By Tenzin McGrupp © 2002
Note: This originally appeared in the July 2002 edition of Truckin
12 June 00
Earlier in the morning Beano had departed for a trek in the Japan Mountains, leaving me and Señor alone to navigate the confusing and congested Central Station in Tokyo. We need to find the office that will validate our Japanese Rail (JR) Travel Passes. Señor had scored us Green Passes or First Class passes that would permit us to have unlimited usage of the highly intricate and efficient Japanese Rail system. We had been able to ride the bullet trains for one week in First Class for $350 US. That's bargain considering a one way trip from Tokyo to Osaka cost $100 and that's in regular coach seating. When we finally get to the office we book our entire train trip for the remainder of the Phish tour: Tokyo to Nagoya, Nagoya to Fukuoka, Fukuoka to Osaka, and Osaka to Tokyo. The bullet trains are cheaper than flying and I love train travel because it gives me a better opportunity to see the Japanese countryside, something you miss when you are 30,000 feet up in the atmosphere.
On the platform the Shinkansen bullet trains pull into the station as I stand and marvel at these modern modes of transport, the space aged, long sleek, sparkling clean white tubes. Inside they are spotless, carpeted and air-conditioned. I have come a long way from home and the filthy subways of NYC to be riding the best rail system in the world. The first class cars, or the Green Cars, are designated with big Green Shamrocks on the outside of the cars. We walk down the platform until we see our car.
As we enter the bullet train, a bevy of twelve or so other Americans making their way to Nagoya are getting settled in. I introduce myself as soon as I get into the aisle.
"Hello everyone, if I could get your attention please, my name is McGrupp and I am an alcoholic."
The car erupts in laughter. I point to Señor, and continue. "This is my side kick and attorney, Señor. We will be entertaining you all for the next two hours."
A light round of applause makes its way through the Green Car. My icebreaker has seemed to work and now I will be known as "the drunk guy on the bullet train" for the rest of the tour. As we walk to our seats I hear one phishy chick turn to her friend and say, "They're funny. But the cute, smiling, little hairy one doesn't look Mexican, does he?"
Sitting behind us are Freddy and Gina from San Francisco, a married couple who own a bar in the Haight called Casey Jones, named after the Grateful Dead song, heck, named after my favorite Dead song. And a few seats behind us are Asselope Greg and his posse of merry fuckheads. I casually flip him the bird as I sit down in my relaxing and spacious seat. I get as much legroom as I need, a blessing because usually I am pushing maximum space capacity when I travel, and the Green Cars give you more room than First Class airplane seats with these comfortable convertible chairs that let you lie back and go to sleep.
A Japanese woman wearing a kimono comes through the car offering us green tea and a hot towel. A few minutes later another woman wearing a kimono pushes a cart filled with traditional boxed Japanese sushi lunches and more beverages. Señor buys one boxed lunch and I open up a box of Pockey Sticks, a local snack of chocolate dipped pretzel sticks to which I have become addicted.
I get up and start to walk around our car to make small talk and go into the next car. Between the cars are these cool sliding star trek doors that open up without you actually touching the door. I walk back and forth a couple of times, amusing myself with the sliding doors, making sure I did my best Scotty from Star Trek accent as I walked through, "I'm giving it all she can Captain, for God's sakes I'm just a mechanic..."
In the next car I see Marcus from Iowa and a handful of other kids we met at Hibiya Park after one of the Tokyo shows. I sit down and play chess with him, glancing occasionally out the window in between moves, catching the Japanese countryside whizzing by at 100 mph.
I have been in Japan for less than a few days and I have already met Phisheads from Vancouver, Seattle, Oregon, all over California, Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Ohio, Tennessee, Chicago, Indiana, New Jersey, Atlanta, Alabama, New Orleans, Mississippi, Georgia, South and North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, DC, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Maine, Vermont, Boston, upstate NY and even NYC. All of us here for the same reason.
The train arrived in Nagoya on time. Japan is kick ass efficient. Señor finds us a good hotel in the Sakae district near Club Quattro, the venue that Phish will be playing the next evening. Nagoya is a newer city thanks to the bombing by the U.S. Military in WW II, with wide streets built on a grid system for easy navigation. The subways are spotless, the locals are extra friendly and the city is not as overcrowded as Tokyo.
Since it's our only day off (the only night Phish wasn't playing all tour), we are free to relax and take naps before checking out the Nagoya nightlife. We order massages in our hotel room. (Editor's Note: These were "legitimate" massages) We have traditional Japanese shi-ut-su massage with hot towels. They beat the crap out of you, but afterwards you feel absolutely wonderful, like you’ve attained some sort of spiritual enlightenment. Loose and relaxed, it was easy to fall asleep.
After the naps, we eat dinner at a local sushi bar before exploring the city. We wander around the Sakae District past all the karaoke bars, clubs, and restaurants and we find this bar on a side street, because we were looking for somewhere to drink, but also some place local, off the path.
A Heineken Beer sign sits in the window of the bar, with a wood façade that looked like it was a typical corner bar in Brooklyn. I suggest to Señor that, "This might be a nice place."
He agrees and opens the door to the Park Side Bar. A small bar, it is nearly empty, except for a few tables up front with a group of people, and a young lady sitting at the bar. We sit down next to her and order a couple of beers.
