For one reason or another, I have found myself in Japan at regular intervals throughout my life. The first couple of times it was because of my father’s job. Then I moved to Tokyo by myself to work. Later on, my husband was posted there, and we welcomed our son into the world in the port city of Yokohama. All this has led me to think of that country as a sort of second home, and my regularly timed returns have allowed me to experience it as a series of snapshots at different points in time. This summer we returned for a trip down memory lane after a hiatus of ten years. My, my, things do change, even in Japan.
I consider myself fortunate to have lived in a truly cosmopolitan city during my formative years. My memories of the city are tinged most vividly with the giddiness of new adulthood: first job, first business trip, catching the last train home, and so on. Tokyo was sophisticated and massively entertaining: on top of the local attractions, all the best that the world had to offer found its way into the city. In stationery as with everything else, it wasn’t necessary to become an “enthusiast,” tracking down brands and products; everything could be had easily in stores nearby. But it wasn’t only the material comforts that left a lasting impression. What I didn’t realize back then was that it was also a good place to learn how to live with grace and courtesy under extremely congested living conditions. Tokyoites still dress with care, queue religiously, refrain from talking on cell phones in commuter trains, and have an enviable knack for reading the flow of pedestrians on a crowded sidewalk. And they apologize all the time.
This time, however, we found ourselves in a substantially changed landscape. In particular, the area around Tokyo Station, Yurakucho and Marunouchi were unrecognizable. It seems as though Tokyo has been systematically replacing old buildings with new ones, most noticeably in the old downtown area; the shocking thing is that they build them so much taller now, earthquakes be damned. Another thing that was impossible to ignore was the sheer mass of Chinese people present in the city. Tokyo has always been home to a much bigger foreign population (including a sizeable Korean diaspora) than other Asian cities, but this was never enough to change the way things were done. This time it was different. Most of my fellow shoppers at Tokyu Hands and Itoya were Chinese. All of the servers at the diners and restaurants we went to during our stay (including the airport) were Chinese. The stampede was such that the shops had changed their ways in order to accommodate them: there was of course Chinese-speaking staff available, and it was much easier to get the sales tax refunded now at big stores, some of which were even equipped with passport readers to scan information directly into the machines. (Ito-ya still processes the refunds by hand at designated floors.) It is a welcome change, but I wonder what the long-term effect will be; at least I hope all this will help keep stationery manufacturers afloat.
Speaking of stationery: every family trip contains the seeds of conflict for the likes of us, because there is never enough time to visit all the shops you want, while you are also obliged to participate in more “normal” family activities like visiting the zoo. So I planned this trip carefully. First, I picked a hotel bang next to Tokyu Hands in Shinjuku. Shinjuku is a good place to stay in because it has many bookstores, stationers and department stores within walking distance that are open till 9pm or even later; the Narita Express stops here too so transportation to and from the airport is reduced to a minimum. (Time is money and never more so than during a short-term stay in Tokyo!) This way you can make use of any scrap time you have left for stationery shopping. So when my husband was winding down after a long day with a can of Yebisu and sumo on television, I would sprint across the train tracks to Tokyu Hands and stay there till they closed.
The second important thing is to cull your wishlist ruthlessly and prioritize. I only got to visit three stationery-related shops during our four-day stay: Tokyu Hands, Ito-ya and Maruzen. Of course there were scores more I wanted to visit. Sekaido. Loft. Bung Box. Kakimori. Kingdom Note. Shosaikan. And a couple of other shops I saw on Instagram. But it was not to be. But for those I did visit – and this is the third point – I managed to secure a whole afternoon for myself. So my advice is to calculate just how much off-time you will be allowed without becoming a total pariah, arrange something else for the rest of the family, and try to make the most of it :) I’ll be posting pictures of some things I got from this trip in the days to come.