It was Darren’s first visit to Japan, and it had started off so well that he was practically delirious. The meeting with his client, contrary to his expectations, had been no more than a mere formality. In less than one hour the client had agreed to sign a contract giving Darren’s company the right to handle all of its PR in the European market. It was a contract worth an initial million dollars, and potentially many more to follow. Try as he might, Darren could not keep the smile off his face thinking about the bonus he would be getting.
Lunch with the general manager of his client company’s PR division and two young office ladies was a boisterous affair. They dined in a French restaurant in Akasaka and his hosts insisted that he drank wine. Throwing caution to the wind, Darren swilled his way through two bottles of red Burgundy, oblivious to the fact that the others at the table sipped one glass each.
Throughout the meal the questions kept coming and Darren felt good to be the center of such intense attention. He mentioned that it was his first visit to Japan and that he had three free days to explore the country before he returned home. He asked for tips on how to really appreciate Japanese culture.
It was the general manager who suggested an onsen (hot spring resort). Darren had no idea what an onsen was but, with the wine taking over his reasoning, he expressed the wish to visit one. The general manager excused himself from the table, went outside the restaurant and made a call on his mobile. He returned to say that he had arranged an overnight trip to an onsen in Tochigi-ken, and that they would be leaving at four o’clock the following afternoon, which was a Friday.
At three-thirty the next day, when he arrived at his client’s company to set out for the onsen, he was surprised to discover that he would be traveling in a group of eight. Besides himself, there was the general manager, his assistant and five young ladies. His trip to Japan, Darren thought, was becoming more like a trip to paradise. In fact, he had to pinch himself to make sure he was not dreaming.
It was a three-hour drive to the onsen in the Toyota Hiace, and Darren enjoyed every minute of it. The general manager sat in the front with his assistant, who was the designated driver, while Darren and the five ladies shared the back. There seemed to be an endless supply of beer and snacks and from the minute they set off, the ladies kept Darren’s paper cup topped up. In fact, they even seemed to be competing for the pleasure of pouring his drinks.
By the time they arrived at the onsen and pulled into the ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) car park, Darren was feeling light headed. Nevertheless, Darren could handle his liquor so he managed to conceal this from the others. As soon as they checked into their rooms—the three men were sharing one, the ladies another—the general manager announced that there was time for a bath before dinner.
There were three baths, the general manager told him—one for ladies, one for gentlemen, and one shared by both ladies and gentlemen. He asked Darren which he preferred. Darren decided not to opt for the mixed bath in case it led to problems later; so, dressed in yukatas (light, casual kimono), the men and women went to their respective bathing areas. Eager to relish the whole Japan experience, Darren decided to ‘go native’ and do everything exactly as his hosts did. He watched the general manager cast aside his yukata and, covering his private parts with a small towel, go to the washing area, where he proceeded to scrub and shower himself with vigor. Darren did exactly the same. When the general manager was finished washing himself, he stood up, strode over to the steaming pool and stepped in without even testing the water. As he dropped to a sitting position, an expression of sheer bliss spread across his face. Darren, despite feeling a little self-conscious at his nakedness, decided to take the plunge. As he carefully moved over to the hot bath, concealing his private parts as he had seen the general manager do, he realized that everybody in the bath was staring at him. He decided to throw caution to the wind and plunge straight into the bubbling water. After all, he reasoned, if the general manager could do it so could he. How wrong he was! In practically one fluid movement, Darren stepped into the bath, screamed and jumped straight back out. He heard someone stifle a laugh and when he looked around everyone, except for the general manager was smiling.
He recovered from his embarrassment by making a joke, which the general manager quickly translated. Everybody laughed. Darren’s lower body was burning, so was his face. A few minutes later, however, he got back in—this time with a little more caution. Although he felt as if he were being boiled alive, he managed to stay in the water for a few minutes. By his fourth dip, Darren was starting to enjoy the experience. Suddenly there was an announcement, and most of the bathers got out and started washing themselves again. The general manager told Darren that dinner would be served in fifteen minutes, and that they would have to get out now or miss the meal.
Still a little embarrassed at being naked in a room with about twenty complete strangers, Darren kept his eyes down—unlike many of the others, some of whom were making no attempt to conceal their efforts to get a look at his private parts—as he dried himself and donned the yukata as quickly as possible. Perhaps things would have been different had he only looked around the changing room.
As soon as he entered the dining room, Darren knew that he was in trouble: there wasn’t a chair in sight. The spacious room was furnished in the traditional Japanese style of low tables with cushions for seats on a tatami (tightly-woven straw mats) floor. The room was partitioned with low screens to give each group—there were at least a dozen groups of various size—some semblance of their own space. The ladies were already seated and they waved the gentlemen over when they saw them. As he moved past three different groups to get to his table, Darren felt the eyes following his progress. Somebody shouted “Harroo,”and Darren turned and smiled at a red-faced middle-aged man who raised a beer glass. Everybody else at the table laughed. Three of the ladies were sitting at one side of the table, two at the other side with a space between them. They gestured for Darren to sit down in the space. The general manager and his subordinate took their places at the ends of the table. It was going to be difficult, Darren realized, to seat himself without exposing his private parts. Nevertheless, with a great deal of effort, he managed to sit down with embarrassing himself.
