For days, the rain had lashed Tokyo so hard we took to calling it Ty-soon Yamashita, a weather system that warped umbrellas, soaked trouser-legs, and dissolved taxis. But the sun came out on Sunday morning, and after a week of sky-high meeting rooms, corporate sushi, and Heavenly Beds,(TM) I escaped my hotel for several hours before the evening flight back to San Francisco. I didn’t have a map, a guidebook, a watch, or a phone: all burdens lift on foreign strolls.

I’ve heard that “gaijin,” the Japanese term for Caucasian, translates as “pale ghost.” True or not, I take it as an invitation rather than a slur. My ghost floats above obligations, buoyed up by the kindness of strangers. My ghost is curious, fuddled, and peaceful. My ghost is illiterate, and has nothing to say.

Traveling ghosts don’t need temple tours, when the mundane has already become the stuff of exotic little victories: choosing a breakfast, washing a t-shirt, getting lost, or getting home. You can voyage on a subway as well as a cruise ship.

Because I liked the name, I caught the metro to Yoyogi Station, studying the passengers for clues. The streets were hushed, and for want of a plan, I drifted into the _conbinis_ to look at candy and condoms and left-to-right magazines. These 7-11s and FamilyMarts are three or four to a block, and inside strip-lighting burns off the fog of Sunday hangovers. The familiar-strange packages are pretty, but they are lined up with no extra art. It could be Jersey, with smaller beverages and fishier snacks. Outside, the spaces between convenience stores are studded with vending machines selling more of the same: Georgia Coffee, Pocari Sweat, and the medicinal Healthia. In a gaming arcade across the street, a schoolgirl waited her turn as her friend mimicked a melody by pounding fat buttons with two fists. Cartoon-decorated facemasks hid their expressions. The girls were silent, but the dancing game characters were pink and hysterical.

A nice man directed me to Yoyogi Park, the quiet end, where I got my bearings by eavesdropping as an English teacher told his guests that Harajuku was at the far side, down a gravel path lined with trees. I dawdled, filling up on green, birdsong, and crunch after a fortnight of planes, glass, and carpet. At a temple grove, an old man in a grey suit sang loudly at a tree while three companions clasped their hands and looked on. A bridal party tottered out in kimonos, and didn’t look at him.

At the far end of the park, crowds poured out of Harajuku Station, where the gothic lolitas and cosplay tribes show themselves. Think of a Tim Burton version of Rome’s _passeggiata._ I’d wanted to see them–my office is filled with Tokyophile design colleagues who come here to reload inspiration–but Harajuku seemed to be running on habit and hawkers, like Carnaby Street in 1970. This is the place where kids in elaborate homemade outfits (used to?) gather in hope of being spotted by coolhunters. Now a stout American woman in shorts took a picture of two girls grinning in front of a McDonald’s sign: Jon-Benet Ramseys with pink hair, bought corsets, and bad teeth. Gaggles of them roam the narrow street, their looks as carefully matched within each group as a hit-factory girl band. At first glance, I thought they were all about fifteen, but behind the kawaisa some were almost as elderly as me.

It’s Hallowe’en as I write this, and I’m thinking of the five-year-old friend who insisted on going out tonight as a Dead Cheerleader, with persnickety requirements for each detail of her outfit. Harajuku is like that, with its fruit-fly trends, unfelt punk, and cheerful goth-in-a-box parading. It’s still fun.

In the KDDI Design Studio–a concept gallery for a mobile phone carrier–they bundled me into a Formula One racing car and took my picture. Upstairs, cameras taped two girls dancing to lights that flashed on the floor of a closet-sized room. When the music stopped, they stood awkwardly for a few minutes while the footage was mashed into a personal “Promo Video” that was beamed to their phones. They peered at the screen together to see their transformation into instant J-Pop idols. I half-expected them to shake the phone dry like a strip of passport photos.

In another booth, a medical-looking camera scanned my face to choose a pre-made phone avatar. I hoped to be assigned “Happy Artist,” from a catalogue of lively hairdressers and attentive hostesses, but instead my face was morphed into “Charismatic Shopgirl,” with big manga eyes and red hair. The boys’ catalogue offered a more exciting range of possibilities. On the street, though, things looked different. The girls ran the show, preening and giggling as they flicked through clothing racks in packs, while the boys looked on, in twos and threes, ignored by the Charismatic Shopgirls in spite of their lizard shoes and skinny pants. They looked good, but not as good as the construction workers, with their balloon pants and split-toed shoes.

