Seoul, South Korea Big In Japan

Every hotel room should have a “Do Not Disturb” button next to the bed. Every hotel room power socket should be universal, allowing plugs from any region. Not every toilet seat should be heated, though I’m open-minded about the retracting butt sprinkler.


I’ve been stewing for a long time about the great vacuum in the hotel industry. There is no hotel chain I know of that comes close to suiting my needs — and I don’t think my needs are particularly particular.

They offer plenty of things I don’t need, like shoe-shiners and shower caps, and little that I would value, like a comfortable seating arrangement for laptop use.

But the biggest disconnects are definitely the colossal waste of space and excessive prices. I do not need to luxuriate in my entry hall or writhe around in the gutters on either side of my bed. I’d be more than happy to trade half my square footage for some elegant design and thoughtful amenities. And how in the world did these rooms get to cost hundreds a night? Where is the value?

Someone needs to do for hotels what IKEA did for furniture. I want a chain that provides practical, compact rooms for half what all the other hotels are charging. I believe it can be done. Ditch the pool and beef up the gym. Get rid of reception and put in a touch screen, credit card swipe, and a key dispenser. Oh, and how about some actual food in the mini-bar? Like real, nourishing, life-sustaining food. I’d pay the jacked-up prices if it wasn’t just Chee-tos and Toblerone. How about an apple?

Now it is time for me to digress.

I am in a traditional Korean restaurant called “Bennigan’s.” I have ordered something called “chicken quesadilla.” It’s delicious.

Oh, I’m so disappointed in you, Matt. I thought you enjoyed discovering new cultures. I thought you were a citizen of the world. Turns out you’re just another fat American.

Yes, I’ve heard it. But when I want to write, nothing beats a booth at an American chain restaurant. I once wrote an entire videogame script in a Denny’s. Also, sometimes you just need a basket full of fried cheese.

I got invited on a Japanese talk show while I was in town. They decided to play a practical joke on me and cut the legs off all the chairs in my dressing room.


They also asked me to bring my luggage and walk onto the show carrying it.


They wanted it to appear as if I’d just parachuted into Tokyo or something. The people you see next to me aren’t the real hosts. They’re stand-ins used for the rehearsal. To make sure it goes smoothly, they walk through the whole thing before the real hosts even show up. The real hosts, I’m told, are famous comedians.

The segment before mine was about the new Japanese fashion trend of dipping women in a layer of pink latex.


…kidding! It was about the Japanese beauty ideal and how women have been getting dramatically taller in recent years as a result of dietary changes. To illustrate, they had this year’s Miss Japan on as a guest.


If you ask me, she could stand to lose a few.


They hauled out prints of their favorite clips from the video to discuss. Japanese TV shows still use old fashioned physical props, which is kind of charming. They build the gigantic flatscreens that make Wolf Blitzer look like Jiminy Cricket, and yet for their own shows they prefer mounted foam boards and adhesive plastic rain clouds.


We danced.


The next morning, Daisuke, the producer of the segment, came by the hotel to be my guide for the day. Daisuke lives way up north outside Tokyo. It takes him two hours to get to work every day – each way – but he prefers to live in the country so he can keep a vegetable garden and show his son what the color green looks like. Twice on this visit I have kept him out so late that he had to sleep in his office. I feel very bad about that.

Daisuke was in Yemen on September 11th, 2001. He was outside a restaurant when the TVs began showing a smoking World Trade Center. He asked some of the locals what was going on — who was responsible. They told him it was the Japanese Red Army.

The Japanese Red Army is, to me, an obscure bit of trivia buried somewhere in the back of my brain. Less the case for Daisuke, who was momentarily distressed for understandable reasons that, ironically, had nothing to do with being in the birthplace of Osama Bin Laden.

This is a soccer field on top of an office building. Neat!


We walked by this restaurant that serves whale meat.


