Though I’m no fashion victim, I strive to sport a fairly consistent style. This is especially relevant at my home university, where there is an unspoken policy of “class dress”: not always business wear (for presentations and exams this is the norm), but never sweat pants. My wardrobe is very middle of the road at Sewanee, a mix of current trends and thrift store finds, though it strays a little as a consequence of my northern origins in that I have an excess of black clothing and an intolerance for the hideous footwear that’s as common as grass on campus. (I’m talking Chacos, Birkenstocks, and any shoe meant to seamlessly transition from dock side to boat. Just bad all around.)
Before arriving in Tokyo, I knew blending in was not within the realm of possibility. Even if I weren’t a bottle blonde and 5’5, the U.S. average for women which allows me to see cleanly over the heads of most Japanese women (and some men) in the vicinity, my clothing surely would give me away. And it has but not for the reasons I thought it would.
Japanese style previously fell into two categories in my mind, for young adults at the very least. The first, which can be summarized as “bubblegum gaudy,” as appropriated by Gwen Stefani and also embodied in generically popular anime, was all bright colors (for hair and make up as well as clothes) and shiny materials, while the second, with no official moniker, was very much inspired by the techno-orientalism of films like Blade Runner and red carpet pictures of J-pop idols, mainly black with lots of sleek outerwear. The former category contained the Lolita subculture and could be captioned with kawaiidesu, while the latter could contain the gothic Lolita sub-subculture, and was meant to be worn in sterile government buildings and semi-scary bars.
If this was your first thought of ‘Japanese fashion,’ you’re about a century behind
Both of these semi-imagined styles can be found in some iteration or even merged together in Tokyo, usually hanging around the busier intersections of Harajuku. But for the most part, current daily fashion is very different and much more classic. Crisp colors and classic cuts are the norm, with longer hems and higher heels than I’m used to.
Uniforms are prevalent among high schoolers and college-aged Tokyoites dress in a more adult manner than you would see in the U.S. Seeing someone clad in all black is rare and bright accessories will be used to balance darker looks. Hats are also popular and necessary with the winds that whip around the city’s skyscrapers and send what little litter there is flying as well as loose hair.
How everyone keeps their sneakers spotless while walking everywhere I don’t know.
My favorite Tokyo trends thus far include the sleek backpacks ubiquitous among travelers of all ages and, most importantly, high waisted, wide-legged pants!
Sadly, all patterned pants were sold out in gaijin size.
What would go for $70 or more in the U.S., if you could even find it, can be found in just about every women’s store for half the price! UNIQLO is a favorite among Japanese and foreigners alike, due to their well-made products and inclusive sizing. I was even more shocked when these pants fit than I was when the fitting room attendant pulled the shirt guard over my head without warning.
The above is by far my most inconspicuous outfit, a mix of old pieces and recent acquisitions, though the boots (and, again, the blonde) still make me stand out. I’m sure by the time I head home I’ll be struggling to pack a slew of new items but for now it’s a matter of just taking notes.
Like many college students, I suffer from an unfortunate addiction: caffeine. From fourth grade on I have started my day with two cups of coffee, less if I’m traveling or busy, usually more when classes are in session. Since I was sixteen, I’ve been a barista, so between shift drinks and employee discounts, I’m rarely without espresso pumping through my veins. My life is just killing time, sandwiched between waking up from a caffeine withdrawal headache and struggling to sleep hours later because I’m vibrating from the day’s tea, coffee, cola. I knew this habit would not be sustainable in Japan and I made a conscious effort to prepare ahead of time. I stopped drinking coffee first, switching wholly to tea even though it meant I was drinking ten or so cups a day. Then I gradually reduced my tea allowance, avoiding it later in the day so I could get to sleep and thus need less the next day. All of winter break at home I managed with only a cup, two maximum, which certainly did not help me get myself organized for my trip. But I did it, I weaned myself off of coffee.
Only for jetlag to knock me right back to where I started.
As previously mentioned, $6 dollar cups of coffee are de rigeur in Tokyo which is certainly not sustainable on a college budget. But I’m not sustainable without coffee so another solution would have to be found.
