My friend Masa runs a small café where there are no right angles on the walls and you can sit on a fuzzy plush chair shaped like a mushroom.
There were two guys sitting in the corner playing backgammon and sipping cups of tea. One had a slim face and great coiled dreadlocks, the other had cherub cheeks and a hemp hat, they both wore hunchy limp spines, loose billowy jackets and sweet chewy colognes of marijuana.
The girl behind the counter was fussing over plates of cream and strawberries; there was a photographer with reflecting umbrellas, networked flashes and coke-bottle glasses thick as your thumb taking pictures for the new menu. I was enjoying the mushroom chair more than I thought I should, and was desperately trying to explain to Kohei what a smurf was. Blue skin? Germanic? Homosexual? It wasn’t a very fruitful discussion.
I used to have lunch here every Thursday between two different jobs, stopping in for lunch and a cup of coffee. If you sit at the counter you can talk to Masa while he pours coffee, or read a book when he’s busy with other customers. It’s a nice place to get a beer too, but the last time I went there at night the girl next to us started talking about Amway and wouldn’t let me and my date go for about thirty minutes. But if you go for lunch you can watch the girl who works behind the counter dunk pasta and dress salads in unrushed and confident movements that I never tire of watching. I was never really interested in her, it’s just nice to see the people who fill up their corner of the world so nicely.
Every Thursday we would talk about what to give her boyfriend Kohei for his birthday. I didn’t know Kohei, but I stood in for the male gender while Masa was busy with customers. I think she got him a coat in the end.
When he was in elementary school Kohei spent three years in Michigan, where he learned about hot dogs and how to blow snot rockets. We weren’t speaking in English but he says he still talks like a fifth grader, and he’s twenty-two years old. Unfortunately he didn’t watch enough TV and didn’t know what a smurf was. That hadn’t really gone anywhere, so we talked about music while he waited for his girlfriend to finish work.
“Well, if you like music, you should check out this place in Tokyo, a few minutes from Ochanomizu. CD rentals, incredible selection, you might find it interesting?” I said I would check it out. Kohei’s girl got off work and we all had a cup of coffee together, and then they split. I was left sitting on the mushroom chair with the photographer in the corner and the hippies playing backgammon. So I paid for my coffee and left.
* * * * *
Yeah, you can rent music here. Just like a video tape, but cheaper. A brand new CD goes for about twenty dollars, and an imported album is close to thirty bucks. But every video store has a few racks of rental CD’s set aside, lagging about six months behind the record stores. A full week runs about three dollars, but a with a “same day” rental it’s about one-fifty. I remember libraries back in the states whose record collections mostly depended on the whims of donors, speckled with promotional CDs from local artists, with unusually detailed collections of Irish folk music, or ten copies of the exact same Devo album. Japanese CD rental shops have a lot less character, and are inordinately weighted towards Japanese singers whose voices scratch my eardrums. Foreign music sections start with the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, then jump abruptly to last year’s R&B charts, with Michael Jackson just about the only guy there who sang between 1980 and 2005. Its kind of sad really, watching the first draft of the history of 20th century music history written in the oldies section of the corner record store. I remember a lot more than this...
They say that if you can’t find it in Tokyo, it doesn’t exist. If you’re willing to pay that much for an original pressing of a Robert Johnson record, I’m sure they could take it out of the glass case and wrap it up for you. So when the bulk of my record collection got lost in the mail last year outside of those college band recordings I was pretty sure with enough time and money I could built it up again, but it wouldn’t be cheap, and it seems kind of sad to go to all the effort really. I don’t know if I’d go out and buy a Pearl Jam album just because we spent so much time together in high school. You just can’t meet someone for the first time twice. But we all like to hear the voices of old friends, nice to put an aural photograph around the room for an hour or two. Dig out that punk record from college and remember being nineteen and mowing the lawn in headphones, the volume turned all the way so it could just peek over the sound of the engine.
Tokyo is a city of distinct little neighborhoods, it’s really a thousand little specialized districts clustered around a few main cities. There’s a street where almost every single shop sells kitchen equipment, broken up by the occasional coffee shop. The CD rental shop was balanced right between the several dozen guitar stores of Ocha-no-mizu and the dusty village of antique book dealers. Kohei had drawn me a little map, which I followed to a seven story sports equipment complex. The eighth and the ninth floors rented CD’s.
There are record shops for people who listen to music and there are record shops for people who eat music. This was one of the later, and I haven’t had that much fun shopping since the fourth grade. I turned the corner and the whole gang was there: records from the New York underground that rattled me in high school, all the Japanese punk and freakout stuff that I combed over in Osaka record stores six years ago, that live Charles Mingus album where he says goodbye to Eric Dolphy, who would die just a few months later in Paris. You don’t think twice spending two bucks on a cup of coffee when you’re meeting a friend from high school, I just happened to meet a dozen friends at once. They’re sitting in my room as I type this, in a black zippered tote bag emblazoned with the store’s logo. They’ve stayed the week but I’m going to have to return them tomorrow, the music copied and tucked away for a rainy day by myself.