Hostess clubs are everywhere in Japan. Usually made obvious in city centers by lit, washed-out signs depicting a menu of cocktail-dress-wrapped women who are, at least at the time of the sign’s printing, available to talk, flirt, pour drinks, or whatever it is they do inside, such institutions are as common there as Irish pubs are here.
You may or may not be surprised to learn that these clubs exist here in the west. They’re presented much differently, however: no neon signs invite pedestrians. Instead, they’re underground, guest-list-only affairs that are rarely spoken of openly but accessed via invitation and subtle black business cards handed to out-of-town Japanese businessmen at the end of long meetings.
The name alone: “Japanese Hostess Club” conjures something tawdry, perhaps even illegal, and definitely sinful. It suggests that more than just a drink and conversation can be had, and most westerners will go about their lives assuming that’s absolutely true because, for the most part, they don’t know where these underground clubs exist, or they can’t get in, or they don’t want to go because they liken it to visiting a brothel.
Would I find a world of perversion, prostitution and who knows what else? Would I be disappointed by an overpriced cocktail lounge? Or would I find something entirely different?
I asked a couple friends what they thought Japanese hostess clubs were. One simply asked, “Is that a sex thing?” As mysterious as their perception seems to be, they’re kept that way on purpose by their proprietors: quiet, underground and outside of radar range of the taxation board.
All of this, of course, meant that I had to get into one and see for myself. Would I find a world of perversion, prostitution and who knows what else? Would I be disappointed by an overpriced cocktail lounge? Or would I find something entirely different?
First step: find a club. I’d heard about their existence here in New York City from a Japanese friend, Jun, who said she worked at one when she first moved to the States. When I asked Jun about it for this story, she was reluctant to dish, explaining that hostess clubs in New York are generally illegal: They hire girls without work visas, paying them under the table, and cater to traveling Japanese businessmen who would rather keep things off the record.
She admitted that she still occasionally worked at the club on Friday nights for extra cash but quickly tried to talk me out of my desire to visit.
“It’s so expensive… You’ll enjoy it too much and get addicted… If you say something about them publicly they could get shut down… The girls don’t speak English…”
Which only made me want to know what happens at Japanese hostess clubs even more.
Jun ultimately agreed to get me in under three strict conditions: 1) That I would go with her as her “dohan”, or paid date, so she could both get me in and get a cut of whatever I spent, 2) that I would not mention to anyone inside that we’ve known each other for years, and 3) that I would not mention the name or location of said club in this article. I agreed and she set me up to be her first request the following Friday night.
The club was located in Midtown Manhattan on a street lined with high-end restaurants and doorman-guarded residences. As we climbed the stoop to the club’s entrance, I realized I’d walked down this same street dozens of times, never noticing the three doormen (bouncers?) and tiny black-and-white sign that simply stated the club’s name.
I expected a strip-club interior. Instead, I was greeted by a spotless chrome-and-leather lounge that looked more like a hotel bar than a place specializing in beautiful women and overpriced drinks.
Speaking of overpriced drinks, my table was already set; they were expecting me. On it was a bottle of Dewar’s, a bottle of Early Times, some ice, tumblers and a small pile of snacks spilled on a napkin. I was immediately informed that Jun had to change and would be right back. I was escorted to the table and by the time I looked over the real drink menu (the Dewars and Early Times are included in the $90/hour price, but who drinks Dewar’s and Early Times?), the manager brought over a young raven-haired girl who plopped down next to me with an effusive “Hello! I’m Riri!”
Turned out it was her first night there, and she didn’t speak much English. Was this a bait and switch? Was I being dropped the new girl now that Jun brought me in? Was this the beginning of a giant scam that was going to end with me at an ATM surrounded by bouncers?
My paranoia evaporated a moment later as Jun soon joined us in a tiny cocktail dress. She, not knowing Riri, introduced herself to her, too. A well-groomed, tuxedoed waiter soon arrived, complete with towel over forearm. After a brief, clearly business-like exchange with Jun in Japanese, she turned to me and asked if we could order some champagne.
