Life Is Grand by Mark Halpern

Life Is Grand

Mark Halpern

Business trips call for Western rooms. They are, simply put, business-like; the furniture organizes their geometry into functionality. But this hotel’s rooms, undersized and narrow “singles” every one, would be constraining to the point of oppression. At least a washitsu promised some open space, as well as the comforting scent of tatami.

Futon-wo shiite kudasai.” Please lay out the futon. “Hai wakarimashita,” acknowledged the desk clerk. I was glad—proud—I could handle even so simple a task, after the mess I’d made so far.

On the “limited express” I’d misconstrued announcements and, drifting in and out of sleep, failed to count the stops. Not until 21:28 did I reach Hazureyama Station, but the adjacent hotel, bright and modern, stood there inviting, just as on my visit a year earlier, when I traveled from London. The New Grand, however, claimed no record of my reservation. I had, I now realized, mistakenly had my assistant book the (old) Grand.

The sympathetic clerk, experienced with such a predicament, apologized with apparent sincerity for being full up and produced a map and a thick marker, which he used to draw two big red circles. One surrounded the Grand Hotel, and the other a restaurant, the only one in walking distance still open. Twenty minutes later, having deposited my suitcase at my true hotel’s front counter, I was headed toward the second big red circle, where awaited a meal I’d thoroughly forsworn. That is to say, additional to my generalized vow to forever leave behind destructive habits and relationships upon moving to Japan, I’d specifically forsworn this particular meal.

But, as I was to learn, Japan is less about leaving behind the old than embracing the new. And doing so where an odd reality keeps filtering through seductively familiar surfaces. Hence, while McDonald’s here was, nutritionally, no less retarded, it turned out brilliantly advanced in smoke-free dining by local standards circa 1993. Accordingly, I left my book on one of the four tiny tables comprising the non-smoking section and went to order.

Welcome. Eat to win?

I beg your pardon?

Eat to win?

I beg your pardon?

Eat to win?

Excuse me, but what language are you speaking?

English. Eat to win?

Ah… Yes, I will eat in!

Thank you, sir. May I humbly take your order, sir?

I’d like a Big Mac Set with a large coke and large fries.

(I pay. My order is presented within twenty seconds.)

I am very sorry to have kept you waiting so long, sir.

As I start eating, an elderly man puts down his tray—bearing only a cup of coffee—on the table next to mine. He then ambles over to the restaurant’s far side and plucks a large silver-colored ashtray from a stack. Once back, he places it over the no-smoking notice affixed to the surface of his table and lights up a cigarette. He sips his coffee very, very slowly. The staff watch and say nothing. He smokes one cigarette after another, and I’m guessing he does this every evening. I also say nothing.

Still, the Big Mac Set was as a Big Mac Set should be. It was perfect.

All I needed now, after the trials of the day and of three months in Tokyo, was a McDonald’s apple pie. All I needed to put the world back into order was the reassuring pleasingness of eating an oblong deep-fried Hot Apple Pie out of its similarly-shaped container, with its nice smooth-surfaced cardboard, hot goop dribbling out as the pie’s crispy surface crumbles.

I’d like a Hot Apple Pie.

I’m extremely sorry, sir. We are sold out of Apple Pie. Won’t you take a Bacon and Potato Pie instead?

No thank you.

(Perplexedness ensues at my non-acceptance that the two varietals are functionally equivalent.)

Uh… I see. Uh… Uh… I am extremely sorry, sir.

I considered ordering a Smile, a sumairu, at the posted price of ¥0—just to show there were no hard feelings. But that might be treated as a literal request. Humor and irony were distant goals. I was still working on not-taking-for-grantedness.

Returning to the Grand, I picked up my suitcase and rode the elevator to the top floor. There, I found a traditional washitsu, separated by sliding shoji from a smaller linoleum-tiled Western-style space that held a dresser, proper writing desk, and large color television. Fourteen tatami on the Japanese side, easily enough space for six futons placed decently apart. But the tatami was bare. Instead, an army cot had been wheeled onto the linoleum and unfolded beneath the fluorescent light fixture.

