By Iris Finkelstein-Sagi
I landed in Narita airport for the first time with about $300 in my money pouch, wearing a hideous hot pink Gucci knock-off skirt suit and carrying an immense backpack which I’d halfheartedly shaken before leaving my cozy Bangkok guesthouse in an effort to find any and all remnants of illegal substances that may have accumulated there during the six months of backpacking I’d done in Thailand, China and Vietnam.
The suit, I’d had tailor-made for maybe 200 baht at one of the Khao-san road shops, along with another white Dior knock-off and a black pantsuit made from real imitation Chinese silk. I’d heard that it was advisable to look respectable when entering Japan and that the suits would also come in handy at the hostess jobs I was aiming for. Yes.
As I smugly handed my American passport over to the immigration official, I looked over at Hila, my friend who regrettably had only an Israeli passport to show. We’d heard horror stories about Israelis being denied access to Japan and detained in holding cells at Narita, which is why we’d made the completely naïve effort to look like businesswomen. Israelis were notorious for working illegally in Japan, mostly selling pictures and jewelry on the streets. “Of course we have a place to stay in Tokyo” we told the immigration guy. No, we’re not planning on working, why would you think that!” we cried with mock horror. “We’re just so interested in Japanese culture”…
Hila and I were high-school friends. We’d both been travelling with our now-defunct boyfriends,
Hila in India and me all over South East Asia. After lamenting our respective romantic mishaps,
we’d met up in Bangkok, mostly broke, and instead of heading back home to our awaiting
family, university entrance exams and such, we decided to hightail it to Tokyo, the “Promised
Yen”. We were high on naiveté, low on fashion-sense and ready for adventure, new romances
After politely Domo Arigato’ing the immigration guy (we’d cleverly memorized a few Japanese
catch phrases in advance), we figured out the complicated trains map and ticket machines
and dragged our backpacks onto the Tokyo bound train, clutching the card with the name
and address of the Israeli guesthouse we’d been recommended. This guesthouse was our first
encounter with Japanese living. It was crowded, sleazy, the futons were lumpy, the shower had
a ten yen slot for hot water, the train station was a 30 minute walk, and the trains stopped at
midnight which meant the threat of being stranded in central Tokyo was imminent.
The Israelis running the guesthouse had seen me and Hila a thousand times before. They knew
exactly how to get us over our “Tokyo shock”, into our nice suits and out on the streets of Ginza
and Roppongi as fast as possible, looking for a hostess gig. And yes, this was almost as sleazy as
And so, before we knew it, we were ensconced in a respectable club, wearing our Gucci knock-
offs every day and sipping Bacardi-colas while pretending to listen to Japanese salarymen
in identical gray suits. By this time we’d moved out of the guest house and into a house in
Harajuku that we shared with 5 other girls, we were exploring the city and learning the lingo.
This is how we learned that in Japan you can take any word in English, slap on a vowel at the
end, put on an exaggerated Italian accent and the natives will magically understand you!
After many attempts to guide our taxi driver with “Hidari!” and “Migi!” we resorted to “lefto”
and “righto” which worked much better. My name was “Ailisu”, Hila was “Hila-chan” and we
were “Genki” ALL the time.
BUT. We were bored. Bored with the respectable nightclub in the business sector, bored
with our suits and bacardis, bored with shouting out at the top of our voices “Domo Arigato
Gozaimashta” whenever a customer came in or left the club, bored with our OK salaries. We
wanted action, parties, cute guys, nightclubs and more money. And so when we heard about
a fabulous new casino opening up in the center of Roppongi we said “Sayonara” to our suits
and “Ohaiyou Gozaimasu” to our new sleazy bunny lingerie outfits, which we happily pulled on
every night, convincing ourselves that although we were young, we knew how to watch out for
ourselves and we were going to have FUN damn it!
And FUN we had. We were in the epicenter of the most happening nightclub/casino in
Tokyo, waltzing around in our bunny tails serving cheap, watered down whiskey to strung-up
international businessmen who spent most of the time ogling the French topless dancers. Yes,
we had definitely left respectable behind. The staff was a mix of bunny girls (Jenny and Kate
from the UK, Masha from Yugoslavia, Sam from a commune in the US) and cute bartenders (Ben
from Wales, Martin from New Zealand). We downed cocktail after cocktail, made small talk with
the customers, flirted with the bartenders and went partying after work, well into the morning.
We had arrived.
We got to dance, drink, talk and generally have a good time while getting paid a $h*tload of
money (at least by our poor, backpackers standards), and do all this in the glamorous, neon
filled, noisy chatter of Tokyo’s nightlife scene.
On Sundays, our day off, we’d explore Tokyo, imitating Japanese girlie fashion on the streets
of Harajuku, getting lost in the train station of Akihabara and gazing up in wonder at the giant
billboards in Shinjuku. And still, to me, Tokyo always felt like an imitation of a “real” city. Partly
because of the vaguely unreal life I was leading there, but also because I kept comparing it to
New York, my hometown. New York always felt substantial, grounded. The buildings were made
of stone and they were huge and tall. Tokyo by comparison seemed fragile, slippery, flashy and
insubstantial. The buildings strove to fabricate Tokyo into a metropolis but to me it felt like a
Playmobile city, as if it could all be wiped away by a good wind.
And when our three months visas were over, we took a weekend trip to Seoul (the usual and
cheapest route for Israelis who wanted to renew their visas). And when we landed at Narita
this time, I passed immigration and waited on the other side for five hours until I finally had to accept the fact that Hila had been detained and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. And while I was already back in my bunny outfit, Hila spent a day in a holding cell and was unceremoniously placed on a plane back to Bangkok. This fact by the way, did absolutely nothing to stop both Hila and myself from returning to Japan several times afterwards to make some quick cash that got us across Nepal and all of India, with change to spare for (finally) university back in Israel.
And even though twenty years have passed, coming into Japan on a business trip, I still get a
hint of nervousness when I hand over my passport at Narita Immigration (will they let me in?).
And looking out from my hotel window at the (truly fantastic) Tokyo cityscape, I say “yep, still
Iris is a 41 year old mom of three (awesome) kids: The (Princess (12.5), the Tsunami (8+) and the Hurricane (2.5). She’s a design lover, cook, baker, eater, fashionista, bookworm, obsessor, rebel, kickboxer, ace Powerpointer, Photoshop expert, grammar freak, INSEAD MBA grad, writer and museum lover. Check out her latest book project here.