Japan, November, 2015
It’s 11 pm, Tokyo time, and under the ultra stark fluorescent lighting of ROX Department store’s snack section, I fixate on a “Crunky” chocolate bar, debating whether or not it will complement the sake-in-a-juicebox carton I found one aisle over. Having just arrived in Japan and going on nearly 36 hours of little-to-no sleep, I find choosing between the “Crunky”, “Melty Kisses” and “Fettuccine” brand hard candies seems like a monumental decision. The packaging of all displayed candies, snack items and sake flaunt an explosion of fonts, electric colors, Japanese expressions and, in many cases, super charged, albeit ambiguous, characters.
In my near delirious state, I am particularly drawn to a package of fried something, showcasing a green turtle with a yellow penguin-like beak who is decked out in a necktie. He’s hanging out with his lady, a large crustacean who’s pursing her full, red lined, Angelina Jolie lips. The mutant turtle penguin has two identical kids sporting shrimp head shaped winter beanies, complete with antennae. The cold weather gear, upon closer inspection, actually appears to be severed baby (sibling?) shrimp heads.
Somewhat disturbed, I turn to the display of a more recognizable item: Kit Kats. But even surveying the staggering stacks of Kit Kats with their wide array of flavors including, Wasabi, Cognac, Purple Sweet Potato and Matcha (green tea), is overwhelming.
Essentially, despite being tired, I feel like an unsupervised, euphoric kid in this candy store, buying a basket full of crazy goods, including a candy kit of highly accurate looking miniature donuts with every type of sprinkle and glaze imaginable. I’m not sure if the sweets come as pictured or if molds are involved. It looks like some assembly may be required. It doesn’t matter because the end result depicted looks so worth it.
That is what I have come to love about the Land of the Rising Sun — it’s a whimsical, swirly, Technicolor, mystifying, sweet, savory, wacky land of wonder. Often, during my first visit, with my sister Suzanne, we had no idea of exactly what we were looking at or what was the actual impetuous for certain cultural phenomena.
So much of what you see in Japan is vaguely familiar yet a new discovery at the same time. The country inherently cultivates a curious mind. You feel giddy, playful and adventurous — like an explorer or a treasure hunter.
Vending Machine Vanguards
Certainly Japan inspires a treasure hunt mentality with its many vending machines. These treasure troves, which sell anything from umbrellas, books, and flowers to porn, appear all over the country at train stations, tourist sites, airports — even some temples have vending machines for devotees who may want religious souvenirs, paraphernalia or simply a serving of sake.
In fact, beverage — including alcohol— vending machines are especially common in Japan. While it is evident what will arrive after you deposit the appropriate sum and push a button, it is not necessarily clear to a non-resident exactly what the contents of that item truly are. Match, a Mountain Dewish yellow drink, declares “Let’s Vitamin!” which is much more appealing than the cloudy Pocari Sweat, a “Supply Drink.” Is it supposed to re-supply the perspiration you may have lost during a particularly vigorous workout or round of sightseeing?
Milk Coffee, on the other hand, which promises a “Precious Coffee Moment” encourages one to reflect somewhat philosophically on its ingredients.
Ultimately, I settled on what I believed to be a green tea energy drink. I was drawn to the vibrant green label and elegant, vertical Japanese calligraphy.
While beverage vending machine provide discoveries with new flavors — along with thought provoking phrases containing novel adjectives, verbs and nouns — they do not offer objects meeting “collectible” criteria. However, Japan furnishes toy vending machines that, indeed, dispense plastic capsules of sought after items, mainly knick-knacks like the bizarre creatures depicted on candy and snack packages. These trinkets come in the form of small key chains, standard shelfables and coffee mug accessories — yes, coffee mug accessories.
Incidentally, the fact that the mini figures rest on the side of a mug or glass like a cocktail garnish or that people would want a small plastic choking hazard perched on their drinking receptacle is not the strangest part. No, the actual weird aspect, especially in one particular case, is the choice for miniature mug mate — a uniformed school girl who contorts into various gymnastic balance beam positions including a back bend, center splits, “Russian Lever” and so on. She’s also adept at merely hanging on the side of the mug with her hands and legs or sitting with her legs crossed and giving a coy tilt of her eye glasses.
Other available versions of the schoolgirl mug mate include her in a sitting stance with butterfly wings or clasping the stems of two large cherries. While mildly provocative, she doesn’t come off as “naughty,” like a Brittney Spears schoolgirl video extra with a hiked up skirt, shirt tied as a midriff and lollipop in mouth. No, the figure is more of an innocent college student. She seems unaware that she reveals her white underwear while performing the various acrobatics. This creepy effect is not helped by the English translation of instructions taped on the vending machine that read: “Insert money slowly please.” YIKES. Interestingly, these vending machine fetish action figures are sold at toy stores, including a wildly busy one in Harajuku, the shopping juggernaut of Tokyo. However, I don’t know why this still doesn’t seem devious — it’s more kitschy than anything.
