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The next three weeks of class look to be pretty challenging, and the ominous midterm exam is just four days away. With that in mind, I went on yet another excursion into Tokyo today.
Just about everyone who visits Japan is warned about the traditional Japanese-style toilet. Often called a "pit toilet" or "squat toilet" in English, the traditional Japanese toilet closely resembles a urinal mounted on the ground. It's not a complicated-looking device, but a lot of outsiders are confused by the way they have to orient themselves in order to use it. In cities, Western-style toilets are becoming the de facto standard. Many families, including my own host family, have Western-style toilets which have other features like a heated seat and bidet. Bonus.
Believe it or not, I had gone 25 days in Japan without seeing one of these pit toilets up close. Today was the day.
After lunch, I headed out for the train station on foot. I didn't use the bathroom at home before leaving; first mistake. By the time I got to the station, I was about ready to burst. No problem; there's a men's room right inside. Two stalls; one is open. It has the pit.
Half a second of thoughtful consideration later, I bail out and head to the department store next door. Their men's room had a Western-style toilet, and all was well. (The other toilet in the station was also Western-style, but I didn't think to wait there.)
I don't know why toilets are such a talking point when visiting Japan, but I've discussed them with a few other students. I can't honestly say that I've actually used a pit toilet, but I am proud to say that I ran away from one.
My trip today brought me to Shibuya, Tokyo's heavily youth-oriented district. Sunday afternoon is the most popular time for young people to come together near the station. I had heard many stories about cosplay -- people dressing in the costumes of their favorite cartoon and game characters -- being popular in Shibuya on Sundays, but I saw nothing of the sort today. Maybe I was looking in the wrong place.
The weather was good: a little less hot than usual, due to overcast skies. People were out in force to drive business into their stores, and some shady vendors were offering deeply-discounted goods of questionable quality. My only purchase there was a Japanese soccer jersey for ¥2500 ($21.40), presumably from the World Cup but with the color just slightly off in the front. World Cup goods are very heavily discounted now, with some of the more egregiously overpriced items marked 70% off. (Among the poorly planned items I passed up: "600 days to the World Cup" t-shirts, "500 days to the World Cup" t-shirts, "400 days to the World Cup" t-shirts, and so on.)
Of course, the cornerstone of any big district of Tokyo is the department stores. Shibuya caters heavily to the fashion-obsessed kogyaru ("little gals") who often get money and luxury goods from their older lovers. Regardless of how they get the goods, gals can shop at hundreds of stores, including 92 boutiques in the eight-story Shibuya 109 department store. It's the largest store that I've seen which is entirely devoted to women's clothing.
Since Shibuya is so youth-oriented, department stores are arranged to attract youth. One of them, Nakanukiya, has quite possibly the most bizarre layout that I've ever seen. The ground floor is a large "drug store" (mostly beauty products). From there, it's down a flight of stairs to a computer parts store or upstairs to four more extremely diversified floors. Normally, stores are fairly specialized on each floor. The second floor featured luxury handbags, portable CD players, and lingerie. All next to each other. Going up from there, the next floor had video games positioned very close to adult novelties. This sort of "throw everything at the shelves and see what sells" attitude is extremely rare at department stores here, and I wonder how well this one shop is doing.
The other thing I noticed about Shibuya: inner-city African-American culture is extremely popular here. I saw more black people in Shibuya than I have in any other Japanese place so far, and they were complemented by the young Japanese men and women who have embraced gangsta rap, darkened skin, and even frizzy hair. The look is even more hilarious on Japanese people than it was on the rich white people at my high school who thought they were black. Many stores are staffed by black people as well, perhaps for a more authentic angle.
Lastly, the youth-oriented nature of Shibuya made me very optimistic about finding some quality Engrish shirts, with their vaguely philosophical insights. Unfortunately, not all Engrish shirts are alike. Some of them bear high-fashion labels, and cost much more than appearances would suggest. I was disappointed to learn that a t-shirt reading "I am a sushi boy!" handwritten three times would cost me ¥2900 ($25) when I felt it was worth maybe half that much. Some shirts cost even more than that.
As I passed a Gap store, a Sizzler restaurants, and all sorts of other American imports, I started to wonder how much American and Japanese cultures are poisoning each other with their respective popular cultures. Then I stopped thinking. I had a train to catch.
Some gals have it easy in Shibuya. As I was walking, two heavily-tanned ko gals in front of me were suddenly approached from behind by a Japanese guy who started trying to hit on them as they walked on a sidewalk. The two gals brushed him off, and he disappeared into the crowd.
The shady street vendor from whom I bought the jersey was European, and spoke English primarily. He originally quoted a price of ¥3500 (but "for you, it's ¥3000") but I got him to go a little lower. The jersey's a piece of crap, but I'll see if I get any harsh treatment about it when I wear it tomorrow. Back in the U.S., where nobody knows what a Japanese or even an American soccer jersey looks like, I'll be okay.
On Monday in Kichijoji, I noticed a can of soda in a machine marked "Smap!". It's a marketing ploy for the boy band Smap's new self-titled CD, which bears a picture of the can on the front. Today, there was a building in Shibuya with a giant picture of that can on the front, and a machine inside that sold Smap! soda exclusively. There was a line at least twenty people deep to buy this soda from a vending machine. Maybe I should have hung on to my can on Monday to let it appreciate in value.
At an arcade in Shibuya, I saw the downside to those huge virtual soccer games that have all the players networked. The entire network went down, and I watched as the staff tried to debug the problem.
I have now heard four songs from Dance Dance Revolution 5th Mix on Japanese television. Tonight as I was flipping through channels, I heard the song later remixed by Captain Jack and released as "Odoru (something)" with a Japanese title in the game. If I played the game enough to be good at it, I'd know what it was called. The song was being used with different lyrics as the closing theme to an animated program.
Time to get some sleep, get ready, and get in gear for a week of classes.