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.