Friday, January 11, 2008

New Years (Part two)

Ever since I got back to Japan, my days have been alternating between busy, nonstop party days and sloth-like laziness. I've seen some amazing new things and I have plenty to talk about, but when I'm having a lazy day, my motivation to do anything is terribly low. Today I'm going to break that cycle, and talk about New Years.

I was in Japan for 2005/2006 New Years for the first time, and I really enjoyed it. One of the things I didn't quite pick up on is what was closed and open during New Years holiday, as it was my first time in the country, and I wasn't sure what was normal. From both foreigners and Japanese, I have heard everything between 'nothing is open' and 'almost nothing closes'. The truth lies in the middle, closer to 'nothing is open'.

My town of Mitaka is not the busiest of towns, but far from dead. On January first, it seemed deserted. Most of the shops were closed and there was a noticeable drop in the amount of people wandering around. My closest grocery store was closed, but the second closest one was open. Almost every mom and pop restaurant was closed for the day or up until the 3rd or 4th, but almost every chain was open. I had lunch at Gusto, a kind of Denny's like establishment, where I had a strange time.

I've been to Gusto before, and I knew what to expect in every way, but this time I walked in and a very old man wearing a suit seemed particularly excited and interested to see me, and gave me a long deep bow. I was a bit surprised, as this was just a chain diner, and that was quite odd treatment for a customer at such a place, so at first I assumed he was the owner. Considering the mild surprise on the hostess' face combined with all the other waitresses treating him and his wife (I assume) the same as everyone else. Later on, the old woman came and asked me in Japanese where I was from and seemed quite pleased to have me there. As I know that I am part of two percent of the foreign population, I'm aware that I do sort of stick out here. However, I rarely get treated differently and have never really been singled out like that. It reminds me of a time in high school when my grandparents were talking to me about school. One of them asked "Are there a lot of black people in your school? How are they doing?", and at the time I thought it was kind of an insensitive question to ask. Looking back on it, it was simply a case of me living in a world they didn't, and they were curious of this world. I would not be surprised if the old man was a World War II vet, and I'm sure at least the couple had lived through it. I felt they just wanted to show me I was welcome here.

Anyways, after a little lunch, I headed out to Kichijoji and Inokashira park, a place that I am quite fond of. The park, much like Mitaka, was quite empty.

I wasn't alone in the park, but considering it was a national holiday, it was dead. Even compared to a normal weekday afternoon, it was quite deserted.

At least that's what I thought until I saw the shrine in the center of the park.

Not only was it full, but there were these bright red flags on blue poles and a huge line for people to get in.

I knew that over 90% of Japan visits a shrine or temple in the first three days of the new year, so I wasn't too surprised, however this is a pretty small shrine and I wasn't expecting that big of a line.

The rest of Kichijoji varied from normal to completely empty. It seemed like if one business was open, then a few were opened, but where there were whole blocks of nothing but shutters and vending machines.

Naturally, the big malls were closed. One Starbucks by the park was open, but another one attached to the mall wasn't.

There were whole sections operating like normal, however outside of convenience stores, pachinko parlors, and fast food, there was little hope of a place being open.

Two days before I left for the US, they opened up a huge shopping center inside the train station. To make it clear, when I say 'inside' the train station, I mean after you go through the gate. So, in order to go to the shopping center, you have to get a ticket to go somewhere. Since it's my local stop anyways, it's not that big of a deal, but still a little odd for me.

However, the new shopping center is gorgeous.

There are things like a few pastry shops, a handmade makeup store, a muffin shop (Muffins aren't so easy to find here), a fancy soup counter, a bookstore, a specialty grocery shop, and a shop that sells exotic sauces and teas. Soon there are some other shops opening up, and I'm not sure what they are but I know one is a to-go sushi shop.

The whole place feels wonderfully new and is a very positive change in the station. Even just looking, the new part of the station is worlds different from the rest of the station.

I think because of New Years, there was a giant kite hanging up too. It was hand painted and quite an amazing site.

On January 2nd, I head heard that there were these massive sales in the form of fukubukuro. Fukubukuro really just means 'grab bag', where stores take some of their leftover items and sell them at a fraction of the cost. You know you're getting a good deal, but you never know what you're getting. I heard that Shibuya 109 was insane and I was anxious to see a little chaos, so I headed over there with plenty of time to get there by the posted opening time of 11 AM. The first surprise of the day was at Shinjuku station where I saw a pile of snow.

Mind you, it's not cold enough to snow here, nor has it been. Even if it was, the snow probably wouldn't have stuck too long or in enough volume to make a pile. Despite this, I found myself staring at a snowball in the middle of Shinjuku. My only guess is it got stuck on the bottom of the train and fell off when it came to a stop. Even so, it was quite odd.

As I'm heading to Shibuya, I can see the chaos has already begun. Even though I made sure to check that the opening time was 11 AM, it seemed like the levy had broken early.

The scene was absolutely insane. There were dozens, if not hundreds of girls waving quite expensive clothing items in the air, hoping to swap for someone who had something they liked more. It seemed like half the fun was the swap meet.

It was amazingly crowded and busy.

One thing that was a bit hard to photograph, as everyone was mostly on the move, was how much stuff these young women had bought. They all had piles of bags, some of which seemed to have only stopped shopping when they physically couldn't carry any more.

I had heard someone describe Japan as "Consumerism gone wild", as in any store you have significantly more choices than in America, let alone the rest of the world. On January 2nd, I would more likely describe Japan as "Consumerism gone stupid", as it seemed to be simply people buying simply because they can, and then swapping what they didn't want.

