Shutting down my workstation at 7:00pm sharp, I bolted out of the office and pedaled as hard as I could past Nijo Castle and towards the JR station. It was Friday April 27th, and I had plans to catch the earliest possible bullet train to Tokyo. Yet again.
Less than 24 hours earlier, I’d received a call on my cellphone. It was from Felicia, a very close family friend who I knew would be stopping in Tokyo on her way to a business trip in India. “Justy! Can you come to Tokyo after work tomorrow?? I’ll cover the train ticket, just get here as early as you can!”
The timing seemed perfect – it was the first day of Golden Week, a series of consecutive holidays which would let me stay away for twice as long as any other weekend. And as this would be Felicia’s first trip to Japan, I was excited to show her around and help translate – as well as have a little reunion with Eli and JingJing, two of my buddies who I met over the New Year Vacation.
…Or at least it would have been perfect timing had I not just made special arrangements to work through Monday’s holiday. One of my main inspirations prompting the move back to Asia was the dream of travel to new foreign countries; but with only 10 vacation days per year, zero sick days, no time back for weekday overtime, and 1/2 time back for weekend overtime, this has so far proven impossible. Working through holidays therefore seems like the only reasonable way to accumulate time off and enable myself to go overseas for a worthwhile-length trip.
(Note: Although 10 days is pretty low in comparison to most of Europe’s month or more of annual holiday, it’s not even that bad for this crazy country. A friend of mine at Kiyocera got a total of ZERO vacation days during her entire first year, not to mention the fact that she was working 7am to 10pm or later every day. Man, way to enforce those labor laws and prioritize keeping your citizens happy, Japan! 😡 )
Thankfully, despite my special arrangement I was able to back out at the last minute and extend my stay in Tokyo one extra day. As always, it was well worth it. From the moment I arrived I was awed by Felicia’s room on the 40th floor of the Shibuya Cerulean Tower Hotel; the enormous window revealed a view clear to Mt Fuji, and the famed Shibuya Crossing was a mere 2 minutes’ walk from her front door. I felt like I’d been suddenly transplanted into in a scene of Lost in Translation. Let’s hear it for all-expense paid business trips!
Within 5 minutes of my arrival the two of us suited up and headed out into the city, kicking it off with dinner & drinks at the wacky Lockup theme-restaurant followed by an all-you-can-drink party at Ruby Room. Ruby Room was the first venue opened by Matt Naiman, the successful entrepreneur behind the now-booming Club Pure nightclub chain. And wouldn’t you know it, of all his various establishments throughout Japan, Matt was there that very evening!
The next morning we peeled ourselves out of bed and headed downstairs for a hard day at work. Which of course meant hours and hours of shopping – Felicia is a very successful fashion designer, and although most of her collegues travel to Paris and London for new ideas and inspiration she decided to take a chance in the strange and foreign Land of the Rising Sun.
Now, ordinarily I enjoy clothes shopping about as much as I enjoy getting a root canal…but this particular day actually turned out to be very, very interesting. The Japanese are literally obsessed with fashion, yet it’s an aspect of their culture that I knew virtually nothing about. Until I was given the opportunity to view it through the eyes of someone who creates fashion for a living.
A few interesting observations:
1) Most people know that the Japanese have a very unique sense of style (a common answer to the question “Can you tell the different Asian ethnicities apart?” is “I can always tell who’s Japanese from their weird clothes and hair”). But knowing very little about fashion myself, I never quite put my finger on exactly why. Felicia saw it in a heartbeat.
Contrary to the US, where women strive to look older and more mature, girls in Japan seem to do the exact opposite: they wear dresses that are “cute,” that are covered with bowties and hearts, that sport Disney characters or frilly sleeves; anything to make them look more young and innocent. I suppose this goes hand-in-hand with their comparatively young-looking faces, high and giggly voices, and overall “childlike innocence” culture…but I was just shocked at how obvious it is once I had it pointed out. Literally 90% of the outfits we saw had bows on them – Felicia just couldn’t stop pointing out “I can’t believe it – look, they even managed to get a bow into this one!!”
2) Fashion imported from abroad also tends to be very specific to Japanese bodies. Time and time again I found myself hearing “This could never sell in the US; it’s cute, but it would make the average American female look too overweight by hanging off their chest and making even a small midsection look big. I don’t think I could do anything to make this dress fit an American.”
I guess that makes sense though – you’ve got to design for the bodytype you’re selling to.
3) The shopping culture in Japan is very different from in the US – sometimes intelligently, sometimes retardedly. I offer an example of each.
Smart: Stores provide a bag to put over the customer’s head when changing clothes to prevent makeup from rubbing off and ruining the garment.
Dumb: In every single store we visited, the staff would immediately run up to tell us some pathetically obvious piece of information about whatever garment we were looking at. “Look! Four colors!” they’d say, indicating the style we were examining. If there were more colors available in some hidden backroom this would be perfectly logical, but in every case all four colors were hanging on the rack right in front of us. And they weren’t just doing it because we were foreigners – I overheard them saying the exact same thing to their Japanese customers as well. Similarly stupid comments included “This is on sale!” (directly in front of an enormous SALE sign in both English and Japanese).
4) Inside the 109 building. Wow. Okay, I personally don’t think I could ever date a girl who spends more than a few minutes on her hair and makeup, but some of these “Marukyu” customers and staff truly look just like perfect-ten models. In fact, that’s exactly what Felicia told me within minutes of her arrival – “Jesus, you must love it here, these girls are all GORGEOUS! More than half of them look like little porcelain dolls!”
Well, to those of you who’ve been to Japan but never inside the Shibuya 109 building, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. I swear it’s just like a model expo in there, with a female population approaching 100% and a hotness ratio approaching 99%. I’d just never gone in because, well, I despise shopping. But this time I was given the (oh-so-unfortunate) responsibility of distracting the clerks so Felicia could photograph various outfits with her little spy camera…and everywhere I looked, I was literally overwhelmed. If you could gaze down on Japan through some sort of hotness-scope I’m certain you’d see a bright red spot centered around the 109 building, dimming slowly the farther away you go. It’s an 8-story building filled to the brim. A beehive, but not for bees. Guys, visit Shibuya 109.
So that was my experience shopping in Tokyo. For dinner we managed some last-minute reservations at Ninja, an incredibly well-done theme restaurant in Akasaka, much more tasteful and convincing (and expensive) than Lockup. The interior is laid out in the basement of a massive department store and built to look like an outdoors Ninja village – complete with fog, waterways, and of course, ninjas. Each table is set inside one of the village’s houses, to which you’re escorted by your very own ninja guide – after all, you need someone to lead you through the winding paths and hidden drawbridges if you’re to gain access to the fresh sashimi and French onion soup that waits inside. If you want to read more, check out this Sushicam article which is where I first heard about the spot.
Next time: Oddities in Akihabara. Stay tuned!
Addendum: The continuation of this post is here (5 months later!)