Excuse me, but in my room, there is a bed, rather than a futon.

Yes, that is so. Would you like another pillow or another blanket?

But when I checked in I asked you to put out a futon.

Yes, but you are a foreigner.

I am a foreigner, but I would like to sleep on a futon. That is why I asked for the Japanese room.

The manager instructed me to set up a bed.

But I asked for a futon.

The manager said you probably wanted a bed. Would you like another pillow or another blanket?

When I checked in, I specifically said, in Japanese, “please lay down a futon.”

Yes. I told the manager, but he instructed me to set up the bed.

May I please speak with the manager?

I’m sorry. He is away now and will return at eleven o’clock.

Could you please take away the bed and lay out a futon for me?

I will have to ask the manager. Would you like another pillow or another blanket?

No thank you. I do not need another pillow or blanket.

I understand. Please let me know if there is anything else I can help you with.

Please ask the manager to let you take away the bed and put out a futon for me.

Yes. I see. I’m sorry, but I will have to wait until the manager gets back. He will return at eleven o’clock.

Is a customer who takes a Japanese-style room allowed to sleep on a futon?

Yes. That is so.

I am a customer in a Japanese-style room. Please let me sleep on a futon.

But you are a foreigner and the manager said that for foreigners, beds are better.

If there is a foreigner customer who takes a Japanese room and that foreigner customer asks to sleep on a futon, is he allowed to sleep on a futon?

Yes. That is so.

I am a foreigner customer who took a Japanese room and am asking to sleep on a futon. Will you please lay out a futon?

Ah… Yes. Yes, I see. Yes. I will lay out a futon. Yes.

Okay, please do so.

Of course, sir. I will lay out the futon as soon as the manager returns. Until he returns, I have to stay at the front desk, since no other employees are on duty. He will return at eleven o’clock.

Okay. I will come back later.

Goodbye, sir.

I fell back in retreat. The McDonalds—a table midway between the chain-smoking elderly man, still sipping coffee, and some boisterous teenagers, only half of whom were smoking. I ordered a Bacon and Potato Pie from the same counter clerk. I was certainly embarrassed, and he may have been too, for all I know. His words were as polite as before, but his face was flat and emotionless.

The Bacon and Potato Pie had the same shape and nice packaging as the Apple Pie. It was perfect. I ordered another.

The teenagers left gradually and the smoke thinned. Eventually, it was just me and the elderly man. Finally, he too got up and left, pouring a little cold coffee into his ashtray, extinguishing the smoldering butt at the top of the mound. My watch said 22:59. Closing time.

Back at the front desk, the manager stood at stiff attention.

I humbly welcome you back, sir.

Thank you. Is my room ready now?

May I humbly ask that you condescend to wait just a few minutes longer while we humbly finish the preparations? Won’t you graciously sit down and relax?

Okay. Thanks.

(I sit and read my book. The clerk appears and confers with the manager.)

Sir, I take the liberty of humbly advising you that your room is now ready.

Thank you.

May I take the further liberty, sir, of wishing you a good night?

The folding cot had vanished. Laid out on the tatami was a futon covered by a fluffy duvet, both with a pattern of pretty flowers in blue and green. The duvet had been turned down. And just visible between the futon and tatami was a thick, soft-looking under-mat. Nearby, sat a stained wooden tray on which rested a lacquered thermos-type pitcher of cold water and an empty glass.

I got ready for bed and quickly fell into a deep slumber. Because I’d drunk the whole pitcher of water—owing to my earlier consumption of two deliciously salty Bacon and Potato Pies, not to mention the salty Big Mac and salty large fries—it was inevitable I’d need to visit the washroom in the middle of the night. But when I did so, I was not fully awake and a dream lingered on.

