Zen and the Art of Hostessing
I was completely unaware of where we were going and equally perplexed by my friend Hitomi’s appearance. I had never known her to care much about style, but that night she wore makeup and was dressed to the hilt. I didn’t know she owned lipstick, let alone lace.
We found Aoi tucked away in the back of a building surrounded by noodle shops, sushi bars, and massage parlors. Warm, sticky air and blurry neon seemed to be chasing us off the streets of Gion, the old geisha quarter of Kyoto. Hitomi creaked open the large wooden door and the scene inside assaulted my senses. Thick laughter, drunken jabbering, and sappy-slow karaoke filled my ears before my eyes had a chance to adjust to the muted light. Cool, smoky air bathed us on its way out into the night. Everything was red. The carpeted floor, the velvet chairs, the couches, and even the wooden bar had a crimson gleam. Though the crooning didn’t stop once I was inside, I felt as if the needle had come off the record player. I was underdressed: jeans and a t-shirt clashed with the tourmaline-black suits of customers and the kimono and dresses of the women. People stared, and suddenly I understood why. Hitomi had dressed up because it was a hostess bar, and she was a hostess. She was ready to work. These are places where women earn their keep by drinking, flirting, and singing with men. Customers pay a cover charge, often hefty, and buy liquor at marked-up prices. Sometimes they pay the bar for the privilege of taking hostesses out to dinner and delivering them to work. By the look of it, Aoi was the kind of hostess bar that would cost more money than I had on me to simply sit down and breathe the air-conditioning.
I whispered to Hitomi, “I can’t pay for a night of drinking here.”
She elbowed my ribs and said, “Shhh.” She shuffled me to a table in the corner and let Setsuko know she was ready to begin. The stares waned as the men returned to pursuits more pleasant than gaping at a foreigner.
Setsuko was a diminutive woman nearing sixty with piercing eyes and an exquisite memory. I had met her the previous night when she had Hitomi and me over for dinner at her home. She never told me what she did for a living, and I hadn’t thought to ask. Setsuko only said to stop by her “shop” sometime. Now, she had transformed from a woman dressed in sweats to a full-bird mama-san. Wrapped in kimono, face whitened with makeup, and hair done up perfectly, Setsuko was the boss.
While I was trying to make sense of how I had ended up in a hostess bar, Setsuko came over. After exchanging pleasantries, she asked what I wanted to drink. I said water, thinking of my wallet. She had Hitomi bring over a bottle of water and a glass of ice. But she remembered from the night before that I liked whiskey. Without a word, she produced a bottle of Jameson and a second glass of perfectly clear ice. I protested, explaining the mountain of college debt I still owed. She wouldn’t hear of it, saying, “You’re my guest tonight. Relax and enjoy yourself. Don’t forget to look around.” I apologized for being a nuisance, thanked her, and happily took a drink—effectively concluding our dance of etiquette.
Pleased that I had relented, Setsuko slid over to the adjoining table that was full of rosy-faced men. After a few words from her, one of the men offered me a bottle of beer and a glass. As soon as we had said cheers, another customer came in the door and Setsuko flitted over to greet him. En route, she waved over Hitomi and then motioned for another hostess to take care of me.
The hostesses came over one by one when they had a free moment. With each new face, I was gently, but firmly compelled to drink. Not that I minded. After a while, Hitomi took her turn and came back to my table for a break. Just as she sat down, a solitary old man appeared. He was dressed in dark slacks and a sweater. A few wisps of frost-colored hair rose from his head. He looked uneasy until a hostess greeted him. “Try not to look at him,” Hitomi said. “When he comes in alone, he doesn’t like it when people know he’s a monk.”
“Shhh!” Hitomi hissed. “A monk,” she said in a low voice. “He usually comes in with a group. Monks are among our biggest clients.” Before I could ask anything further, Setsuko looked over, curled an eyebrow, and the game of musical chairs began anew. Hitomi was off to entertain the monk and another hostess sat with me. She introduced herself as Yuki and then took my hand in hers. “This is how we do it here,” she said. None of the other hostesses had held my hand, but my thoughts and gaze stayed on the monk. He took out a handkerchief and wiped his brow. Yuki squeezed my hand. In her deep, cigarette-husky voice she said, “They told you I’m really a man, didn’t they? I hope that doesn’t make you uncomfortable. Does it?”
“What?” She had my attention now.
Another hostess chimed in, “It’s true! It’s true! Yuki’s real name is Yukio. Isn’t that right Yukio-san?” They laughed. I don’t know whether it was the new place, the drink, the monk, or my innate gullibility, but they had me. After a few minutes of watching me fidget and search her neck for an Adam’s apple, Yuki let me know it was joke. Yuki was just Yuki. “I have two kids, you know. But don’t tell any of the customers.” She laughed and went over to the monk as Hitomi switched to a professor.
It turned out that Yuki was the monk’s favorite. Hand in hand, Yuki and monk belted duet after duet on the karaoke machine. He barely touched his beer. It didn’t take long for the songs to sound the same—they were all about lost love and loneliness. And then abruptly, the old monk left. He was at Aoi for barely an hour.