Another vending fetish action figure, perhaps the gymnast schoolgirl’s older sister, showcases her preference to be encased in sushi. Sushi Girl, available in the form of a key chain or glass/mug sidekick, comes in six different suggestive versions. For example, the sushi enthusiast comes curled up under a large piece of shrimp or salmon; lolling in the middle of seaweed rolled sushi (Hosomaki) or lounging in the midst of a seaweed bed of fish eggs (Gunkanmaki). It is assumed, by the ample show of skin, Sushi Girl has no clothes on. She’s naked but not afraid.
Not sure if we should be amused or disturbed, Suz and I, were swept up in the spirit, and we each inserted our two yen coins into a machine at Jonathan’s, billed as a family restaurant, to get Sushi Girl. Ending up with the keychain version of Sushi Girl bathing in the Gunkanmaki fish egg bubblebath, I immediately attached her to the zipper on my purse. In the US, I’d find it tacky to display an objectified Sushi Girl so prominently. However, in Japan, it seemed completely normal to do this.
What’s more, Suz and I wanted to collect all six. The last time we both devoted the time and effort to acquire every version of an object was during a road trip when we avidly searched in gas stations and gift shops for huge pencils that represented each state by depicting the particular highlights of that state. I remember feeling especially proud of the California pencil, showcasing the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hollywood sign.
Move over Hello Kitty
In addition to creating an opportunity to collect baffling treasures via vending machines, Japan, the country that brought the world Pokeman, Hello Kitty, animae and emojis, can motivate the curious visitor to seek out the latest confounding pop culture sensation. It seems to be a natural and compelling pursuit to discover a bemusing Japanese joy that hasn’t yet, in the US, hit the viral circuit on social media, become an app craze or been emblazoned on smartphone cases, lunchboxes, pajamas, T-shirts, backpacks and any other transferable surfaces.
Suz and I were not disappointed. Our find, Gudetama or “Lazy Egg,” delighted us almost immediately. We first encountered the yolk who loathes to exert any energy at a toy store in the base of the Tokyo Sky Tree, the tallest tower in Tokyo. As usual, upon entering a store in Japan, we were slammed with a forceful, exuberant assortment of coveted retail products. While a large winking marshmallow commanded the front of the store and toy vending machines lined an entire wall, Gudetama clearly held court at this store.
Fortunately, the store provided a flatscreen TV with Gudetama clips to give some context for his ascendancy in becoming a pop culture phenomenon. One clip showed him trying to catch more shuteye by pulling a strip of bacon, blanket-style, over his head. Another snipet presented a sighing Gudetama, submitting to a pair of chopsticks that retrieve him from a bowl of rice.
Despite his melancholic lethargy, Gudetama had all the attributes of a charismatic icon. He was cute (“kawaii”), committed to his cause as well as consistent with his message. And he was available in merchandise incarnations that, surely, Disney-Pixar executives can only dream about for promoting Dory, Buzz Light Year, Lightening McQueen, and the Frozen folks. In addition to the standard stuffed toys, lunchboxes, keychains, school binders, pens, magnets, stickers and T-shirts, Gudetama came in the form of shower washcloth loofahs, tissue box covers, mini music boxes, finger puppet memo pads, kitchen timers and what looked like either a movie theater popcorn bucket or waste basket. A slew of Gudetama confectionaries, “cream sand cookies,” mango hard candies, “tart cookies” and Neapolitan sponge sandwich cookies, lined the shelves as well.
The store also touted a large “Gudetama Line” Tokyo metro poster complete with named stops and various graphics of Gudetama, sporting a subway conductor hat and generally exposing his butt cheeks.
Still not fully comprehending the exact cultural impact of Gudetama, Suz and I enthusiastically embraced him anyway. Albeit sluggish, he seemed to be a more rebellious, edgy character than Hello Kitty, despite being created by the same company, Sanrio. In fact, on the Sanrio website, Gudetama’s description reads, in a typical cryptic Japanese translation:
“Eggs are yummy… boiled, baked or raw. There are many ways to make an egg, but eggs are so lazy (gude gude in Japanese). Look closely and you will see the eggs that you eat lack spunk.”
You know who doesn’t lack spunk? Japan! I love this. Just like so many ideas in Japan the Sanrio claim sounds like it makes sense, although it doesn’t, but who cares? It’s like mutant turtle penguins, sake in juiceboxes, Washabi flavored Kit Kats, donut candy kits, Pocari Sweat supply drinks, mug mates and Sushi Girl. The sentiment for all these Japanese treasures is a reminder that you are in a whimsical, swirly, Technicolor, mystifying, sweet, savory, wacky land of wonder.