Home Is Where the Tatami Futon Is: 東京 (Pt. II)

I am writing this from the bottom bunk of my guesthouse room, while an older Japanese man of perhaps 45 or 50 occupies the bunk above me, drinking a Sapporo beer and eating ramen from a disposable bowl. He is lying down, completely submerged in blankets, his head and hands the sole arbiters, peeking out over the top to connect noodle-spooled chopsticks to lips. In his ears is a pair of headphones, his eyes fixed to a point approximately three feet in front of him—to a cell phone in a tiny display holster—on which a news program in Japanese is flickering in short-wave flashes. I have been here for two days and this is the first time I have seen him. Last night, presumably for New Year’s Eve, he was out with friends or co-workers, celebrating at a bonenkai party, held for the purpose of forgetting the past year’s troubles (literally) and welcoming the new. And so far, in the utter quiet and solitude of the room, we haven’t exchanged a word.

It’s not to say that I didn’t try. Upon first seeing him, I let out an enthusiastic konnichiwa, but it fell on deaf ears, like those of a 10-year old playing Wii. After meeting my other two bunkmates—one from Mexico and the other from Croatia—I did my best to be cordial, asking all of the requisite questions of two strangers meeting for the first time. I learned that they were both traveling on vacation, that they both had an interest in Japanese (though neither of them could speak it), and that they intended to come back better prepared in the future. By now, however, they have both left the guesthouse—the Croatian fellow back home, and the Mexican to stay with a friend living on the other side of Tokyo—and I am left in the shabby hull of a bedroom with a man who couldn’t care less about my existence.

But in some ways, this makes sense. According to some of the others I’ve talked to, he has lived here for almost two years, an absolutely astounding figure considering the general function of the guesthouse. Travelers who come and stay at the guesthouse usually do so for a maximum of a few days or weeks, earning him the unique distinction of a “lifer.” It means he’s probably met hundreds of different people—if you take into account all three of the surrounding bunks in the room—making me just one more in a line of nameless faces that he has no reason to remember. To his credit, establishing connections sometimes makes it all the more difficult to say goodbye. He is also significantly older than the rest of the crowd the guesthouse attracts—predominantly single mid-20’s backpackers who travel on a budget and don’t mind staying in cramped quarters. His story seems almost etched into Boo Radley-like lore—an older man living alone (at least emotionally), and of whom very little know about his personal life. Though, admittedly, his mystery is a little more transparent. He doesn’t live in some decidedly condemned house on the fringes of a small Alabama town. He lives, prostrate, three feet above my head. But yet, I still feel as though I’ve never seen his face.

The extent of my 4-person guesthouse room in the heart of Tokyo. That's my bunk on the bottom-left.

It was clear that he staked out the best corner of the room. Years (and I can actually say that) of residence have given him free reign to pick his spot and settle as other residents came and went. In reality, it’s hard to even call what we’re staying in a “bunk.” I’m sitting on a tatami mat, a hard slab of approximately three inches, over which lies a thin futon comforter that separates me from the floor. It was seemingly done in the style of a Japanese ryokan, but without the romantic kitsch of having a “traditional experience”—not to mention the bath, yukata, cushions, sliding doors, and fancy breakfasts that come part and parcel. This is the bare bones, a ryokan fashioned for the Tokyo dweller, which has meant grafting an ancient Japanese way of living onto a distinctly modern high-rise tenement in the city’s core. For the purposes of my first four days in Japan, it has been my proverbial bunker—my escape from an imaginary nuclear fallout.

Aside from the lack of food rations, all around me are the crucial components of survival—tiny stove, hot water heater, microwave, mini-fridge, shower, toilet, and sink. Like a bear in hibernation, the man above me has packed an entire life’s-worth of necessary vestiges into the 6’x2’ rectangle that he inhabits. Held on the rafters above his bunk are coat hangers bearing dress shirts and suit jackets. There is a space heater directed toward him from the opposing bedpost. Alarm clock, toiletries, spare batteries, miscellaneous supplies (rubber bands, pens), and night clothes have been neatly prepared on a mock nightstand. Slid between two shelves of a plastic cupboard is a see-thru storage container full of clothing and other living accoutrements. He’s even wrapped aluminum foil around the part of the fluorescent light directly facing him, to avoid having to look at it before lights out at 11pm every night.

The guesthouse itself is a pretty understaffed operation, with three employees taking on all of the various duties from management and check-ins all the way to room cleanings. That’s because the establishment itself is quite small—only four rooms, each fit to hold either 4 or 12 people, on the third and fourth floors of an otherwise nondescript building. Most rooms are predominantly if not all male, save for one 4-person room reserved only for women. For security reasons, there is close to no indication whatsoever that the building holds a guesthouse, if you don’t count the microscopic hand-written sticker on the vestibule’s mailbox. The first floor is home to an innocuous-looking bar & restaurant, and walking up the back staircase to the secret elevator at the end of a long hallway feels like passing into a poor man’s Batcave. It took me nearly an hour to initially find the place—their reasoning for the air of secrecy is so that non-guests can’t sneak into the place because there is no reception desk and certainly no concierge service. Like most of Japan as a whole, the guesthouse seems to put its trust in the integrity of its residents.

The 12-person room adjacent to my own. Unlike mine, this room has a “common area” off to the side, which boasts a kotatsu, mini-TV, and wireless internet. It does tend to act as a central meeting place for the house’s residents (for lack of any other locale), usually in the company of one or another huge bottles of sake.

I find myself wondering how the man above me, especially at his age, can stand to live in a place like this for so long. There is absolutely no privacy, hardly a clear space to move around, and an endless stream of obnoxious tourists to have to put up with. But perhaps, then, it isn’t a choice. Maybe he has financial obligations—aging parents he had to put in a Home, paying child support for a divorced wife and their three kids in a suburban mansion, the ridiculous sum of money he lost in his younger days to pachinko. I daresay that anyone would choose to live like this if they could help it. But financially, it’s a great move. According to The Guardian, Tokyo is now ranked as the most expensive city in the world to live in. And despite a price tag that is still high given how little you’re actually getting, as mentioned in my last post, the guesthouse is by far the cheapest housing option in all of Tokyo, and is even cheaper if you rent out a bunk for weeks or months at a time. This is largely due to its location in an exceptionally convenient neighborhood. What the man above me makes up for in travel time and metro fare, he pays for with having to perpetually live with three other strangers in a room that’s not his own. But in the end, I have to concede that in a city like Tokyo—where pedestrians don’t jaywalk, shopkeepers never frown, and salary men routinely put in 60-hour workweeks—you can convince yourself of living through most anything.

(More on fitting in, social awkwardness, off-color sexual practices, lawlessness, Harajuku girls, nay-saying, and Spirited Away in Pt. III of this post).