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.
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.