So far I have found that my recreational activities are broken down into roughly two categories: spending money and walking around. When I'm not walking, I'm spending money. Even if I just want to stop walking and sit down I have to spend money, because there is nowhere to sit in Tokyo that isn't the property of a cafe or restaurant. Oh, sure, there's the occasional plaza with public benches. but these are few and far between. When I do find one there are Japanese people sitting on it because they have exactly the same idea as me.
The public benches are always crowded because Tokyo is always crowded. Everything is crowded at every hour of every day. This might be an exaggeration, but only slightly. Rush hour in the subways begins at six a.m . and never really stops. It swells and subsides and swells again until sometime after midnight, when the final trains are packed hip to hip (or worse) with red-faced salaryman leering without focusing at girls who ignore them intently. It's hard to imagine the extent of human traffic in Tokyo; no matter where I go I'm fighting crowds. And of course there is no fighting the crowd. It's useless to try because there's no end to it. I'm surrounded and outnumbered. My only option is to be zen about things and just shuffle slowly in long lines down the sidewalks of Shibuya or Harajuku, keeping an eye out for a place to sit which will inevitably be occupied by Japanese people.
I can cram myself between them and probably ruin their day in the process, or I can continue on to the local cafe, order an iced coffee and sit for exactly as long as the iced coffee lasts. I say that because depending on where I am there are usually people standing around holding trays and waiting for me to finish my drink and get the hell out of the coveted chair. Some cafes seem to have perpetual lines out the door. It sometimes just seems easier to keep walking.
I went to Harajuku today determined to walk off the pain in my knee caused by walking too much. Off I set, bum knee or no. Harajuku is everything it's cracked up to be and more; whereas Ginza provides posh shopping for adults, Harajuku is for the kids. I can't even guess how many clothing stores I saw today, catering to every imaginable culture, subculture, and untersubculture. The major streets are the domain of the big name labels, but the winding back alleys are packed with hundreds of tiny little stores catering to one fashion fetish or another. Make no mistake, these are not clothing stores, they're costume shops. Life in Japan seems like perpetual theater, at least for the fashion-conscious.
I saw fifteen-year old girls with black lacey French maid outfits. Glam-rock wannabes who clearly spent hours doing hair and makeup together just so they could swagger down the street together--and I'm talking about boys. Girls in matching blue and pink striped overalls with matching pink lame and rhinestone purses. Tattooed neo-tribal bike punks with dreadhawks, straight out of Mad Max. Lip piercings seem to be big right now. I saw many kids with twelve spikes, hooks and rings jutting from their mouths, heavy enough to make their lower lip droop. And hip-hop, hip-hop, hip-hop.
In Osaka I remember being repelled by the colors found in Japanese fashion. Now I find I love them. They are indeed repellent, but mesmerizingly so. Wild, clashy hip-hop sneakers with bizarre patterns are huge here, and I can't say I mind that. Clashing colors are like dissonance in jazz: beautiful when executed well. Some Tokyo fashions are all about sensory overload, using color in a completely different way than American fashion. "Often the more the merrier" is the rule.
Tellingly, I tried to explain "minimalism" to a girl who worked in a clothing store today. It wasn't easy. The idea that "less is more" is a difficult one to convey here. (Or maybe my Japanese just sucks.) Here, less often seems to be less, at least as far as fashion goes, and stubborn Midwesterners who try to deny it are either cheap or lazy.
O, Whitey. So square. You can always spot the gaijin: ill-fitting clothing, sloppy haircut, stained sneakers, poor choice of facial hair. And of course that goes for myself as well. Even the gaijin here who try to adopt Japanese style usually look to me like fish out of water. It's weird to be ethnocentric against my own ethnicity but the Japanese simply look cooler than white people. If they want to wear FUBU and bling, they can pull it off. If they want to wear a pinstriped suit and cuff links, likewise. If they want to wear enormous grandma sunglasses, white boots, a leather hip pouch and a cowboy shirt that says "Ass Man"... it works, though a white dude wouldn't make it two hundred feet in a get-up like that. Gaijin stand out not because we're blond but because the even best-dressed of us still look like hicks.
Of course Japan has its share of schlubs. I expected to find Japan populated by fashion plates, which of course it isn't. But the ceiling is higher here, as is the median. In the midst of very normal people walk the most bizarre sartorial Darwinisms I've ever seen. Some go to insane lengths for fashion, and usually even the geeks look cool in a geeky way. Japanese fashion is fertile and experimental and wild. I lack the eye to see who is cool and who is not; I don't get the underlying formula yet.
In fact, I'm not sure that rules of "cool" and "uncool" even really apply here. The girl in short-short-shorts, cowboy hat, platform shoes, white mascara, hair extensions and a full-body bronze tan probably thinks that the girl in the white maid's outfit with angel wings, elbow gloves, top hat and fake blood dripping from under a fake eyepatch looks pretty weird--and vice versa. Without dwelling too much on the usual cultural stereotypes I would say that Japanese fashion culture seems to be a series of in- and out-groups rather than a hierarchy whose pinnacle is Prada.
Though I don't usually get a sense that these people are all inventing their own original styles. Undoubtedly there are some creative people doing creative things with fashion, but when you look through a doorway and see two dozen different mannequins in Elvira-bondage outfits, or when you find thirteen different guys' stores selling the same line of turquoise-studded snakeskin belts, or when you happen to glance at a newsstand and see magazines that offer beauty tips for girls who dress up like anime characters... You start to get the sense that these are all predetermined styles that they're buying into. The styles are manufactured and sold, like almost everything else here, and any decision is a pledge of allegiance to a particular subculture.
I don't mean this in a sinister way, because it's not. People have to buy clothes.They have to choose from a set. Fine. Tokyo offers much more choice than Minneapolis, but like Minneapolis every choice is culturally significant. So what does the guy in zombie drag signify?