Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Join Us

If this doesn't creep you out a little bit, it may be too late for you.

As a poorly-thought-out name, JoinUs is right up there with Telus (for those unfamiliar with the latter, that's the name of a cell-phone company. In the age of roving wiretaps, someone thought it would be a good idea to call their company Telus. Tell us, tell us everything ... what disturbs me is that so few people seem to get the intrinsic irony of that name. But I digress.) JoinUs is a department store (as a note, Japan doesn't do malls; department stores fill that particular economic niche), one of several competing chains in this country ... though since they're probably owned by the same conglomerate, sort of like Canada's deer old Chapters/Indigo monopoly, they're probably 'competing' only in the loosest possible sense.

Which isn't why Joinus is kind of a creepy name. You'd really have to be here to understand, but I'll try to give you a sense of it.

Picture hordes of cookie-cutter young women, all immaculately made-up, all wearing similar over-priced fashions and clutching the exact same Louis Vuitton bags. A tide of salarimen in more-or-less identical dark suits, white shirts, and indifferent ties. All working their asses off, so that they can afford the ludicrously priced fashions offered by such fine establishments as Joinus.

Ludicrously priced, you say? But this is Japan. Tokyo no less. You should expect that. Everything's expensive in Japan, isn't it?

Well ... no. Most non-durable goods are about the same as in Canada; some (for instance, booze) is much cheaper, about half the price. As for durable goods, things like electronics are very similarly priced. Even land has been getting significantly cheaper since the bubble burst.

In fact, about the only things that seem a lot more expensive are luxury items (those Louis Vuitton handbags, again.) To give you an example, a friend of mine (another English teacher) used to work at the Coach store in Toronto. She went into one of the franchises in Tokyo, to compare, and found one purse that was exactly the same model, for about three or four times the price. Keep in mind that these things are made in Thailand or Indonesia or something, so they only have to travel a fraction of the distance to get to Tokyo that they have to travel to get to Toronto. Basically, demand for these items is so staggeringly high that the prices are pushed up into the stratosphere.

The baffling thing is that this has happened in the face of a decade-and-a-half of general economic crappiness. In most places, when money is tight, people cut back on luxury items and jack up the savings rate. Here, they spend everything they have on expensive clothes and accessories, and eat ramen noodles for the rest of the month. There's this overpowering desire they seem to feel to fit in with the crowd, to be just like everyone else; they follow trends so closely they're tailgating them, with the result that there's a constant pileup in the supply-demand equation.

Which is why the name 'JoinUs' struck me as so weirdly fitting. Come. Join us. Become one of us. Resistance is futile. You know you want it....

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Modern Tokyo Architecture

I've had a few (well, okay, one) request for shots of Japanese architecture. No doubt, when you think of Japanese buildings, you think of one of two things: elegant shinto shrines with sloping tiled roofs, surrounded by manicured gardens whose genius lies in encouraging their natural beauty rather than forcing the artificial kind ... or, if you're from my generation, neon.

These both exist. The former is hard to find, the latter more or less confined to the downtown core, places like Shinjuku and Shibuya.

Here's something a little more representative of the modern Japanese contractor's art:

It's a little archictural stillbirth I like to call The Ugliest Building in Japan. Or at least in Hachioji. I get to gaze upon it most every day, as I stand on the train platform while en route to work. Gaze upon it, and shudder. It is, I will admit, an extreme, but know this: the buildings in Japan (or at least those thrown up since the country was reduced to rubble in WWII) are very, very Ugly.

The Costume - I Admit Defeat

So, I gave up. There might be a hardware store somewhere in this city ... but I can't find it. so instead, I'm going as an evil demonic skeleton monkey.

I did find, so far, the only Japanese store that actually had Hallowe'en costumes: it's selection was comparable to the smaller, crappier department stores ... only worse. They had one shelf - not even a whole aisle, but a shelf - of adult costumes. Which isn't surprising: Hallowe'en isn't, apparently, Big over here the way it increasingly is back home. I've had students make comments to the effect that, well of course, Japan isn't a Christian country so why would they have Christian holidays?

While I expected this, I am nonetheless somewhat saddened. Hallowe'en is, after all, my favorite holiday (okay, so technically it isn't a exactly holiday, but, really, it should be. Actually, the day after should be. To give us all a chance to recover.) I can deal with no Christmas, no New Years (yes, yes, they have New Years over here, but it's an intimate family affair. The city, apparently, shuts down.) But no proper Hallowe'en? Bah.

