I went to my first official festival in Tokyo today, the Shinjuku Eisa Matsuri Festival: “The Eisa Matsuri Festival originates in Okinawa as a ritual of kyu bon (old bon), to honour the spirits of ancestors and pray for the well-being of families and the prosperity of businesses. Teodori hand dancers, sanshin three-stringed instrument players, jutei singers, clown-like characters… form a procession and dance through town to the beat of taiko drums large and small. This nationally renowned traditional event from Okinawa came to Shinjuku, Tokyo and grew into a symbol of summer. This year marks the 12th holding of the festival.”
Japanese festivals are a great way to spend an afternoon…the dancing, the music (especially the drumming) and the crowds…oh the crowds. I totally don’t recommend festivals if you are in the least bit agoraphobic, actually, I’d avoid Tokyo in general as it’s pretty much always crowded. That being said, the crowds are pretty orderly. They have tons of staff (and police) to control the flow of people, to keep passageways free and to ensure everyone can see. If you want to get closer, you just ask and you will politely be invited to step on the other side of the rope which is there to keep an open throughway. When you consider the heat (‘feels like 41 degrees’), it’s actually amazing that there are no fights, no pushing, no bad behaviour of any sort. The homeless dudes (yes, there are homeless people here) drink their sake in the shade and the families just walk on by. There was even one little blond boy who lost his mum. He was just chatting away to a policeman and some festival organizers until his frantic mum found him. No panic, just follow the “lost-child plan” though I’m sure the fact that it was a non-Japanese speaking blond kid threw them for a bit of a loop.
Apparently this festival originates in Okinawa and I was lucky enough to happen to go to Isetan department store (LOVE Isetan) where their special event space on the 7th floor was a one-day market for Okinawan specialties–food, sake, clothing, pottery and all sorts of handicrafts. Now THAT was crowded, but again, everyone patiently waits their turn to be served. No pushing. Line-ups don’t seem to be any sort of deterrent here. I guess people get used to them. I’m still not though, can’t wait in a lineup of twelve people for snacks no matter how delicious they look. There’s always a 7-11 or two on the way home…
View from the Gallery level at Hikarie Department store in Shibuya
The department stores here are epic. There’s not really any other way to describe them. They’re huge…4-10 floors including a basement and possibly a sub-basement or two. They usually have food like groceries as well as take-out boutique-style food. I mean serious food here…all kinds of Japanese food, Korean barbecue, French patisseries, Italian delis, butchers, bakers, fromageries, chocolatiers…it’s quite something. Anyway, the food does not stop here. There are usually cafes and restaurants interspersed amongst the floors in case of starvation…think high-end food court. There are often art galleries and museums on the top floor as well as public spaces and sometimes even theatres and movie theatres. Up until today I’d only been shopping but today I did my first gallery tour at Hikarie Shibuya. I saw an exhibit on Japanese puppets (amazing), an installation on travel with various ‘objets’ and a modern art exhibit. Hikarie has two floors of restaurants and cafes. And it was packed.
I guess having such a huge population supports stores like this…think Holt Renfrew (10x bigger) with about 20 stores in the downtown area. For the most part, most department stores sell fairly high-end goods and many are boutique style, housing top designers within each store. They usually have a gift section and a kimono department in addition to the usual fashion, household goods, and beauty departments. The customer service is amazing…if you go right at opening time (usually 10 or 11am), all the staff stand at the door and bow as you enter. They also bow whenever they leave the floor by turning to face outwards, bowing (even when there is no one there) and then going through the door. You rarely have to wait…if they see a lineup forming clerks will rush to a till to serve you…so that you, the honourable customer (o-kyaki sama), does not have to wait. It’s quite radically different from shopping at the Bay.