…I can’t remember exactly when it was, years ago, in the 80s. I was weaving slowly home after a night on the Golden Gai in Tokyo, around Shinjuku, the gaudy old neon nightlife district. The Gai was a place that was still guarded by the locals against intrusion in those days, although they were not unfriendly. They just wanted to keep it for themselves, which was the attraction. You found it or you didn’t.
…The Golden Gai, pronounced Guy, is a small, tightly packed acre crammed full of tiny bars. Tiny is relative, of course, but these are microscopic beyond argument. Some are just a few feet square, and the Japanese have small feet.
…Some are so cramped that only about a dozen people can squeeze in, standing up. There’s almost no room to turn. It’s degree-of-difficulty drinking. You have no idea where the bartenders are producing the drinks and snacks from. Their cheeks? You couldn’t swing a mouse in there. Some bars are just two tables with about thirty people sardined around them. And they smoke in Tokyo, remember, even today. But back then it was compulsory. So, you can imagine a slice of the air. It was pliable. But no matter how small, all the bars managed to make money because the Japanese are not just drinkers. They are sincere drunks. Their Shinto belief is that the liver is evil and must be punished. Plus, they all become, very quickly, quite spectacularly drunk. Hammered, I believe is the technical term. Fortunately, there is also no room to swing a punch, so any potential drunken brawl is settled by remaining jolly and drinking more.
…In the Golden Gai some bars are so close together, you think it’s a double door painted two colors. But no, they open onto completely different environments. And amazingly different they are, too. In a few steps, you can see twenty businessmen speed-shooting thimbles of sake, a bunch of beards arguing about acoustic v. electric, no-neck tattooed yakuzas planning god knows what, spike-haired punks, trannies, Elvis impersonators, Martians, lizards, carnivorous plants, you get the picture, all drunk, all held up by the fact that there’s no room to fall down.
…So, it was after a typically tight experience that I lurched out into the night air, pretty tight myself, as the sudden novelty of oxygen returned a little blood to the alcohol stream, when suddenly there he was on the empty boulevard, a ghost.
…He was a ghost from another century, and from the second I first saw him, everything was as if in slow motion, so suspended in aspic is my memory of it.
…He was a young man of incredible power and grace, pulling a spectacularly high jet-black rickshaw, twice as tall as he was and he was quite tall. He was a world-class athlete, a sinewy middleweight, jogging effortlessly in an outfit from antiquity, some seventeenth century affair, all black, with buttons and beads, jogging in stylish slow-motion it seemed, flying silently across the screen stage-left to stage-right like a bullet in a Matrix movie, done up in full samurai era, top to toe, his costume tight like a fencer’s, but black like a ninja’s, black silent slippers on his feet, dark webbing wound around his calves like bandages up to his knees, his tunic with a high Chinese collar and on his head a satin skull cap. Did he have a pigtail? I don’t recall. He could have. He ought to have. OK, so he had a pigtail.
…And his appearance was not even the most amazing thing about all this.
…It was that he was alone. Yes. Apart from him, the street – a main Tokyo thoroughfare – was entirely empty. How could that be?
…And he was high-stepping. He was bringing his knees up with every stride, like a dressage horse but placing every footfall soundlessly onto the slick macadam. It had been raining while I had been drinking. The street was now not just empty but glossy, a black lacquer stage reflecting this vision of a man from long ago, jogging lightly, almost as if restrained, as if holding himself back from the speed he could turn on if asked to. He was disciplined, focused, professional, his high-sided black regal rickshaw towering behind him.
…He was showing off.
…But to whom? The streets were empty of all but me. But somebody was watching him, oh yes, somebody with a very critical eye was watching him from behind, through a thin slit in the black bamboo blind that was pulled down to hide her rather scandalous identity. I caught a glimpse. It was a geisha, a real, full-on geisha, hidden from stares in her high and shiny royal ride from another time, another world, The Floating World, as they call it so enigmatically.
…Young, slim and dainty as she no doubt was, she was a relic. What a sight. Oh, you may see this occasionally, still, in Kyoto, in that secret, stylized world, floating, adrift from time, a world of millionaires and killers. But here? In terminally trendy Tokyo? In these high-tech times? I think not. This was something else.
…It was the silence that made it so powerful. Not a sound issued from this wraith-like vision, a full geisha hidden from public gaze, an angel pulled by another angel on the devil’s errand, along that narrow silk rail, the long-ago-and-forever confluence of art, sex and power. Wow.
…The silence and the emptiness were impossible, eerie, frankly frightening. Who had emptied these streets? Who had stopped the traffic? Who had such juice, such pull? This was the center of Tokyo at 1 a.m. This was not the private tree-lined approach to a Shogun’s castle. Was some big-shot of the current shogunate up there on a high balcony nearby, watching, making sure that his evening’s tasty morsel was trotted home safely along the shiny black ribbon, before he gave the subtle nod to change the traffic lights back to green again and allow back onto his stolen road the hoi polloi in their vulgar Toyotas?
…Ever the romantic, I like to think there was. There could have been. There ought to have been. OK, so there was.
…The athlete trotted away from me in silence, pulling the performer after him, taking her back to her handlers, to her masseuse, her coiffeuse, her dresser and undresser, her gift-wrapper and unwrapper. And as she went by, the full elegance of her high and haughty conveyance was spot-lit by the street lamps and the mirror pools of reflection as she splashed gently through them, one after another, all the way down the boulevard. They passed her along, one to another, gliding her back into the myth that she came from, the smallest of smiles playing, surely, on her tiny scarlet rosebud mouth.