Japan has amassed significant soft power, which I would argue is only increasing. Even those that have no real interest in the country can’t get around the increasing omnipresence of anime and will have heard of Samurai and Geisha. Those flocking to the country will likely know other famous cultural icons like ‘the great wave’ by Hokusai, the infamous Shibuya crossing, cosplay culture and zen gardens on tranquil temple grounds. All these icons serve as paragons of the Japanese image as projected abroad. Yet there’s also obscure wonders that are not as well known, unsung heroes of Japanese culture that only reveal themselves when one has spent time in the country. These are the heroes that cemented my gradual falling in love with Japan through small but meaningful experiences travel guides generally pass over, and it is time they have their moment in the spotlight.

Don Quijote

As the intro to these pieces illustrates to some extent, part of Japanese soft power has made her (in)famous for the cutest knickknacks, bizarre toys, futuristic gadgets and all the anime merchandise you can think of. For many visitors this is one of the countries’ major draws: a Walhalla of obscure desirables you’ll likely only ever find in Japan. And there’s definitely places like Akihabara and Harajuku that are at your beck and call if you want to indulge in these pleasures. I would, however, argue that there is no store that embodies the overwhelming chaos of Japanese consumerism and popular culture like the enigmatic Don Quijote: the store with nothing you are looking for and everything you never knew existed, making it the perfect topic to end this series with.


An icon in Japan, the store exists in obscurity for most (visiting) foreigners, having mostly flown under the radar as a contemporary cultural highlight. Which is a shame as Don Quijote is in many ways a confluence of what fascinates me about Japan, displaying much of what I’ve described in these little stories so far: high culture tucked away in unsightly buildings with an immenseness that warrants a professional guide to navigate them, a cacophony of audiovisual violence, filled with obscure collectables and consumables, always surprising and utterly incomprehensible. All of this under the inescapable gaze of its very own mascot, a blue penguin that looks like it’s part of a perpetual Christmas celebration, looming wherever you look. The store is impossible to define: you can find anything from aquaria with live fish, to carpeting tools, to jacket potatoes ready to eat and sakura flavored KitKat, to Pokémon themed lingerie. All potentially on the same aisle and all stacked to bursting in a way that makes you wonder whether prying something free from a shelve does not initiate a dangerous game of Jenga.


If you didn’t think of it, Donki has it and the benevolent blue penguin will even offer it at a nice discount if you catch him in a good mood. The store chain is somewhat comparable to your resident discounter selling random junk you may find in any country, such as the Action in the Netherlands, but on steroids and amphetamines. You’d be forgiven for thinking that I’m exaggerating, that all such stores are equally depressing and no such stores warrant this kind of attention. Yet Donki doesn’t play around, having learnt to embrace the ridiculous. Nothing stresses this like the Ferris wheel adorned with a gargantuan idol of the ubiquitous mascot chilling with one of the lucky gods, pumping out the store’s theme song in each of its seats, that crowns one of its flagship locations. What’s more, with stores in busy areas often open until the early hours (or sometimes 24/7), they even facilitate drunk adventures during a night out; I myself have several half recollections around 4 A.M. in the morning of downtown Don Quijotes, one of them the start of a complicated relationship with small caramelized crabs.


The store chain has always reminded me somewhat of Diagon Alley in Harry potter, full of occult objects and always different from how you remember it. On multiple occasions I bravely ventured into this jungle of junk, on expedition for something specific, only ever to leave with something else entirely.



This blog was contributed by Tom de Hoop on June 24, 2021.

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Updated: Jun 19

Japan has amassed significant soft power, which I would argue is only increasing. Even those that have no real interest in the country can’t get around the increasing omnipresence of anime and will have heard of Samurai and Geisha. Those flocking to the country will likely know other famous cultural icons like ‘the great wave’ by Hokusai, the infamous Shibuya crossing, cosplay culture and zen gardens on tranquil temple grounds. All these icons serve as paragons of the Japanese image as projected abroad. Yet there’s also obscure wonders that are not as well known, unsung heroes of Japanese culture that only reveal themselves when one has spent time in the country. These are the heroes that cemented my gradual falling in love with Japan through small but meaningful experiences travel guides generally pass over, and it is time they have their moment in the spotlight.

