Friday, September 12, 2014

"Japan and Hong Kong on Five Dollars a Day" (1965-66 edition)

I'm currently reading Ian Mortimer's The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England and it certainly is quite a trip, catapulting the reader back into the sights, sounds, smells and tastes in the life of an everyday citizen in the 14th century.

I suppose Japan and Hong Kong on Five Dollars a Day (1965-66 edition), penned by John Wilcock, is now a bit of a time machine, too. Wilcock, a journalist who wrote for The New York Times and co-founded The Village Voice, paints a portrait of colorful and oftentimes kinky life in Asian half a century ago. It may as well be an alien planet to us, as it's a moment in a culture that no longer exists in quite this same way.

But we have Wilcock's detailed description of that moment, so we can still travel, through the pages of the book, to that version of Japan and Hong Kong.

Here are some excerpts. They are perhaps not indicative of the entire volume, because I chose them specifically based on how amusing or outrageous they are.

  • Shinjuku: "The Taie Stand Bar ... is a basement bar, fairly roomy, with a big jukebox and a fruit machine into which you put special coins (20Y apiece from the bar) and which pays off in beers if you win. Eighteen beers if you hit the jackpot. You might try a snack of shish-kebab in here: two small spears of barbecued beef and onion. Costs about 150Y."
  • Shinjuku: "If you leave Shinjuku by taxi, you'll see a castle-like hotel on the way back downtown. It's called the Hotel Honjin and is expensive. Its special feature, however, is that guests are treated like warlords, dressed in feudal warlord costume, with the maids all decked out as 'ladies-in-waiting' of high birth, with appropriate kimonos."
  • Roppongi: "Liveliest, of course, is Tom's ... where one of the two jukeboxes has technicolor rock-'n'-roll and twist movies, which always incite the groovier, uninhibited Japanese chicks to dance, despite the 'No Dancing' sign on the wall. Don't be alarmed if one of said chicks sits on your knee; she's only trying to be friendly, and if you want to follow this up, you'll certainly be encouraged."
  • Inuyama: "To the left of the steps is a small park (admission 30Y), which is the home of scores of allegedly tame monkeys. Don't try to pet them; they bite. You can buy bags of peanuts and the monkeys will take the nuts right out of your hand. One drawback is that their feet are very muddy and they'll jump all over you to get the nuts. Most of them are smart enough to leap up and grab the whole bag out of your hands."
  • Inuyama: "Ask somebody for the Obake-Yasaiki (ghost house)1, which has squishy floors, skeletons, grisly wax figures and all the other paraphernalia of contrived shock. Admission is free."
  • Sapporo: "Just about the cheapest restaurant in town must be a Russian place called the Amuru ... which has only six tables. Genuinely Russian, it also has a menu that has probably remained unchanged since it opened and, on the change it will remain unchanged, I'm listing the menu items by number because nobody speaks English. Number 1 is borscht (120Y), #4 is baifu sutoroganoff (beef stroganoff, 150Y), #7 is piroshkis2 at 30Y apiece, and #8 is shishkebab at 60Y per skewer. The last three items are Russian vodka, at various strengths, which some of the customers toss back while singing native songs."

1. Ghost houses are still very popular in Japan. Here's an article by Shizuko Mishima highlighting some of the modern attractions.
2. Russian piroshkis are baked or fried buns stuffed with an number of fillings. They are, Wikipedia cautions, "not to be confused with pierogi (stress on "o" in Polish and English) in Polish cuisine, which are similar to the Russian pelmeni or Ukrainian varenyky."

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