When Intimacy Keeps Its Clothes On in Japan

When they found themselves in a country with no PDA, this young couple was forced to find closeness elsewhere.

My bruised feet throbbed and my mind raced as my boyfriend and I searched for a taste of Osaka’s famous octopus balls on the final night of a five-year anniversary trip to Japan. 

We finally found some and my boyfriend, Bosch, was the first to try the fried, doughy delicacy filled with fresh octopus. I whipped out my phone to document the experience, but he didn’t wait long enough for them to cool, so the video was 10 seconds of him mouth-breathing while his eyes watered in pain. 

We laughed for the first time all night. Maybe even in days. We felt like our old selves again. The weight that I’d been carrying like an overstuffed backpack the whole trip became just slightly lighter. But I still needed that video for my Instagram.

“Do you want to take a video of me trying mine?” I asked, desperate to keep the mood up.

“Not really,” he responded.

“Well fine, okay.”

“Do you want me to take one of you, Babe?”

“Of course I do, that’s why I asked.”

“You asked if I wanted to take a video of you.”

“Yeah, and you obviously don’t want to, so I’m not going to make you.”

It was an argument only the grumpiest of people could have. Bosch ended the argument by hitting the record button on the camera despite my protests, creating a short video that would soon tell me so much. 

A week prior, on the first night of the trip, we were giddy as we found a soba noodle joint for dinner in the Tokyo neighborhood near our hotel. We nervously peeked our head in and a woman pointed us to a table with a view into the bustling kitchen where chefs hastily prepared food and kind waitresses left you alone until you needed them. 

Looking around at the people and pointing out the enticing dishes flying past us, we buzzed with expectation and never once stopped smiling. We discussed all the things we wanted to do on our week-long trip to our first Asian country. My feet sitting in my cheap Target sneakers had the first tingle of pain, but my heart swelled. 

Next to us on the community-style table was a couple in their 30’s. The waitress served them their tea and, with smiles on their faces, they held up their cups to each other for a simple, silent cheers.

The next morning, when jet lag had us up at 5:30AM, we wandered the eerily silent residential streets of Tokyo. We watched an elderly man carrying a briefcase leaving his home. His wife, dressed in house clothes, stood outside the door and gave him a quick bow good-bye. 

Later that day, we walked hand-in-hand through the supercharged streets of Tokyo. I was overwhelmed with the excitement of where we were and the love I felt for Bosch, so I planted a quick kiss on his cheek. The staring eyes of the locals consumed us and it dawned on me that I hadn’t seen a single couple holding hands or sharing a kiss in the time we’d been there. Not the young couple in the soba noodle restaurant, the elderly couple saying goodbye in the morning, nor any of the thousands of people we’d passed on the overflowing city streets.

I immediately Googled “PDA in Japan” and learned public displays of affection are unwelcome in the modest and polite country. Even innocent hand holding and a sweet peck is considered rude. Suddenly, the decision to visit Japan for a romantic anniversary trip seemed downright ridiculous. 

My dreams of a blissed-out vacation full of intimate nights in romantic Japanese hotels and longing looks over steaming bowls of ramen were gone as fast as a famously punctual Tokyo metro train. I should have known the moment we got to our first hotel; we found two simple twin beds where a plushy king-size was supposed to be. 

The four years of long distance at the beginning of our relationship were torture for me. Not being able to hold my love any time I wanted left me feeling desperately lonely, but now that we lived together, we were used to having our hands on each other at all times. 

When we’re lounging on the couch watching TV, my legs are draped across him. When we’re getting settled into bed, his arms surround me. Hugging goodbye in the morning is painful every single time.

We wanted to respect the local sentiment, so we refrained from PDA, but the lack of touch made me feel like I was traveling with an acquaintance. Without touch, what made us different than two buddies going on a trip together? 

Oh, how I was craving intimacy in a place so clean and polite. It seemed that Bosch was having the time of his life and I didn’t want to bum him out by telling him how I was feeling. Now with a lack of honest communication in addition to the lack of physical touch, he felt further away with each day. 

Despite its unwillingness to show affection, I truly did love the country. The politeness that kept the Japanese at least a foot apart on the subway also compelled them to help lost tourists like us. 

