Where the Boys Are

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Michiko Toyama for TIME

A woman is entertained by a male host at Top Dandy in Tokyo.

Booming techno music and ear-splitting roars from the crowd fill the air, amid shrieks of laughter and occasional calls of "Ikki! Ikki!" (Chug it! Chug it!). The '80s-disco decor and the manic enthusiasm of the crowd at Top Dandy, one of the most popular host clubs in Kabukicho, could make you wonder whether Japan's bubble ever really burst. The clients are entertained by 50 hosts, most sporting an identical Rod Stewart-inspired hairdo. "Quite slow today," says Nobutora, No. 1 host at Top Dandy, the best-looking guy on their 'otoko' menu of male hosts. In less than an hour, there have been three "champagne calls" (when a customer buys a bottle of champagne, hosts gather around the table and cheer in the club's signature performance) and one 200-glass champagne tower to celebrated the birthday of a host. Such hedonism might not be all that surprising at a successful club in what remains a fabulously wealthy city, except for one thing — it's 8 a.m. on a rainy weekday.

The host club is a uniquely Japanese institution, catering to women seeking to drink with attentive and attractive but unthreatening men. Hosts constantly clean up the table, make drinks and refill glasses, light cigarettes and pamper clients. It's an inversion of the traditional ginza hostess venue, i.e. a gentleman's club without striptease or lap dancing. And it's not cheap. A bottle of '60s-vintage Dom Perignon goes for $10,000, and a few hours of non-sexual entertainment costs some of the more addicted customers as much as $100,000 a month.

Mindful of the importance of maintaining the customers' favor in order to drive up their own rating in the club, many hosts will maintain the relationship outside of working hours, phoning and e-mailing their customers, and taking them out to dinners and karaoke where, like old-fashioned men, they usually pay for everything. Kyotaro, No. 2 at Top Dandy and one of the 20 finalists in the upcoming 2007 All Japan Host Grand Prix, says that the first thing he does upon waking each day is call and e-mail customers. The 24-year-old host, who earns $300,000 a year, goes out with customers almost every day, and schedules five dates every Sunday. Kyotaro says the key to success as a host is "how much time you can spend as a host outside of the club, which is the real working field. The club is just the place to see the result of your effort."

Top Dandy director Semukichi Okubo says 80% of the club's clientele is made up of well-off night workers such as hostesses and women in the sex industry, but there are also CEOs, wealthy homemakers, writers, artists, professionals and celebrities. Men often come as well. "Ginza hostesses sometimes bring their customers to pay their bills, and they are happy doing that because hosts are very good at flattering them, which makes them look really good in front of the girls," smiles Okubo.

The host clubs previously opened from around 1 a.m. to 7 a.m., but Tokyo authorities have begun to enforce a long-ignored 1984 law preventing host clubs from operating in those hours. Clubs have had to adapt by opening open only from dawn to noon, or between 7 p.m. and 1 a.m. — or both — making life more difficult for clients and hosts.

Masaki, 21, a good-looking but not yet successful host, laments the change. "The whole of Kabukicho has been affected. No rich people are walking in the area, and our customers got younger." Another host, 23-year-old Ren, agrees. "I have been in the business for five years, but this change is a real shock. I could meet all kinds of people, great for my networking for the future, but customers got younger and staff got younger as well, and it is boring."

One of Nobutora's customers, a 31-year-old nailist from Shizuoka named Yukari, had no sleep the previous night, having caught the first train in to Tokyo at 3 a.m. The average $3,000 she spends on a visit is almost her entire monthly income, most of it spent on good wine for Nobutora, and a reasonable bottle of shochu for the young hosts who keep her company while Nobutora services other tables. Yukari has broken her own rule of coming to the club only once a month — this is already her third visit this month. And meeting Nobutora, she says, made worthwhile the grueling regimen of waking at 1 a.m. to get herself ready for the 3 a.m. train.

"I just want to meet Nobutora to talk, being healed, receiving courage and power for life from him, which makes me feel that I can work harder," she says. "When I look at Nobutora working hard, that makes me feel that I should try harder. I feel safe with him. He is the kind of guy to protect me. He listens to me and he opens up and talks to me. If I have a problem and I cannot tell other people, I can talk to Nobutora about it."

In a country where therapy is hardly common and men are not known to be good listeners to the problems of their girlfriends and wives, it may be more than simply entertainment that brings clients to a host club at the crack of dawn.