Takashimaya, in Yokohama, is the Japanese Selfridge’s. Along with its great rival, Sogo, on the other side of the station, this beloved institution provides all that any self-respecting person could want in terms of clothing, cosmetics, jewellery, and the gourmet bento box. And perfume, also, although, compared to Isetan Shinjuku and its array of harder to get niche, Takashimaya may come across as rather conservative (because it is).  All the exclusive lines from Chanel, Hermès, Armani Privé and the like can nevertheless be found here, along with Guerlain, Bond, Sisley, Bulgari and the usual, more standard, suspects.





What is not so usual though, for the ‘westerner’ at least, is the way that you are welcomed in this place, if you happen to find yourself there at opening time, as I did – to my horror – once, when for some reason I was passing through the store to get to a record shop on the other side (it makes for quite a good short cut, usually) and had just got there, as fate would have it, at the moment that it opened. I was, one of, if not the first customer in there.






Where in any other country you would be greeted perhaps with a twinkling, purse-lipped stare; hands clasped firmly in front, at the waist, in that wry, air hostess pose of courtesy, in Japan, it is an entirely different kettle of fish: the air clanging with the shrill, bird-like cries of welcome and appreciation; seas parting and opening for you like Moses on the mount – a gently rippling wave of reverence, clerk upon clerk bowing down rigidly, slowly, and formally, as you pass by them with a volume controlled, throat-clenched, but very insistent ‘irrashaimase!!’, not pausing or coming up for breath until you have safely passed their sales space, which, when they do, they do so, measuredly as a crane, until the next king-is-customer passes by blindly; nonchalantly, head held high, surveying what is on offer in the store, ignoring completely the mewling vassals grovelling insincerely, still, at their feet.






This was my first (and last) time: I had simply not been expecting this, and had no idea what to do.  No:   sh-sh-shhh, n-n-n….no ssh-ssssssshhh please don’t, I cry inwardly,, not knowing where to look; no, n-no for god’s sake get up will you, this is mortifying, mortifying  ! S t o p it!!  Jesus!  Grown men and women bowing down gracefully and worshipfully as I pass by, blushing and deeply embarrassed, in God-like, emperor fashion, the contemptuous, head-lopping Queen Of Hearts as I sharpen my eyes cruelly and puff up, now, inexorably, with power:    ” OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!!”  I find myself screeching at the top of my lungs as one lowly assistant fails to achieve the appropriate tilted 45º angle and I come at her with my sword  – and a carefully combed, meticulously groomed head of long black hair goes shooting across the shiny polished floor like a German soccer ball pounding a Brazilian net.



GET OUT OF MY WAY cry I in vexed irritation, desperate, now, scything, threshing through them with my swooshing, flashing sword, as boot-licking make-up ladies bow deep, right down to the waist and go flying in all directions in chunks –  pitiably, their beautiful, Shiseido-stained lips and toned, trained, facial muscles still fixed in the stiff, pre-ordained morning rictus of awe.





Then, on that  one, and only occasion , I was, truly, screaming inside, wanting to disappear, just   GET ME OUT OF HAYYY-RRRRRR:;;;;;;     feeling, indeed, like some cruel, imperial master, with slaves at the ready to fawn over my every move and to kowtow into submission as I approached the coruscating gloss of their brightly polished concessions, desperately eyeing possible escape routes and making a beeline for the door (“WHERE’S THE BLOODY EXIT!!!”);  to get out of this nightmare of veneration, which I had never in my life experienced before and which I have avoided ever experiencing since.





















Except, most memorably, for one, excruciating, occasion with the Duncan, at another relatively esteemed establishment : Marui (aimed more at the ‘younger shopper’) than Takashimaya, but still, naturally, maintained with the levels of utter politeness one takes for granted in the rightfully dubbed Land Of The Greatest Service In The World; where you get what you pay for, where the customer is queen.







What applies to the jubilantly grave welcoming of each and every customer as they enter the doors of the store of a morning is also true, of course, for the evening, as well, and the moment when the o-kyaku-san are making their ways to the exits laden down with their beautifully designed paper bags to the backdrop of Auld Lang Syne, which everyone in Japan knows signals, gently but energetically, that it’s time to go  ( in China the preferred tune is, apparently, the even more subtle ‘Going Home’ by Kenny G),  and D and I were there among them, making our way out of the store, me having sampled some perfume upstairs, he probably having purchased yet another pair of shoes, and we found ourselves coming down the escalators, passing by the male and female assistants on each floor who had, naturally, lowered their heads and their eyes; hands clasped delicately together in self-effacement as the shoppers came towards them down from the floor above, bowing in exhausted thanks for their patronage, the exact moment that Duncan suddenly decided, once we had reached the mezzanine, to do up his shoelaces.










