Monday, February 23, 2009

How much for that purse in the window?

Recently I went on a mission to find birthday party hats to use during an English lesson about party invitations. Not realizing that the pointy paper hats were one American tradition that the Japanese hadn't adopted, I found myself going to one store after another on a fruitless search. That search included a rather long bike ride to the Don Quixote store, which is basically a cross between Odd Lots, Spencer's and a corner grocery — a boxy store full of lots of cheap crap that looks like it belongs in a dorm room. The Donki, as it's affectionately called, has the largest selection of Halloween costumes I've seen here, so I figured if any place had party hats, this'd be it.

I never did find party hats there, though I did make a different discovery. In the back of the second floor, near the black light stuff, feather boas and Zippo lighters, were designer purses behind locked glass cases. The brand names were plastered everywhere on signs in big bubble letters  — Louis Vuitton, Prada, Coach. And perhaps just as prominently displayed as those luxury digs were the price tags.

Let me do the math for you. Using today's conversion rate of $1 = 94 yen, looking from left to right:
  • 89,800 yen / 95,900 yen = $948 / $1,013
  • 142,900 yen = $1,509
  • 245,900 = $2,598
  • 128,000 yen = $1,352
That's right, just these few purses (and there was a big case of them) ranged in price from $948 to $2,598. For a purse that comes from the equivalent of Odd Lots. Yeah.

It's no secret that the Japanese love luxury goods. I've read articles claiming that one in three Japanese women owns a Louis Vuitton purse. Talk about the watering down of a luxury brand — if practically everyone owns an absurdly overpriced piece of designer garbage, are you really so special or stylish anymore for owning one? Especially when they're selling them at Odd Lots? I mean, even if these things are somehow deeply discounted, who drops thousands of bucks on a purse from Odd Lots? Odd Lots, people! I don't get it. If you're going to cheat and buy the purse at Donki, why not just find a knock-off somewhere for $50?

Though, it does appear that these bags may be sitting on the shelf for a while. According to this ABC article, last December the economic downturn (which has smacked Japan twice as hard as the States) forced Louis Vuitton to cancel its plans to build a mega-store in Tokyo. Oh no, God! No extra super mega warehouse of sickeningly extravagant precious turd-colored purses! The humanity!

Hmm! Maybe the recession actually is making the world a better place.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Sapporo Yuki Matsuri

Our special little Japanese snowman says, "Chiiiiizu!"

The first weekend in February Joe and I headed way up north to the city of Sapporo on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido for a dose of Ohio-like weather. The attraction: the Yuki Matsuri, or Snow Festival.

More than 2 million tourists poured into Sapporo to celebrate the 60th year of the festival, which is world famous for its impressive life-size snow monuments and ice sculptures, like these:

Cool, huh? (Hah! Pun intended!) That last one is a life-size reproduction of Hamamatsu Castle in western Shizuoka Prefecture, where Honda was founded. The snow statue is the castle's resident, Ieyasu Tokugawa, who is considered one of the three people most important to Japan's unification. It took 4,000 people 29 days to create this sculpture with 4.2 million pounds of snow! They brought in the snow in dump trucks — 350 loads. Is that incredible or what?

So the snow festival was a lovely time. It was cold but perfectly bearable — only about 25 degrees. Aside from a few short breaks, it was practically a blizzard the entire time. It snowed so much that after being outside for just a couple minutes the snow was starting to pile up all over us. I didn't mind though — it was fun to get to play around in the snow again (especially because I didn't have to drive in it!). And my long johns kept me nice and toasty. Along the path of snow monuments there were small concert performances, snow boarding stunts and plenty of Japanese and international food vendors. The only thing that struck me as odd was that the walkway wasn't salted, so it was essentially one long ice slick. I fell once and smashed my hip. Glad I'm not 80 years old. Maybe there's some environmental reason the Japanese wouldn't salt the sidewalks?

Besides the gargantuan snow monuments, there also were hundreds of smaller snow sculptures — though when I say "smaller," I mean they were still bigger than Joe. Among my favorites were some of the characters out of Japanese pop culture.


Don't know who these buggers are, but they're cute!

Stitch! Every Japanese kid who rounded the corner and saw this yelled "STITCHI!"

The downtown area had a few blocks of ice sculptures, which were equally amazing.

Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival) dolls

An ice bar!

This one had lots of fish and crabs frozen into the sculpture itself. Hokkaido is famous for its fresh seafood, especially crab, which Joe and I decided to try. We went to a restaurant recommended by the tourism office — something good but not overly fancy — and after recovering from sticker shock ordered a large boiled "hairy crab" for 7,500 yen (around $75 — well, more with the weak dollar now).  It looked like this guy:

We actually were seated at a bar overlooking a pool of the crabs that would eventually end up on patrons' plates.

I wish we could say we melted at the taste, but the truth is the crab was smaller than we expected and served cold (I guess that's the way they do it there) with an icky vinegary-tasting dipping sauce. We were both disappointed. I mean, it was alright — but not worth what we paid. No more hairy crabs for us!

