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More Observations (and some conclusions)

Ten General Observations

  1. I once heard the rhetorical question, "What did the Japanese do before cameras?" In the great scheme of things, I'd rephrase that as "What did the Japanese do before paper?" but after this trip it would have to be "What did the Japanese do before Cell-Phones?" They've all got 'em, and they're all using them - if not as speaking instruments, then they're scrutinizing the little LCD panels at the top of these candy-bar-sized units - I guess they double as pagers, and messages are readable there. A very few were observed with that illuminated-antenna-tip accessory: an LED which lights up when the phone's in use.
  2. The platform shoe is big among certain young women. This look - the micro-skirt, bleached chapatsu hair, and boots with ridiculously thick soles - says "hooker" to me, but you see a lot of it on the streets of Tokyo. Rarely, the skirt, perhaps of leather, has a fringe; and a little cowboy hat completes the ensemble, creating a ridiculous, hopelessly inauthentic faux-Western look.
  3. The approaching holiday season - although not as obvious as my third trip, in December 1992, I did see some evidence. Thankfully, the Japanese continue with their indifference to Halloween (the reason I schedule overseas vacations at the end of October is to avoid this day) although a few attempts to "celebrate" it were observed in American-based multinational chains (like the Halloween pastry available at Mr. Donut). Saw a few Santas, the most amusing being one of the usual Colonel Sanders statues (off-site photo) out front of a Kentucky Fried, this particular Colonel dressed in a red Santa suit. A variation was observed in this year's atrocious Christmas gadget-decoration - the "dancing Santa" (check any card/gift shop if you haven't been exposed yet). Once, I saw an Old West-fascist variant - instead of white, his red suit was trimmed in black, and he was sporting a black cowboy hat.
  4. Scooters - not the motorized kind. Of course, bicycles are the dominant form of self-propelled transportation; but unlike in the US, skateboards were very rare and rollerblade skates completely unseen. Sights of little scooters were not uncommon, however; and some were very interesting. They always seemed to be entirely composed of shiny chrome metal, and the handlebar pole on the smaller units seemed to be collapsable, so the thing could be folded up into a small size for subway carry-on. The bigger ones looked like they had brakes, with bicycle-style brake-levers on their handlebars - this vehicle was appealing and made enormous sense to me, and if I was in an urban situation where I had to commute on foot, I would've brought one home (like this (Viza).
  5. Revolving kaiten sushi bars:
    Industrial-delivery sushi, served on little dishes which the hungry diner removes as desired from a conveyor belt circling around the sushi chefs. The customers sit on a counter surrounding the conveyor belt, and usually a legend is mounted on the wall, indicating the different prices (although sometimes this info appears on specially-labeled dishes rotating around on the belt). You take what looks good, each saucer holding one order, and you stack up the color-coded empties as you eat. When finished, stand up and approach the cash register; by the time you get there one of the staff will have talleyed your quantities and shouted the figure up front. They're great because one can enter the restaurant and be eating within moments, although some people are a bit leary because certain items could've been sitting there for hours, rotating; but you can always ask the guy for what you want if fresh is desired. I call these places "mechanical sushi bars." (More sushi questions? You might try this sushi reference.)
  6. The Blue LED is phasing into use. (Read about its invention (in Japan) in this old Wired article.) The marquee arrays of LEDs are very common form of signage in Japan, but it was the rare model indeed I saw which had blue LEDs in its array (orange is the low-end default color). Not to say they weren't everywhere, they were, on many of these marquee signs, but as attention-grabbing pinpoints flashing in RGB triplets around the array's perimeter. I quess they're still relatively expensive, in contrast to their red and green brothers.
  7. Konbini (convenience stores):
    Seems like there's way more of these than when I was last in Japan, in 1992. I don't recall noticing much of a presence by our domestic chains of C-Stores 1 back then; now, the 7-11 is common and AM-PM Mini Market is everywhere. 2 A chain I recall from my earlier Japan trips was still in business, the Family Mart - this time I was able to snag a copy of their jolly logo, mascots - whatever it is, they don't get very prominant display anymore. Other common chains were the Mini-Shop, the ubiquitous Lawson's (Station), Sunkus (with its suggestive walking "K" logo), and many others with unfamiliar, difficult-to-remember names; although their stock all seemed pretty uniform (and unlike their stateside counterparts, fascinating to peruse). I loved the steam buns, sold from little glass-walled warming-cabinets up on the counter near the cash register - these buns were a little smaller than those I've had in dim sum parlors, and they had proportionatly more filling and weren't nearly as doughy. Wasn't just a price read-out facing the customers, on the cash register at the 7-11s; rather, a big laptop-style screen flashing full-color advertisements between transactions. Supermarkets in California are moving in this direction, but not there yet; so far their smaller, satellite screens are just showing text describing the items as they're rung up. However, my bank's ATMs now show animated color ads while idle, O Brave New World.
  8. Choco: Bought some chocolate chip cookies at a konbini one night; like a lot of sweet foodstuffs sold in Japan the packaging went way overboard: outer bag, inner plastic tray, and each cookie individually sealed in its own foil envelope. This particular line of cookies came in four flavors: chocolate (what would be marketed here as chocolate-chocolate chip), vanilla (what I had, seemed like normal), "maron" (the picture indicated a mix of both regular and [I guess] white chocolate chips) and Earl Grey. This last choice was intriguing, in a delayed-reaction way; but never available in subsequent searches. Among the many other interesting sweets I noticed, in the adjacent aisle: "Crunky Popjoy" (in fact several candy bars were labeled 'crunky') and "Melty Kiss" candies.
  9. Food hall basements in the department stores - all the guidebooks say free samples are so prevalent here that you can practically replace the noon meal with a foraging visit downstairs. My experience was, this is no longer the case. I recall chunks of sashimi being set out, with toothpicks for serving, when I first visited Japan; now the few free samples I observed were stingy. So much for the bubble economy. If you do want to spend money, however, the $100 cantaloupes are still available:

  10. They're still smoking like fiends in Japan, where a pack of cigarettes costs half the US price. But winds of change are evident - now, for example, smokers are restricted to certain zones of train platforms, like the Off-Hours Waiting Areas in the New York City subway. And there was no smoking on my trans-Pacific flight.

Conclusions - Summing Up

Only back a few days and I'm already morose about the things I missed; so already contemplating the next trip. A serious hindrance this time was health-related, somehow I damaged my left knee about a month before departure and this was a serious burden - the doctor said it's not permanent damage, just a persistant inflammation; still, coupled with the blisters raised by those terrible shoes I was really slowed down. Maybe this was a good thing, forcing me to observe more details in my immediate vicinities, and since I didn't quite attain all my goals, even better in the long term since it'll provoke another return, perhaps within the year.

1 This is how they're designated on freeway exit signs in the midwest.

2 Seeing those triggered memories of their advertising jingle heard on LA radio circa 1981, set to the tune of "Rock Around the Clock":
"You can shop
The Clock Tonight
You can shop shop shop to your heart's delight" etc. Say, what happened to the AM-PM in America? A quick survey of local Arco stations turned up very few - has their "C-Store" participation withered?

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