Monday, December 24, 2012

Tokyo redefines luxury

We know what the world calls "luxury." Luxury is what the polished shops in the Midtown complex in Roppongi sell. Luxury is expensive things like a Cartier watch and a pair of handmade shoes (as opposed to a digital watch by Casio and a sturdy pair of Adidas running shoes). Luxury is experiences like an evening at a select inn the mountains like Seki-yo, with a bath before a beautiful dinner brought to your room by a sweet maid in kimono. Luxury is things and experiences that are not necessities but which will trigger fantasies for a long time after.

In Tokyo, there is luxury all around us, but everyone understands it is merely spectacle, not a part of our everyday lives, and there is something unreal about it. People inclined to luxurious living tend to congregate in neighborhoods like Den-en-chofu, where they know their neighbors won't snigger at their outsized foreign vehicles and their houses built of quarried stone, cut off from the world by iron gates of a baroque design. In Tokyo to show off in such an obvious way is gehin, unrefined, ill-mannered. 

But this doesn't mean that from time to time we can't indulge ourselves in luxury, just as we would drink Champagne while taking a ride on the Yokohama Ferris wheel or going to see the Vienna State Opera when it comes to town (although we know that tickets in Tokyo are much more expensive than in Vienna)--just to see what it's like, just to expand our vision of the world.

Tokyo people tend to think that luxury is not only needlessly expensive but in the end just nonsensical. Why buy a silver ballpoint pen and have your initials engraved on it when you can buy a no-nonsense ballpoint pen that works just as well for 100 yen? People who do so are obviously insecure and need help although they do not realize it.

We have no room in Tokyo to accommodate mindless luxury. Few Tokyo driveways can accommodate a Rolls Royce (which on the streets of our city looks as ridiculous as a great gray elephant, an Athenian temple on wheels) and anyway a sporty little Fiat 500 would be lots more fun and people would wave at you as to a kindred spirit. We don't have room in our closets for a new wardrobe every season and this is why there is such a healthy market here for used fashion: people must sell their familiar clothes to make room for new things. In fact, when you think about it, space in Tokyo could be thought of as the ultimate luxury, except that this is not the way we live. To us, a spacious room looks lonely.

If we know where to go, we can enjoy an honest, genuinely luxurious meal for not a lot of money, because with Japanese food simplicity and purity are the highest values. We aren't really comfortable with meals of multiple courses served separately, which seem calculated  to impress. Japanese know the world is somehow impressed by a first-class bento, which the world thinks must surely be a luxury but which Japanese take as simply the way it should be. We take fine workmanship for granted. Our toothpicks are the finest in the world--handcarved of bamboo or of polished pine with a finial. 

Now with winter creeping in and with few of our houses coddled by central heating, luxury is a warm snuggle, just as a warm bath will always be an everyday luxury to a Tokyoite. Of course we like to think it is healthier to live without being suffocated by dry heat, but we have to admit it is nice not to be pestered by the idea of Cold. I'm thinking of buying a mindlessly luxurious cashmere watch cap from Muji has perfectly serviceable woolen watch caps for a tenth the price, but what the hell. Isn't there something engagingly irrational about luxury? Luxury to most Tokyo people is the plaything of comedy.

-Zeke Suzuki

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