Joji and I had just finished our weekly ritual of five alarm spice Pad Thai and Coconut Cokes and were making our Friday rounds through Shinjuku, our tongues still burning. We cut passed the usual scenes: college kids drinking beers outside a convenient store as they exchanged phone numbers, old men sitting on the bench of an oden stand smoking cigarettes, young men waving bar menus and hawking all-night karaoke deals at passing pedestrians.
“Want that giant Mickey plush?” Joji asked, as we passed a late-night game center. The clutter of Mickey plush dolls in Santa hats stacked behind the glass of the UFO catcher machine stared up at us with their festive grins. No doubt they were beckoning to Joji’s inner gambler.
“Not really,” I answered.
“I bet you that I can get it with just 500yen.”
“And what happens if you don’t?”
“All-night karaoke. Check’s on me.”
He hesitated. I shrugged, slowly walking away.
“Ok, ok drinks too. Geez you’re scary,” he said, holding up his hands in surrender.
“And what if you get it?” I asked, putting a hand on his shoulder as he dropped the 500 yen into the coin slot, activating the plastic claw.
“Then you have to follow me tonight,” he said, maneuvering the controls: leeeeeeft – forward – then down the arm went.
“To karaoke?” I asked.
“To anywhere. No questions.”
I looked at the soft Mickey plush doll as the claw went down again, dragging the plush only halfway down through the hole.
“Only one more try!” I said in mock fear. “What will the great Joji do now that his wallet will be out 8000yen! Tonight I’m gonna have myself a real good time,” I sang in falsetto, mocking his usual drunken Queen rendition.
He didn’t look at me, his eyes completely entranced by the swaying claw. Left – fooooorward – and down the arm went again, pushing down on Mickey’s head.
The plush said goodbye to his brothers and tumbled down the hole to freedom.
“As usual, the gambling king wins again,” I murmured.
“Nice to meet you. I hope we can be friends,” Joji said in his best Mickey voice as he held out the plush doll’s soft hand to me.
I met Joji four years ago at a school festival. He was working as a teacher’s assistant in the Japanese literature department at Waseda University, despite despising anything written in Japan before 1950. We often went to Yoyogi Park with cans of plum-flavored alcohol and chips, lay beneath the trees, and he would start telling me about the main character in a new book he was reading, complete with dramatic gestures and appropriate accents. He said the only way he could remember what he read is if he told someone about it, that he was afraid his brain was rotting a little bit every day. So I would bring a notebook, and after his theatrical storytelling, we would write down everything we did for the week until all our memories were on solid paper.
“I’ve been thinking of something recently,” Joji started, as we cut down a small alleyway of closing boutiques and the stained glass entrance of love hotels.
“My sister is in the hospital. She’s been there for a while now, and I was thinking of visiting her soon. She’s been on my mind, but I just can’t bring myself to go visit her.”
I didn’t say anything, waiting for him to continue, but we just walked in silence.
“Have you ever tried out a host club before?” he asked me, changing the subject as we passed the neon red entrance of kabuki-cho, Shinjuku’s night paradise.
“No, and not interested,” I said.
“Well today’s your lucky day then,” he said, grinning, and I knew something terrible was going to happen.
Joji was impulsive, like a curious child, he would often purposely get off the train at the wrong station and then suddenly decide to walk home, despite how he was more than four miles away from home. It didn’t matter if it was raining, if he was carrying over ten pounds of books, or if he wasn’t even sure of the way back.
The winter after college, he quit his teaching job and decided to put all his savings (with a healthy loan from his parents) into opening a bakery in Kichijoji, right outside Inokashira Park with its troves of lovesick couples and chirpy families. When I asked him why he didn’t choose a smaller neighborhood where the rent would be cheaper, he scoffed and asked me why oh why I dreamed such sad, small dreams.
As we waited for a streetlight to turn green on our usual walk to Yoyogi Park, Joji handed me his new name card:
Joji Iwasaki, Owner
"Not to brag or anything, but you can tell your mom that you're dating a millionaire now," he said shrugging nonchalantly.