The owner, Teppei, speaks English and while serving us our beers, he asks us, "Where are you from and what are you doing in Nagoya?"
I tell him who we are, Señor and McGrupp and all about our global misadventures.
"You see, we're in Japan to follow our favorite band, Phish, to four cities, and Nagoya is city number two. It's a night off for us, and you know what, Teppei, we picked YOUR bar to get wasted in."
He laughs and pours more drinks and we started to make small talk with the young lady, Reiko, who is sitting next to Señor. It is almost midnight when Reiko tells us she had been there since 5 PM earlier that day, after she had lost her job! She has a plate of food that she has been picking at while she drinks a beer.
Reiko takes turns feeding Señor and sipping her beer. She keeps picking up these tiny pepperoni slices and hand-feeding Señor, which is odd because Señor no longer likes pepperoni after the infamous puking incident involving my brother's dog, McBinger. Alas, it has taken a beautiful woman to break Señor out of old habits, so I just sit back, watch and laugh and chat with Teppei. I ask him how his English is near perfect and it turns out that he used to live in Seattle and had taken classes at Seattle Central Community College for two years. I show him my Washington State Driver's License and then he asks me how the Seahawks are playing! Small world, indeed.
Reiko offers to buy us shots. I suggest Tequila. Reiko and Teppei do a few shots with us, and we get even more shitty and talk about all kinds of bullshit. The Park Side Bar officially closes at midnight, but Teppei let's us all stay way past closing time. He pours us a few more beers and we do more shots and continued talking and sharing stories.
Señor takes my pocket Japanese Phrase Book and tries to talk to Reiko, but they are both two drunk to make anyway headway. Each starts a sentence in the other's language, only to mess up the pronunciation with a drunken slur, and then both bust into laughter. They exchange addresses, promising one another they would write.
The Japanese are a gracious and hospitable people. And the locals in Nagoya display these traits to perfection. Before we leave, Teppei suggests some places to eat and local sites for us to see before we leave his city, like the Nagoya Castle.
"You are here to see Phish, so you must go see the golden fish. Go to Nagoya Castle!" Teppei yells as we stumble out of his bar, "You cannot miss the golden fish!"
On the way back to our hotel, we stop off into another bar called the Silk Room. This one is much larger and has a good-sized crowd. Some random Phisheads are drinking in the back and I find my buddy Ken drinking at the bar. Ken is the back door bouncer and roadie that we met during the first show in Tokyo. He's an American, born in Japan, and has a "Made in Japan" tattoo on his forearm. We hadn’t had tickets to the first Tokyo show, and Ken was the cool guy who let us hang out by the back stage door and listen to Phish for free. I buy him a beer and a shot and he tells me what hotel Phish is staying at, because he's staying there too. He's getting paid by the promoter, Smash Productions, to tour with Phish as backdoor security. Now that's a fatty job.
An hour later, we stumble out of the Silk Room, and eat at the first noodle shop we see. After a night of drinking, my Japanese is no more than drunken gibberish, so I just point to what I want to eat and the noodle guy serves it right up.
With full stomachs, we’re still drunken lunatics. We make our way back to our hotel, past the noodles shops, bars, massage parlors, and clubs, and more karaoke bars and more massage parlors. The Sakae district nightlife is alive and kicking for a Monday night! I wonder what this place would be like on a weekend.
"Mr. Yankee, do you want massage from sexy Japanese girl?"
The tiny adorable girls who work at the massage parlors are very aggressive. They walk right up to us and every Gai-jin. Even if you try to cross the street, they follow and persuade you in the middle of the street, with hand jesters and broken English to have an "authentic Japanese massage". And when you decline, they follow you for a block or so until another group of girls from another massage parlor does the same.
There's a club on the same corner of our hotel and these young Japanese guys are dressed up like they are members of the Yakuza, the infamous Japanese Mafia, wearing hip, sleek black suits and sunglasses. There's also a flock of beautiful women standing on the corner, dressed up like models in the latest fashions from Milan and Paris and they all talk on tiny little cell phones, while smoking American cigarettes. From the chic appearance of the crowd, this place looks like the swankiest club in Nagoya.
One of the women gets off her cell phone and stops us.
"Do you want me to sing you a song?" she coos with a wide grin.
"Where? Here?" asks Señor.
"No inside club. I'll sing you a pretty song."
As she extends her hand and pulls a drunken Señor into the entrance, one of her friends yanks on my pony tail, giggles then pulls me into the club right behind Señor.
After walking down a flight of stairs, I hear music playing behind a pair of elegant sliding glass doors with pelican and swan markings etched with other floral designs. The beautiful ladies lead us inside and all I see is red. Red walls, a red floor, red chairs and couches. There's a red bar and a few red tables and a karaoke machine and stage in the corner where a young lady is finishing up a performance.
It takes me a few moments before I realize that we are the only guys in the club. About thirty or so of the most beautiful Japanese women sit and stand before us, all of them with their eyes fixated on Señor's huge smile. With not one other male in sight, I arrive at a moment of clarity. I tap Señor on the shoulder and whisper in his ear, "Bro, either we are in the coolest bar on the planet, or we just walked into a whorehouse."
Tenzin McGrupp is a writer from New York City.