Hip Hop, Nihon and True Respect

Kyoto, Japan - 

Returning to our hostel after a day of exploring Kyoto and soaking in mountain hot springs, we ran into a couple of Scottish girls we'd met earlier in the day. We all spent some time watching TV in the cramped downstairs lounge, which also acts as laundry room, shower room, storage room, and the center of social life at Kyoto Cheapest Inn.

As travellers came home from the day's activities, a bolus of foreigners formed at the table around us, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer, sake or green tea. We made repeated trips to the Lawson (7-11 kind of thingie) to buy more alcohol, and the clerk there got more amused with every visit from the obviously drunk gaijin. Somewhere around midnight, the girls decided it would be a grand idea to go out to a night club. Lacking the facilities of reason or higher logic, Max and I decided to join them despite the fact that none of us knew more than a dozen words of Japanese. That was how we found ourselves in a genuine Japanese hip-hop club.

It started when we hopped into a cab driven by a polite white-haired gentleman who spoke no English. The girls, both English teachers on a year-long program, used their extremely limited Japanese skills to ask him to take us to the disco. He had problems with that ("disco wakarenai!" he kept saying – I dont't know what a disco is!) He got on his keitai and called his dispatcher, or wife, or someone, and eventually established that we wanted to go out drinking and dancing. He dropped us in the heart of the Kyoto nightlife district, and we picked a direction and started walking.

It was less than 30 seconds before we attracted the attention of some Japanese teens – no doubt if the girls hadn't been along, it would've taken a lot longer. They pointed the way to a new hip hop club that was opening that night and promised free admission for foreigners (with a drink ticket, even!) It's hard to turn down a deal like that, so we headed to the fifth floor of a small office building and found ourselves in the heart of what we can only assume is the place to be on Saturday night in Kyoto.

It was dark inside, and loud. Live DJs played rap and hip hop hits from the late 90s and early 00s, and the bartenders could barely keep the shelves stocked. The dance floor was hopping and, as the only four foreigners in the place, we attracted a good deal of attention. The locals seemed terribly interested in us, but it was a passive sort of interest – they refused to make eye contact, dance with us, or even acknowledge our presence. That didn't stop us from having fun, of course! We danced the night away, chatting briefly with the occasional teen who was brave enough to risk talking to the scary gaijin.

Japanese hip hop culture is…very high energy. Every five minutes, or less, the head DJ would break out in a chant of "PUT your hands up! PUT your hands up!" and he wouldn't stop until he had the whole dance floor pointing their hands at the sky. The DJs were rapping along with the music, but they tended to omit everything but the popular chorus bits. Between songs (or sometimes even in the middle), they'd bust out with rapid-fire freestyle rap which really seemed to get the audience fired up. If you've never heard Japanese rap, I can only say…wow! I didn't know syllables could come so fast and so close together! The DJs were some cool guys, even though they hardly touched their turntables and spent more time taking big swigs of Mumms than DJing. What they lacked in spelling skills, they more than made up for in spirit.

Halfway through the night, a boy came dancing up to me in the middle of the dance floor and held a keychain up to my eye level. The question was implied: did you lose these? I smiled and shook my head, and the boy moved on to someone else. It occured to me that his behavior would be extremely out of place in one of our bars or clubs. Most Americans, if they paid any attention to the keys at all, would give them to a bouncer or bartender. Some might pocket the keys and try their luck with cars in the parking lot! Very few, if any, would take time out of their night out to visit each person on the dance floor in a hunt for the keys' owner.

We stumbled out of the club at 5:00 and hailed another cab; I saved the night by remembering the closest street intersection to our hostel and even pronouncing it well enough for the cabbie to understand where the hell we were supposed to go. Not thinking clearly, I handed the cabbie a 10,000 yen bill which clearly distressed him. He started stammering stock phrases of apology in Japanese (please wait a minute, excuse me for my slowness, and other things I couldn't understand) as he searched frantically through his wallet, jacket, glove box, coin purse, etc for enough change to pay me back. I kept trying to tell him it was okay, that I would take back the 100-spot and give him exact change, but his English and my Japanese together weren't good enough to close the communication gap. After five minutes, he finally got the change together and we staggered toward home.

As we got closer to the hostel, I heard a car coming up fast from behind us. I glanced back over my shoulder to see a cab tearing up the street doing at least 60 kph. He pulled over next to us and I frantically shook my hands in the universal gesture for "no thanks, go away." We'd just taken a cab! What did this man want?!?

It was, of course, our cabbie. He rolled down his window and offered me a crisp 1,000-yen note in both hands, bowing deeply and repeatedly as he did so. "Sen yen," he announced proudly.

He'd short changed me by accident. When he realized his mistake, he hunted us down at high speed through the streets of Kyoto, so he could find me and correct his mistake. It took me a few moments to catch on, but when I finally realized what had happened, I bowed from the waist in the deepest, most formal style and stayed that way until his cab was out of sight.

This is the epitome of Japanese culture. They are shy, insist on a strict code of public stoicness, and rarely do they open themselves up to a foreigner. But they are honest to a fault, and if they realize they've wronged you, they will go to any length to ensure that the honorable thing is done no matter how they feel about you personally. Despite all the communication problems we have here, the universal courtesy, respect, and basic decency toward fellow human beings on the part of everyone we meet makes travel in Japan an eminently worthwhile and heartwarming endeavor.