As he took his time, crouched, correctly doing up each lace, me boredly chewing gum and lost in my own thoughts and wondering where were going to go next, I suddenly, to my aghast amazement, looked over and saw that, dear lord…………… their heads were still down.







Bowed down at the waist, waterfalls of carefully combed, thick black hair like Sadako-chan in The Ring: stuck, rigidly, in that position, unable to move up properly until each customer had passed their way properly, been remerciated completely.







Duncan!!  D u n c a n!!!!!!   Hurry up!!!  Look!! Their heads are still down, they can’t move ……….hurry up with that f*%$@ shoelace before they both have brain haemorrhages, will you, get  U P…….








I don’t know what those clerks must have been thinking as they stood there, bent over, face down, the blood draining slowly from their heads, and they pondered their impending deaths, but I do know that I stared at them in cultural disbelief as we finally got onto the next, ever-descending escalator and I watched them slowly; ashen-faced; rise back to the starting position.



















These are the only two times in Japan that I have been in the (un)fortunate position of being the recipient of such blood-curdlingly polite service. It isn’t for me, this aspect of the society, and it wasn’t for my mother either, when she came the first time after I had not long arrived and we were being served by a waiter in a  Kyoto restaurant (“Ooh no, I don’t like this: he’s a bit subservient, isn’t he?”), but if you do, for some reason, have secret, unexpressed, delusions of grandeur, and fancy the fantasy of lording it over the masses like a cruel, empress dowager, then I do fully recommend trying this out as part of the Japan Cultural Package if you ever do find yourself coming to Tokyo or Yokohama; to fully do the royal shopping experience, with all the exquisitely executed service that you know in your heart you were born to be given.





Surely, one day myself, if I can face it  (drunk?)  I should also try out the guaranteed-to-be-spectacular opening time in Isetan, Shinjuku. It must be strangely thrilling, discombobulating, to be there in the finest department store in Japan, at the grand, matinal overture each day, with such a huge staff-to-customer ratio, where you can practically trip over black-clad assistants as you intrepidly take a deep breath and go in, walking in there, as the iron and glass doors swing open, and carpets of immaculately trained and turned out workers bow down in staggered unison as you pass them by…….. it must truly feel like true consumerist heaven: customer as empress: pure dominion.










































Filed under Flowers


  1. Your experience actually made me feel somewhat “down” and happy not to be shopping in Japan…not that I do much shopping any more anywhere due to lack of funds…saved only to spend on perfumes that I feel like I must possess. Most of my shopping is done virtually on line. Not feeling sorry for myself because the last time I went to a big mall to do a very little shopping, I had a most uncomfortable feeling and the desire to flee the area. Perhaps that is a good thing or also perhaps of the fact that even the very little shopping I do, I do on line!
    I recently went to California and did walk the famous Rodeo Drive and also Abbott Kinney, among others. I did not feel intimidated as I already knew that my budget was limited and I really didn’t need most of those things anyway. However, I am always on the lookout for new perfumes and if I actually fall in love with one, I will eventually purchase it.

  2. Epic! EPIC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    And so hilarious, I find myself almost wheezing with laughter.

    Honestly, I have no words but EPIC, which I would put in bold and size 25 font, if I could. BRAVO!!!

    (I shall now go retreat to a corner, reread parts of this, and hope I don’t cough up a lung or two from the hysterical laughter that overtook me the first time around.)

  3. Nancysg

    I don’t believe I am “emperor” material. I can only imagine being totally uncomfortable with the bowing SA’s. Guess I should enjoy the non-existent employees in Macy’s.

  4. Sitting at home in cloudy Lancashire with a streaming headcold (why are summer colds so bad) and a throat filled with broken glass, I happened to read your post and I laughed so much I cried.. The shoelace tying sequence was the funniest thing but only to read about it second hand.. I would have died with embarrassment if I had been the bowee..
    Thank you so much for freeing me from my self pitying indulgence on a miserable afternoon.

    • And thank you, sincerely, for making me laugh out loud and smile the other end as well. It is all true (except, obviously, for the massacre in Takashimaya).

