Last month my girlfriend Kate went off the Pill. She hadn't been away from those heavy hormones for a while and decided it was time again to see how her body was functioning under its own, natural, steam. This was just before she went abroad to work for a few months--the first stop was Tokyo. So when I arrived in Japan for a little visit at the beginning of my own Asia tour and she asked, "Did you bring any condoms?" it wasn't a brusque question or a forward question or a mercenary question--but a kind of nice question, when you come to think about it.
Well, I didn't have any condoms...but I wanted some now. So in my first days in Tokyo, while was Kate hard at work, I assigned myself the task of Purchasing Condoms. What better way to get to know an unfamiliar city?
I started by casually walking the clean and bustling streets, glancing in the windows of stores, looking closely (yet discreetly) around the stands selling cigarettes and candy, checking out the vending machines. (You can buy everything from a cup of coffee to a bottle of whiskey from a vending machine in Tokyo.) But my surface reconnoitering, the afternoon of that first day, was proving fruitless.
Though it is certainly an international city, there are so many Japanese and so few foreigners (gaijin, they call us), that when you see another on the street you are always aware of each other. (You might give them a glance of comradeship and complicity; you might pretend they're not there because you want to feel like the only intrepid traveller around.) I was new in town and still unaware that there are far too many of us bopping around the fashionable and overpriced disco-ghetto neighborhood called Roppongi; I still felt a bond of kinship and quick comfort when I noticed a black kid hanging out beside one of the stores I was nonchalantly casing.
He noticed me and came over. He had short cropped hair, but the moldy/mellow voice of a Jamaican Rastaman. "You from America, mon?" I told him I was, guessed he was from Jamaica, and we asked each other how long we'd been in Tokyo. Pretty soon I felt he was my Understanding Western Buddy, so I slipped the question: "Hey...is it possible to buy condoms here?...Do you know where they might sell them?" He gave me a bright-eyed smile that told me whatever he had to say next was going to be embarrassing. He blurted it out as a laugh: "So, you're thinking of fucking something, are you?"
I laughed with him, and he indicated that, sure, there are condoms available--though he wasn't sure exactly where. He took off saying "I'll see you around" as though he knew he would, as though he was welcoming into some underground cadre of foreigners linked by lust and--for all I knew-- drugs. I was slightly shaken by the encounter, but at least I knew the things existed--and that was enough for one day. I would redouble my efforts in the morning.
The next day Kate was working early again, so I was undistracted in my solitary pursuit of latex barrier contraception. I started by taking Tokyo's suspiciously pristine and efficient subway two stops to the Yoyogi Park/Harajuku neighborhood, an area where Japanese teenyboppers hang out, shop for clothes, and--I was hoping--occasionally rut for each other.
I was brave. The first pharmacy I saw I walked right in and started looking for that familiar blue box with the couple holding hands at sunset. It would have Japanese characters on it, but otherwise it would look the same. I scanned the shelves up and down, left and right, and stayed in the place as long as I dared under the inquisitive following stare of the shopkeeper. Of course, I was too nervous to try to explain to a Japanese person what I was after...and besides, the goddamn things had to be in there. I just had to identify them, pay for them and run. Nothing. After minutes that seemed like hours, I left in failure. When it comes to buying condoms, we are all teenagers in a small town drug store again.
I did this little dance in 3 or 4 more pharmacies. I saw cold medicines and tampons, row and rows of unidentifiable salves, emolliants, anti-toxins and other soverign remedies--but I couldn't pick out anything that even vaguely resembled a condom package. In the last couple of places I'd resolved to inquire, but there were only women around. If I was going to ask someone, it had to be a guy. A guy would understand.
So it was getting to be about 2:30 or 3 and I was saying to myself, this is ridiculous. You've come all the way to Japan and you're not going to get laid because you're afraid to speak to these people in your own, different, language. Not the kind of barrier contraception I had in mind.
OK, the next place I see I'm going in and asking, no matter what. And there it is.
So I stride in--uh oh, a woman behind the counter. Gotta do it anyway. "Excuse me. Do you have condoms?" She looks confused. "Condoms, prophylactics, Trojans...condoms?" She's struggling with the word and to my horror starts to repeat it aloud, trying to make the meaning come to her:
She's smiling and shaking her head, and for a second I consider trying to mime the meaning to her using my hands and fingers.... But my sense returns and I withdraw bowing, beginning to sweat: That's OK, never mind, I'll look elsewhere.
Well, in the next place I had more luck. The woman I asked led me to a boy who spoke English. I repeated the question and he pulled from a shelf a little pink box with flowers labeled simply, "Happiness." So I bought 10 pieces of Happiness for 1000 Yen (this better be worth it) and hit the street proud and relieved, the bounty of my bravery tucked away in my camera bag.
Now so far this has been a sweet and amusing story, suitable for tale-telling over dinner or while tucking the grandchildren away in bed. But unfortunately it doesn't end here, with your humble protagonist cruising confidently down Omote Sando Ave. in the direction of his girlfriend's flat. Because there is still...The Question of Size.
How shall we put this.
Kate, with her size 9 feet, has a lot of trouble finding shoes in Tokyo
that fit her comfortably. That is because, in general, Orientals
are physically smaller than we Caucasians. Nonetheless Kate--if she
really has to--can squeeze into, say, a pair of size 8-1/2 black pumps.
I think I've said enough.
An update: I have
since learned, having moved on from Tokyo, that the Japanese, high-tech
in this as in everything, actually do manufacture condoms of various dimensions.
The names of the sizes, I gather, are something like those of olives in
the States--they range from Large to Giant to Super-Colossal. There
are no Smalls.