Ginza by Night

By day, Ginza is Tokyo's ritziest shopping district, a boulevard of "burandohin" (name-brand imports) flagship stores, tourists and Japanese dressed to the nines, and depressingly expensive restaurants. It's got some cool stuff, to be sure- the Sony showroom is geek heaven- but not really the sort of place I care to (or could afford to) hang out.

Last night, however, I got to see the real Ginza. By night, Ferraris and Maseratis pull in front of lavish hotels, and valets take the keys from scowling, middle-aged, designer-suited businessmen.  These aren't the stoic salarymen of the morning commute, nor the tipsy new-hires I run into on the train Friday nights, trying to fit binge drinking with both classmates and coworkers around a 10-hour workday. The denizens of Ginza hanging out on the street (at least the ones I got to see) are assholes: loud, raucous, scornful pricks, enabled by their lucrative salaries to not care the least about anyone or anything. I heard one group loudly mocking my friend's English, something I've never run across in this country, and saw another group break into a fight that ended up with one guy (and the $5000 of clothes on him) in a hotel fountain. あぶない.

(I know that not all the people in Ginza at night fall into this mold; these guys were just the most noticable as I walked down the street. Inside the restaurants and bars, the customers and staff are all polite and classy, though the men are still much colder than, say, the ones you would find in a normal Izaka-ya)

My host was a very nice guy, however, a well-off man whom, by way of a complicated chain of connections, ended up taking my friends and I out first for the best hamburger of my life, and then to a Ginza club for drinks. There's not much to say about the hamburger, save that it was mind-blowingly delicious. We ate in Akasaka, near my internship at SAKK.

The Ginza club, however, was something else. I wish I had photos, but it just didn't feel right- I already felt like I was privy to a sight not meant for outside eyes, and I didn't want to mark myself as a tourist any more than I already was (picture dressing to meet an old friend for drinks at a bar by a train station, and then ending up at a board meeting). The club was extravagant, from the gilded and art-laded walls to the private reserve bourbons filling the crystal cabinets. Everything screamed opulence. The tables are scattered around a carpeted floor, surrounded by posh leather sofas and chairs.

When you order drinks at one of these clubs, you don't just get tasty liquor, you also get beautiful women to serve and chat with you. These ladies are dead classy, from the mid-twenties up to the mid-thirties, and wear either kimono or gorgeous designer dresses. They're not prostitutes in the least- they do nothing more than pour drinks for the customer and keep him company- but it's still unlike anything I've run into before. Nightlife moguls may get similar treatment in American lounges, but the spectacle of sitting down at a restaurant and having several beautiful women immediately come over and pour drinks, light cigarettes, talk with you, and pretend you're the most interesting person they've ever met was just odd.

(Japanese people are into this sort of thing- from maid cafes to host/hostess bars, men and women alike pay premiums for institutionalized companionship of the opposite sex, even when there's absolutely no chance of interaction outside the bar or store)

I think that one part of the oddity was that it didn't seem like something special enough to pay for. Yes, everything was the height of class, but going out drinking with friends, women included, isn't something hard to do in Tokyo, at least for a college student. The conversation I had with these girls could be substituted in for any number of first-time meetings. While I got what was so special about the location (the decor, the alcohol, the manners and clothes of the staff), I didn't really get the "pay a girl to talk to you" thing. I guess if you're rich, but have bad luck with women, it would be kind of nice, but most of the businessmen I saw in there looked like they would have no problem finding a nice girl to take out. The idea of paying to flirt with girls whom you'll never see outside of the lounge they work in just doesn't quite come together in my mind. I've heard the same sentiments from many non-Japanese, unable to reconcile the idea of non-sexual (or at least, not-leading-to-sex) paid companionship, and  one of the better-written explanations I've found comes from an article in The Standard titled "My Month as a Poor Man's Geisha":

It was their job to try to touch us, our job
to not let them. It was all a part of the game, the knowing laughter,
the glow of mischief, the moment they nearly crossed the line just to
make us draw it again. In many ways the hostess bar recreated the
atmosphere of childhood, a space devoted to pure play and indulgence,
but with the boundaries that allowed it to be pleasurable. The fact
that the female manager of such a club is called mama-san is no
coincidence. Taking care to mark the limits of the customers' desire
relieved them of the responsibility to control it…

…After all, hostess bar customers
weren't really looking for a lapdance or a peep show, they could have
easily gotten those elsewhere and for far cheaper.

The question remains – why were they here? What were they looking for?

Yes,
they wanted the fantasy of sex, but also they wanted the fantasy of
romance. Of the perfect girlfriend, who is always ready for drinking,
flirtation and fun, but who disappears at the end of the night, no
strings attached. They wanted a world apart from the daily cares of the
working world, where they could be simultaneously be children and kings
of the castle.

This bar wasn't a hostess bar per se- there was no groping, no karaoke, no raunchiness- but the fantasy of romance, the escapism and the idea of a perfect, flawless evening, persisted. No matter what they drink, how they drink it, what they care to talk about, or what their mood, the customers can expect nothing but the pleasant buzz of quality alcohol and meandering conversation, an atmosphere of relaxed decadence, and affirmation by beautiful, elegant female companionship.

That said, I can't remember the name of the 30-year old whiskey we drank, but it was the best liquor I've ever had. I never saw a menu; I get the impression you ask for what you want, and it tends to be there. If it's not, the problem is probably less their selection than your poor taste in alcohol. They brought champagne and cake later (both incredible) for one of the girls' birthdays, and we all sang her "Happy Birthday," which I found hilarious.
My friends and I shared "What the hell is this place, and how did we get here?" glances, and our host seemed pleasantly bemused at our disorientation. It was an amazing time, and I savored every minute of it, partly because I never expect to end up anywhere like that any time soon.The High Life

I had a date that night, and we had originally planned to meet up at Shibuya around 11:30. When we got to Ginza, I told our host that I probably needed to cut out to go meet my friend, and he told me to just have her come here instead. She was a little confused when I told her to go to Shinbashi instead of Shibuya, and more so when I led her down into a tucked-away businessman's club, but I explained the odd set of circumstances that put me there, and she joined in enjoying the weird, wonderful situation. Our host dropped us all off in Shinjuku later, and we hung out at an Izakaya until first train.