My first try was instant coffee, picked up at the dollar store known as ‘daiso.’ I was proud of my thriftiness, of my toughness, having previously eschewed instant coffee on the grounds that, well, it’s disgusting. (Get it, ‘on the grounds’ like coffee grounds?) But I told myself this was a necessary sacrifice, part of being abroad and getting outside of my comfort zone. So when the first cup was too water-y, I added more powder. When the result was like a brick of grit going down my throat, I ran to the store for milk. And when, five rounds of modification later, I knew that this wouldn’t be a pleasant or even practical solution, I made sure to at least finish the mess I made.
Luckily, the conbinis of Japan stock an insane number of beverages—coffee, tea, aggressively advertised energy drinks, hot, cold, with or without milk, sugar, flavor, fresh made or bottled—and can be found on every corner.
The good stuff
Plain old iced coffee quickly became a part of my routine, unsweetened so I can save my calories for mochi. Most stores stick to a color-coding policy of blue carton for sweetened, brown for unsweetened. However there was one instance where I picked up a brown carton and nearly gagged from a mouthful of what tasted like dirt and butter had a baby. I still don’t know what that was to this day as I ditched the carton immediately. Individual latte cups are also a nice treat but with their sky-high sugar content and the waste that comes with their single-use packaging, I try to stay away.
Like most things in Japan, extreme care is put into every facet of coffee. The beans are expertly selected, the milk never burned, and the latte art award-worthy.
A confused westerner who is trying to assimilate by photographing her beverage
And with that in mind, of course, sometimes you just have to get the $5, $6, $7 cup of coffee and enjoy the perks that come with it. Tokyo baristas, while in my experience less friendly than the rest of the country’s seemingly peppy work force, are generally pretty chill and it is guaranteed that purchasing a beverage comes with hours of sitting unbothered in a trendy café, free Wi-Fi enabling you to write blog posts to your heart’s content. I wrote this and many other posts in one of these such cafes in Omotesando, sipping on a matcha latte with Coldplay drifting through the speakers.
An afternoon well spent
Train fare: 124yen
Being in the background of every teen girl’s hipster photo shoot: priceless
Homogeneity is often associated with Japanese society, rightly so with ethnic Japanese making up 99% of the population and the cultural tendency to embrace collectivism rather than individuality. However, just as more and more youth strive to stand out rather than fit in, that non-native 1% works to make their adopted land comfortable for them instead of forcing themselves to assimilate. You will find many foreign dining establishments manned by people of that extraction, many of them halal, and hear any number of tongues mixing in with Japanese, their speakers sometimes switching between the two. In terms of representation (not accommodation, that’s entirely different), English speakers are a minority, dwarfed by Chinese, Korean, and many others. A classmate even told me that housing agencies frequently place members of the same ethnicity in the same area of Tokyo, generalizing and sticking all foreigners together the secondary method followed by dropping them off in all-Japanese neighborhoods. This classmate was surprised when she arrived in her first apartment to a slew of welcome notes written in Chinese and a stand on the corner selling dumplings she termed “the only decent ones in this entire country.” Of course tensions between natives, permanent residents, and tourists (especially tourists), but exchange generally has more pros than cons. See: Crepes from France! Curry from India! K-pop from Korea that in turn spawned J-pop while remaining popular itself! And many more imports I’ve enjoyed thus far. One example the outside making a place for itself inside Japan permanently is Yokohama Chinatown.
I was lucky enough to be able to make the trip out to Chinatown, in the far reaches of Tokyo’s neighboring prefecture of Kanagawa but still accessible by the same metro line I commute on, during the Lunar New Year celebrations. Torrents of people traversed a network of shop-lined, lantern-strung streets, with the occasional taxi struggling to cut through.
A street view.
Caroline at the gates.
Off the main drag was where the real spectacle occurred. Having survived many a parade in my day (baton twirling, no, not the cool kind with fire), I have to give major kudos to the pre-teens at the heart of the procession. Commemorating the New Year and welcoming good fortune in Chinatown involves lots of drumming and firecrackers to accompany the movements of a massive dragon puppet. The dragon puppet and its posse make their way up and down every commercial street, entering every business for at least ten minutes as tray-bearing waiters and harried shoppers swerve to avoid it.