      Are you a regular reader or did you stumble across this mad post ( I just woke up this morning, remembered those events, and came down stairs and wrote about it) by accident, when looking up something else?

  5. No I am a silent admirer. I found you and other perfume blogs some time last year but you have such a charming turn of phrase I read your every word.. And incidentally I have learned so much about fragrance in the reading. Thank you so much for entertaining and educating me.

  6. The shoelace tying incident is Priceless. That will keep my giggling for ages now.
    I do have to admit though, i adore that special type of treatment. I used to love closing time at Takashimaya in NYC, when it was still existing there, where they would bow as people were leaving. I do not know if the American staff did it, but the Japanese staff there most definitely did. I guess I enjoy that little bit of special treatment for a few different reasons;
    a) service in the states here goes between two extremes, non-existent and faux-friendliness mixed with WAY too much over-familiarity. Then the other end of the spectrum, the disdain and avoidance some of these salespeople have is extraordinarily horrid. I sometimes quote Edina from AbFab “You only work in a shop you know, you can drop the attitude.” Which really hits the mark. So when I am truly treated well, I am very, very pleased.
    b)Why do these salespeople, I do not know, insist on calling me by my first name, that they have just seen on my credit card? They have such audacity they do not even use my family name, but rather my given name. it really bothers me something terrible. There is a severe lack of respect and boundaries here in the US; everyone wants to act like your “buddy”, yet it is all fake and contrived
    c) All salespeople, whether it is in a Macy’s, Bloomingdales or Neiman Marcus, seem to just be WAY too focused on opening store charge cards. Way too focused.
    d) All salespeople here act far too surprised when i make a huge purchase, or do not purchase anything at that given time. Either way, act with respect and professionalism, not as if you were just kicked by a mule to the back of the head.

    Well, I guess I am the only one here who has piped up affirmatively for being treated like an Empress. Though considering I do not act like one, I guess the scales balance 😉

    • Fantastically put!

      I know exactly what you mean about the familiarity. Starbucks tried for a while asking your name, then shouting out ‘Neil, your latte is ready’ and it somehow horrified me, and I suppose the politeness here is SO deep, and codified, that in some ways it could almost be considered relaxing. I think now I am more used to it: this story is me remembering my first experience of it, quite a few years ago now.

  7. ninakane1

    Hahahahahaha! Crazy shit! This is another brilliant reflection of your vie Japonaise. Love the shoelace story! I can just see Duncan absorbed and oblivious, perfecting the loops of the lace as the poor sods bowed low wondering whether this English guy would ever rise. Perverse of me perhaps, but I love the intensity of that culture – dedication to a role that goes beyond the bounds of practicality and endurance for some abstract notion. It sounds an experience that could only happen in Japan. Mind you I once had Christmas Dinner at the Ritz, alone, (long story!), and when I was the last to leave (drunk) and ambled out slinging my mink stole over my shoulder film-star style (a much-practised move), the waiters made this long line, bowed and clapped as I walked past, the last one opening the door with a flourish. It was very tongue-in-cheek – we were all grinning away and giggling and I bowed low and thanked each one in turn as I moved along- but there was this intense formality to it and it was clearly something they did a lot! Very surreal – the whole room was painted pink and gold and the waiters were immaculate. It was all a bit camp. Felt like Elizabeth Welch making her way down the line of sailors in Jarman’s The Tempest crooning Stormy Weather…!

    • My god that is a SERIOUSLY wonderful anecdote about The Ritz. I love that: and think that on the whole such spontaneous, semi-ironic behaviour here would be quite impossible.

      At the same time, I know what you mean about the beauty of the extremity here. It’s like some bizarre, life-long, gut-clenching performance, but I think they can just slip into it without thinking, like a glove, almost finding it comforting as you don’t really have to think, while doing it. Just spout the lines and bow at the right angle.

      Having said that, I do think that some people’s facial muscles must be very tired.