The security presence was also amazing. The picture below is not a one-off event. Most of the street had security guards placed that far apart.

At first I thought it was to protect the young girls from thieves, which seemed like overkill as crime is very low in Japan and the amount of guards was very, very high. After watching them, I realized it was more about making sure pedestrian traffic was able to flow.

A mere two blocks from this absolute chaos was some lovely taiko drumming. It seemed to be a special presentation for the shopping center opening it's doors for the first time of 2008.

After a bit of drumming, there was a dancing dragon. Sometimes it takes something like this to remind me that I'm in a foreign country.

After my soul was soothed a bit, I decided to investigate a little bit closer. Down the street is Shibuya 109-2, which contains two floors of '109 Mens', which is the fashionable male's version of the mega-trendy female shopping center. It was so busy, I had to walk down two floors, then back up, just for the privilege of shopping.

I really wanted to take pictures inside, but there were several signs telling me not to. By this point, I'm used to being the only foreigner in places, however not only was this true, but I was one of a very few number of people that didn't have dyed, spiky hair and overly tan skin. It was quite surreal, but after a bit, I realized this is the safe haven for people who choose to look like that. I kind of wanted to grab a bag and get a new style, but considering the price and that I will not wear tight jeans, I decided against it.

Out on the town, and as I had not bought anything myself, I decided to do a little bit more shopping fun. Next stop was the hyper-trendy neighborhood of Harajuku. Because of the massive amount of people, they were using an alternate gate for people to get in and out. Unlike the regular gate, it was almost entirely manually operated.

From what I understand, this is how they used to take tickets everywhere in Japan, even up until the early 90's.

I've been to Harajuku several times before and I know what it's like when it gets crowded, but this was significantly more crowded than I had ever seen or was expecting.

After I arrived, I remembered that there is a huge temple just outside of Harajuku, which I'm sure explains a large percent of t he crowd. I didn't go there based on the amount of people, but I'm sure it was significantly busier than Kichijoji was the day before. Also, I did my temple visit on New Year's Eve.

I have a definite affection for Harajuku. It's a very nice and interesting area to see and walk around. Shops range from terribly overpriced and outrageous to incredibly cheap and boring, with everything in between. I am a little disappointed that it is overly touristy in places, which kind of strangles the uniqueness of the area, but it's a lot of fun to visit now and again.

This time, Harajuku was ridiculous. There were massive lines to enter stores, the streets were so crowded you could hardly move, and every shop had their own fukubukuro to sell.

More than once, I saw someone walking down the street wearing a traditional Japanese outfit. It was a bit odd to see a young woman in Harajuku dress liked this, but I guess not more odd than anything else on this dense shopping street.

I always enjoyed the punk charm of Harajuku, even though it was a bit washed out with trendiness. There were signs that said "NO PICTURES! FUCK YOU!" and all sorts of cool clothes inside shops. This visit did make me realize how much easier it is to buy women's clothes than men's. I was having a good time visiting the shops and I saw this cool outfit, so I went to a tiny shop down a flight of stairs. After arriving there, I saw quite a few swastika shirts which made me mildly uncomfortable. As I had come to understand, this piece of imagery did not carry the same meaning in Japan as it did in America or Europe, so I let it slide. I did then spot the flag of the Japanese nationalists, the same people who protests foreigners living in Japan. Since that was a Japan only piece of imagery, I couldn't imagine the shop owners not understanding what it really stands for, so I got out of there as quick as I can. Strangely enough, halfway out the door the clerk said to me in very polite, happy English "Thank you very much!" which created a whole set of mixed feelings. At any rate, I felt quite uncomfortable.

I was about done with Harajuku anyways, so I headed off to Shinjuku. Shortly after leaving the massive station, I saw another van parked with someone giving a political speech. As I've seen this many times before, I wasn't too shocked. I was quite a bit surprised to hear him speaking in English, as he said in very strained, memorized words "In World War two, America dropped atom bomb. Many people died. America apologized.", and then went back to his speech.

I don't know what he was talking about, but it was quite odd to hear that in English. Maybe he noticed me in the crowd (unlikely), or maybe I just arrived at an odd time. Either way, it was quite a shock to hear.

Shinjuku was, much like everywhere else, incredibly crowded. I was getting to the point where I was sick of being surrounded by so many people, so I headed towards the roof.

I had never really gone up to the top of any building in Shinjuku besides the Metropolitan office. I was surprised at how many public parks or children's play areas were freely available on the rooftops of malls. This one even had a nice little shrine on the top.

From up there, the view was amazing. I was surprised so few people were taking advantage of the nice area as a place to relax.

That was without a question the most walking I've done in a long time, possibly since I moved. I felt really great getting home, though.

In summary, the first two days of the new year are almost exact opposites. The first is a quiet day where many things are closed and the second is a madhouse consumerist romp of insanity. Both are very different than what I'm used to and both are very interesting.


Wes said...

Hey, check out this story.

I think you should visit.

Shopping holiday on the first of the year. Who'dathunkit?

I read all your posts. post more, okay?

also, did you know your heading is misspelled?


Keith said...

I heard about that ramen shop. I read an article a bit before I moved. I'd like to go, but I'm not traveling across town and waiting two hours in line for ramen. I think the article is a bit stereotypical and misinformed as it says that Japanese are hesitant towards foreign establishments, which I think isn't really true anymore. However, I will agree that they are fussy eaters, and if something isn't good, it doesn't stay around.

Thanks for pointing out my typo. It's fixed now. I'll try to post more often.