"I don't think most bakeries make over a million a year," I said, clearing my throat. "How'd you come up with the name?"
"I visited Rome with my family when I was a kid, like maybe 10 years old? I remember getting off the train at Roma Termini, the first bit of civilization after a nearly traumatizing 14-hour flight. It was midnight and a lot of homeless people were gathered outside the station, sleeping on newspapers or just chatting. There was graffiti all over the buildings, and I remember thinking 'yeah we're gonna die tonight.'
"But then I looked over at my brother and he had this look about him. This look. It was as if he had found something so special. As if everything in this moment was absolutely perfect. It was then that I knew there that there was something about this place, something about this feeling, something about this moment that I absolutely had to keep. I couldn't just let it get away from me or I would never have it again. I was suddenly terrified and exhilarated all at once. I tried to take it in all at once, the look of the streetlights, the smell of the Indian curry shop, the steel sheen of the chairs and tables lined outside the trattoria across from the station."
"What do you think that feeling was?" I asked.
"I think it was love. Love for my family. It was the closest I ever felt to anyone. I think it was the only trip I ever took with my whole family," Joji answered, staring out as if piecing the memories together through an invisible tapestry.
"So how do you feel about opening your own place?" I asked, turning the name card around to find the cute logo his brother had helped him design.
"Not sure to be honest. Who knows, maybe I’ll be back to editing those terrible essays about Yukio Mishima again soon," he said, pulling on his right ear lobe as he always did when he was nervous. "I just want it to be a place people bring their families."
I looked at him with a raised eyebrow.
"Well, preferably happy families. I definitely don't want any of those screaming kids or parents doing the whole not-talking-to-each-other-now deal," he quickly amended.
"And how do you plan on filtering those groups out?" I asked, reaching out to hold his hand.
"No discounts. Ever. It has got to be one of those places people only go to when they're in a good mood. Like a reward. Maybe I'll get a cute dog as the bait," he said, lost in his imaginings.
“Heaven’s Rose” was written in calligraphy the neon sign-board outside, next to blown-up portraits of tanned men in suits. A young man, freezing in his tuxedo, walked over to us with a pamphlet and asked if we were looking for a host club. I looked at Joji, and he just shook his head. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“My sister used to come here a lot,” Joji said as the automatic doors opened to Heaven’s Rose. The walls and ceiling were a perfect powder white, the floors a white-gray marble. We walked over to the round reception desk and found an empty chair with a single red intercom button and a speaker embedded in the desk.
“Heaven’s Rose is not taking additional guests tonight,” a polite woman’s voice answered after we pressed the button. It was neither high nor low, a perfectly modulated voice as if tuned by a conductor.
“This is Shoko Nakamura,” Joji said.
Who? I whispered, but he didn’t answer.
“Welcome to Heaven’s Rose, Miss Nakamura. We hope you enjoy your time with us tonight,” the woman said after a brief silence, the door next to the reception desk opening. Before entering the next room, I put my giant Mickey plush on the empty chair – it made the room seem less threatening.
The room had a cabinet of books and magazines and two sofas positioned around a low glass coffee table. We’d entered a waiting room. Joji picked up a book from the shelf, Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country, and made himself comfortable on the sofa, patting the seat next to him for me to join him. He pulled on his right earlobe as he read the opening lines aloud: “The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country…”
After a few minutes, a young man in a tuxedo and feathery blond hair entered the room.
"Dear Master, we would like to welcome you to Heaven’s Rose," he smiled brightly. He couldn't have been more than 20 years old.
Joji smiled back, returning the book to the shelf.
"This is Hinako," Joji said, pointing to me. "This is her first time." Who was Hinako? Joji stared at me, so I nodded.
"N-Nice to meet you," I stuttered. I silently cursed his rooster-like fluttering hair for distracting me.
