I wake up and the room is pitch black. I fumble for the button to open the blinds. I find my phone and the time reads 5am. But it's my first day in Tokyo and I'm not going to waste a minute in bed. I arrived last night after a 12-hour flight. My husband is shooting a show and my daughter and I decided to tag along.
Since I was a kid I've always loved everything Japan. I’m passionate about the food. I've been collecting Japanese toys for years and I have an affection for cosplay that has led to misunderstanding and mockery. I used to manage a Japanese restaurant, where I met some amazing Japanese guys who taught me some very bad Japanese words.
We are staying at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Shinjuku because I love the movie Lost in Translation and my husband has decided to indulge me. He warns me the jet lag is going to be a bitch, but screw that. I order six cappuccinos and at 6am sharp I'm on the 47th floor checking in at the gym. The one where Bill Murray couldn't figure out how to operate an elliptical machine.
Everyone is working out in the same beige outfit. I'm wearing my standard rash guard and fight shorts. I'm aware that at the pool my tattoos aren't welcome (my husband will later be required to cover his upper body); the Japanese generally prohibit tattoos at hotel pools, public baths, steam rooms, and onsen (hot springs) as a diplomatic way of saying, “No Yakuza Welcome.” But here at the gym I seem to be okay. I jump on the treadmill and run for five miles, enjoying the view of Tokyo waking up.
Our first mission is a trip to a store in Shibuya; MapQuest is telling me it's fairly close and easy to reach. In the hotel lobby I tell one of the porters our destination. He calls us a taxi and proceeds talking to the driver for what seems to be a good five minutes. I'm a little worried: Where the hell is he going to take us? My husband explains to me that in Tokyo, there's no such a thing as an address as we generally think of it. Many streets don't even have a name. If you want to go somewhere you have to give specific directions.
My husband introduces me to one of Japan's greatest delicacies: Lawson's red chicken nuggets. Lawson is a convenience store much like 7-Eleven. They sell an incongruous combination of snack foods and light porn. But their fried chicken and their egg salad sandwiches are truly special. I'm usually a pain in the ass about food, always reading the ingredients list, making sure there's no sugar or preservatives, but it's clear after the first nugget bite that I'm just going to throw the diet out the window and go full YOLO for the rest of the trip. There are just too many interesting snacks to try, and the ingredients are all in Japanese so I'm fucked anyway. And if I get sick, so what? You can never spend too much time on a warm and comfy fully automated Japanese toilet.
The second day I wake up with an incredible itch to train BJJ. I know I'm not supposed to. I tore my shoulder a few weeks ago while getting pounded like a veal cutlet by an 18-year-old opponent at a European No-Gi tournament. I was supposed to have surgery, but I insisted on trying less invasive methods that wouldn’t keep me out of the gym for six months first. Though my doctor has made clear that it will doom any plans I might have had to ever pitch relief for the New York Yankees, I just can’t stay out of the gym. I had a platelet-rich plasma injection before leaving and I promised the doctor I’d avoid putting unnecessary strain on my shoulder for two weeks. Of course, I lied.
Renzo Gracie told me the name of a great school with a great teacher; it can’t hurt if I just go say hi, right?
I get to Axis Jiu-Jitsu right before their 10am class. Axis was founded by professor Takamasa Watanabe; he's a Rickson Gracie black belt. He started studying jiu-jitsu in Brazil when he was 13 years old. He then moved to Japan in 1992 to attend university and thought he could continue practicing jiu-jitsu there; after all, Japan is where jiu-jitsu originated. To his disappointment he couldn't find the kind of jiu-jitsu he learned in Brazi, so he decided to start teaching himself, mostly to a few friends and acquaintances. The group grew bigger and bigger and eventually he opened his own academy in 1997. At the time it was called Gracie Japan. In 2000 the academy moved to a bigger facility and was renamed Axis.