As the general manager sat down, his yukata swung open. Darren noticed that he was wearing striped underpants. For a split second Darren was stunned. He had not seen any underpants in the bathing area, so he had assumed that everyone was, like himself, naked under the yukata. His first thought was to excuse himself, rush up to his room and get into his underpants. Unfortunately, before he could move one of the ladies grabbed a bottle of Kirin and filled his glass. The general manager proposed a toast and Darren emptied his glass in one gulp. That set the pace for the rest of the meal. Before he could even put his glass down, another of the ladies filled it up. For the next thirty minutes Darren bent his elbow with the fluency of a gypsy fiddler while the others admired his “strong” drinking.
Darren was, in fact, a confident and competent beer drinker. When it came to stronger alcohol, however, he was not so sure of himself; but he would try anything. So, when the general manager called for sake, Darren accepted the challenge. And the ladies started pouring sake at the same speed they had been pouring the beer.
Before long the room started spinning and Darren began to feel unwell. He wasn’t sure if he were going to faint or throw up. He also needed to go to the toilet. Very carefully he managed to stand up, holding the front of his yukata securely closed. He tried to step sideways to pass the lady sitting to his right but his legs wouldn’t move. He started swaying backwards and forwards then he felt himself falling backwards. He bounced off a screen behind him and then crashed through it. For a split second the room fell silent; then it seemed to explode. Lying on the tatami (straw matting), conscious but unable to move, he heard ladies screaming and men roaring with laughter. Flashes from digital cameras and mobile phones came at him from all angles, and was surrounded by grinning strangers. He noticed that one of the girls in his group was covering her eyes with her hands. But the fingers were open and her eyes were focused on his exposed private parts. Then he passed out.
When he came to the next morning, to the sound of music followed by an announcement from a speaker outside his room, Darren found himself tucked into a futon. He vaguely remembered trying to get up from the table, but little of what had happened after that. The general manager told Darren that breakfast was being served and that they should hurry up otherwise they would miss it. A few minutes later, Darren threw some cold water on his face and followed the general manager down to the dining room. The reception he got when he entered the dining room surprised and shocked him. Spontaneously, everyone either burst out laughing or started applauding. One man jumped up and ran across to shake his hand. A group of four surrounded him, all flashing the peace sign, to have their photograph taken. Darren, totally perplexed, was desperately trying to figure out the reason for his sudden celebrity status when the general manager gestured for him to sit down.
After a gulp of hot green tea to lubricate his parched throat, Darren asked the general manager what all the fuss was about. The general manager looked at him incredulously and said, “Don’t you remember what happened last night?”
Darren shook his head, so the general manager continued. “You were sleeping on the floor over there for more than an hour. And you had no pants on, which we all found a little strange.”
Darren almost choked on his miso soup.
“Is it a custom in England to eat dinner without your pants?” asked the general manager, winking at one of the ladies.
Suddenly Darren remembered everything. He wished the he could disappear into a crack between the tatami. But that did not happen. Instead, one of the ladies poured him some more tea. Darren’s face turned even redder as he realized it was the lady who had given his genitals a thorough inspection through her open fingers.
He started to apologize, but the general manager cut him off. “There’s no need to apologize, Darren-san. In fact, we would all like to thank you for making this trip so memorable. I don’t think any of the guests here will ever forget last night. Nor will any of the staff. They all came to see you, even the cooks.”
Back in Tokyo Darren got one more surprise. He took the film from his camera to have it developed and when he returned a few hours later he discovered that six photos had not been printed. He asked to use the lightbox to look at the negatives of the six shots that had not been printed. To his astonishment, and that of the young lady in the shop, the six missing prints all featured shots of his private parts—and many of the diners in the restaurant. In one shot, Darren, his yukata hiked up around his waist, was surrounded by six grinning strangers, three of them women, flashing peace signs. In another, a man was holding his sexual organ with a pair of chopsticks while others howled with laughter.
Darren could hardly believe his eyes—nor could the young saleslady. He snatched the negatives from the lightbox, and dropped them on the floor. The young lady picked them up and gave him a very wide smile as she handed them to him. Darren quickly paid and left the shop.
He managed to avoid any more embarrassment on his last day in Tokyo, but he swore he would learn from his experience. He decided that the next time he “went native,” whether in Japan or anywhere else in the world, he would find out exactly what the natives did first.
© Charles R. Pringle 2007
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