This post was originally published on medium.com
I wrote this story quite a while ago, but it was lacking a visual element, so I left it and forgot about it. Recently I rediscovered it, and thought Kohei Okada's photography would be a nice match. I asked if he wanted to collaborate, and he was kind enough to agree.
These photos really capture the interplay of light, dark, and salarymen that often fill the streets at night.
My friend said he found an old man by a bridge, in the shadow of a street light. The man was selling ramen. Said he only took days off when it rained.
My friend sat at that little wooden stand, and slurped a lonely bowl of noodles. The best he’d ever eaten, he said.
The next time he was on that side of town, he went to that same bridge but the man was gone. His cart, too.
The shadow of the streetlight was empty.
Once, wandering the shopping arcade of a small country town too far past midnight, I found a little patch of grass on which a few wooden carts had come to rest. Middle-aged men in battered suits and loose ties clinked beers and laughed. Talked loud and ate from styrofoam bowls filled with oden.
Steam rose into the air, and dissipated into the night sky.
I sat with those men, and clinked glasses. Laughed. Our world spun with beer and shochu, and we talked through a blend of words, sounds, and gestures. Somewhere in the distance, karaoke seeped from a bar door that wouldn’t close, and a woman’s voice whooped to the rhythmic tapping of a tambourine.
A mixture of nostalgia, heartbreak, and longing.
They paid for my meal. Took me to a jazz bar. Dragged me to karaoke. Sung classics. Shouted. Talked. Cried. We drowned sorrows in beer, and hid regrets behind whiskey.
And never crossed paths again.
It’s funny, the people you meet in the night. The things you see. The sounds you hear.
The souls that wander — lost, found, and somewhere in between.
It’s like the rules that govern the day have no sway over a city by moonlight.
The two sides of a coin that never see each other; so what happens on one side, stays on that side.
Or at least, you hope.
I wandered into a small bar once, with a gaudy name like Lovely People. 70’s era stools sat in front of a tiled counter in a space no bigger than a small bedroom. Two sofas sat against the wall, paired with small black tables. In the corner, a TV set.
There was an old man on a stool, a small group of construction workers on the sofas, and salarymen singing karaoke. Everyone where they always were, doing what they always did — a little pocket universe of alcohol, cigarettes, and song.
The woman behind the counter handed me a hot towel. Gave me a glass of water and a bowl of cheap chocolates.
She said, “We don’t see new faces here often.”
Behind her, bottles of sake lined the shelves, a name scrawled on each — Tomo-chan, Takahashi, Ariake, Johnny-chan, Suzuki — markers for souls caught between two places. Tethered to the day, but linked to the night by a single, unfinished bottle.
This place — Lovely People — felt like a gateway; a neutral safe haven for those caught between worlds.
I ordered a gin and tonic, and looked at those bottles. The dust on them. The age. I wondered about their owners — were they at home? With family? Stuck at work? In bed with other women? Flirting with other mama-sans, somewhere?
The old man stubbed out his cigarette and took a microphone. He swayed to the midi music. Ignored the 90’s stock video of a young man at the beach, thinking about a girl at the park. He sung with a husky voice that hinted at long arguments and too much smoke.
I’d heard this song before.
It was a reminder I didn’t belong.
And as mama-san took a tambourine and sung the chorus, I stared at a creaky wooden door that wouldn’t close, and wondered about oden, clinking beer glasses, and salarymen.
I wondered about romance between night and day. Flings. Affairs.
I remember an older coworker driving me through narrow streets to eat at curry shops famous for seafood. He took a liking to me because I didn’t know his past. Didn’t know his history.
His life before the moment we met.
He introduced me to his friends — to people of the night — like a retired musician on a reunion tour. He gave me a glimpse of the life he’d lived — the bars, the clubs, the gambling, the street carts — and through them, I saw the life he’d left behind.
His wife, his children, his family.
His chance at forgiveness.
His last hope.
He took me to snack bars — the cheaper variety of hostess club — and used me as a talking point. A new toy. A gimmick. We talked with girls who didn’t know what they wanted. Girls with shadows in their pasts. Girls who could hide those shadows in the night.
My coworker was a regular at many. Too many, perhaps. He hobbled to the bar, drank orange juice instead of beer, and gossiped. Joked. Flirted.
And in the words and sentences, and jokes and insults, something like begging.
Something like a longing for warmth.
The kind you don’t find at night.
He drove me around town in his car one night, delivering necklaces to girls at bars. Bought online. Bought on special. Bought cheap. Necklaces that looked tacky and tawdry.
Necklaces that spoke volumes of the person who gave them.
I remember the plastic bag in the backseat, the necklaces in it. Each one in a little suede pouch, sky blue, with a silver ribbon.
Each one a tiny sliver of a soul; an offering to the night.
I watched my coworker hobble into another bar, from the passenger seat. On the radio, I listened to a song I’d heard too many times before.
A song I didn’t want to hear again.
A song for people trapped in the daylight, and longing for the night.
And never a happy ending.
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I'm a Tokyo based writer who does food, coffee, and short fiction. In love with the ever constant ebb and flow of Tokyo life.
Hengtee Lim Loved reading this. Feels like we all had these nights at least once in Tokyo.
Thank you so much Hengtee Lim !
Im excited to work with you more!