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The Night I Discovered Japan’s RED Red Lantern District

photo credit: au.ibtimes

Have you ever been to a shemale bar? . . .  NO!?  I have.  I’m not bragging.  It’s not something I planned on or set out to do, nor was it on my list of places to go before I die.  I could’ve happily gone on living without ever setting foot in one, but that night is one of my most memorable nights after a year and half of living in Japan.  It was one of those “end of the night/too much drinking” events.  You know . . . when there is still enough time in the night to make ONE more bad decision.  That night I got a “peek at the underside” of the red lantern district of Japan.  (pun intended, you’ll see )

I was living near Osaka teaching English at the time.  It was the last class of the day and I had three students who wanted to go out after class for a drink.  They were in a lower level English class so they had basic English skills, similar to a 3 year old native speaker.  I had to speak slowly and use basic words.

So the four of us (two older business men and one college girl) left the school at 9:30 pm on a Tuesday night.  There was an izakaya restaurant next door and we went there for some appetizers and drinks.  Being their teacher they didn’t let me pay for a thing.  After the check was paid for we started to say our goodbyes, but one of the business men invited me to Kobe, the nearby city.  It’s famous for it’s beef and the big ’95 earthquake.

“You and me go, Kobe.  We drink, we karaoke.  Come.”  He says to me with a big innocent grin as he playfully grabs my arm to go.  “Come.”

It was around 11pm and I knew if we took that 15 minute train ride to the neighbouring city I would have to stay out past the last train.  If I missed it I would have to take an expensive taxi back OR  have to crash at a “love hotel” or a  “capsule hotel.” (google ‘em)

I was at a crossroads.  I could walk back to my tiny apartment and get a good night’s sleep for work tomorrow OR go with this “salary man” and party with him . . . probably into the wee hours of the night AND not pay a dime.  My curiosity got the better of me, I couldn’t say no to this student as he playfully pleaded for me to join him.

So we parted ways with the other two students and boarded the train for Kobe.  During the train ride he told  me he knows a bar.  So I follow him into the night, I have little expectations for.

The first stop was a “hostess bar.” A hostess bar is a bar where very attractive women worship you.  They treat you like you are the smartest, funniest man on the planet.  It’s a self-esteem boost for the Japanese men.  You pay a lot of money to hang out in these bars.  There is no sex or nudity at these places, just karaoke, drinking, and flirting.  This was the first and only time I had gone, because they are pricey.

I discovered he often frequents this particular one because the woman who were working on me told me so.  Surprisingly, her English was better than my student’s.  He bought me an expensive whiskey on the rocks because it was my favourite drink.  He also bought a couple cigars to enjoy.  Not to quote McDonalds, but I’m loving it.  After some pointless chit chatting and drinking, we left this “hostess bar” for a karaoke bar.

He knew the female owner here.  There weren’t many other customers probably because it was a weeknight and it was already getting late.  We continued the whiskey on the rocks and were having fun belting out some tunes.  Now new ladies surrounded us and insincerely praised our off the mark singing.  By now I am kind of annoyed with the ridiculous flirting and meaningless conversation.

Around 2 am, the owner of the karaoke bar grabbed my student and me by the arm and politely tells us, “We go another bar. Come.” Her and her 20-something year old daughter pulled us through a maze of streets through the heart of Kobe.  I don’t recognize where we are at.  The whiskey is having its’ “I-don’t-care” effect on me.

I’m not scared.  Japan is pretty much safe everywhere.  The only place a foreigner can’t go is a yakuza bar and they will let you know you’re not welcome.  So at this point I’m a little more than toasty.  We stumbled down some steps and followed her into another hostess bar.  My student started saying to me, “So sorry.  So sorry.”  I smiled.  There were red lanterns around, but I didn’t even notice them.

“For what?  What are you sorry about.”  I asked.  He just kept repeating it.  We entered the bar and I see why he was apologizing.  It’s a hostess bar . . .but with shemales!  Everyone noticed us as we entered.  It was like the typical western movie where the record screeches to a halt and everyone goes silent and stares at the unknown visitors.

The bar wasn’t that big.  There were maybe 5 tables that formed an “L” shape.  I looked around and see a few business men seated with butt fugally “its” making the typical meaningless chit chat.  The shemales were over the top with their female gestures and demeanour.  It was comical and I could barely process it all.

So my student and I followed the two women we came in with to a table.  We sat down and more whiskeys are ordered.   Before our drinks came two shemales joined us.  Thank god they couldn’t speak English, but being the foreigner they wanted to talk with me.  Of course they would never see a foreigner here so they were on me like ants on candy.  Yes, I compared myself to candy.

The typical questions were asked, except not by me.  I didn’t want to appear interested at all, but I did answer all their questions to avoid being rude.  Everything was being translated by my sincerely apologetic student and his female owner friend.  I saw men leave with their shemale companions from time to time.  I didn’t even want to think about where they were going and what they were doing.

At this point one of the shemales sitting at are table proceeded to pull its’ dress up and showed me its’ recent post-surgery results.  I was like a deer caught in headlights.  Everyone screamed.

“Whoa!”  My student in Japanese told it to cover up.   That sobered me up real quick.  I was a bit surprised to learn my student was smiling through the whole night.  He enjoyed himself and the events that transpired.  The shemale left and soon after another drink and more chit chat, we left the shemale bar.

The four of us stumbled outside, and are blinded by the daylight.  We said our goodbye’s.  My student paid for my taxi home and I fell into my bed as that “post-surgery shemale” image was burned into my retinas.  I  learned a little TMI of my married Japanese student, stuff he probably doesn’t share with many people or want me to share with other people.  Why he shared it with me? . . .  I can’t answer that question.   I quickly and easily fell asleep dreaming of fairies and sugar plums, never to forget my crazy night out in the underbelly of Japan’s red lantern district.

Written by: Jason Campbell
Jason taught English in Japan for a year and half and backpacked Europe for 15 months.  He is currently living in Southern California doing web design and preparing for his next adventure in South America.

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Comments (1)

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