Everyone’s life reaches a point where the important memories, people, and places of their pasts are little more than ghosts, wispy semblances of their former fullness. In few places has this truth reverberated through me more than it did in the abandoned apartment above a dilapidated strip club in Okayama Prefecture, Japan.
Each tentative step forward into the darkened rooms served both to test the stability of the floor beneath us and to pretend we weren’t afraid to move forward into the shattered remains of the lives of this building’s former occupants. First, the kitchen. Broken glass and garbage littered the floor. We stepped carefully to avoid a puddle of liquid whose source Cassie noted with muted alarm: “Watch out for the dead rat.” A shriveled, deceased rodent lay in a pool of its own innards, distracting my attention momentarily from the high-quality wooden china cabinet, its contents still carefully arranged inside.
The path wound through the living room, where a regal, black and white face greeted us from a proudly hung portrait, smiling in seeming obliviousness to the decrepitness surrounding him. Piles of papers, a flask of mostly empty whiskey, and family photos were strewn across the ground by some phantom from a decade ago. No happy circumstances could have led to the current state of affairs. Our minds reeled, trying to fathom the story behind all of it.
Creeped out, I hurried the exploration to go back downstairs, which wasn’t much less creepy. Still, being there felt less invasive. I tiptoed over a collapsing stage, the centerpiece of a large auditorium with hundreds of empty stools. Absolute silence and tattered decorations heightened my imagination. In my mind, businessmen loaded with money and sexual angst suddenly lined every stool, hooting and hollering. Music from one of the dozens of sleazy 8-tracks left lying around blared out from the speakers. As my imagination filled in the blanks from similar experiences in America, I realized how little I knew about Japanese culture.
In the dingy back hallways and dressing rooms, I imagined the strippers urgently whispering to each other, hoping to avoid a beating for a bad performance. I imagined something like a modernized, abusive, less classy version of Memoirs of a Geisha. Later research revealed that in Japan, strip clubs are often live sex shows. A man had boarded our train a few days earlier, drunk out of his mind, shoving us aside so he could prop himself up on the free-swinging handhold. I pictured him and his friends throwing back whiskey and Asahi beer while urging each other to get up on stage and blow thousands of dollars for an opportunity to copulate with the juvenile-looking sex puppet parading in front of them.
But all was silent. A cool spring breeze entered and exited the abandoned building as it pleased, gently rattling faded banners and paper lanterns.
We stayed in Japan with Dan Pollock, a friend of mine from high school. It was his spontaneous invitation that led us to look into what a flight to Japan would cost. Thanks to a special from AirAsia, getting there from halfway across Asia in Kuala Lumpur cost less than a typical Japanese hotel room, so we decided to go for it. Adding to the pull to go, luck had it that our visit also coincided with hanami, the cherry blossom season, which is when Japan is at its most uninhibited.
Our arrival in Japan was jarring. We’d become accustomed to the blistering, unapologetic heat of Southeast Asia. We were used to loud people, outrageous flavors, bright colors, and primitive facilities. We’d become used to English being widely spoken, even in places we’d never imagined it would be. We would learn that English proficiency was the key to unlocking the flow of tourist dollars in still-developing economies. All of that disappeared the moment we landed in Japan, the world’s third largest economy.
Kansai International airport is an artificial island in the middle of the ocean, constructed at outrageous expense. Communication became very difficult, even at the inherently international airport. A machine selling train tickets bleeped and blooped and spouted endless streams of Japanese. The extent of my knowledge of the Japanese knowledge came from an introductory Japanese class in middle school, where I learned how to say “good morning,” “goodbye,” “what’s my name?” and a translated version of the song “head, shoulders, knees and toes.”
The train ride from the airport was so silent you could hear a pin drop. Despite our obviously different appearance, no one looked up, stared, or otherwise made any indication they knew we were there. Everyone was dressed to the nines. The ladies all had full makeup and designer clothing; the men wore suits with neatly groomed hair.
Dan’s place in Seiwadai, an hour outside of Osaka, was ideal as a jumping off place. We spent the first week visiting with him, getting caught up and seeing Japan from his perspective. We went to onsen, which are hot springs scattered all over the country, where people of all ages come to get naked and enjoy the healing waters in nearly complete silence.
We spent the majority of the second week at Hakuba, a small ski area in Nagano, where Cassie and I reconnected and enjoyed knee-deep April powder in Dan’s friend’s cabin. The lodging was cheap, the lift tickets were cheap. Only the train ride was outrageously expensive, which we justified to ourselves partially by how cool it was to go on the Shinkansen Nozomi, the world’s third fastest train, topping out at 275 mph.
When we returned, we met Dan’s friend Florian, whose hobby is finding abandoned buildings and exploring them. He’d been planning to visit the sites we visited for months, and Dan’s recent purchase of a van and enthusiasm to go was the impetus to make the trip happen. Luckily, we got to tag along, and in the process got an incredible and unique experience in the process, something we never would have done on the standard tourist agenda. There’s so much more I could write, but this will have to do. The open road in New Zealand calls now…
We spent the last week soaking up the breathtaking sights of Nara and Kyoto and catching the insanity that is a Hanshin Tigers baseball game.
Thanks for an amazing adventure, Dan.