“$190 per bottle, okay?” she whispered. I nodded. I was all in. I wanted the complete Japanese hostess club experience, and if overpriced champagne was the way to enlightenment, I would follow the path.
The women were acting as if I was the most interesting man they had ever met. They fixed my hair. They nestled in close, thigh to thigh, and patted my knee every few minutes as if to assure me that they were still paying attention. A guy could get used to this.
A few minutes later, Tuxedo returned with some Veuve Clicquot, flutes and silver ice bucket. The girls cheered when the cork was popped and we toasted in multiple languages. We offered a glass to Mr. Tux; he threw it back in one gulp, then left us to our own devices.
The champagne did its thing, and I was feeling pretty good. After all, I was bookended by two beautiful women, it was Friday, and I had drinks. Not only that, but both RiRi and Jun were acting as if I was the most interesting man they had ever met. Every joke was met with overcompensating laughter that I chose, probably because of the champagne, to believe was genuine. I mean, I was the funniest guy they ever met. I was fit, too. Really fit. I must exercise a lot. They fixed my hair. They nestled in close, thigh to thigh, and patted my knee every few minutes as if to assure me that they were still paying attention. A guy could get used to this.
Just as I was really starting to relax, however, the club manager came into view and motioned to RiRi. She stood up, bowed to me, and sauntered off.
“Switch time,” Jun said. Sure enough, a minute later, a tall blonde in a form-fitting gown slid in next to me.
“Hello, I’m Nikita,” she intoned with a strong Russian accent. She looked to Jun, exchanged some words in Japanese, giggled and settled in. I poured her a glass of champagne—the last of that first bottle.
“We need more champagne!” yelled Jun. She looked to me and asked, “Okay?”
“Sure!” We’re in this for the full experience, I told myself.
More $190 champagne arrived, more cheering was done by all, and Mr. Tux slammed another glass as his reward (like restaurants in Japan, there’s generally no tipping in Japanese hostess clubs). My ego was swollen. My head was spinning.
I like this, I thought, working out exactly what I was feeling. I was enjoying this, and not in a creepy way. I felt like what I imagined a moneyed gentleman felt in a wartime bar in, I don’t know, Paris, or Tokyo or something. Sure, I’m paying for their time, but if I was at a regular bar, I’d probably be competing for the attention of women, I’d still be buying them drinks, and I really dig having the attention of two women at once. It seems like they are genuinely enjoying their time with me, and I don’t need to worry about anything other than keeping up the smiles on their face. This isn’t weird! This isn’t weird at all! It’s not like I’m paying for sex or anything! This is just like talking to a bartender! Exactly like it!
Nikita turned out to be a fascinating woman. Educated in Moscow, lived in Tokyo for years where she worked the hostess club circuit in Roppongi, now in New York studying sociology. We talked Dostoevsky for a bit (I was finally reading Crime and Punishment), she asked if I had any single friends for her (I do, and I’m setting her up), and we shared iPhone pictures of our cats.
And then just like that, it was over. Tuxedo came over to let me know that my two hours was up. Jun told me I should probably close things out in a show of mercy for my wallet. My bill totaled about $700. I paid up and was escorted out, left alone in Midtown, dizzy from the booze and attention.
In a cab, my face mashed against the glass as I watched Manhattan shrink in the distance, I thought about Jun, RiRi and Nikita. None of them seemed bothered by what they do. In fact, they all came off as exceptionally happy people. I knew it was their job to appear so, of course, and I had to imagine that back-to-back nights of drinking can’t be good for you, but then again, neither is sitting at a desk for nine hours.
At the very least, I had demystified—at least for myself—the Japanese hostess club. It’s not a brothel. It’s not even anything terribly sexy. It’s somewhere between a really nice bar and therapy. Maybe sometimes we just need to feel like the only guy in the room. Maybe there’s something to this. Maybe that’s why it’s been a tradition in Japanese culture for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Maybe I need to go again and make sure. Maybe next week.
Final photo credit: Twenty20/denis_ti