Food of Shame
“I’ll meet you back at the apartment in 5 minutes”, I whatsapped Kate as I walked up Takashita Street, on route to Harajuku train station. During our week in Tokyo, the gang had split into various, equally tiny, Airbnb apartments dotted around the hippest neighbourhoods in the city. Some in Harajuku, others in Shibuya, and Alix, Kate and I in Yoyogi Uehara. After a day of solo missioning in Harajuku, I was to go back to Yoyogi Uehara, for a quick ramen dinner with Alix and Kate, before heading back to our Airbnb for an early night.
But the city had something slightly different in store for me that evening. And when Tokyo calls, you answer.
The train route map, mounted on the walls of every Japanese train carriage, was a collection of hundreds of coloured lines, intersecting, diverging and joining together again at places. As I studied this circuit board map, one stop caught my eye: Before boarding the Emirates flight to Tokyo earlier that week, I had spent months researching this area – planning where to go, what to wear and imagining the type of boys I’d meet here. Shinjuku Ni-Chome was the gay district of Tokyo – smaller than most around the world, yet beholding a magic incomparable to any other. My mind was made up – it was now or never. The spirit of Tokyo took hold of me – a possessed boy, I hopped off at the next stop, changed lines like a pro, and within five minutes the sliding carriage doors opened and I stepped onto the platform of the main Shinjuku station.
Now to get to Shinjuku Ni-Chome.
Tokyo was as I’d never seen it before – Friday night just past 11pm and outside my train carriage I discovered an intoxicating new city. During Tokyo’s rush hour thousands of Japanese criss-cross each other in the train station, yet you don’t hear more than a continuous soft swish of bodies brushing past each other. That’s the Japanese for you – elegantly and organically organised, disciplined and remaining in a constant state of flow with one another. But on this Friday night the graceful, quiet harmony was disrupted with the sound of laughter coming from teens collecting in groups around the station. Harajuku girls were out in full bloom – taking selfies, posing for tourists and really, truly living up to the image Gwen Stefani once shared with the world in her “Love. Angel. Music. Baby” album. “Salary Men”, the name given to people that work 9-5 office jobs in Japan, lay sprawled on the side-walks – utterly wasted, passed out or just taking a quick time-out from life. I’m a big advocate for getting a little tipsy, particularly after a rough day at work, but what I was witnessing, right before my very eyes, wasn’t the regular “after work drinks”. This was different, and I was kinda into it.
For a moment I snapped out of my Tokyo dream montage to remember my mission – a quest to find Shinjuku Ni-Chome.
I had now wandered about 2km away from the station and found myself in a quieter, relatively deserted part of the area – lost and wondering whether I should give up and turn around. As the internal debate raged, a boy walked passed. We exchanged “the look”, and at the exact same moment we both turned to face each other. “Where are you from?” he asked. I answered, without asking the same from him. The boy’s loud, distinct accent told me all I needed to know. He spoke about Dallas, Texas. I told him about Cape Town. And the next moment I found myself in the stairwell of his hotel with his cock in my mouth. After about, let’s say 13 minutes, we said our farewells. He pointed me in the direction of Shinjuku Ni-Chome, wishing me luck as I continued on my way.
I was getting close: One thing that unites gays from all around the word, irrespective of colour, culture or creed, is the love for badly remixed pop music, the sound of which was becoming more and more audible, the closer I got. This, coupled with the smell of poppers in the air, let me know I was headed in the right direction.
I had arrived in Tokyo’s Gaybourhood. Hipster gays hung out in a dimly lit park nearby, reminding me of my shady nights out in Cape Town.
But that would be my first and only taste of Shinjuku Ni-Chome, for the night at least.
Because then came Kenji. He was 24, Japanese and beautiful. And we would spend the rest of the night together in his tiny Tokyo apartment, our bodies tangled into each other – gently kissing, softly speaking at times. When his broken English and my non-existent Japanese failed us, we would fall asleep – waking up at intervals to continue the conversation. When the sun rose the next morning, he gently touched my face, “You so beautiful and look so young,” he said. And with that, I said my goodbyes and started on my journey home.
In the morning the city looked different – the bright neon signs gave way to big trees, and inner city parks and shrines. It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the light, to regain my bearings – back to Shinjuku Station I headed. As I walked, an elderly Japanese couple, being led by their leashed Hokkaido dog, passed by. They gave me a polite glance and I could almost hear the lady whisper to the man – “He smells of shame and dishonour . . . and dick.”
Just then I remembered: the last time I spoke to anybody was when I messaged my Airbnb mates, letting them know I was on my way home. That was 9 hours ago. “Oh fuck, what have I done!” The panic and fear compounded as I reached Shinjuku Station and the wifi kicked in.
Message from Alix on Whatsapp group chat:
“Has anybody heard from Lyle? Last night he said he was on his way home, but never arrived. I’ve been up since 5am.”
How would I even begin to explain the events of the last 9 hours?
Up until now, a sense of self-imposed shame had always kept me from discussing details of my sex life with my straight friends. In my mind I struggled to see how these people who I’ve known for close to a decade, some of whom have spent most of their adult lives as one half of a traditional committed relationship, could comprehend the sometimes casual, instant and fleeting nature of gay intimacy – but more specifically, my gay intimacy. Within this specific setting, when it came to sex, I was the other. And I guess the feeling of being sexually different, coupled with society’s normalisation of straight sex, media’s fetishisation of gay sex and perhaps a tiny bit of residual Christian guilt, caused me to hold back on the details of my adventures. It was only months after Japan when I would share the full, complete and unabridged account of what happened that one night in Tokyo – only once I had navigated past the shame of fucking like a gay boy in a straight world.
Eventually, I arrived at the Yoyogi Uehara Station, and a quick 2 minute walk got me back to the apartment. The foreign walk of shame made me hungry. But most importantly I needed to delay, for just one more moment, the passive aggression that awaited me back at the Airbnb.
I exited the station, turned left, and made my way to the Family Mart on the corner.
I would dare to wager that the Family Mart in Japan is unlike any convenience store you’ve experienced in your entire life. I’m yet to find sushi in Cape Town or any other place in the world, which is as good as what I ate at Family Marts across Japan. But for me, what was undoubtedly the star of the Family Mart show was the incredibly, impossibly soft white bread – and when egg mayo is added to the mix, this becomes one of Japan’s greatest treasures. With all the courage I could scrape together, I left the Family Mart, armed with an egg mayo sandwich, 1 giant chocchip cookie, and a Green Dakara water (with added electrolytes for hydration). I was now ready to go home and face the consequences of my unspeakable actions. I arrived at the front door, punched in the access code and entered the apartment. Alix and Kate had left for the day. And my hour of judgement would have to be rescheduled.
I laid my weary body on the futon and carefully arranged the food items around me. As I began to eat the heavenly soft Family Mart egg mayo sandwich, washing each mouthful down with the salty sweet Green Dakara, I recalled the events that lead me to this exact moment. Suddenly, little butterflies began fluttering inside my tummy, and my face gave birth to a slow, wide smile.
If this was meant to be my meal of shame, why did every single bite taste like victory?
Lyle Lackay is a writer. And an aspiring talk show host.