Getting by in Tokyo

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 the trash 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”…

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 people 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 it sounds.

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.

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. 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 Playmobile city”.

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.  


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