Tokyo can be a strange city to many. Everything from language to customs to mindsets may be construed as strange by uninitiated travelers to the Japanese capital. Some might even go a step further and call the city bizarre. I can attest to that feeling - being at Shibuya Station at 1am in the morning for example, feels like a world apart from the bustling hotspot it was just hours ago. After the crowds have dispersed in the wee ungodly hours, Tokyo feels haunted. From the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 to the heavy shelling of world war 2 by America, Tokyo has witnessed numerous catastrophic episodes that have resulted in innumerable violent deaths all around the city.
Rumours of hauntings are therefore rife.
In 2017 I was once again in Tokyo for an advertisement shoot with a client. Presented with a perfect chance to linger on in the city, I have opted to review a landmark hotel that has just reopened after years of extensive renovations. Raised in a location that isn’t exactly central, this hotel is nonetheless stupendously positioned. A squarish skyscraper that somehow reminds me of Orthanc in Peter Jackson’s The Two Tower, the hotel is appointed with unblocked, stunning vistas of Tokyo on all sides of its interior. A flagship of a local chain that has been losing grounds to international brands for a decade and more, this revamped property made all the right statements, from its modern swishy ID to its modish eclectic dining outlets.
In typical Japanese-run fashion, this editor from Singapore wasn’t holed up in one of the hotel’s swankier suites. The close to entry-category room that I had inhabited was long and narrow, with a nice bathroom and a good view of downtown Tokyo. However, one cannot help but feel a sense of melancholy and desolation when one enters its confines. There was also a chill undetected by the thermostat; even when tuned to a balmy 27 dc, the air still felt positively glacial.
In case you are expecting a melodramatic episode involving something Sadako~esque, nothing crawled out of the TV that night. I didn’t even turn on the TV because it was always invariably some fat transvestite talk show host filling the box with jokes about body parts or some unattractive looking comedians from Osaka making fun of politicians gaijins like me wouldn’t know anything about. It was a most nondescript evening, one where I was quite ready to turn in before midnight.
At around 1130pm, a peculiar thing happened. An old-school style clock by the bedside, part of the room inventory, started to ring. This was one of those incessantly loud, fire alarm sort of ringing that I have not heard since the 80s. I walked over to the bed, picked up the clock and readjusted the timing to 8am, since I did not want to miss breakfast the next morning before my departure.
Returning to the work desk, I resumed my online reading on my laptop. Most bizarrely, barely 15 minutes later, my concentration was again broken by the shrill ring of the alarm clock, which was technically impossible since it wasn’t supposed to until 8 hours later. I walked over to switch it off, and called the front desk about this faulty nuisance. The staff attending to my call apologised for the inconvenience with all the gravity he could muster and promised to send someone over to check on the clock.
In typical Japanese precision, the doorbell rang and a very smartly dressed lad looking no older than 30 introduced himself as Satoshi from housekeeping. He wanted to know how he could help. I told him about the clock, and he took a look at it and asked if he could take it with him for an inspection.
30 minutes passed and the same staff was at my door again. He was beaming with pride as he communicated that he and his team had inspected the alarm clock and had fixed whatever was wrong with it. Being indisposed to distrust such earnestness, I received the same clock from him, bade him goodnight and set it back on the night console.
‘Dekiagari! Now time to wash up and sleep.’
The unique design of the bathroom was indeed novel but given that this was the deep of the Japanese winter and the room had remained frosty despite the heater, I was really looking forward to just a simple hot shower.
In the midst of my comforting shower, an unpleasant intrusion ended my thermal bliss. It was the fucking alarm clock again. If ever it is possible for someone to experience a chill while awashed with steamy hot water, that was the moment. I stepped out of the shower hurriedly into the room and stared in disbelief at the alarm clock. The alarm was still set at 8am but it was wailing away like a banshee some 7 hours earlier.
This time I didn’t switch it off. I called the front office again and summoned the housekeeping lad. This time he appeared in under 4 minutes. While we were both staring at the ringing alarm clock by the bed, this he told me.
‘Tan Sama, I am very sorry this is happening. I think it is best I find you another clock. And I hope that one will not ring as well.’
‘What do you mean as well?’
The lad made no attempt to answer and quickly picked up the clock and bowed his way out of my room. To me, his reaction at this point was more alarming than the alarm clock.
No replacement clock came that evening and to be honest I wasn’t keen to have another one in the room as well. The following afternoon right before I checked out, the PR executive of the hotel visited me in the room with the director of housekeeping bearing a gift, a box of traditional candy made by the hotel’s own confectionery shop. The director of housekeeping began to speak in Japanese, which was then translated by the PR lady.
‘We are so very sorry to hear about your unpleasant evening last night with the alarm clock. We hope you can accept our apology and this gift.’ she told me.
‘Don’t worry about it. But what actually happened to the clock and the housekeeping lad?’ I queried.
‘I am not sure honestly.’ she replied. ‘It is most unfortunate that you did not receive a replacement clock.’ Her voice began to quiver at this point.
‘What happened?’ I pushed on.
‘Well, right after Satoshi San left your room to get you another clock, we couldn’t locate him for a while. It was only after around an hour that someone found him lying on the floor in the service area. I think it was a heart attack. It was a most unfortunate incident, we beg for your understanding that in light of his heart attack, he could not deliver you a new clock.’
I was so shocked by what I heard that I couldn’t respond for a full minute. A staff member had dropped from a heart attack and their main concern was that I did not get a new clock!
I insisted they kept me updated with Satoshi San’s situation and hurriedly left for the airport. When I arrived in Singapore that very night, I received an email from the PR lady informing me that Satoshi had survived his cardiac episode, but wasn’t well enough yet for them to get the full picture.
I replied to that email with thanks and due diplomacy but what I had really wanted to know was whatever happened to that alarm clock Satoshi took with him.