Valentine’s Day is mostly underwhelming as a single person. Even if you’re not the sort of person to feel desperately lonely, the constant stream of pictures of your friends and their significant others is enough to make you feel a little ill — if only from irritation at the banality of it all. One of my colleagues, a friendly Indian with a PhD in Computer Science, updated his Facebook profile picture to a picture of him quite visibly standing alone and I found great amusement in this, perhaps unintentional, gesture of solidarity.

A few weeks prior to Valentine’s weekend, my friend Amy, a faithful reader and longtime confidant of the failures of my dating life, forwarded an Eventbrite listing of an event being held at the San Francisco Japan Center on the 13th of February. The event, called Machi-kon billed itself as a match-making event, “If you are looking for a romantic encounter before Valentine’s Day, come and meet that special someone at Japantown on February 13 in the afternoon.”

Outwardly similar to speed dating, machi-kon is modelled on similar events that are held in Japan to encourage interaction between single men and single women. In Japan, these events are subsidised by the government in an attempt to improve Japan’s low marriage and birth rate. Instead of going straight to a conversational date between two participants, in machi-kon events participants are encouraged to mingle freely and then have the opportunity to strengthen newly formed relationships via a puzzle solving game. At $30, it seemed like a fair price for a novel experience and so I signed up for the 2pm slot, the first of three slots they offered that each began on the hour.

On my way to San Francisco, I quickly came to a standstill in traffic, only to watch Google’s traffic estimate increase in time while I stayed stationary. A last minute lane switch and I made it to West Oakland BART and luckily found a parking space almost immediately. A short undersea tunnel across the Bay later and I found myself staring at another frozen time estimate, this time for a Lyft Line ride that was seemingly stuck just south of Market.

Running very close to the start time, I cancelled that Lyft, hailed an Uber and again watched as the time estimate increased from 4 minutes to 7. As I was waiting, a driver pulled up to me and asked me if I was Monty Wicks. It turns out his phone had disconnected and instead of taking cash payment, he just gave me a ride for free. Score.

Walking into Japan Center, I struggled to find the actual check-in for the event. The address provided in the invitation was just that of the mall itself. I asked an older gentleman sitting behind a table of jewelry if he knew, he shrugged and said “maybe it’s something to do with this” and pointed to a poster on the wall of his jewelry shop, one of the puzzle cards for the event that offered no clue (ironically) of where to actually register. Eventually I found another older Japanese gentleman walking around with a Machi-kon poster, he was happy to see me and guided me to an room devoid of furnishings via a corridor to the adminstrative offices of the mall.

The room contained two folding tables, a number of folding chairs and white walls. Queueing in between me and the first table were five men, and behind the table was a man and woman. All were apparently Japanese in ethnicity, a fact confirmed by their conversation in Japanese itself. It was hard to tell the age of the men in front of me but they mostly looked like late 20s onwards. One of these was bald and wearing a distinctive motorcycle jacket.

As I approached the man doing registration, he switched to English and politely asked me how I’d heard of the event. This, plus the distinct lack of other non Japanese participants was a warning signal of some sort and I made a mental note of the drink Amy would now have to buy me. Besides my nametag, which had a group number on it and two plastic “rings” which were apparently drink tokens, he gave me a sheet of paper entitled “Get to know each other BINGO”. The goal, the sheet explained, was to fill the sheet up by meeting people who fulfilled each of the criteria.

I like to think I’m good at making friends but even I wasn’t able to fill this sheet up.

I followed the green arrows painted on the ground up to the venue of the “mingling” session and contemplated the meaning of these simplistic and often amusing introductory facts. Would it be a sign of confidence if a man was to introduce himself with the confession that he was “weak in the morning”? Or would it be seen as endearing? Was eating “bread for breakfast” a proxy for how westernised a potential match was? And did having “a free pass for MUNI” suggest that you were perhaps less affluent?

The mingling session was hosted in the overflow area of a bar on the upper level of the mall, accessible only by yet another corridor that looked like it took you to an administrative area. In this bar I imagined only the most mysterious and unsavoury of ordinary patrons, being dimly lit and amusingly cramped due to its immensely impractical layout. The stools were actually very low to the ground, which meant that the ground had to be raised immediately underneath the stools, which made standing and ordering a drink simultaneously somewhat difficult as you towered over the bartender.

The bar.

As I walked into the bar, I couldn’t help but notice the staggering lack of women and it occurred to me that the organisers had, apparently unaware of the dramatic gender disparity in San Francisco, failed to ensure ratio parity. One woman sat in the corner, surrounded by four men. Six or so men stood awkwardly to her left and I hopped over both them and the inconveniently raised stool to order a sake martini with my first plastic ring.

