Somewhere over the past five years I've developed an obessesion: smoking shisha. I had resolved that this taste for the tibial resulted from the group of happy Muslims that I surround myself with with their Muslim music and Muslimness and such (that's for you, Neha). But then I realized that Ishan, Alex, Cory and I were having emotional lounge sessions around the hookah when some of us were still 17 in Heights 315.
Assuming that our hookahs would not last long, we decided to name them after oppressed women in history. The first hookah was Helen Keller and she served us well for freshman year.
The summer following freshman year Ishan exposed me to the glory that is smoking shisha outdoors on Arab Street in Singapore. Generally, the coals they use make for an especially harsh smoke -- the sort of thing that will make you pull harder on other hookahs to compensate.
Sophomore Year saw the end of Harriet's life and we used a new hookah, Harriet Tubman, into Junior year.
Then, Junior year I headed off to merry old England sans hookah. This resulted in fantastic hookah sessions at Andalous, a bar on Edgeware road full of Muslims and stuff with Muslim music if your in to that sort of thing. Muslims.
Then, my reluctant return to those United States saw the bold purchase of my own hookah, whom I believe we named Rosa Parks. (Forgive our apparent subconscious association of disabled women with black civil rights figures. Our common thread was meant to be inspirational women.) Given Aman's sudden inexplicable love for granola and health, he spurned the new hookah. As did Ishan, who was preparing for a short-lived career on the Lakers. And Cory prefered to divide his time between the Mudd building and his room, with little variation in between. So, for better or worse, shisha became the physical manifestation of the mutual love between John Kester and Alex Pietroforte. The excitement when the triple head arrived; the freezer full of snow with which to fill the base; the knowledge that we would both always be up to smoke, papers and tests be damned. It was a beautiful, reliable, daily conversation. We also smoked Neha's hookah with Neha, Hande, and Rishi from time to time, but the superior hookah and tobacco of Rosa Parks ultimately meant we were more likely to smoke in my room.
To my knowledge, Japan -- the entire country(!) -- has but 3 hookah bars. 2 of them are in Tokyo. One is in Roppongi, the single worst neighborhood on earth and excuse this tangential retreat from shisha. Roppongi is not worst in the sense of danger (though it is one of the more dangerous areas of Tokyo if Tokyo can be said to have dangerous areas). No, Roppongi is bad for the reasons Sarah Palin is bad. For the reasons WWE is bad. For the reasons Texas is bad. Roppongi is a bastion of American tourists propagating all that is wrong with America. It is the legacy of a large American G.I. base that was in the area and the Western style clubs and bars that sprouted to accommodate their tastes. But what it has become is a place for gaijin to pick up a Japanese girl with no effort, and be the sort of rude, obnoxious, and loud people that get us hated on all those "Worst Tourists" lists. It is for that reason, in part, that I never have nor do I plan to go to the Roppongi shisha bar.
What I'm getting at here is that shisha is a social affair, and one entirely dependent on the environment in which you smoke. It would not be enjoyable to smoke shisha with the Roppongi crowd.
Shimokitazawa, or Shimokita as the cool kids call it, is the location of the second hookah bar in Tokyo. And, luckily, Shimokita also happens to be the anti-Roppongi. The pallete-cleanser you need after a night at Gas Panic surrounded by AmJacks (American Jackasses) and Roppongi-gyaru ("Roppongi girls" -- the slang term for Japanese girls who frequent Roppongi that essentially means, "slut for Western cock"). Where Roppongi is mostly one wide street and a giant intersection just off the metro, Shimokita is a maze of uniquely Japanese narrow streets that can only be reached on the Japanese Rail line. You have to work for Shimokita, and therein lies part of it's charm. For me, this means taking the Ginza line to Shibuya and changing to the Keio-Inokashira line.
Shimokita is the Grenwich Village of Tokyo, a sort of artist community full of hip-hop clothing, stores with Bob Marley playing and prominent marijuana leaf flags, and tiny bars that couldn't accomodate a moderate-sized group of friends. People make the mistake of saying there aren't many Westerners in Shimokita. There may be a great deal less than typical tourist areas like Roppongi, Shinjuku, and Shibuya, but the most important thing is the kinds of foreigners. Roppongi is full of the visitor crowd, and those who have little interest in the culture they're in. Shimokita is full of foreigners who make an effort to adapt and enjoy a prolonged time in Japan. Part of this may be due to what I said before: you have to work for Shimokita. I've been to Japan 4 times and I only learned of Shimokita 1 month into this most recent stay. By the time you've learned of Shimokita you've probably set down some roots in Japan, made friends, and even learned some Japanese. Such is the Shimokita filter that makes the neighborhood so great.
This whole post is inspired by an off-hand comment Kelly made yesterday while at the shisha bar in Shimokita, simply titled "Shisha," a simple name that betrays the simplicity inside, wood benches, a bar/cashier area no bigger than a refrigerator, shisha, and people. She said she loved the sort of people you meet there, and she's right. Yesterday I met Kelly, Michiyo, and Megan there, and we were seated across from an American; on the left was a Saudi Arabian guy who could pass for Japanese with his style and Japanese ability, and on our right a Japanese guy. The Saudi was fluent in English, Japanese, and, of course, Arabic and we learned a brief history of his time in Japan and abroad. But there's always someone with a story to tell in the huddled room of "Shisha" and that's why it's so great. Admittedly, the shisha itself is only okay; yet I want to go every weekend anyway.
So smoking shisha isn't only about the conversation between puffs with your friends. It's about the stories of people you haven't met too.