Japanese Fashion: the view from a cafe window

It was in a café above Sannomiya station in Kobe that I really noticed how fashionable people are in Japan, fashionable and downright beautiful. In comparison to a high street in England where hoodies and leggings are acceptable as shopping attire, the girls in Kobe all look like they are models. Over a coffee I noticed a some broad stereotypes of styles, so from a non-expert eye, here are my observations.

Firstly, there is the Parisian style characterised by girls wearing a circle skirt and high boots topped off with a cute beret and a fake-fur stole. Women in this category either have a gorgeous boyfriend, or want one. Secondly, the arty-vintage look with long skirts, flat ankle boots worn with colourful socks, then a long skirt or culottes, and an ethnic-looking backpack. Everything else falls into the category of outrageous; platform shoes, patterned tights and pink hair. Some girls walk around like they are a doll out of a fairy tale (the complete opposite of a goth in the UK) and there are stores that cater for Dolly-style”. Add layered on white foundation, too much pink blusher and fake eyelashes. When one such girl sat opposite me on a train, I watched her curl her eyelashes, comb her eye brows, add more blusher and put pink lipstick on. There is a lot of work that goes into looking outrageous!

As I  people-watched from the café, one thing became apparent, everyone dresses similar within the fashion-style of their choice. Like models from a magazine, girls had almost identical coats, the same shoes and the same colour of brown dyed hair. Unfortunately the number of women dyeing their hair brown means that it no longer unique; brown has just become the new black. Some girls who would fall into the outrageous style, try to get ‘blonde’ hair but this is disastrous and it often comes out a greeny grey colour. Thankfully, Japanese hair looks strong enough to cope with the peroxide drenching needed to turn black hair blonde.

Parisian style: stripes are in, as are flowing pleated skirts and pastel colours.

The arty-vintage look being modelled by these girls at Nara.

Want to look like a Alice in Wonderland? This is your shop!

Japanese men are also very fashion-conscious. Even the men at my school have branded leather bags that would be way too effeminate for straight English men to wear. Man-bags, expensive shoes and a nice jacket are the staples for a good outfit here, but there are a couple of different styles I’ve observed. Firstly, the salary man, who has a sharp suit, a leather satchel and plucked eyebrows (yes, this is the norm for men in Japan). Second, is the writer look, similar to the arty-vintage style which includes casual but well-fitting clothes and is characterized by retro glasses and a cool hat. Everything else, from my untrained eye, falls into the hipster look, such as the men below with baggy jeans and leather jackets.

Asking these men for a photo wasn’t awkward at all…

Awesome sale-shouters posing for a shot. The arty-vintage look in full swing there with round glasses and cool hats.

This is far from the mix-matched fashion I’m used to in Fukui! Every time my friends and I take a train to Kyoto or Osaka we can’t not comment on the girl with thigh-high leather boots, or a group of high-school boys who look like they are out of a manga magazine with their hair perfectly straightened, tousled and gelled. Compare, this to Fukui where both men and women wrap-up in down jackets that keep out the cold, but are hardly figure-flattering! It’s not only the colder weather that’s to blame for some styles though. Japanglish (atrocious but hilarious English) is splashed across t-shirts and jumpers like a bad paint-job, and wide, unfitting jumpers which, drape slim Japanese women here beautifully, but somehow look ridiculous on me. Yet stores like MUJI and UNIQLO are decent enough for me, not to mention the second-hand stores where you can find the best and the worst of Japanese fashion, but I’ll save that for another post. There is a lot more to be said on this subject!

Here’s some clippings from a fashion magazine. Enjoy!

"Let's begin dressing up with glasses"

“Let’s begin dressing up with glasses”

A popular women's magazine called 'Mina'

A popular women’s magazine called ‘Mina’

Skirts, shorts, culottes but always show off those legs!

Skirts, shorts, culottes but always show off those legs!

How about a fashion mask? How pretty that third of your face looks!

How about a fashion mask? How pretty that third of your face looks!

Kobe: the place to eat, shop and drink

IMG_0499Knowing I’d be visiting one of the most fashionable cities in Japan, I put on my best outfit; heeled ankle boots, my woollen coat and a beret. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake as I did when I was in Moscow, wearing a fleece and trainers when every other woman was in stilettos and a fur-collared coat! When I arrived at the bustling Sannomiya station I was eager to try the renown Kobe Beef, so I headed straight to a steakhouse, not thinking about the cooking smells my best clothes would acquire during the meal…

Kobe beef

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Kobe beef is graded from A5 to C1, with A5 being the highest grade of meat that literally melts in your mouth due to the high fat content. Suffice to say A5 steak is pretty expensive, and not being a food critic I was happy to settle with a lower grade of meat for a much cheaper price! The steakhouse I’d been recommended, named Steakland, had a distinctly American-fifties feel to it, with a long wooden bar where people were sat on stools watching their slab of beef cooked in front of them and finishing their meal with a coffee and a cigarette (yes, smoking indoors in Japan is allowed). The lunchtime deal runs from 11am to 2pm and offers a set under ¥1000, a very affordable price. Yet as I turned up at 2.05pm, I had to pay ¥2800 for a set of 200g beef, fried vegetables, a soup, a salad and a coffee. There is also the choice between rice or ‘bread’, I opted for the latter but was slightly confused when a croissant turned up on my plate! When in all of history has steak been eaten with, on or inside a croissant! So if you do go here, take the rice.