Of course it launched a spirited discussion on the practice. I’ve had similar conversations with Norwegians, so I was prepared to have my many meat hypocricies pointed out to me. Why, for example, is it only whales that we feel the need to protect?

"Well, it’s actually not just whales. I’d feel a similar need to prevent the unnecessary slaughter of any endangered species."

Yes, but what if they’re no longer endangered? Research shows that some whale species are at healthy numbers.

"Right. And who determines what healthy is? Not to mention, how certain can they be in their estimates of a population that migrates throughout the open ocean? Whales have had a tough century. Let’s give them a break."

This went on, remaining a civil and friendly difference of opinion.

Finally, Daisuke said, "In Japan we have a long tradition of whaling."
"Uh huh. In America we have a long tradition of slavery…"

I win!


Daisuke took me to Harajuku, the fashion district.


It being a Sunday afternoon, we were able to check out the Harajuku girls on display near the edge of the park.

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They’re there to hang out with friends and have their pictures taken by tourists and gawkers. They do not ask for or accept money for these pictures. Evidently they just enjoy the attention.

The outfits are spectacular. Goth has recently taken hold and been interpreted to suit Japanese tastes.

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I can understand someone deciding this is all very strange and unhealthy, but on reflection I think it’s harmless fun. At least it’s social. At least it’s outdoors.

The kids are all right.

Yoyogi Park is incredibly vibrant on the weekends. Teenage rock bands line the sidewalk. Not really street performers, they just seem to play for anyone who’ll listen.

I saw a group of kids rehearsing an elaborate swordfight routine with wooden sticks. A bit further on, some guy was flailing around topless with a pair of nunchucks. I stopped to watch and he hit himself in the ribs, so I apologized and kept on going.

Some guy passed by walking about a dozen Dachsund puppies on one mega-leash. Dog-lovers, forgive me if I’ve got the breed wrong.


I think that’s the mom in the middle, looking appropriately beleaguered. At the bottom of the frame are a pair that is bound together on a short leash with no human attached. The method seems to work pretty well. Their efforts to run off cancel each other out. They were frozen in a constant tug-of-war that had me in stitches.

Then there’s these guys.


I’ve seen them before on YouTube. Actually, here ya go…

It’s not just a group — it’s more like a subculture. Daisuke didn’t know the name, but they vaguely resemble something we might have called greasers…about 50 years ago. The thing is, though: they dance. It’s this bombastic shimmy that looks exhausting under all that leather and hair gel.

I was taken by the idea of getting them to dance with me. They’re a pretty intimidating lot, believe it or not — they seem to barely tolerate spectators rather than actively drawing them in, and their closed circle formation made it clear that audience participation was discouraged.

I enlisted Daisuke to ask them, during a break, if I could dance with them on camera for a few seconds. Daisuke became uncomfortable, emphasizing how inappropriate it would be to proposition them.

"They are very…conservative. They do not speak with people outside their group. Like modern samurai."

Wow. Really? Samurai? I’m pretty sure Daisuke wasn’t kidding. And I don’t think they were kidding either. In fact, I think an important thing to understand about Japan is that no one is kidding, ever. The concept of irony doesn’t seem to translate. Similarly, I tried at one point to explain to Daisuke what a cliché is. It was like trying to explain baseball to an octopus. I got as far as defining corniness, which isn’t really the same thing.

I pressured and prodded Daisuke and he finally approached one of the guys. He got a terse look, along the lines of "How dare you?" and that was the end of it.

So that was a minor disappointment. But then we had the dancing event.

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Over 60 people turned up. It was a fun crowd. We had a lot of random spectators and some of them even joined in.

But it was freezing cold, so we only did three takes and then I posed for about 4000 pictures before it wound down.

Reijiro is another producer from the show. He joined Daisuke and I in our further wanderings.


They took me to Akihabara to pick up a memory stick for my new videocamera.

Ooh. I guess I haven’t mentioned that. I switched to the new Sony CX7.