Spectacular sounds

One of the associations people are likely to have with Japan is the bombardment of visual stimuli some of these stories have briefly touched upon already. This is to be expected, as one of the cliches that no show or movie about Japan dares to pass on, besides the token misplaced Geisha, is a shot of the sea of people at Shibuya Crossing or the eye-tearing amalgamation of neon signs in Shinjuku. We all know the iconic visage of a train attendant realizing every claustrophobics’ worst nightmare by manually stuffing seemingly indifferent commuters ever deeper into a train, lest the doors close. Metropolitan Japan, we are to believe, is guaranteed to induce visual overstimulation. What’s more difficult to capture however, is the equally baffling (and sometimes equally overstimulating) array of sounds. Yet these sounds, ranging from the gentle to the inescapable and from the unassuming to the bizarre, are an unmistakable part of the Japanese experience in their own right.


The first of these sounds I personally encountered as I touched ground at Kansai international airport for the first time, was that of Japanese toilets. With more buttons to press than in the average car, I was surprised to find that several produced an artificial flushing sound or even music, as I was desperately trialing and erroring my way to the one that actually flushed. Thinking the sounds were produced because I had wrecked the electronics with my button mashing at first, only later did I realize this served to hide any evidence of my taking a dump. The next sound hit me at the station, where an upbeat jingle introduced the train that would take me to Osaka proper. It wasn’t until, over many train rides, I slowly started to realize that most stations had (often ever so slightly) different jingles, that I really started to appreciate them. Probably my favorite sound of all is another one which did not stand out immediately, initially being outcompeted by the visual spectacle that Osaka offered, yet which distinctly grounded me in Japan over time. I didn’t know what to make of the high-pitched birdlike sounds at first, after I’d started to pick up on them; they sound neither truly mechanical nor convincingly real. It even took a while to connect them to the pedestrian street crossings, merged as they were with more prominent downtown sounds. I’m not sure why I took such a liking to them, why to me he chirps came to be synonymous with Japan over the course of my stay. Perhaps it is because of their uncanny contrast with reality, with actual birds being all but absent in the urban depths of Japan. What I do know is that a wave of nostalgia now washes over me every time I unexpectedly hear them in a video.


While sounds such as the ones described above gently simmer in the background, patiently waiting to be noticed, there’s also sounds that simply won’t allow you not to notice them. Walk down any of the major hubs in Osaka and your eardrums will be assaulted from every angle, not in the least by simple shops embroiled in a perpetual battle of on-upmanship through loudness. Suffice it to say that if you didn’t like J-pop beforehand, you most definitely won’t after a first visit to Japan. It’s equally hard to ignore the arcades when walking by them, always enticing me with their common-sense defying installations and peculiar ‘adults of all ages’ atmosphere, but always daunting me with the wall of sound they emit. This is hardly surprising as many of the most popular games revolve around music: from the iconic ‘Taiko no Tatsujin’ making you feel like an Edo drummer, to the frantic legwork of ‘dance dance revolution’, to ‘Maimai’ where you savagely slam your hands on any button that lights up to produce deafening EDM music. All spectacular to behold and hard on the ears in equal measure.

After surviving your first encounter with an Arcade you might be thinking your auditory system cannot be abused more, save perhaps for a visit to a nightclub. That is until you’ve become acquainted with another Japanese institution: the Pachinko parlor. Just like how one can become acutely aware of a ‘Lush’ store well over a hundred meters in advance, owing to its overwhelming bouquet of smells, so is the presence of a pachinko parlor in the vicinity equally unmistakable to the ears. Neither arcade nor full-fledged gamble den, they’re ubiquitous and difficult to comprehend to an outsider like me. There’s rows of machines where you try to drop balls in a particular slot in order to get more balls, all the while being engulfed in enough smoke and decibel to make you wonder whether you haven’t accidentally walked into an active warzone. I’ve ventured into one only twice, never daring to sit down and actually play: both out of an inability to truly understand them, and out of fear that neither my lungs nor my ears would survive the endeavor.