Of course, they do have their own bizarre festivals:

This was taken in Mejiro, during some kind of festival. Try to imagine about fifty percussionists going nuts on the drums, following along with a whole parade of these weird-looking glowing jellyfish lantern thingies that have essentially shut down an entire avenue (And, no, I have no idea what, if anything, the weird-looking glowing jellyfish lantern thingie is meant to represent. It may have some deep cultural significance; it may just look cool; I truly do not know.) This sort of thing happens in one neighborhood or another of Tokyo every few weeks, it seems: parades of odd-looking shrines or floats or whatever, traditional dancing, drumming, etc. It's always particular to the neighborhood/city, though, not a national thing ... I'm not even sure if Japan has (traditional, originally religion-based) national holidays like the West does.

Supposedly Kawasaki has an annual fertility festival involving floats shaped like, er, well, it's a family blog so I won't be any more explicit. But I will try and get pictures (assuming I haven't already lost it.)

Speaking of Kawasaki, it apparently boasts Japan's largest (only?) Hallowe'en get together of freaks and miscreants, a sort of massive spontaneous parade/street party featuring bizarre costumes and public inebriation. So all may not be lost after all. I will try and attend (and, of course, get pictures.)

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Finding Stuff in Tokyo

The weather's rotten right now, and has been for a few days. Frankly I've stopped being surprised - Tokyo weather comes in two main varieties, rotten and worse - but it has left me in a bit of a funk which is why I haven't bothered updating the page until now. Thankfully the rain should let up by Thursday, though I'm not holding my breath.

Right now I'm trying to put together my Hallowe'en costume, and the difficulties involved are actually somewhat illustrative of the general difficulties of life in this city. On Saturday, I decided that I'd try and make a Bender costume (that's a Futurama character, for those of you who don't watch enough cartoons.) The costume should be relatively easy to make: all I need is a bucket, some flexible ventilation duct, a few plastic or tupperware (or foam or whatever) bowls, and a sheet of flexible, hard plastic, kind of like a Krazy Karpet. And, of course, duct tape and silver paint.

In Toronto, I'd go down to the local hardware store and probably come out with everything I need. Don't know where the hardware store is? No problem! A brief interlude with google, and I'm set.

Here, that isn't possible. I'm sure Tokyo has what I'm looking for - it's the biggest, richest, most consumerist city on the globe - but finding what you're looking for can be all but impossible. First the language barrier: I'm not even sure what the Nihongo for 'hardware store' is, and if I saw one it would probably be marked with the kanji for hardware store, which I don't know. Then there's the street plan issue: unlike North American cities, which are laid out in a regular grid, Asian cities are basically an organic growth dating back to the first footpaths. No such thing as parallel streets here ... or for that matter street names ... OR even an intelligible numbering system (buildings are numbered in the order in which they were built, not the order in which they appear.)

None of this is insurmountable (though I might just give up and buy a pre-made costume at the Tokyu Hands department store.) But, it gives you an idea of what a gaijin has to go through whenever they try to find something in this city.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

On the Way Home From Work....

What indeed?

Friday, October 14, 2005

Title of the Blog

Just occured to me that I should probably offer some explanation for the blogs bizarre name. Actually, it's an old Japanese riddle, most easily, er, illustrated pictorially:
+ =

First Post

Well, I've been planning this blog for a while now; I've been in Nihon for just a little over four months, but it was only a couple of days ago that I got internet access at my apartment, so now the fun may begin.

First, perhaps, a little about myself. My name's Matt Shultz; I'm a 24 year old Canadian, over in Japan as an eikawa sensei (that's English school teacher for the vast majority of you who don't speak any Nihongo other than samurai and ninja. I'm not being condescending here: my Japanese is utter shite, which can get old real fast when you're trying to chat up a pretty girl at a club.) Anyhow, I graduated just under a year ago with a B.Sc. in physics from the University of Toronto, and after spending a number of months wasting time with crap temp jobs in Canada's biggest city, I said screw it and came here. Seemed like a better deal.

By and large, it is. I miss all of my friends and family back home, of course, but I've met (and keep on meeting) a lot of really cool people over here, both Japanese and gaijin. I put it down to a sort of self-selection filter effect: expatriates tend to be eccentric (otherwise they wouldn't be expatriates, right?), while Japanese people who want to meet and talk to gaijin are obviously going to deviate a little from the Japanese norm.

Anyhow, after being here for four months I've got material in my head for probably dozens or hundreds of posts. Very little or none of which will be posted: if I did, I'd be sitting here for weeks getting it all down, and not only do I have a job to worry about, I like to think I have something resembling a social life. So for now I'll just leave you with a picture I snapped with my keitai (cell phone):

This was taken outside Shinjuku Station (the largest and busiest train station in Tokyo.) The cute little shill is pointing towards one of the ginourmous shopping malls that sit on top of the train station. Other countries build statues to great statesman or heroic warriors. Here, they're for corporate mascots, anime characters, and Godzilla.