Stoned in Tokyo
Clack, Clack, Clack. I press my teeth together as I sit on a stool in the tiny, five-person bar. The edges of my vision blur as I stare vacantly at her angelic face, stretching and tightening, as she mouths voiceless words. Is she speaking Japanese? I don’t even know at this point. Wish I had a joint.
“They said that we need to get out of here – the bar’s closing.”
I scull the rest of my drink, bow and mutter a domo while exiting through a blue tapestry. The night sky greets me as I follow Mae out, into the alleyway.
“So what do you think we should do?” her soft words slur together.
I shrug in response.
“It’s already past midnight and the last train’s in 10 minutes or so…”
Her words trail off as I stumble into the wall next to me, my shoulder scraping the textured surface. Mae turns back and a light smile curls at the edges of her mouth.
“You just wait here,” she suggests. “I’m gonna try grab a smoke off this couple.”
I follow the line of her outstretched arm as she walks to the end of the alley. I lean there, wringing my hands for a fleeting eternity until I finally push myself off the wall and make my way over towards the small group.
Three of them stand together, with white smoke framing the young-looking Japanese couple. Mae is engaging with the man, their occasional laughter exploding out, while the woman silently stands with painted lips. There’s a lull in conversation and I finally muster up my courage, directing a question towards the woman.
“Ahh… so, how old are you?”
She responds with a puzzled look, her head tilting slightly. Quickly translating the question, her partner turns to her. She faces me, eyes lighting up as she responds.
“I am surrty foor.”
I breathlessly repeat the words, attempting to swallow them. I couldn’t find a single wrinkle on her face, even if I wanted to.
“And you?” I ask the man.
“I’m 30… and I’ve been smoking since I was about 16.”
He finishes his sentence with a flourish of his cigarette.
“I don’t. Wha…?” I exclaim, choking on my response as my composure finally breaks. “You guys look amazing!”
“So where are you from?” the man asks, gesturing towards Mae and me.
“Well I’m from Scotland,” replies Mae, framing her face with her hands, “but I currently live in Tokyo.”
“I’m from Australia,” I add, “but I’m just here on holidays.”
“Oooooh,” a deep rumble emanates from the man as a wicked smile crosses his features. “Australia!”
He reaches into his pocket and produces a small baggie, showcasing the nug of weed housed inside.
“Oh yes. Australia!” I shout, reaching skywards.
The man quickly puts the object out of sight and looks from side to side before gesturing towards the open doorway to his left. The couple moves through it. Mae I follow them up a narrow staircase.
I turn the corner, barely avoiding the wooden handrail, and take my seat in the bar. The twang of ’60s surf-rock intertwines with heavy smoke as I run my fingers across the polished bench. A gentleman with long, stark-white hair sits in the corner smiling contentedly. The boyfriend I met outside alerts me to an elderly man behind the bar rhythmically polishing a glass.
“This is Salt.”
“Yoroshiku,” I slur.
Salt chuckles, nodding in reply, then hands me a glass full of thin, black liquid. I drink deeply. Bitter caffeine coats the back of my throat as heat rushes to my fingertips.
“What is this?” I ask Mae, “It’s surprisingly good.”
“I think it’s the only thing they serve,” she replies, sipping the same dark beverage. “I want to say it’s a plum liquor with ice-tea, but in all honesty, I’m not too sure.”
She flips over the black-and-white laminated menu, attempting to decipher it, as my attention is drawn to Salt. He’s behind the bar, fingers drawn close to his chest as he rolls a small metallic object over and over, eyes squinting behind thin black glasses. Noticing my gaze, he looks up and I turn away, pretending to stare at the wall panelling.
Salt’s gravely voice cuts through the music. His arm reaches over the bar and he opens his palm up, showcasing a small, hand-rolled aluminium pipe. I look around the bar, searching. All the other patrons’ eyes are glued to me.
“Douzo,” Salt’s gravelly voice sounds again. Here you go.
My cheeks flush.
“Arigatou gozaimasu,” I repeat to every patron in the small room.
A lighter appears in my hand and I raise the pipe high. I slowly roast the end of it and breathe in, letting the smoke settle into my soul. Breathing out, my worries escape and coat the homely bar.
I motion to Mae, offering up the aluminium object. She meekly shakes her head, her arm straining to stay by her side.
“They occasionally drug test English teachers,” she murmurs.
She’s right – drugs are no laughing matter in Japan. Though countries such as Canada and Uruguay have taken progressive stances towards to marijuana, most of the world still hasn’t, Japan included. Japan’s Cannabis Control Act of 1948 outlines strict consequences for citizens and tourists who consume, cultivate and transport the drug, with punishments going as far as seven years in prison. This act actually has extraterritorial application, meaning Japanese nationals are expected to abide by it overseas. As a foreigner, it is not unheard of to be searched in the streets in big cities like Tokyo on weak suspicion of possession.
I reach across Mae, not letting my tingling hands linger, and pass the pipe to the man in the corner. He nods repeatedly, mouth splitting into a grin that exposes his stained teeth. I turn back to Mae and my thoughts involuntarily spill from my mouth.
“I usually find it so difficult to connect to the people around me, like I’m just such an awkward person, but I just find that when I smoke, I’m just able to like…”
My ramblings are interrupted by a nudge and an offering from the man to my left. I spark the end of the pipe, tapping through the ash, letting the calm smoke wash over me as I turn back to Mae.
“It’s just that when I smoke I get perspective. I realise that even through we’re all different, we’re so alike. We all struggle to connect to the people and the world around us. This perspective, this feeling allows me to understand all that and gives me the calm and the confidence to make the first stride.”
I move my hand over, letting it fit into the grooves of Mae’s own. She squeezes it tight, lightly motioning towards the entrance. We stand and bow to our newfound friends. Smiles race across the room as we give our thanks and leave the bar.
Cover by Itay Kabalo; inset by the author