Nearby Omotesando, the newest of several shopping districts, looks like a fat Fall issue of _Vogue_ turned into a streetscape. You flip past Armani, Christian Louboutin, Dries van Noten, Zac Posen, Paul Smith, and Hermes–names big and small, hot and cool are there, their stores gorgeously staged and hoping to catch the eye in a parade of gloss. In the Omotesando Hills Shopping Center, Escher escalators deliver people up, down, and sideways into luxury. They sell French chocolates, sexy stationery, buttery boots, and slithery dresses. No babywear, homewares, or bookstores break the _parasitu_ spell. We were droplets in the current flowing through the stores.

The _parasitu_ are my Japanese counterparts; single, childless women of marriageable age, for whom living for the moment means carrying their own volume in shopping bags back to bedrooms in their parents’ homes as often as they can. They throng Omotesando, a fuck-me-booted army with cedar-colored hair (though the most stylish among them, instructed by the Korean hair magazines, seem to have gone back to glossy black–and not before time.)

“Watch step,” said a young guard in a beige uniform and gloves, whose only task was to warn people about a two-inch drop as they joined a queue to inspect the latest Sony mobile phones. Hundreds lined up, studying with friends the Sony Style posters that showed a hundred new cover designs–limited editions by musicians, designers, and animators. _Watch step. Watch step. Watch step._ If they looped around the Tensaguard barriers long enough, they’d get a moment at the display wall where the real phones hung in clear packages, ready to be grabbed. Another guard–a young woman–posted at the other end of the two-inch step, prepared them for the ascent to the cash register, in case the excitement caused a stumble.

No one does this stuff better than Louis Vuitton, the firm that taught Japan about luxury retail. Louis Vuitton started as a maker of gentlemen’s traveling trunks, and to me that brown monogram canvas still looks like it smells of Old Spice and Imperial Leather, like the aftershave kits I sold in Cassidy’s Chemist the Christmas I was 16–but this seems to be a minority view. 94% of Tokyo women in their twenties owns some item by Louis Vuitton, according to the Saito Research Institute. A few years ago, the CEO claimed that 46% of all Japanese women owned a Louis Vuitton product.

What non-essential branded product is owned by 94% of San Francisco women? A Gap t-shirt? An iPod? A tub of Haagen-Dazs? Nowhere close, I’d guess. Though I’d never want a Vuitton bag, my business crush led me to spend a few hours studying their stunning stores (though, characteristically, it wasn’t the clothes or bags, but rather the oversized illustrated company history on the top floor of the Ginza store that kept me the longest, browsing from the era of carriage travel to the NetJets age.) What does it mean when Charismatic Shopgirls and Lively Hairdressers and even Elegant Gothic Lolita are willing to find the money for a $3,000 purse, or ten–and join a quarter of a mile queue for the privilege of paying for them, as they did when the latest store opened?

All week I’d groused that my little team of colleagues and I hadn’t come to Japan; we came to Brandistan, where every experience was mediated and labeled, from the time we rolled out of those Heavenly Beds to the the turn-down service. We trooped around the Apple Store and the Sony Store; and ran through a downpour from Hermes to Louis Vuitton. We drank Coca-Cola beverages and ate dinners conceived by international chefs. In my hotel room, I caught snatches of CNN. Brandistan is an independent world beyond international borders, with its own language made entirely of proper nouns, and its own tribal customs and loyalties. By the end of a five-hour walk, I suspected we weren’t the only ones who lived there.

4 thoughts on “Brandistan”

  1. “What does it mean when Charismatic Shopgirls and Lively Hairdressers and even Elegant Gothic Lolita are willing to find the money for a $3,000 purse, or ten—and join a quarter of a mile queue for the privilege of paying for them, as they did when the latest store opened?”

    Smacks of high school peer pressure to me. But it makes sense for a culture that, from way over here in North America, appears to celebrate cute and conformist. While that’s possibly oversimplifying, it’s interesting to wonder what forces are at play here.


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