"Thank you for visiting us,” he said with a smile. “I'm so happy to meet you. I really hope we can be good friends. I’m here to listen to anything you want to talk about," he continued and reached out to take my hand. His skin was warm and smooth, and I felt my heartbeat increase suddenly.
“Don’t have too much fun,” Joji grinned, waving as the young man led me toward the open door. He was still holding my hand. I didn’t know if this Joji’s idea of a reward or punishment.
"My name is Shinji," the boy said, pouring two glasses of champagne. The private room was as white as the reception area. A keyboard piece from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier played lightly in the background. The leather sofa was plush against my back, the air temperature moderated perfectly for forgetting the time.
"Do you have any siblings?" I asked, as we clinked our glasses together.
"I have one older sister," he said, smiling softly. "How about you, Miss Hinako? You seem like someone who takes care of others."
"I have an older brother. Haven't seen him in years, and I'm hoping that time really does make the heart fonder because I could easily punch him in the jaw now," I said, and Shinji laughed.
"What does your little sister do?" I asked, taking another sip of my drink.
"She's a nurse," he answered. His black suit was perfectly ironed, the collar of his shirt stiff and bleached white. He kept his hands on the table, his fingernails perfectly manicured.
"Really? Your professions seem quite different," I replied, trying my best not to offend him.
"Everyone makes different decisions," he smiled.
"How did you start off here anyways?"
"A friend in high school recommended me," he answered, making eye contact with both of us as he spoke.
"Is your friend still doing this?"
"No, he got married last year," he replied. "It was a really beautiful wedding. Lilac flowers and lavender everywhere. The bride’s family and friends were crying, everyone was so happy.”
I thought of Shinji and his host friend in the same tuxedo and dyed feather hair at this lavish lilac wedding, the two exchanging knowing looks during the wedding toast.
“Are you married?" Shinji asked, noticing my stare.
"No," I answered, my face flushing red.
"I'm sure you will find someone soon. Someone as beautiful as you," he smiled.
"I have a boyfriend," I said. "He was right outside before."
"Oh, you're Joji's girlfriend. Does that mean I don’t have a chance?" He winked, filling up my glass with more champagne.
"You know Joji?" I asked. Shinji stopped filling up his glass and placed the bottle down.
"Joji's sister used to come here quite often.”
"What was she like?"
"She was beautiful. Long black hair and brown eyes that were always opened wide, as if she were trying to see everything all at once," he said enthusiastically. "She would always sit right there and tell me about all the people she had been meeting at work."
“What kind of work did his sister do?” I asked. I had never met her, and Joji never talked about her.
“I think she worked at one of the clubs around here,” he answered after some hesitation.
“Did she like her job?”
“She didn’t hate it. No one hates this job,” Shinji said. “If we did, we would just leave,” he continued, pouring himself some more champagne. “She said she felt really popular at work. It was the first time she could openly talk to complete strangers. Of course it’s scary at first, suddenly listening to a complete stranger’s most personal moments. I remember the first club I worked at, I was scared out of my mind.”
“How long do you think you’ll work here?”
"That’s a good question,” he laughed, narrowing his eyes as he thought. I watched the cold condensation drip down our glasses.
“You know, there's a point between today and tomorrow where you don't really know if time is moving forward in a linear manner," he said. "Before working here, I used to pull a lot of all-nighters so I could watch the sun rise and make sure the day was starting anew. I kept telling myself today I would pull things together today and do something I really wanted to.
"But there is something so lonely about seeing the sun rise every day. The ironic part about confirming the new day was that it started feeling more like the days never ended, each day just spilling into the next. The same thing over and over again. I started feeling alone and stuck.
“I do enjoy working here though. I’m not unlike Joji’s sister. I used to be very bad at talking to people. These types of clubs make it easy for us to meet new people, to candidly talk about ourselves and other people without the need for context or commitment. I think when I don’t need this stage anymore, I will move on.”
He took out his cell phone and showed me a picture of a woman sleeping on a bus, her mouth opened wide like a yawning manatee. I chuckled at the unglamorous shot.
