Hostel, Brothel?

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A street on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Our first night in Tokyo, we stayed on the outskirts of the city in a makeshift capsule hotel/hostel. This was one of the most bizarre, uncomfortable nights that we’ve ever had, partly because our room looked like this:

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Stoytcho stands in our ‘room’, which has barely enough space to fit our packs and ourselves.

And partly because, well, I’m pretty sure our hostel was also some kind of brothel. Stoytcho fell asleep early, but I huddled on the lower bunk for several hours writing for the blog, with our room’s accordion-screen door cracked to get some airflow into our tiny crevice of a room. Around one in the morning, I heard some shuffling noises outside and low voices speaking Japanese, and two figures drifted into view through the crack in the door. They stopped at the empty room across the hall, where they seemed to be having difficulty turning on the room’s light. Minutes passed, and their talking grew louder, probably because they were drunk, and the smell of cigarette smoke started drifting into the room, probably because one (or both) of them had decided it was ok to smoke indoors. I found it unlikely they could have missed the no-smoking signs in the well-lit reception area, but, Japan.

After the cigarette smoke smell permeated the air of our room, I’d had enough and mustered my broken Japanese to do something about it. I poked my head out and called to them to please not smoke. 「タバコを吸うあないでください。」I could make out two figures in the dim light, a man and a woman, in front of the doorway across our narrow hall. They stood surprised. The man fell silent, and did not speak again. The woman, holding the burning cigarette, stared at me for a second before crying out softly 「ああ、ごめん!」She looked around for a way to put her cigarette out, but found none.

I stared at them for a few seconds longer, but I could feel the man’s growing discomfort and so I returned to my writing. After a minute, I heard the woman call out to me, asking if I knew how to turn on the room’s light.「あのう、どう電気をつけますか?知っていますか?」I set my computer aside and crawled out from the bottom bunk, squeezing myself into the narrow space between our beds and the wall, and then through the narrow crack of the door into the hallway. To avoid embarrassing any of us further, I kept my eyes toward the ground as I reached into their room and flipped a light switch. A soft yellow light flooded the room and spilled into the hallway, illuminating the three of us, with at least one of us no longer wishing to be here.

I have no idea what happened after that, because I closed the door and went to sleep with earplugs. There was no sign of the two in the morning and the reception was unstaffed when we checked out. Even if someone had been there, I have no idea what I would have asked because my Japanese wasn’t up to snuff to ask about prostitution, and I have no idea why I would have asked beyond sheer curiosity. Prostitution is quasi-legal in Japan, and I hold no particular sense or desire to pass moral judgements. But the incident felt like a glimpse into the private life of the Japanese, a peek behind the veil into something deeply personal in a culture obsessed with hiding one’s private feelings and thoughts.

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The room in question, the morning after. No sign of anyone remains beyond the faint smell of cigarette smoke.

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