A less active dragon overhead.
The dragon is manned in shifts, each pilot emerging just as sweaty as the last and shivering in the cold air. After three or four stops, the drumming was too much and it was time to move on.
Dinner was of course dim-sum and we lucked out in terms of cultural exposure in that the staff at the restaurant we ended up in spoke Chinese. (As well as Japanese and English; feel inadequate? I do.)
Close up and the big picture, minus dessert.
Our multi-course meal involved congee (a savory rice pudding), various dumplings, nikuman, eggroll, and a gelatinous raspberry concoction for dinner. The soy sauce was truly amazing, the richest I’ve experienced.
We lapped the main street a few more time, taking in a few alleys as well. The dragon procession was still in full swing when we finally left, right after I made a new friend!
The pose was his idea.
A nice break from the usual! I’ll definitely be heading back when it’s a little warmer and a little less deafening.
This past weekend was a long one, with an undergraduate holiday on Friday and Monday off for National Foundation Day. Many of my classmates took trips, both school sponsored and independently, to the mountains for a few days of skiing and sightseeing. Between spending the last week stressed about my lack of a debit card and my general scatterbrained state, I failed to realize this break even existed until Wednesday of last week.
Rather than scramble to find a bus ticket to and capsule hotel in Gifu or Nagano, I decided this weekend would be a good opportunity to get off the beaten path. I’d done Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ueno, Asakusa, and a few smaller areas, most more than once, but I wanted something a little calmer, a little less geared towards consumers.
Turning to Google, more specifically the always helpful Tokyo Cheapo (although it is a little irritating to be standing in line at ” _______ ramen/tempura/sushi” behind twenty other foreigners and hear the site cited as directing them to the present location), I found my destination within minutes: Yanesen.
A portmanteau of Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi, three interconnecting neighborhoods north of Ueno, Yanesen most closely resembles old Tokyo in terms of architecture and cultural life. Shitamachi, which literally means “under city” or lower city, is the style which characterizes Yanesen, and is opposite Yamanote, “mountain hands,” as a socio-geographic designation. The terms date back to the Tokugawa era, when the affluent, samurai class lived in the hills, hence “mountain hands,” while the artisans and merchants lived in the physically “lower” area, the marshland. The secular Yanaka cemetery, which takes up nearly all of 7-chome and is a quick walk up stairs from the Nippori station.
Yanaka Ginza, a shopping street, serves the center of all activity for the three neighborhoods, but it’s nothing close to Nakamise or even the alleys that surround my train stop in Kawasaki.
Stalls manned by a single vendor lined either side of the street, with no one calling out to potential customers or beckoning with flyers. Croquets and skewers of yakitori were cooked on demand at some of these stalls, for only a few hundred yen a pop. Menchi-katsu, a fried meat cutlet, is particularly relevant to the area as it was originated at one shop and then adopted by another shop directly across the street. For the sake of this post, I obviously partook in such delicacies, and feel that my inability to document this serves as a testament to their merit. (Look forward to a post about me developing gout and/or diabetes somewhere down the line!)
Walking about twenty minutes away from Yanaka Ginza, down Sendagi 2-chome, will bring you to the Nezu shrine.
One entrance, parallel to a drug store and Subway-wannabe sandwich shop.
The big picture, the honden or main hall.
Torii! Just when I was starting to envy my friends in Kyoto for their pictures of the Fushimi Inari shrine!
Passing through arch after arch can get a little disorienting.
Built in 1705, Nezu predates the already antiquated architecture of surrounding Yanesen. It brought a smirk to my face to see so many people jogging, dog walking, and self-sticking in such a serene enclosure. I’m sure the sight of my bleach blonde head elicited a similar response from others, especially considering I had only counted half a dozen foreign faces throughout the whole of Yanesen. Interestingly, the few locals I interacted with responded to my garbled Japanese with perfect, barely accented English.
I’m sure even more anachronisms will be apparent after a second visit but for now I’m glad to have devoted a chunk of my sprawling weekend to going (somewhat) back in time.