Thursday 1 September 2022

Tokyo Atmosphere & Style Notes, 1992

Japan on the new accurate and compleat terrestrial globe by Gabriel Wright and William Barden, provided free as a promotional strategy to encourage subscriptions to The Geographical Magazine, 1783, published by Harrison & Co., London, mounted in mahogany stand
Let us away, Dear Reader!

To Japan. Home of delicious foodstuffs, cellotape-free origami packaging, Astro Boy and Monkey, and fashion swinging wildly between kimono sophistication and Kawaii odd-ball cutesy. Just to pluck only a few things from the welter of rich cultural offerings by this tiny but intriguing country. 

A sampling from a box of Japanese ephemera

It was also the first country to which Your Correspondent travelled, age twenty-five, as a "stop off" en route to London. As you do when the journey is long and flies over so many tantalising countries along the way. For no other reason, Japan was the result of a spin of the globe, plus an offer to visit an expatriate friend in Tokyo with whom to soak up some atmosphere made it irresistible.

Hatsushika Hokusai circa 1830 polychrome woodblock print from the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, Morning after the snow at Koishikawa in Edo, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Lo! Mount Fuji after snow!
Ditto as seen from the window of a speeding bullet train

This trip was a herald for many firsts: snow, an earthquake (5.7 on the Richter Scale for the oh so curious), bullet train travel, karaoke - save for snow, each never yet to be repeated, mind. The sights, sounds and experiences all understandably thrilling. 

George Wolfe Plank fashion illustration, Vogue, Winter 1927
Would that my Winter travel attire was once so fine!

And while Pipistrello in the early 90s would never be held as an exemplar of good fashion sense*, this green and uncultivated sense did yet twitch appreciatively at the delicious otherness of Japan.

A kimono for 'round the casa

There were kimonos galore: upon the young sumo wrestling stars being (respectfully) mobbed for autographs in the street at the tail of their January season; adorning Minnie Mouse at Disneyland (how could one not go?!) and beautiful young women shopping and temple-hopping in Kamakura; on the sweet nanna hostess at the ryokan in Nikko and the actors in the samurai movie being filmed in the garden of the shogun's castle in Kyoto. So much style!

Central Hall, Mitsukoshi department store, Tokyo, c. 1930
Glorious department stores to dress the diminutive
But accessories are one size fits all!

Pilgrimage was made to the boutiques and divine department stores around Shinjuku, Mitsukoshi and Isetan both earthly paradises, whereupon I did quest to try for myself the Tokyo street fashion subset which turned my head and heart so. But I failed abjectly to find twirly miniskirts and thigh-high black suede cavalier boots to fit my giantess proportions. Handbags and exquisite wood and ceramic bibelots proved the longer-lived and ultimately more stylish booby prize.

Under the dazzle of millions of lumens of ugly-beautiful neon light was a night life proving no less otherworldly to explore. After the heady delights of busy little restaurants each serving their specialty, where might one turn before piling back into the sardine-tin-subway to head home? Perhaps a strangely seedy path takes in constantly chiming and chinking pachinko parlours or the multi-storey bookshops filled with salarymen pouring over X-rated manga, waiting for the trains to come back on line after an earthquake. 

Or one could climb a wooden staircase, slide back a bamboo door and step through a hand-printed curtain to find oneself in a six-foot square bar where you are welcomed by enthusiastic and tipsy karaoke singers occupying the four other bar stools. One really cannot back through the curtain now, so after a bit of, ahem, spirited fortification, you might find the menu pushed along the bar to you, for it is only polite to contribute. The last page of the laminated book is entitled English Songs but the offerings are listed in Japanese, so you find to your blushing terror you are about to launch into "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" - who knew there were so many verses?! - the seasoned patrons joining in to cover up your halting caterwauling.

These girls know all the hot places in town
Yamakawa Shūhō, Three Sisters, painted screen, 1936

Or,  shall we seek a music experience of a different kind, guided by a friend who has nosed out such hidden treasures before. Here you step off the busy, icy street into a nondescript building, take the rattly metal lift up to a corridor of small businesses shut for the evening, into a space where the perforated ceiling panels, partition walls and fluorescent lights indicate it must once have been maybe an accountancy office. But the squashy sofas, moody table lights and smokey ambience tell you it is a jazz bar. Solemn music aficionados sit finger-clicking and nodding along to the band, the musicians all seriousness, looking like they are Japan's answer to The Style Council. Their frontman, however, more akin to Iggy Pop, is writhing on the bland carpet tiles, his skinny stockinged legs sticking out from a bubble-shaped yellow and black bumblebee costume, antennae quivering atop his head as he screeches into the microphone. 

Of course, by now you are taking Tokyo's style in your stride but you still, sensibly, won't be coveting this cooler-than-school look for yourself.

* And for which, blessedly, hardly any photographs exist. Shall I, ahem, say something withering about the embrace by the present yoof of the daggy 80s (un)fashion in a much more well-documented way?

Image credits: 1, 2, 5: Flying With Hands; 3, 7: Wikimedia Commons; 4: via Gods & Foolish Grandeur; 6: via Old Tokyo

Bats In The Belfry