistakes, catching onto
things here, and passing on the wisdom. So I pursued the issue further.
"Is it okay for us to be here?". "Of course," the
other young woman beamed, "please, come in.". They seemed so
friendly, and they were women after all. Language barriers aside, they
must have known what I was getting at. So in we went with visions of getting
to know the staff and the locals, of meeting cool Japanese friends, of
having a Japanese Cheers-like experience. Things were looking up
It ended up being a
fabulous night. Our hostesses were two lovely women from the Philippines.
Once we set up some boundaries, like no hand-feeding us food, and no hands
on thighs (which happened to my sister shortly after we arrived and I
laughed as she jumped out of her seat), then things quickly became comfortable.
We still allowed them bring us snacks, to program our karaoke songs, and
to fill up our shot-sized beer glasses. We were going to pay a fortune
for this cultural experience, so we had to be sure to get our moneys
doubts we had about the status of this bar disappeared when our
first beers arrived with women, snacks, and free karaoke. There
was something vaguely familiar about this situation
could think of (remembering the first time I made this mistake)
was, "Wow, this is going to be really expensive." But
I was inside and already committed to enjoying one beer, and hey,
I reminded myself, I was here in Japan to experience the culture,
right? So maybe this was the underside of Japan, but I was at the
heart of it.
By the end of the night we were rocking the place. We were up on the stage,
playing the drums, playing the maracas, singing into the mike, wearing
sombreros (in Japan?), and doing some generally wild renditions of really
bad 80s songs. When we left I realized we had been there for a few
hours, yet although we had only ordered two beers each, the bill was a
whopping 9680 Yen. Thats roughly $130 Canadian. Was it worth it?
We left that night with smiles on our faces agreeing that it was. It didnt
turn out to be our new hang-out, but after all, how many foreign women
get the chance to see that side of Japan? And did I make that mistake
a third time? Lets just say I got better and better at reading Japanese
architecture. The moral of this tale is, if you ever go to Japan keep
your eyes and ears open and dont take anything for granted. Gambate
(good luck) as they say, but kiwosukete (take care).
© kelly waterbury July 25 2007
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