And so many more sounds, such as the peaceful bells on temple grounds, the energetic and endearing drum performances integral to festivals, or vans with megaphones shouting political one-liners, remain. Too many to describe, all of them especially Japanese in their own way. And so, nothing made me feel I had returned like the little chirps I heard at a crossing outside the airport when I visited Japan again after 2 years, instantly taking me back.


This blog was contributed by Tom de Hoop on June 5, 2021.

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Japan has amassed significant soft power, which I would argue is only increasing. Even those that have no real interest in the country can’t get around the increasing omnipresence of anime and will have heard of Samurai and Geisha. Those flocking to the country will likely know other famous cultural icons like ‘the great wave’ by Hokusai, the infamous Shibuya crossing, cosplay culture and zen gardens on tranquil temple grounds. All these icons serve as paragons of the Japanese image as projected abroad. Yet there’s also obscure wonders that are not as well known, unsung heroes of Japanese culture that only reveal themselves when one has spent time in the country. These are the heroes that cemented my gradual falling in love with Japan through small but meaningful experiences travel guides generally pass over, and it is time they have their moment in the spotlight.


Gachapon


Although we dived into the wondrous world of vending machines previously already, machines selling toys deserve special attention. They even have their own name after all: gachapon (or Gashapon), the union of the onomatopoeic words ‘gacha’ and ‘pon’ referring to the sounds made by cranking the handle and the falling of the toy respectively. Toy machines are not unique to Japan of course, nor are they even endemic to the country. All over the world you’ll run into cheap random toy dispensers at any given shopping mall. That’s about as far as similarities go, however.


According to the Japan Times, the roots of this cultural phenomenon are to be found in 1960s Tokyo, when the entrepreneurial ‘Ryuzo Shigeta’ got his hands on an American toy/candy dispenser. Deeming it unhygienic that the naked goods were spit out indiscriminately, he was the one to first package them in individual capsules that would come out one per pop. While this set the stage for the popular culture as we know it today, true revolution came when Bandai Namco burst onto the scene in the 1970s, transforming the industry from selling cheap throwaway novelties to pushing highly desirable collectables from famous brands like Gundam. Even daring to charge a premium, apparently they filled a void that no one previously was even aware existed in Japan, as people both domestic and abroad have gone crazy for the goods ever since.


Nowadays whole shops can be dedicated to little more than endless rows of different gacha toy machines. Catering to compulsive collectors, if you can think of it you can probably gachapon it and pray you get that specific specimen you want amongst myriad siblings. If you can’t think of it, they probably have it anyway and make you want to have it, too. Compared to their estranged Western cousins these randomized, machine dispensed toys demonstrate endless imagination and can be of remarkably good quality with a price to match. It does not stop with toys in the usual sense of the word either: if a store is of the adult persuasion, ‘toys’ of a different variety and even (used) garments may be won as well…


My own baptism by gacha was in Shin Sekai, where my colleagues took me during one of my first weekends in Osaka, primarily to feed me the famous food on sticks. A hall close to the central Tsutenkaku tower, which we’d just scaled, contained machines with obscure collectibles as far as the eye could reach and naturally, having never witnessed this spectacle before, I was enthralled. One of them blessed me with an astonishingly realistic-looking bookmarker shaped like a rotten banana peel that I use and treasure to this day. Another blessed my supervisor with a rather lude cup adornment that I spotted on his coffee mug in the office the very next Monday. That’s another beautiful quirk of gacha culture, perhaps what I love most about it: where they are generally aimed only at children anywhere else, in Japan everyone is fair game for these hungry machines.


This blog was contributed by Tom de Hoop on May 28, 2021.

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