Living abroad in Japan creates a number of conundrums for me when it comes to shopping. I have found that I am perhaps unreasonably attached to minor luxuries, such as favorite brands of face cleanser, foods I can visually identify, or shoes in my size. While Tokyo is a massive and modern city where probably most things in the world can be found, the rules of markets still apply – so if it is deemed that there is not much of an audience for it, you may not be able to find it for sale. I think that the absence of so many international products is directly proportional to the scarcity of international people here. I’d venture a guess that most of the things I’d be interested in getting from Japan can be located somewhere in America, but the reverse is apparently not true. Probably because America has a substantially larger community of Japanese people than Japan has of Americans. There are few foreign faces in Tokyo, and probably this is where the majority of foreigners in the country are concentrated. In my distant suburb, I may see one or two foreign faces a day. Sometimes none. I play a little game with myself sometimes that I like to call “Is that or isn’t that a white person?” where I spot a particularly tall or blond or curly-haired individual, usually from behind or far away, and try to figure out their ethnicity. But, that is neither here nor there.
Whether or not a product I want can be found here, the larger problem of being unable to read most Japanese writing means that shopping for even the most basic of household products becomes a daring game of chance. Is it laundry detergent or bleach? Or is it actually dish soap? Maybe it’s not soap at all, but actually fabric softener? Are they maxipads or diapers? Where the hell are the women’s razors kept? By comparison, going shopping in your average Target now seems like a visit to an amazing fantasy land. You mean there are aisles and aisles of products to buy, as far as the eye can see, and I can read the names and ingredients of every single thing??? It’s just too good to be true!
Lately I’ve been doggedly searching for a couple of elusive items: One is a particular brand of mousse made for a particular kind of hair…curly. This is a product which, in America, I can find in virtually any drugstore, in towns of any size, all across the nation. As I mentioned, the laws of supply and demand make this a toughie in Japan. Few, if any, people here have curly hair, so who’s going to buy this mousse other than me? Of course this is the internet age, right? what could be easier than just ordering it up on Amazon, or Walmart.com, or drugstore.com, or any number of other vendors? Sure, the shipping will be costly, but probably an investment I am willing to make. Sadly, that road leads to a dead-end. While I can buy it online, because this product happens to be a highly compressed, flammable substance, what I cannot do, is have it (legally) mailed to me in Japan. Thus far, I have been able to locate an online import company that sells other brands of curly hair specific mousse, but if you are going to actually import something as trivial as hair mousse to begin with, why not hold out for the one you really want? My next research project may be into my options for companies that ship things. By ship.
There are many well known American shops and brands which ARE readily available here. For clothes, I can still shop at Gap, Banana Republic, H&M, Forever 21, and Zara. For food, there are the ubiquitous Starbucks and McDonalds, and I’ve even seen a TGIFridays and an Outback Steakhouse. In one of the larger discount stores, I have a whole floor-to-ceiling aisle of Febreeze, Downy, Method, and even Seventh Generation products to choose from. What is a little confusing when one first starts shopping here, is the preponderance of American branded products that are not the same as their American counterparts. For instance, Dove sells a number of skincare and haircare products in most drugstores here, but I can almost guarantee you that not a single one of the products will actually be the same one you would see on your Rite-Aid’s shelf. The bottle is different, the formulation is different, and the name of the product is different. The only thing the same is the brand logo and the style of packaging. The same thing has occurred with Biore skin care products. I saw them and rejoiced at the familiar brand name, but it did me no good because I had never seen or road tested any of the products that are here anyways, so I may as well start fresh with a new brand. However, Biore won me over in the end for the simple reason that they printed some words in English on the tube, so I could at least identify the product! I had a similar and bewildering experience at the Denny’s near my work once. Ah, Denny’s – that bastion of cheap, greasy, hearty American food where you can order scrambled egg combo breakfasts with clever names at any time of the day or night and eat your bodyweight in meat and fried potatoes. Except that here, it wasn’t that place at all. Not even close. Though the logo and sign are the same, and the overall diner look of the restaurant and its interior look like they would in the US, none, NOT ONE of the items you would find on a US Denny’s menu can be ordered here. In Tokyo, it’s all Japanese food, or Japanese style versions of American foods (like the hamburg – a hamburger patty served on a sizzling platter with some veggies and sometimes fried potato wedges…not American, but you can see its roots). And (gasp!) there is no Moons Over My Hammy ANYWHERE. Actually, there are no Western breakfast items whatsoever. I ended up ordering pasta and a small salad, which was tasty and pretty American-ish, but it was not typical Denny’s food by any stretch of the imagination.
Sometimes I am also confused by which American products have managed to cross over. A lot of times they are sort of random niche items. I cannot find my beloved Nutrogena products anywhere, but I can find Dr. Bronner’s magic hippie soap in multiple scents. There is a whole line of products from Sea-Breeze, which is that blue skin toner I haven’t used since I was in high-school and wasn’t sure existed anymore. I can get Red Bull in any convenience store, but not Emergen-C, or Cliff Bars, or Powerbars, despite the obvious popularity here of Japanese energy drinks, supplements, and on-the-go snacks. Additionally, I can get Clinique, Estee Lauder, or Lancome makeup products, but not MAC, which is the brand I actually use. I can easily find a Body Shop, (or Lush which I’ve only rarely seen even in the US), but I can forget about Bath and Body Works. And sadly, there is no Sephora either, despite the fact that girls wear plenty of makeup here. Though I miss some of these familiar places, most of the time I am able to be content with the products that are available here, and in some cases I find great new things that don’t exist in the US. The “dollar” stores here are fabulous, and often have much better quality products than you would expect. And, I have found a wonderful store here called Muji, which is more or less similar to a small Ikea, in that they sell very stylishly minimalist products at very reasonable prices. So far, I am in love with their skincare and stationery products, but they also have a nice selection of quick meal kits and a wide array of linens in a whole rainbow of neutral shades. As I explore more places, get to know more people, and learn more of the language, I look forward to finding more great stuff here to take the place of those few things I miss.