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Despite the confusion over what ‘bread’ was, I enjoyed the meal, especially the tender steak. A young man, armed with a long sharp knife clipped to his belt, cooked the steak in front of me. First, he seasoned it, then grilled vegetables in copious amounts of butter. Then, he let it sizzle for a couple of minutes both sides (I asked for mine medium rare). He then drew his knife from his belt and sliced the steak with the expertise of someone who had done it a zillion times before. Fried garlic slices where lathered in butter and scattered on top of the steak. For someone who hasn’t eaten this much red meat since I arrived in Japan, the hearty steak outdid me, or maybe it was the vegetarian left in me that couldn’t stomach the bloodiness of the steak. Still I emerged from the dimly lit restaurant feeling full and satisfied but with the smell of the beef lingering on my clothes…

Views across the bay

Once energized enough to face the crowds, I walked to City Hall, a 24-storey building which has great 360′ views of the port city. From that height, Kobe looked like a toy-city with trains running like clockwork and tiny cars crossing the bridge to the island in the bay.

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Apart from a memorial flame burning in a park, there was no evidence of the 1995 earthquake which tore many buildings down. Wanting to find out more about the earthquake, I visited the City Museum.

An art exhibition seen before, but from another angle

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To my amusement there was an exhibition of Dutch artists, with Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring, an exhibition I’d seen eight months earlier in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. I watched as an orderly queue of adults and children walked slowly passed the famous painting, in silence and in awe. A museum lady was standing by making sure no one lingered for too long in front of the painting. This was a sharp comparison to the chatter and shoving I experience when I saw the same painting in Cambridge! It appears that Japanese people take art museums very seriously and there is an almost religious atmosphere within the gallery. Their visit wouldn’t be complete without buying some sort of omiyage (souvenir) and their desire is catered for well. Here was my favourite item in the gift shop, Miffy dressed as The Girl with the Pearl Earring! So Japanese.

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The city museum had next to nothing on the 1995 earthquake, which makes sense as there is a whole other museum dedicated to that, but it was insightful about the foreign residents of Kobe who moved there when the city first opened for trade in 1868. A number of these American style buildings still exist in the district of Kitano and are a popular tourist attraction. The museum explained the relationship between the foreigners and Japanese, ”Some loved Japan and did their fest to mix with the Japanese.” If only the museum had tried their ‘fest’ to translate the plaques.

China Town and infectious consumerism

Past the 5* hotels and designer shops, I came across the bright red lights of Nankin-machi (China Town). After seeing a young girl take a bite of some street food then spin round shouting ”Oishii” (delicious), I couldn’t pass by this opportunity to have authentic Chinese food, even if I was still full from the steak. I gorged myself on peking duck rolls, sticky pork buns and bubble tea from the street stalls. I couldn’t recommend this place enough. You wouldn’t regret it.

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My journey back to my hostel took me past many independent and buzzing shops and I’d realized I’d become infected with Kobe consumerism. I bought a necklace, just because I liked the song playing in the shop and a pair of sunglasses just because the shop owner was wearing a funny sweater. It was a dangerous mood to be in, so I put my wallet away and walked back to the hostel.

Bonenkai (‘forget the year party’)

That night I stayed at Sannomiya R2 Hostel and had been invited to their Bonenkai party. This hostel was not the most comfortable stay I’ve had, as the rooms have futons not beds, but it was one of the most sociable. For a few hours a small gathering of staff and guests chatted, exchanged stories and drank together. 

That night I met a newly converted Zen Buddhist monk who was making the most out of his freedom before he had to adhere to the strict rules of his training programme at Fukui’s Eihe-ji temple. He drank the most out of everyone and said it helped him meditate! There was also a very interesting Japanese photographer of abandoned buildings. Check out his atmospheric photographs here 3+Thousand Photographs. Sat next to me was a Russian student of Japanese politics who was taking the slow train from Tokyo to Kyushu. In the photo, the man making the back-to-front V sign (apparently only offensive in the UK and some commonwealth countries), was employed on the Wwoof programme (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). I couldn’t hold back a snigger as the two men talked about their ‘woofing experiences’. I drank a little too much Umeshu (plum wine) that night and did the terrible gaijin mistake of walking out of the toilet wearing the toilet slippers, only noticing twenty minutes later. I blame it on the bonenkai. 

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