It’s about half the size of my already-tiny SR1. It ditches the hard drive that caused so many problems in the past and uses memory sticks instead. Solid state data means no worries in weightless environments. Yay! Memory sticks also make transferring the data a lot easier, but the cards can each only hold an hour of HD footage, whereas the hard drive held four. The cards are expensive too, but overall I prefer this slimmer, more efficient model.

We had dinner at a shabu shabu restaurant. It’s a bit like fondue. You get thin slices of beef and a boiling pot of water in the center of your table. You dip the beef in the water and chant "shabu shabu, shabu shabu" for about five seconds, then dip the meat in sauce and eat it. Fun and delicious.

Daisuke asked if I wanted to go to a Maidu coffee place. I could tell from their looks that it was illicit, but I couldn’t discern exactly how. Daisuke said he’d never been before, but would be willing to try it if it was something I was interested in. Reijiro owned up to having been once, which Daisuke gave him a lot of crap about, suggesting he’d perhaps been a little more often than that.

Curiosity piqued.

I’m not sure if I’m spelling Maidu right, but that’s more or less how it sounds when they say it. It’s Japanese girls dressed up as french maids. The whole operation is like a strip club, except instead of taking their clothes off, the girls play board games with you.

You pay for a 90 minute package, which includes a round of non-alcoholic drinks, one board game, and a few minutes of conversation with each of the four girls. That’s it.

There were about a dozen other men in the small coffee shop. Some young, some old, all Japanese.

I tried to take a picture of one of the maids, which got me into trouble. She pointed to a price list that puts a photo at 1000 Yen — about $10. So instead of a picture, I will rely on an old friend to describe it.

The dresses were black and there was no grating baby talk, but that pretty much paints the scene.

Though prohibited from photographing the girls, I was allowed to point the camera in the other direction, so I took pictures of Reijiro instead.


Here we are playing a game I’d never heard of. You take turns sticking plastic swords into a barrel until Jack Sparrow pops his head out and berates you. If your sword is the one to make him pop out, you lose. It’s basically Russian Roulette. Reijiro lost three games, so Daisuke and I got chocolate bars as prizes and Reijiro had to wear the kitty cat ears.


Next came the conversations. The first girl spoke a bit of English and asked where I’m from. Daisuke explained, "He is famous American dancer."

Silence. The girl took a step back, covered her mouth with her hand, and then…


Everyone stopped what they were doing. The place pretty much shut down for five minutes. The girls explained that in most coffee shops the workers would not be familiar with me, but they are young and spend a lot of time on the internet. They each had me sign their journals. Then one of them asked if I’d take a picture with her. I told her it would cost 1000 Yen. She didn’t get it.

There was some deliberation about whether she would be allowed to take a picture with a non-paying customer. She had to clear it with her boss. Daisuke followed the back and forth with some interest. "This is very confusing situation," he said.

They agreed to dance with me for the next video. I still had some release forms with me, so they all signed, explaining that I was not to reveal their real names to anyone. "Top secret," they said. I guess they use fake names for work.

We danced.

Daisuke and Rejiero took me to Don Quixote, a chain of Japanese stores that sells…well, all sorts of stuff. I don’t know how to describe it, but here’s some girls’ underpants and Daisuke reprimanding me for pulling out the camera again.


On the way back to my hotel, we passed my arch nemesi: the Free Hugs people.


It was cute for a very brief period. Now it’s just creepy and annoying.

…of course, one could say the same thing about what I do.

I saw the glint in Daisuke’s eye and stopped him from pulling the "famous American dancer" stunt again.

The next day was all about travel. I went to the wrong airport and missed my flight, then a layover in a place called Fukuoka. Seoul has great mass transit, but holy crap it’s cold here. I walked to the hotel I’d picked out, but it was full. Exhausted, I couldn’t bear to go back out there, so I checked into the pricey Best Western next door.

Dancing again tonight, then I’ve got a few days to screw around before I move on.