“This is my sister. Every day she gets home and feels exhausted. She keeps telling me that she is going to quit her job, but never does. When I talk to her about my job and the people I’ve met, she’s always jealous.”
“Do you think Joji’s sister felt the same way?”
“I think the problem with Joji’s sister was that she started losing herself. She came in one day saying she met the most amazing guy, a gynecologist who worked near Hiroo.
“She said he’d come to her club for a few weeks, usually on Wednesdays and Fridays. He would come in at midnight and stay until the first train back to the outskirts of Tokyo where his family was. She used to come in and give me every detail. What drink he ordered, what he was wearing, which patients he had due for delivery soon, what worried him about his kids, all his bad jokes. I almost felt like I was dating the guy,” he laughed, holding his drink with a look like he was remembering something fondly.
I tried picturing myself dating a gynecologist and the kind of bad jokes he would make. I shuddered silently.
“She had the softest hands and this way of talking to you that made you feel like she was always so happy to see you, that you were so important to her. There was so much good in her,” Shinji poured me some more champagne, but he was staring at a point past my face, past this room, somewhere to the illuminated night streets of Kabuki-cho.
“What happened to her?” I asked, raising the glass to my lips but not drinking. The room was starting to feel cold and clammy.
“The doctor just stopped coming one day,” Shinji said, smiling. “That is how our work is. We meet new people. But there is no commitment for them to keep seeing us. It’s not like a girlfriend where you have to at least give her a call or message to tell her that you want to break it off.
“I thought Shoko knew that. But every day she came in saying that she knew the two of them had something special, that he understood her. She said she dreamt about him, where they had a small house together on an island, just the two of them, and every time she woke up physically hurting because he wasn’t actually there.”
“How did she get hospitalized?” I asked, remembering Joji’s words.
“The doctor came back one day,” Shinji said. “And he stabbed her. She had become so sure that they were meant to be together that she found his clinic in Hiroo and managed to get his wife’s phone number. She made up this whole story about how she had been sleeping with the doctor and that she was pregnant with his kid. Of course none of that was true, all they had ever done was talk, but the wife took it all seriously. She didn’t want to hear his side of the story. Said something about her friends always telling her he wasn’t good enough for her. She filed for divorce and went on a crusade to ruin his reputation,” Shinji explained. “So the doctor came back one day and stabbed Joji’s sister on her way home. Called her a psycho whore. The club had to close for a month afterwards because of all the nasty news coverage.”
The light in the room went suddenly dim for a few seconds, and then returned to its perfect intensity again. The air vent rumbled and seemed to restart.
“I’m sorry Miss Hinako, but it seems our time is almost up. Do you have more time to talk?” Shinji smiled.
“I think I should probably be going back now,” I said, standing.
“I really enjoyed talking to you,” Shinji said, standing as well. “You reminded me of a lot of important things I’ve tried to forget.”
“Just tell me one more thing before I go,” I said, looking at the half empty glasses.
He nodded, his lips pursed slightly.
“Did you ever tell her she could do better? You were her friend, weren’t you?” I asked. He looked at me, his expression difficult to read. “Did you ever tell her she could find someone better? That she was worth more than that?” I persisted.
He continued to look at me silently.
The door opened and another man in a tuxedo was standing there, bowing slightly.
I bowed slightly as I left the room. Shinji also bowed, never raising his eyes from the ground.
I recalled the first few months after Joji's bakery had opened. There was always a line out the door. He was so busy I barely saw him for weeks at a time, and he apologized each time with something else he had won at the UFO catcher machines. He was tired, but he never complained.
Fourteen months in though, Joji suddenly decided to close the shop down. He said he couldn't take the stress of running the place anymore. I’m not good at sticking with something for too long, he said.
He sold the bakery to a popular French cafe chain, and within a month, they had changed the signboard outside and reformed the inside completely. They let him keep the Termini menu board that had been hanging on the door, which he promptly threw out on a recycle day.
"Thank god I never got that dog, huh?" he laughed as we went together to cash the check. He stroked the lobe of his right ear as he handed the check to the clerk.