(The McDonald’s counter clerk, beaming, hands me a glistening, gargantuan bacon triple cheeseburger, without any wrapping. It vanishes from a silver platter. I am aware that I have eaten it.)

I humbly inform you, sir, that you have been awarded the Grand Prize.

That’s because I eat to win. Draw a big red circle around me. On the map of Japan.

(My pale blue futon is my magic carpet, hovering gently over a deep green forest. I sit bolt upright, dressed like Aladdin. An express train flies by. I lick my fingers, all greasy from my bacon triple cheeseburger, and then pick up my coke bottle. Cigarette smoke billows out and a giant hotel manager magnificently emerges, wearing a turban.)

I am deeply sorry to have kept you waiting so long, Master. May I be so bold as to take the further liberty of humbly requesting that you condescend…?

In the morning, I awoke, fully, to the fresh, astringent fragrance of tatami and to a triangle of warm sun streaming onto my body through the sliver between the curtains in the Western part of the room. I felt completely refreshed and that my night must have been filled with the most pleasant dreams of all kinds. As to the previous day’s struggles, my recollections were dominated by a self-satisfaction at having been able to resolve the futon issue so successfully.

After my usual morning routine and preparations for meeting with a local customer, I went to breakfast at the first-floor restaurant. From behind the front desk, a cheerful young woman called out good morning. The night staff was no longer on duty.

The restaurant was spacious and airy for a “business hotel”—meaning any hotel a salaryman might use for business travel on a limited budget but preferably not for a pleasant family vacation. I ordered the Western breakfast, suppressing all thoughts concerning healthy lifestyles. Soon, came strong coffee, followed by bacon and two scrambled eggs and, on the same plate, a good quantity of fried potatoes and a mix of broccoli and carrots that were not especially overcooked. On the side were a green salad and white bread toast with lots of real butter. A small bowl held colorful, rectangular peal-back packets of jam. I retrieved four, each a different type, and spread their contents on my toast.

I polished off everything, including a refill of fresh coffee. Then, after packing my suitcase and calling my office, I made my way to the front desk.

Good morning, sir. Will you be checking out?

Yes, please.

Certainly, sir. Just a moment, please… (Twelve seconds elapse.) I am very sorry to have kept you waiting. Here is your bill. I hope everything was to your satisfaction.

Is this amount correct? (It was the equivalent of 64 US dollars.) I stayed in the large-size washitsu, had the breakfast and made a long-distance call.

Yes, sir. I am sorry, but I do think the bill is correct. Is there any problem?

Not at all. I just wanted to check.

Thank you very much. Here is your change, sir. Please come again.

My meeting went splendidly. I returned to Tokyo bearing a big new order, triumphant, arranging to visit Hazureyama again two weeks later with Bjorn, one of our tech guys. He would deal with their tech guys; I would just make the introduction.

When the day came, Bjorn and I arrived early afternoon, but it seemed his meeting would spill over into the following morning. Before going onward, I recommended he take a washitsu at the Grand Hotel, especially as he gets a flat per diem for expenses. My courtesy calls at other regional clients went well and, after some sight-seeing over the weekend, I headed home.

On Monday, I asked Bjorn how he’d liked the Grand, but he’d stayed instead at the New Grand. The (old) Grand refused his reservation, saying they weren’t equipped for foreigners. Bjorn pressed them, even mentioning his colleague’s wonderful experience there.

The woman on the phone was profusely apologetic. She said the no-foreigner policy had been implemented only recently and was truly unfortunate. She paused before continuing. Just two weeks earlier, she said, there had been an “incident.”

About the Author

Mark Halpern has lived since 1993 in Tokyo, where he runs his own law firm. He was born in America, mostly grew up in Canada, and has spent long periods in the UK and France. In 2016, he began writing short stories about foreigners living in Japan. In life, Mark has done enough foolish things to be capable of granting his characters the same level of respect he grants myself. And, like some of them, in Japan he has found a way to be both an outsider and an insider.