In addition to the snow and ice sculpture areas, we hit a third part of the city set up with giant snow slides and other activities for kids, like building snowmen and getting pulled in an inflatable raft behind a snowmobile. The slides were pretty grand — reminded me of bigger versions of the slide you see in the movie "Christmas Story" when the kids go to visit Santa in the mall. And the kids who slid down them had the same reactions, too — stunned looks often followed by shrieks of terror at the bottom. Precious!

The first thing I did there was build our very own miniature Japanese snowman (miniature... Japanese... of course!) Apparently the Japanese make snowmen with just two big snowballs, not three. Organizers actually handed me two silver mixing bowls and instructed me to fill them with snow and mash them together to make each ball, and some wooden pieces for the face. It was the picture of efficiency! Though all quite uniform (and as such, quite Japanese!). I didn't mind though; I thought the army of little snowmen was darling.

Me and my baby snowman

After we'd thoroughly explored all the snow art, we walked around the city of Sapporo a bit, too. Perhaps one of the most famous tourist attractions we checked out was the Sapporo clock tower, a building constructed in 1878 that looked surprisingly like it belonged on a town square back in Ohio. And there's a reason for that — as Wikipedia informs me, the building is one of the few surviving Western style buildings in Sapporo, a city developed in the 1870s with the assistance of the American government. This clock tower serves as a symbol of the city.

Sapporo clock tower

Even better was the Hokkaido government office building, a stately old red-brick building that also reminded me of home.

The evergreens around the government building were all being supported by pole and rope contraptions to keep the massive amounts of snow from destroying them.

I thought the piles of snow lining the branches were neat.

Downtown Sapporo at night

I came away with a great impression of Sapporo. The city looked so clean and new and just beautiful in the snow.

The Hondori shopping arcade wasn't bad, either, though I spent most of my time there admiring its giant pet shop instead of browsing around all the shops.

Oh, and I couldn't leave out one last thing, so classically Japanese in its inappropriateness. As we were walking along past all the perfectly ordinary shops and restaurants, Joe exclaims, "Look!" and points to the window of a costume shop:

Let's see. What do I want to be for Halloween next year? Frankenstein... hunter in redneck camo hat...Oh! S.S. officer! ... Hmmmm...

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Our Commander in Chief — in briefs!

Perched on a low shelf between some style magazines in the window of the 7-eleven this evening was this gem:

That's right, there's Barack Obama, standing proudly in super short boxer briefs, just asking for someone to pick him up. Well, Yes I Can! And did! For 620 yen, I am the proud new owner of this month's issue of Mono magazine (great name for a mag, by the way, fantastic), filled with several pages of ads to buy Obama collectibles.

Leave it to the Japanese to ham up popular symbols in an inappropriate yet playful manner. I suppose it was only a matter of time til we saw this sort of thing given the Japanese's abiding love for Barack Obama. I haven't met a Japanese person yet who couldn't bust out with an enthusiastic "Yes We Can!" at the mention of Obama's name.

A couple weeks ago, while my students were working on their speech assignment, I played part of Obama's "Yes We Can" speech for them and gave them a translation of the speech that I got out of a book that's been flying off store shelves here. All Obama's speeches have been translated and are available on CD and DVD. My students were very interested to listen to Obama, and so were several of the teachers in my office. They just can't get enough of him. Obama was on the news pretty much daily here during the campaign, so the Japanese have come to know and love him along with Americans. When I ask why they have such affection for him, they say they just think he's so eloquent and that his voice is soothing.

So back to the magazine. It's a style magazine, from what I can gather, and the inside advertised Obama memorabilia for sale on various Web sites. Here we see T-shirts, draw-string knapsacks emblazoned with his image, bobbleheads, patches and pins:

On the next page, we've got Obama chopsticks, Obama cookies, an Obama drinking cup (to go with the cookies, of course), and other T-shirts available in 22 different colors.

Turning the page, we see what I can only guess is one of those refrigerator magnet sets with an Obama figure and various clothing items so you can dress him as you please, from a suit down to a Hawaiian shirt plus surf board — or just the blue undies featured on the cover. (Strangely, Obama looks awfully white in this ad, don't you think?)

There are also a few super gaudy watches, books, magazines, and, my favorite — Obama action figures. These action figures, available at ZacPac Toys & Collectibles, will set you back 105 smackaroos. They really love Obama. I'm not joking. Looking at this Web site, these dolls come with different facial expressions and three sets of hands so his hand motions match his expression when you set him up on the miniature stool in front of the miniature American flag.

This got me thinking, did George W. Bush ever get his own action figure? I mean, surely there must be... So I typed "action figure" and "george bush" into Google and the first link to pop up was this "Dishonest Dubya Lying Action Figure" with product description "He lies like a bastard! With Pretzel-Retching Action!" and a remote control with buttons for "Lie! Say Something Stupid! Change Outfit! and Choke on a Pretzel!"

Well I 'd say that about says it all about why Americans, Japanese and everyone else with two brain cells to rub together loves Obama, ay?