I am welcomed by one of their black belts, I tell him I'm just there to watch, but he gives me a brochure with schedule and fees in case I decide to come back and train. I notice that women pay less then men. When I ask him why, he tells me that Japan is so safe women don't feel the need to learn self-defense, so they are giving them an incentive to try.
To my surprise quite a few Americans show up for the class. Most are from Yakota Air Base, a US Air Force base in Fussa, Western Tokyo. They have a BJJ academy there affiliated with Axis. Professor Watanabe is teaching the class in both Japanese and English. I immediately regret not bringing my gi.
I leave the school and walk to Meidaemae subway station, where I try to figure out how to get back to Shinjuku. I pretty much jump on a random train paying the wrong fare, but thanks to my phone navigator at least I know I'm headed in the right direction.
The following day husband decides to take us to buy plastic food: replica food that restaurants put in their window to attract customers. We head to Kappa-Bashi, the restaurant supply district. My husband's show’s slogan is "Get hungry, get curious, get lost." “Lost” is right. He says he knows exactly where we are going, but he's clearly lying. Eventually I'm the one who finds the store he was looking for, and I'm the one who finds a decent place to eat after walking for hours in a nearly deserted district. We have sukiyaki: thinly sliced beef and vegetables cooked at the table and dipped in raw beaten egg. Delicious. I guess getting lost was not such a bad plan.
At night I go out for shabu-shabu with my daughter. Nobody speaks English at the restaurant but at least they have pictures of meat. So I just point to the biggest plate and end up eating like a Don. So far, every single piece of meat I've had in Japan, even the cheapest, has been the most juicy, flavorful tender beef I've ever eaten.
Next mission is buying toys. We head to Nakano Broadway. It's a shopping mall filled with stores mostly dedicated to anime and manga characters. In Japan there's a name for people obsessed with such things: Otaku. It definitely applies to me, but even husband is tempted by the figurines of his childhood heroes and buys an array of large, ugly monsters whose names he’s frighteningly familiar with.
I'm particularly tempted by the Hentai section, because yes, I'm a big pervert and no one does perversion better than the Japanese. But I'm with my daughter, and “What’s that octopus doing with his tentacle, Mommy?” is not a question I want to find myself dealing with. The “Why are all the schoolgirls showing their undies in the ads?” question is something I’ve already had to dodge.
The Japanese male’s seeming obsessions with frottage, underage girls, and tentacle porn aside, I'm loving everything about Japan: It's clean, safe, and extremely efficient, but with a quirky, kinky, and sometimes depraved current running just beneath the surface. I love the food. I love the vending machines selling all the kinds of hot and cold mysterious drinks. I love the toilets, with their soft, warm seats and their oscillating water streams that leave your butt fresh and clean after every use.
Way too soon our last day in Tokyo arrives, and I dread leaving. I need at least another month. There is just so much to do, so much to explore. I don't know when I'll be back, and I know that if I don't train at least once I will regret it. Ignoring what my doctor may or may not have advised, I grab my gi, my belt, and a shoulder brace. I'm quickly on the subway and on my way to the academy.
The class is packed. I'm sitting in a corner stretching and everyone comes up to me and shakes my hand and introduces themselves. It doesn't matter where I am in the world; the BJJ community is always welcoming.
Professor Taka explains the techniques in English, Japanese, and to some students in Portuguese; it's pretty amazing how he can do this so effortlessly. When it's time for live training I know I should sit on the sideline, but I'm having too much fun. At the end of the class the guys invite me to a post-training Brazilian lunch in Shibuya, but I have to go back and pack. We're leaving in a few hours and as much as I'd love to go I say my goodbyes.
Before taking a taxi to the airport in the middle of the night, I make one last stop at Lawson to stockpile a stash of those unnaturally fluffy, always fresh, room-temperature egg salad sandwiches and some of those spicy, glowing-red fried chicken balls. We are going to be on a plane for 12 hours and I want to be able to taste Japan a little longer.
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