Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Conspicuous consumption

On the airplane this time, on my way back to the U.S.

My last days in Tokyo were exhausting and exhaustive. As a matter of fact, it's hard to remember exactly what I did on which days, but it involved doing pretty much all my Christmas shopping. Tokyo is a shopping mecca. I can't see why, to be honest, you'd go shop anywhere else, except of course for the strength of the yen. With my usual impeccable timing, I hit something like an eleven-year high of the yen against the dollar, much like when I visited England and the pound was 1:2. I opened a vein and happily bled my way to Wimbledon, and so I did once more. Almost bled my way to another tennis tournament, as a matter of fact, since the women's Toray Tokyo tournament was going on, but in the end decided against it.

To return to the shopping, there are multiple high-end shopping areas, Ginza being the most famous and most ritzy. You've never experienced such customer service—such bowing, such gift-wrapping, such polite greeting, such bagging and rebagging of your purchases. Omotesando is also extremely famous, with some great architecture – a standalone Prada store made out of puffy glass diamonds, a famous mall called Omotesando Hills that has a kind of zigzagging ramp from one floor to the next. The Hills has a Harry Winston and a Jimmy Choo. You'd go a long way to find that kind of mall in the U.S. Shinjuku, though a little more vibrant and less high-end, also has some fairly high-end department stores.

For the cool stuff, you head to Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku. Shinjuku is home of Disk Union's flagship store(s), with six branches within three blocks, many specializing in a particular genre or genres. I got myself a fanclub Queen concert recording and an obscure Turandot. People were buying like mad, particularly on the classical floor, where the customers just had little shopping baskets. I was distressed to note that I was almost the only female shopping there; that's just not right. It doesn't aid stereotypes that Harajuku is so female dominated, full of young girls like a Forever 21 is here (and there's one of those there, too). Though there are plenty of guys, hanging out or accompanying girlfriends. Shibuya is also youth-oriented, very trendy.

Asakusa is full of tourist shopping. Little souvenirs, ranging from tiny drums or refrigerator magnets to beautiful handmade crafts that cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. For that matter, there's a lot of tourist shopping as well as worshipper shopping at all the shrines, where you can buy little charms for all kinds of things; pregnancy, scholarship, traffic safety (it was green). Main tourist shopping street here:

I've already mentioned my trips to the guitar stores of Ochanomizu and the bookstores of Jimbo-cho, of course. A used English paperback will run you about $5 there. And, of course, my mandolin purchase at the Meiji Park flea market behind the National Stadium. There are many weekend flea markets in Tokyo now, popularized by recycling and, of course, everyone's love of deals. I just couldn't be sure what haggling was like in Japan's polite culture, though. I watched it happen, but when you can't understand numbers, how can you know how much the price is shifting?

Finally, I just about hit my shopping max in a store called Tokyu Hands. This has several branches in Tokyo, and it's billed as a hobby shop or handcrafting shop or something of the kind. Basically, if you do it with your hands, you find everything for it here. I hit the kitchen floor of the branch in Ikekuburo, and to my great delight, found white silicone steamer lids that I'd eyed at MOMA Design Store but were twice as expensive there. They're just round white silicone disks with a pig snout in the middle. Put them over whatever you're microwaving or steaming or boiling, and the steam issues out the pig nostrils. Too cute, and much saving of paper towels, etc. I did take the escalators to the other floors, but I was so maxed out by that time that I could barely function to take in the giant assortment of insoles, gift bags, knives, garden hoses...

One area I did not hit is famous Akihabara, the electronics mecca. I was hoping to find a retractable USB cable, and I almost found one at the airport—but it was a USB to other-connector converter. I knew they'd have anything you could dream up, and I was just about right. I bet I could have found one in town. Oh well.

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