When the hostesses grew busy with clients, I watched from the corner alone. The club was small with only a few tables and love seats. It was cozy enough to eavesdrop when the air wasn’t filled with song. Since words are the lifeblood of the business, the hostesses were phenomenal conversationalists. The women could feign curiosity about anything from squid fishing to ball bearing factories, and they effortlessly wove in compliments as they spoke. Even though I wasn’t a paying customer, I came away from each chat strangely feeling better about myself—except when Yuki fooled me.
To my surprise, the conversations I heard were relatively tame. Sexual innuendo was rare, and most men spoke of work and their families. Groups tended to get louder as alcohol and loosened inhibitions. When I couldn’t hear, I watched the give and take of body language. Each hostess had her own style and boundaries. A man from a bank with hands that always seemed to be seeking taboo places elicited different responses. Mami, a younger hostess who was married unbeknownst to her regulars, would lean away and brush him back without missing a beat in the conversation. She was so smooth that the man barely noticed he had been foiled. Yuki, on the other hand, was playful. When the man moved close, she let him graze her for a moment before slapping away his hand and scolding him. The man grinned and the rest of his table roiled with laughter. “It’s a big game,” she told me later. “You have to treat them like naughty children.” I tried to imagine the groups of monks. Were there naughty members in their groups too?
When closing time neared, Yuki and Hitomi sat down with me and indulged my curiosity about the monks. Part of the reason Aoi had so many monks as customers was that there are so many important temples in Kyoto. Several sects of Buddhism have their main temples in the city. Monks come from all over the country for meetings and study. Like businessmen on business trips, they unwind at night with drink. Each time I went back to Aoi, there were groups of monks in business suits. They seemed just like the other customers—local bureaucrats, bankers, and professors—except with less hair. The monks sang buttery love songs, bantered, smoked, and sometimes drank until they walked like toddlers. In short, they partook in all the usual activities in a hostess bar. But I never witnessed a monk try to put his hands where they weren’t welcome.
When I asked if the monks treated them better than other clients, Yuki and Hitomi told me about one who loves to take hostesses shopping. He would bring three or four of them at once to trendy districts in Kyoto and splurge. Mami, especially fond of handbags, always joined the shopping trips. The most recent spree netted the women over $4000 of clothes and accessories. Hitomi had gone along, but didn’t want anything. Annoyed, the monk scolded her, “I invited you to buy things, not window shop.” The money comes from the business of taking care of the dead. This particular monk oversaw a temple in a neighboring prefecture with a profitable cemetery. A family that started and continues to run a sizable electronics company has its grave there and the living members makes frequent, lucrative donations that, in turn, keep certain hostesses at the height of fashion.
It was a bit too much to digest at once. I could not make sense of the thought (and sight) of monks reveling with hostesses. When I asked Yuki about the contradictions between my image of Buddhism and the happenings at Aoi, she didn’t understand at first. Then Yuki mentioned that Hitomi had made friends with one of the monks. Whenever he came in, they would sit off to the side and discuss chants and meditation while sipping tea. He invited her to lectures about Buddhism held at temples around Kyoto. Eventually, the monk had recruited her to become a monk as well—it only took two years of study to pass through the Jōdoshū sect’s training. I could only shrug.
By the end of my first visit to Aoi, I was exhausted. Once the doors were shut for the night, the lights brightened and the women began to clean (they let me wash some dishes). The plush red carpet betrayed stains of beer and wine from the years of entertaining. The high pitched whine of a vacuum blotted out all other sounds. Setsuko seemed full of energy, even at such a late hour. And she was ravenous. Gion is like lively districts in most big cities: you can always find a place to eat no matter the hour. Setsuko brought Hitomi and me to a sushi bar where they knew the chef—an infrequent customer at Aoi. He is nice, they said, but had recently gone through a divorce owing to a number of affairs. The women seemed to know everything about everyone. The chef asked me, “So, can you eat sushi?”
“I can eat anything you have,” I said, offering up a challenge. If the chef bit, he would serve something that was notorious for making Japanese people squeamish. And if I got it down, something tasty might follow free of charge. As we waited for him to prepare our food, Setsuko asked me, “What did you think of my shop?”
“I’d like to go back sometime, as long as you let me pay for my drinks at least.” Setsuko laughed.
“He was confused by the monk,” Hitomi added.
“Oh, of course, of course,” Setsuko said. Her eyes followed the chef as he disappeared into the back room. Then she squinted at me and said, “They’re strange sometimes, but you need to remember that they are men.”
“And men enjoy the company of women,” Hitomi added.
“I won’t argue with that,” I said.
“You do know of Mount Hiei, up there?” Setsuko said, pointing in the direction of the home of Tendai Buddhism. I nodded. “The monks there have had a…let’s say a ‘relationship’ with Gion for centuries.”
The sushi appeared. We also each received a small bowl filled with white, bulbous things in a citrusy sauce.
“What’s this?” Hitomi asked.
“Shirako,” the chef replied with an ominous grin, staring at me. Think rocky mountain oysters, except from tuna—and raw. After watching testosterone-filled, red-faced old men chase women, eating shirako seemed a fitting way to end the night. At least that’s what Setsuko and Hitomi said. In the end, the ploy worked—we received some other, more usual parts of tuna free of charge.