Standing in the corner, texting my friend Sam about the hilarity of this situation, I was approached by a Japanese man in his late 30s, with visibly thinning hair and a gold chain with an emblem on it around his neck. He was friendly enough and we started talking about life, work, this event and, predictably, how I found myself at it. I asked about the business he mentioned he ran and he described how he exported pharmaceuticals that were available over the counter in the US but required a prescription in Japan. I had finally found one of the enterprising executives of those online drug stores that my spam folder is constantly learning about.

Almost every attendee who I spoke to there seemed to remark that I was “earning the big bucks”, as soon as I mentioned that I work in technology which led me to wonder how considerable the salary disparity must be. (I am very aware that I live in something of a bubble but I put that down to my remarkable good looks and incredible intellect.)

While talking to my new pharmaceutical dealer friend, a woman walked into the bar and registered with the greeter. As she placed her bag down at the bar, she looked around briefly before picking it back up with an expression of horror and walking straight back out.

Later, a group of four women came in. Their phalanx formation offered some protection against the onslaught of single, mostly Japanese men, and they didn’t immediately leave. They were soon joined by the woman who had walked earlier. The ratio had improved but by now another ten or so men had joined the bar, including a white guy who was apparently relieved at my presence.

The start was delayed long enough to ensure some female presence and eventually the organisers kicked off the event by herding us all towards a soapbox set up in one of the main open areas, also on the upper level of the mall. Instructing us was a short woman who spoke English with a curious Australian accent, accompanied by an eccentrically dressed man who spoke only in Japanese, had both ears pierced and wore what appeared to be a cat in the breast pocket of his jacket.

Explaining the event.

Our instructors spent a long time describing the rules of the event in Japanese before hurriedly giving us a few details in English too. We were split into six teams and the group of women was broken apart to ensure that no team was entirely male (and thereby nullifying the point of the event). In our group, there were three men (including me) and a single woman.

One of my teammates had travelled to San Francisco from Davis, apparently a two and a half hour drive, where he was a graduate student in Chemistry. Evidently the nerdiest of our group, he was in his prime solving the riddles the event organisers had posted on the walls of shops around the mall. Our first puzzle was posted on the wall of a fro-yo shop and was a series of numbers representing the position of characters in the alphabet.

Some of the clues. They were mostly straight translations from one alphabet coding to another.

Each clue gave us a phrase which we filled in on an answer sheet they provided, as well as providing us the location of the next clue. These five clues, plus a complementary sixth (which was the name of a Japanese matchmaker who had introduced herself to us earlier as “the sixth clue”), combined to form an anagram of a location in the mall which we needed to take a photo in front of.

While we ran around the mall, I found myself interacting mostly with my PhD student friend and less with the other two members of our group, in fact not actually speaking to our female colleague at all (in part because of her silence). A couple of the clues were incorrect which led to us unfortunately assuming we needed to take a photo in front of a beauty salon but with the help of one of the organisers, we eventually made our way to the castle to be photographed and to claim our prizes (vouchers to restaurants in the mall).

Having completed the puzzle hunt, it was now time to use up my second plastic ring and head up to the bar for more mingling. I took this opportunity to engorge myself on the buffet of food which I had abstained from earlier, nervous of the potential faux-pas that awaited me. Now, with the event almost over, I had nothing to lose. Besides embarassing myself by almost taking what apparently was a family size portion of a fried squid dish, I heartily enjoyed the tempura and matcha cheesecake that was available.

Fuck yeah, matcha.

Meanwhile, a younger man who was visibly uncomfortable in this sort of social setting introduced himself to me as “Bill”. It quickly turned out that Bill wasn’t Japanese but Chinese and had signed up for this event on a whim to “meet new people”. He remarked with a straight face that, having been working at PayPal for almost a year, it was easy for him to remember the names “Anand” and “Rajesh”, presumably because those are exceedingly common names there.

I overheard a man who had just arrived for the next session berating the greeter, “I came here to meet women! There are no women here! Why would you organise a matchmaking event with no women? I’m not here to meet men.”

The matcha cheesecake was excellent, as was my second cocktail, and I had successfully completed the event without interacting with a single woman. As I went to throw my plate in the recycling bin, I overheard a man who had just arrived for the next session berating the greeter, “I came here to meet women! There are no women here! Why would you organise a matchmaking event with no women? I’m not here to meet men.” I couldn’t help but chime in, “You might want to consider moving to another city?”, to which he replied, “Yeah and what about my job?”. There’s no winning, here.