  8. Lilybelle

    I am not dowager empress material either, so I would probably feel uncomfortable with that experience, and yet…it must be so incredibly surreal looking. I am fascinated by the Japanese ritualization of courtesy and beauty – from a distance anyway. I’ve never been to Japan, nor even to Takashimaya when I lived in NY, but I have a set of blue & white Japanese dishes from the thrift shop marked Takashimaya San Francisco on the back. I suppose that is as close as I’ll get, but you never know! 😉

  9. Katherine

    I wonder if they would do it totally indiscriminately though? If there were a trampy person or some eccentric misfit that returned every day… I’m not saying I would like this, but I definitely prefer a bit of graceful old school formality to the American (and perhaps Antipodean here in London?) way that Brielle describes and also hate that thing where they look really surprised when you decide to make a large purchase without coercion, coupled with slackness or ignorance in the first place! There are definitely some places, though I can’t think where, that still have some class and good manners (and I love Nina’s story of how they do Christmas at the Ritz!), though I can’t say I have the experience or confidence to know all the formalities it’s best when people are nice and basically know what they’re doing! I haven’t been shopping in ages, but was upset when I went to Fenwick the other day, the ground floor of which is calm a lovely with a carpeted underwear department in the far corner, everything nicely proportioned, to find that they have put in a new fancy marble-floored shoe department, which was being patrolled by lots of flashy staff and it totally ruins the peaceful quality, not to mention the relegation of what was once a nicely selected underwear and sleepwear selection to an in between bit on one of the floors in favour of the more bling money-making accessories (I guess they do need to update to compete). Anyway sorry that was a bit of a rant, and it shouldn’t matter, but going there was like being accompanied by a lovely aunt or mother figure, plus you could always find really lovely things in the sale. It makes me think of the horrible way they’ve tried to squeeze all of the profit out of the limited space at Liberty since it was taken over, there’s no room to breathe in that store, it’s horrible. And when I went to the Lafayette in Paris, not that it was my favourite type of architecture, but the beauty hall was so ugly and the pushing of ‘new’ just so in your face it’s like a violence against the design of the building. Sorry, massive tangent!

    • No, I find all of it very interesting.

      Ultimately, a mix of the two would be best, I think. Some Japanese Ultimate Politeness mixed with some Euro/American humanity. When the politeness is mixed with snobbery though, as it is in Hermes Marunouchi, it is VILE. I actually almost hit the woman in question: instead I slammed the door and stormed out. The way she was looking at me, as though I were a piece of shit, horrified by my mere presence (a tramp indeed, even though it was one that knew WAY more about the perfumes than she did) was a an experience I have never been able to forget. Hermes Japan is sickening.

  10. HA!! This is so good: “GET OUT OF MY WAY cry I in vexed irritation, desperate, now, scything, threshing through them with my swooshing, flashing sword, as boot-licking make-up ladies bow deep, right down to the waist and go flying in all directions in chunks – pitiably, their beautiful, Shiseido-stained lips and toned, trained, facial muscles still fixed in the stiff, pre-ordained morning rictus of awe.”

    Pity the hapless web-wandering perfume lover whose introduction to the mind of Neil Chapman is this sadistic retail bloodbath. OR they might be totally hooked! I just love it, knowing you to the limited (but delighted) extent that I do.

    My ideal shopping experience: the store is empty, I have the run of the place for hours and hours, I spray/try on with wild abandon, there’s not a salesperson in sight, and only at the very end is there someone to hand me my shopping bag with a (genuine) smile (while throwing in several fistfuls of high-end and niche samples).

    There are two kinds of “help” in fragrance departments that kill me. The first is the all-over-me-like-a-rash-and-won’t-let-me-go-but-don’t-know-a-damn-thing approach. The second — there is one woman I’m thinking of at Vancouver’s swankier department store — is the I-am-the-sole-authority tack, where there’s this heavy aura of entirely unasked-for competition. Where I’m one-upped at every turn while I’m just trying to be polite and unassuming and get some information or discuss a fragrance. It feels horrible, kind of hostile. They have this condescending attitude that is simultaneously pedantic . . . only they’re actually most often wrong about what they’re patiently “educating” me about. They don’t seem to have the capacity to actually have a conversation that goes back and forth in a relaxed, egalitarian way. They can’t actually hear that I have something informed to say. Oh my gosh, that sounds like a horrible rant, but it’s been bothering me for years, this one person. And me being me, I just go on hyper-polite, obsequious mode. I just do not know how to be assertive. I’m more mad at myself than anything. I walk out feeling like a hopeless doormat.

    Okay, I feel a bit better. Still ashamed of myself, though.

    • So no lopping off of heads and mass decapitations?

      I was in the opposite kind of place yesterday, plodding wearily and uglyily through a drab, cheap discount department store when I suddenly remembered I once wrote this.

      Of course it is a silly crazed delirium of Alice In Wonderland meets the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but a good representation of my acute discomfort of being in a bobbing sea of obsequious shop assistants, bowing – literally like a sea parting. It is hilarious and fascinating but I just can’t take it!

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