The major internal conflict I experienced on my recent trip to Japan was whether to explore the old-world — Zendos, philosopher's paths, Kabuki, tatami mats, visits to ancient spaces; or the new one — anime, arcades, bars that serve liquor while also selling puppies, artfully-packaged convenience, an industry of fluorescent fun. These two Japans run parallel to each other, seducing and dividing Western tourists. Ultimately, I chose to dive into the Harajuku mayhem that Gwen Stefani
has only scratched the surface of, and made my home base 109
— a teencentric mega-store in Tokyo's Shibuya district.
lookalikes hang out there buying keychains shaped like chickadees and having their cell phones custom-bejeweled. You can buy a tiny top hat meant to sit jauntily just above your left ear, or have fake nails applied (the best set said "I LOVE PUDDING" on each acrylic talon, a tiny smiley face leering just below the words). But my favorite product was a wide range of T-shirts with inexplicable English phrases written boldly across the chest. As soon as I spotted this one — NATURALLY PRETTINESS THE BUTTERFLY SEEKS FLORAL HONEY — I was instantly smitten. After all, the T-shirt has become what Esperanto once aspired to be: an international language. On the surface, these particular T's capitalize on the Lost In Translation
comedy of a website like Engrish.com.
But on a deeper level, they are the spiritual cousin of the haiku, freed from syllabic constraints but still elegant, economical, unknowable: they're experimental poems worn by people to whom the meaning may not be important. The "Paris Hilton: Vote Hottie" T-shirt might not fit so neatly into this category, but couldn't "HEART OF STATION" be a Ginsberg poem?
When I asked a Japanese novelist about the T-shirts she laughed at my desire to take them seriously. "Some of us butcher your language. But Americans are no better." To her, the T's occupy a role not unlike the inexplicable Asian characters tattooed on the lower backs of blonde teens on spring break in Cabo. (According to legend, Britney Spears thinks her tattoo means "Mystery" when, in fact, it says "Strange.")
My obsession with T-shirts in Tokyo opened my
eyes to a whole universe of off-kilter translations, leading to a finer appreciation for things like the charmingly-titled gourmet grocery store Cheese On The Table
nearby watering hole, The Bar of Corn Barley
. But it was the T-shirts that stole my heart, and I found myself perpetually on the lookout for the most extreme, loopy examples. On Harajuku Street I spied one that said YOU MISSED TRUE LOVE, but this didn't seem like something a supportive friend should buy for someone they claim to care about. Instead, I nabbed a few for my girlfriends with sayings like HUG IT WITH PEOPLE ALL OVER THE WORLD and I LOVE MILK OF CANDY BABY. For my sister, I found a soft pink hoodie with seafoam bubble letters: IT WAS LIKE A WORLD DREAM.
My traveling companion (who happens to be my mother) maintained an interest in historic Japan and one afternoon she dragged me to Tokyo's Imperial Palace
. I absorbed little of the well-groomed gardens, the peaceful Koi ponds, the immaculate marble walkways. Instead, I was eager to return to Razzleberry, the frozen yogurt chain that offers a flavor called "Morning Love" in three sizes — Cute, Sexy and Gorgeous. But I was glad we went to the Palace, because as we left a very old, very creaky Japanese woman in a straw sunhat hobbled past me. Her plain white T read simply, EVERYBODY LIKE SHOPPING.