New Years in Japan is different than the raucous party holiday we celebrate in the States. It’s more like Thanksgiving or Christmas: a time for families. Generations gather to ring in the coming year, which certainly makes more sense than masses of strangers standing in the freezing cold to watch an oversized disco ball. Instead, midnight brings the peals of Buddhist temple bells across the country, ringing a traditional 108 times to rid the new year of the 108 earthly desires.
The following days are customarily a time of reflection. Families visit their ancestral Shinto shrines and wish for good fortune. They exchange postcards – similar to our Christmas cards – to keep in touch with friends and family and bestow blessings for the year to come. Traditional food, termed osechi, abounds.
However, much like Western holidays, modern materialism has reared its ugly head. In the US we gather round a beautifully bedecked table piled high with turkey and trimmings to celebrate Thanksgiving as a day for family and gratitude. But come Friday morning at 5 am, extreme shoppers across America line up in the freezing cold, seeking the deal of a lifetime. And the Japanese shopaholics are no different. Rather than visiting familial shrines, shoppers rush to their favorite stores in hopes of grabbing a highly anticipated “Lucky Bag.”
Akin to our “Black Friday,” New Years’ Day is all about sales! This year, Gap advertised everything 50% off, and Japanese stores had similar promotions. But the most coveted items are the “Lucky Bags,” similar to doorbuster deals. With only a handful available at each store, the bags are a mysterious sampling of the shops’ products: a collection of lotions and soaps from a boutique or a complete outfit from a clothing store. Prices range from $50 – $5000, but you’re guaranteed to only pay a fraction of the merchandise’s true value. For instance, last year Apple charged approximately $300 per bag. Fifty or so lucky people received a MacBook Pro. More than 100 found an iPad. And other customers received Apple TVs, Beats headphones, iPhone chargers, and accessories. No matter what you get, it’s exciting. But the real thrill is the surprise, the gamble. A test of this new year’s luck!
Seizing the moment, Alex and I decided to celebrate a Japanese New Year. On January 1st we went to a shrine in Kamakura and visited the Great Buddha. We watched as families, dressed in kimonos, posed in front of Shinto gardens, and we sampled the fare of New Years Day – though we drew the line at clam spaghetti with baby fish sprinkled on top like parmesan.
But the next day we awoke at 5:00 AM to catch the 6:27 train to Tokyo, hoping to be the first in line for Apple’s Lucky Bag extravaganza. Needless to say we were surprised when we approached the store and noticed no one else in the vicinity. We’d heard they were to open two hours early, with lines expected around the block. So when we walked up at 7:40 we were mightily confused. After standing around awkwardly for twenty minutes, we translated some Japanese articles online and discovered that Apple had canceled this year’s Lucky Bags. The excuse was employee morale (mimicking the American Black Friday cancelation trend), but truthfully they probably realized giving away $2000 computers for just $300 doesn’t make a ton of financial sense, tradition be damned.
Disappointment is an understatement. My husband, an avid tech geek, was practically giddy with anticipation all morning – Christmas Part II. But his face fell when he realized he wasn’t getting an Apple Lucky Bag. We tried to shake it off, but clearly there was a gloom upon the day even Taylor Swift couldn’t lift.
We stood in the middle of the famed Shibuya intersection, debating our next move. Determined to get at least one Lucky Bag, we searched for a place to spend our money, and by chance we chose the department store Shibuya109. The doors had just opened at nine and crowds were swarming like bees to honey. Gamely, we plunged into the chaos. Apple may have gotten us down, but we weren’t down for the count.
Entering the store, a film crew stops me, and their translator asks if they could follow me around and document my shopping trip. More than a little surprised, I respond that it’s fine, but I have no idea what I’m doing… The translator laughs, relays it to the crew – who also laugh – and off we go. Alex, ever the photojournalist, follows them following me. We are quite the spectacle.
109 is a massive department store, but this location is all women’s clothing. Six full floors of it. And in Japan, fashions are… different. Many stylish men and women adopt distinctive genres or subcultures of clothing. You will see women wearing all white and cream, dressed to the nines with pearls, sparkle, and feminine white stilettos. Then there’s the boxy look, consisting of oversized gray sweaters, large white button downs, skinny jeans, and chunky combat lace-ups. And then there are the crazy women who wear 6” stiletto thigh-high boots, paired with teeny-tiny ripped jean shorts and – in a slight nod to the 40-degree weather – a tight leather jacket. Of course there are many even more outrageous styles, such as the Lolita look, inspired by Victorian and Edwardian fashion – corsets and parasols included. No matter what your style, you can find a store that caters to you in 109. Unless, of course, you are an American tourist who wears neither fuzzy sweaters bedazzled with Swarovski nor punk leather jackets with gold studs along the shoulders and all down the back.
But with a film crew following me, I was quite the sight all by myself.