“What did you guys talk about?” Joji asked as we walked out of the waiting room. Before we left the powder white reception room of Heaven’s Rose, I briefly looked back at the Mickey plush. He was still sitting on the reception chair, silent but smiling. I truly hoped that his new brothers would be kind to him.
As we stepped onto the artificial streets of kabuki-cho, the sudden rush of cold air covered my face and ran down my spine like an electric current.
“Your sister seems like a nice person,” I said, blowing warm air into my hands. The same young host from earlier was passing out flyers to some drunken girls in platform boots.
“She is,” Joji said, looking straight ahead, his hands in his pockets.
“Want to tell me more about her? I have a hankering for some ramen,” I said, reaching out for his hand before he could touch his ear.
“I didn’t grow up with a sister. I had a brother. His name was Sho. At 20, he said he was going to start taking medication, that he was ready to begin his metamorphosis. That he was ready to become a woman. None of us understood what he was talking about. Where did all of it come from? What metamorphosis?”
Joji ground some sesame into his ramen bowl and crushed a whole garlic clove into the soup. I watched him methodically mix the chili oil in and then neatly place the noodles on his porcelain spoon before slurping them up.
“We used to play soccer in the small field near our house. He would always start crying because he kept falling, and the other kids would call him names. He was so bad at passing the ball so the other boys made him goalie, but then he was so scared of when the ball would come at him that he would just hide behind the metal pole. I used to think he was so weak. But in reality, he was the one who had the most guts out of all us. He did everything he had to do alone. Absolutely everything. He was always alone,” Joji said, taking a bite of the pork belly slice. “We all thought he was being selfish, but who on this planet isn’t selfish? Weren’t we the ones trying to force our preconceived notions on him?” Joji said, biting his lower lip. He put down his chopsticks.
“He took up the name Shoko Nakamura as his hostess name. You have to put aside your real self and assume a new identity when you enter this world. But when he came home in the morning, he wiped off his make-up, put on a big t-shirt and loose jeans and try his best to look like the Sho we knew. The funny big brother. The reliable son. I think even he didn’t know who he was anymore. She never told us anything about what she did at night, and we never asked.”
I thought about Shinji and wondered what kind of person he had been before he had become a host, what kind of regular high school student he had been. How he must have joked with his friends on school trips or how his heart must have beat as he spoke to a girl he liked in the cafeteria for the first time.
"I just need to know. I need to know if I was responsible. If somehow I did this to him," Joji said, his eyes tearing up. Some of the other guests in the ramen shop glanced at us, but then went back to their hot bowls. I ate some of the chewy noodles and bean sprouts as we sat in silence.
“I found out later on that she was obsessed with some guy and the notion of being together because he had asked her to be his girlfriend,” Joji continued. “You believe that guy’s bullshit? My guess is that he was getting tired of paying the club bills, so he told her that he wanted to be with her separate from the club, that he just wanted to be with her. She thought she could trust him,” Joji’s voice was ragged.
“So she told him the truth. That she used to be a man, but that she had completed her transformation. She didn’t tell the club because no one would understand, but she thought at least he should know everything about her, that she wanted to know everything about him.
“And that’s when he stopped coming to the club. He didn’t love her, he never did. What does the hell does love even mean?” Joji shook his head and looked out the door at a couple stumbling into a hotel across the street. “When I opened Termini, I was so happy. My parents were so proud of me. I thought I would be running that place until I was too old to even remember my own name.
“But when Sho told us he was going to start taking his meds, he thanked me. He said when I started my bakery and told him why I’d done it, it reminded him of a very important point in his life. He said when he got off that train in Rome, he felt like everything was different. All the doubt he had been feeling about himself, all the loneliness and frustration he had been trying to silence, seemed less important. In Tokyo, he felt like everyone was just silently tolerating their unhappiness with smiles, that as long as you were a contributing member of your group, that was enough. There was no drive to find personal happiness and no right to express your personal suffering. Yet so many people were living here on the other side of the world, struggling but still living, still able to feel real joy in addition to the sadness. They were still their own individuals even on the streets. He realized he didn’t know anything about working for his own happiness. For him, Termini Station was the beginning of everything.
