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A Japanese Adventure – Part 3

Written by Lisa Spurgin, 14th May 2010

"... if her nose wasn't so small."

Komura's comment is at odds with my experience of the modern Japanese aesthetic, with its love of all things "cute". "Cute" that is in the Polly Pocket sense of the word - lest anyone accuse of me of being biased against large noses. To express what I mean about the Japanese idea of "cute", let me tell you of our visit to MaiDreamin, a maid cafe which Nikki, Daz and I visited in Tokyo's Akihabara aka 'Electronic City'. Akihabara has earned its other name because it is choc-a-bloc with first and second hand electronic shops; but it is also famed for its maid cafes, born of the area's manga mania. Waitresses or maids dressed in a variety of maid costumes - from naughty to proper (Victorian) - pepper the pavements with leaflets with the intention of drawing you into their cafe. Once inside, that maid becomes your personal waitress: a role that in our experience included being encouraged to sing along in Japanese whilst forming a heart shape with one's hands every time a dish was presented; and for the young couple sat on a neighbouring table included playing Jenga with their waitress. Whilst sat in MaiDreamin enjoying a cupcake with a grown up drink, our waitress (dressed in a girl's tea-party outfit complete with heart print stockings and plaits finished with silk ribbon) stopped by our table to compliment Nikki on her "sooo cute face" and her "tiny features". "I love cute faces!" she exclaimed before scuttling out of sight. Nikki is very petite and just before we left England had her hair (naturally brunette) dyed bright blond and cut short into the fashionable 'urchin' style. We couldn't hide our amusement at this encounter for long. The impromptu-ness of it coupled with the light irony of our 'maid' commenting on another's cuteness would have been enough to draw a smile, yet the room also looked like an explosion in Hamleys’ Barbie section: decked floor to ceiling in candyfloss pink and teddy bears, and furnished to resemble a 1950s American diner. It reminded me of something Frenchie of 'Grease: the Musical' might have dreamt up in her 'Beauty School Dropout' sequence.

Of course, Komura's observation about the "too small nose" might only be significant in terms of the girl he's describing. It could be that her nose looks out of place amongst larger features. Perhaps it was more out of respect for her pocket that our waitress/maid complimented Nikki (and in doing so drew further attention to her own attractive cutesy persona) in one of the few catering establishments in Japan where tips are worked for as opposed to being considered an insult (probably due to the emphasis on waitress as entertainer rather than mere server). Yet "cute" was the overused adjective of the three weeks we spent in Japan: uttered by the Japanese - "Kampai" ("How cute") - and us "gaijin" (foreigners) alike. So much so that Nikki enforced a ban on the 'c word'. However it's a hard habit to break when Hakuba goth girls match frilly pleated skirts with studded black PVC and twenty face piercings; when the sharpest suits (both sexes) flip open the most advanced touch phones with a jingle created by phone charms, all beads and bells; when the intercom at each major train station sounds a unique jingle/chirp like a robot bird to greet one's arrival as the train doors open (and which are available to download to your phone as an alert tone); when the upholstery of priority seats on the tube are printed with disability and pregnant lady logos to remind one to be considerate; when electronic toilets complete with heated seats and bidet facilities offer a flush noise button to disguise natural noises.

Phone charms and bag charms are a favourite amongst teenagers, particularly females. Practically every souvenir shop (frequented by natives as much as tourists) has a 'Hello Kitty' phone charm stand with tens of alternative themed Kitty varieties. The youth as a whole like to accessorise: they have quirky down to a tee. Quirky is in fact the norm, so that there's a certain clique factor to young fashion despite its foundation on individuality. Though Harajuku girls boast greater eccentricity than London's Camden crowd, the former's ensembles betray a love of coordination: whether by colour, pattern and cut, and often brilliantly, by all three at once. Many Tokyoites sport smoother lines than Barcelona's fashionistas, but they don't restrict themselves to black and rich colours; or if they do, they'll opt for a daring mix-match. Japanese fashion followers like to show off their ability to play with modern trends - with an emphasis on play - though that's not to suggest that they lack pride in their appearance. You could not accuse the Japanese of that. For a lover of the Vivienne Westwood look - of clashing prints and outlandish shapes (tartan, pleats, and too many layers to comprehend are also staples amongst Japanese trendies) - the Japanese love of order seems paradoxical to the essence of eccentricity. I find myself searching for the 'scruffs' or even just the 'average joes' for relief from so many uber fashionable and super neat dressers. These constitute an intimidating majority that puts my backpacker (not 'flashpacker') clothes to shame. As for scruffs, I spy no more than three whilst Nikki and I wait to meet her friend Saki in the entrance of Shibuya station during rush hour.

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