I’m sure I frustrated them as I explored the foreign store, frantically inspecting every shop in hopes of finding something I’d even consider wearing. As we rounded each corner, the sales girls would spy the cameras and start to jump up and down, shrieking in Japanese. (There’s a fad here for young women to speak in affected high-pitched nasal tones that are a bit abrasive to the American ear.) And then the cameras would capture me making a variety of stunned, under-enthused, surprised, and sometimes pained faces as I continued to look for something “normal.”
Finally on the fifth floor I had to make a decision. Alex was tired of following my camera crew, and I was tired of answering the same three questions over and over again. “What are you feeling?” “Do you have anything like this where you’re from?” “Do you like this?” So I bite the bullet and buy my very first “Lucky Bag.” I chose the most neutral store I can find, featuring black and white clothes that seem pretty generic – at least there’s nothing with chain on it! I ask my translator (who really came in handy!) how it works, and she helps me pick my bag from the few remaining. I nervously hand over ¥10,080 (approximately $90). Then I’m instructed to leave the boutique: you can’t open the bags inside. I’m led to a back staircase, where a group of Japanese teenagers have already made camp, feverishly sorting through their ten “Lucky Bags”… each!
With the cameras rolling, I slowly unzip mine and fish out of the first item, attempting to keep a neutral face in case it’s hideous, wishing not to offend. Fortunately it’s a white and black knit sweater. Phew! Of course I then discover it’s a midriff-bearing sweater, matched with an identical tube knit skirt. So, that’d be … interesting. Next comes a plain black dress with a bit of lace detail. Finally! I smile and say I like it – “very me” I tell them. (Follow-up: I tried it on at home. It’s sooo short. I’d need some serious courage and dark, opaque tights to even consider this look!) The bag also contains a furry white cardigan (grandpa/Furby) and an oversized black peacoat made of a cheaper-looking material.
Well, that was fun. So I smile, answer the same three questions once more, try to laugh, and then wave bye-bye.
No-no! There’s more, I’m told! Now we trade!
Yes, we must exit the building to find partitioned “trading” areas with security guards (there to prevent any cat fights). Dozens of early birds who’ve already purchased numerous Lucky Bags are now bartering and trading their way to better items. My translator tells me to step over the barricade and set up shop! So I awkwardly haul myself over the orange railings and put down my new bag.
I look around and watch as other girls speak rapid Japanese, showing off their wares and debating deals. With cameras pointedly staring at me, I unzip the bag, pulling out the wool peacoat. It’s not my style – very boxy – and wouldn’t be something I’d usually wear. So, looking around in an attempt to mimic others, I hold up my black coat and try to smile. For a moment, everyone looks at me, tilting their heads slightly as if to think it over, and then they all go back to their business. No takers, I guess.
At this point I start to pack up. I fold the coat and lean down to return it to my oversized bag. “No!” motions the cameraman.
The translator tells me I should keep trying… Yeah. Because attempting to trade in a completely foreign language isn’t hard enough without Japanese television following me around. So I hold it up once more and try to smile more forcibly. After a couple of very awkward minutes, I gather my courage and turn to one of the girls on my right. I mumble my iffy Japanese and then smile and hold the coat toward her. She laughs, shakes her head, and crosses her fingers in front of her like an “x.” That’s no in pretty much every language.
I repeat this process several times to no avail. After a while, I honestly can’t believe they are still filming. I look pretty pathetic. No one likes my ugly coat (sorry, I have to be truthful). I’m feeling defeated while smiling stupidly as the camera pushes into my personal space.
After what seems like an hour, a new girl (our numbers have now grown to over a hundred) approaches me and pushes her puffy black jacket into view. She cocks her head to the side, lifts her eyebrows and nods, asking “yes?” It isn’t beautiful. But it’s very Japanese. And it looks very warm. So “Yes!” “Yes! Yes Yes!” It will finally be over and we can go about our day. I make the deal! Then I cram the much larger coat in an already bursting bag, throw it over my shoulder, smile at the cameras and make to leave. That is until…
“Interview?” I hear from the interpreter. Of course… more questions! I am able to honestly say it’s unlike anything else. She asks how I feel. I respond: tired! She asks if I like my clothes. I lie and say: absolutely! I describe the awkwardness of trading, emphasizing how language barriers make it more difficult. And she asks what I think of Japanese style. “It’s different,” I say, treading lightly, “but so much fun!”
And truthfully, it is. While they might have unique genres of dress we don’t see in the States, they wear it proudly. Whether they look like a fairy tale princess or gothic overlord, they are confident. And frankly, I am a bit jealous. I’d love to wear whatever I like with no thought of anyone else’s opinion. And maybe someday I’ll get there. But until then, I will continue to subtly stare from afar and appreciate the diversity that is Japanese fashion.
More importantly, I will be prepared for next January 2nd. I wouldn’t miss it for the world! But I’ll know which stores to hit and work on a few key phrases in Japanese to improve my chances. And hopefully I’ll be able to shop without the cameras.