“So my parents began hating that bakery and that made me start hating that bakery as well. I felt sorry for having tried so hard to keep something so terrible. I knew that my bakery hadn’t caused him to be the way he was and that he would have eventually chosen his own way, but I still came to work every day, looking at the Termini signboard outside, and felt depressed. I had completely misinterpreted what had been so special about that moment in Rome.
“So I decided to erase everything. I sold the place to some investors that were eyeing the place for months. I told everyone I didn’t have the money or willpower to keep running the place and closed that chapter of my life,” Joji took a final slurp of the soup.
“I tried to erase the last strong connection we had. I willed Termini out of existence,” he said, looking down at his hands. “I sometimes get scared that I will just forget about him, that he never wakes up and we all just forget about him.” Joji looked down at his hands. “Can you remember your brother’s face?”
I thought for a bit. I could only come up with a tall silhouette in a baseball cap but no clear face. I shook my head.
“Why did you really bring me here today?” I asked, slowly wiping my mouth with a napkin. The ramen shop owner took the order ticket from a pair of customers that had just walked in. All the customers we had entered in with had already left.
“The knife wound from the doctor wasn’t fatal,” Joji said. “She spent a few days at the hospital and came home. She wouldn’t talk to anybody, blasting the same song over and over again in her room. I think she didn’t know what to feel anymore. I think she still wanted to be with the guy, but hated him at the same time.
“Then our mom began saying this was all a sign for why Sho had been going in the wrong direction. That he was destroying our family with his selfish decisions. She would talk to her friends on the phone and make up stories about how her son had received a scholarship and had gone overseas to study law in New York, that he had found a nice American girlfriend. She had basically killed her son in her mind.
“So Sho got a bottle of sleeping pills from one of his club friends. He downed the whole bottle one night and never woke up. We were too late but too early in a way. He, or rather she’s, been in a coma ever since.”
“Did you bring me here to find out more about what happened from Shinji?”
“No,” Joji shook his head. “Honestly, I don’t know why I brought you here, but I think I needed to come here. I needed to tell you Sho’s story,” Joji said, still looking at his hands, the bones and veins like tiny intertwined slopes.
“I feel like if I tell somebody else her story, maybe she won’t have to be so lonely anymore. That I won’t forget her.”
We walked to the station in silence, the night sky covered in clouds. The club billboards of large-eyed girls with fake eyelashes and dyed-brown hair left me feeling vacant. A cab waited for us by the curb, but we waved it away, neither of us talking.
I remembered how our arguments always ended in silence. I would keep asking him why he did this or that, or why he said that, or why he didn’t do that, or was he even listening? and he would just sit there in complete silence, letting me yell at him until I just started crying, not sure why I was crying. Then he would take my hand and tell me he was sorry he couldn’t understand me, but that he was listening, that the silence didn’t mean he wasn’t listening. I wondered if his sister had been the same, waiting for him to tell her a story, how he had been, what scared him, and what he was going to do from now.
“Let’s go visit her tomorrow,” I said as we entered JR Shimbashi Station. Drunken salarymen were slumped on the floor, spooning their briefcases, empty cans of hangover remedies at their sides. The schedule board flashed with the first train of the day.
“Do you think she’ll want to see me?” Joji asked.
“Hard to say,” I pursed my lips. “Do you think you can win her a cute dog plush on the way? No one ever turns down cute dogs,” I smiled and Joji smiles for the first time since we left Heaven’s Rose.
As we waited for first train, the snow started to fall in tiny speckles, covering Joji’s dark black hair. The overhead lamps cast an orange glow over the few people on the early morning platform, their breath coming out in deep puffs against the cold air. We watched the light beginning to rise in the horizon, through the deep blanket of clouds like an orange ember melting the night, one day spilling into another.