We only saw one piece of litter on the streets, as the entire country is impeccably clean. Their attention to detail soothed my constant need for clear communication down to the ridiculously high-tech toilets that provided every possible need for comfort. 

The anxiety I feel so often back in Texas that keeps my heart racing and legs tapping was nowhere to be found in this oasis of practicality and efficiency. 

A brief break from the energy of Tokyo came during a cruise on the magnificent Lake Ashi, a body of water so dark blue it looked black. I felt the invigorating bite of wind take my negative thoughts up to the mountains, leaving just my sweet, smiling boyfriend anchored right next to me. 

I could breathe again and I remembered why I had agreed to visit this beautiful country. Without a single touch, I felt a connection rekindle between us, as if the experience itself was enough to bridge the physical space. My feet didn’t even hurt. In fact, I could barely feel them at all.

The week progressed and our tour took us to Kyoto and Osaka, yet my nagging loneliness returned. Each evening, I soaked my pounding feet in the tub before Bosch and I laid down in our separate beds. 

A part of me wanted to spend more time in the hotel cuddling in bed — just one bed — eating strange Japanese candies and snacks and laughing at the bizarre commercials. But the other part didn’t want to waste a minute in the country we flew across the world to see.

As we traveled to Kyoto, the elderly couple bowing goodbye before work and the younger couple content to just be near each other with their tea and soba noodles stuck with me. 

During one of our jaunts into a local mall, we found an arcade bustling with excited teenagers. At one of the games sat a boy furiously battling an enemy on a high-tech white machine. A girl his age sat next to him. She was looking at her phone. They’d been there a while and they both seemed fine with that. 

“I want to go out and explore the real city,” I requested for our one night in Osaka, the last night of our trip, the one with the octopus balls. 

“This is the city,” Bosch protested, pointing to the bustling train station and mall combo that was below our hotel. 

I wanted to argue, but my feet hurt and he was hungry. The euphoria of the lake cruise was most likely floating near the 5th station of Mt. Fuji at that moment, forsaking me in the fluorescent mall light while I argued with Bosch over the octopus balls. 

I hated that I felt this way. I hated that I was letting my disappointment ruin the last night of our once-in-a-lifetime adventure. I hated that I wore such uncomfortable shoes. And I hated that I wasn’t able to let go of my arbitrary expectations of the trip and enjoy it for what it was. 

The next day, we packed our bags to head to the airport, and I watched the video he’d taken the night before during the octopus ball fiasco. 

With a fake smile amid glistening tears, I calmly ask him to stop filming while I look at him with a mixture of seething contempt and heartbreak. He continues filming, hoping I’ll flip a switch and go into Guy Fieri-style commentary about the “off-the-hook” foods down here in “Flavortown.”

It was his own desperate attempt to keep the mood up. I stay angry, and the video cuts off.

At the airport later that day, an older Russian couple was on our connecting flight to Beijing. While waiting for security, we got to talking and I learned they had left their homeland with their children in 1979 for a new life in New York City. 

“Why did you leave Russia?” I asked. 

“Oh, it was very bad there then,” the husband replied with no further explanation. I didn’t pry. Instead, I observed. As they snaked through the roped-off lanes, I thought about how much they’d gone through together and how deeply they must love each other. 

You couldn’t see it in displays of affection, of course. Like the Japanese, they too kept a good distance from one another. No, it was in the way their eyes lit up when they talked about New York City and their grandchildren. It was in the quiet Russian conversation that passed under their breath. It was even in the near-constant bickering I witnessed as they tried to maneuver their way through customs. 

I couldn’t understand the conversation, but I imagined it was no different than the ones that passed between me and Bosch.

“Do you want to carry my bags for me?” she might ask.

“Not really,” he would say.

“Well fine, okay,” she would reply.

“Do you want me to carry your bags, Babe?” he would ask, rolling his eyes.

by Brookeblantonleith

Brooke Blanton Leith is a writer and editor from San Antonio, Texas on a search to consume as much cathartic and transformative content as possible during her short time on this earth. When she’s not creating, she can be found nose down in a novel or catching the latest feature presentation. Brooke is a member of the San Antonio Public Library Foundation and San Antonio Writers’ Guild, and volunteers as a Reading Buddy for San Antonio Youth Literacy.