In Osaka on Saturday night, we ventured out for a few drinks near our hostel in the Namba area, which is all neon lights and noise. There were lots of girls hanging around on the streets, who were rather clearly ladies of the night - no major surprise there. While waiting for the fourth member of our group just down from the Namba train station - we were three girls, a little bit dressed up to go out - slight paranoia set in about the amount of businessmen in suits slowing their walk to have a look. We legged it before they could inquire about prices. With hundreds of bars, murky looking alleyways, dodgy gentlemen's clubs (don't worry Mother, it all feels pretty safe), you get the feeling that Osaka is a little bit like the Vegas of Japan.
It wasn't the girls looking for business that surprised us, but the boys. It takes a while to notice them, I guess if you're not expecting it, but then they're all over the place. Strange blonde cockatiel hair, whitened skin, light contact lenses and sharp suits started popping up everywhere we looked. Mostly outside bars but some just on the street too, cards and flyers in hand.
We went to a salsa bar - très traditional I know - so there weren't any in there, but on our way home we spotted one outside a bar on his own. He wandered off when he saw there wasn't any interest from our group but then a bar owner happened to come out of the one next door and started chatting to us as we passed. He was from Ghana but had lived in Japan for twenty years so we asked him about it.
Apparently the guy we saw worked for a host bar next door, so his job was to lure in the ladies. Typically it is rich businesswomen who go, especially in Tokyo - those who are career-focused and don't have time to hold down a relationship. They aren't necessarily sad, lonely cat ladies with nobody to love them; Mr. Ghana attests to seeing some "sexy sexy" women frequenting next door. They go to be with someone to talk to, flatter them, laugh at their jokes and light their cigarettes. In certain cases, more can be negotiated for the right price.
The hosts themselves try to get the women to spend as much as possible on booze. The drink prices are pretty high - a few hundred euro for a bottle of wine - and it's not rare for women to spend an entire month's salary in a night. The most successful hosts are the ones who get their guests to rack up the highest bill for their bar. If they charm a lady enough, she may request only his company again and he becomes her designated host or shimeisha (thanks Google). Apparently in Tokyo alone the host industry is worth 300 million pounds a year.
The unfortunate bottom-of-the-ladder hosts don't have the most glamorous working nights - they could be assigned to cleaning the toilets or taking to the streets to bring in women, like the chaps we had seen everywhere. The hosts are also required to keep up, booze-wise, with their ladies so the job is a daily routine of working, drinking and standing on the street all night, every night. A bit like being a student, but a lot less fun.
Mr. Ghana was quite the fountain of information on the subject. He seemed to find it all rather entertaining. And to top it all off, he seemed to be suggesting that, if it should so interest us ladies, working in a hostess bar can quite lucrative. At least there's a back up if the English teaching doesn't work out.