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Episode 02: Don Kihoote

03: Grunt! Grunt! >>

This week's motto: "Joyful Impression! We produce it for whole human beings."

You know what? Well, of course not, so I'll tell you: lugging home a backpack full of laptops, pottery and frying pans plus two shopping bags of 100-yen food items and random knickknacks in one hand, and a brand-new rice cooker and its accompanying 5-kilo bag of rice on the other on a sunny day in the middle of a Tokyo August is... pretty damn exhausting. Even if I did refuresshu suru myself with a can of the new "Met's Guarana" drink, which bears a disturbing, if not wholly unpleasant, resemblance to Red Bull.

I've gone shopping every single day for the past week, trying to gather together what I need for basic living and basic Japanese cooking while (this is the hard part) not going bankrupt in the process. Fortunately, my task was greatly aided when my tutor Nakagawa-san on my very first day in Tokyo introduced me to... don don don, donkey donkey, Don Kihoote, where volume purchases turn into a jungle of discounts! -- to quote the incredibly annoying jangle that plays in an infinite loop at the entrance to the store, and which I at first thought was the latest J-Pop hit of the summer. Yes, the name is a Japanese rendition of the famed windmill-tilting hero of La Mancha, although the store's logo does not feature the Knight of the Mournful Countenance, but instead a rather dyspeptic-looking big-eyed penguin called "Donpen-kun", who has a big "do" katakana emblazoned on his belly, wears a helmet and and sits on a laughing, eyeless, crescent moon. Oookay...

JR Shibuya station

Cisco Records

Don don don!
Don Kihoote has an equally unusual business idea: it sells mostly known brands of absolutely everything from stereos to socks and electronic sesame seed grinders at ridiculously low prices, often less than half of the MSRP written on the product (which is usually religiously observed elsewhere). Its two floors are packed tighter than a Cairene bazaar with goods and other shoppers, but the salesmen are a lot less annoying -- and it's located two blocks away from the Shibuya Keio Inokashira-sen station I commute through every single day. To get there from Hachiko, walk up Dogen-zaka (the leftmost main road), take the left branch at the 109 building, and you'll find it on your left near Bunka-mura. Just listen for the "don don don, donki donki"! And they even have a website at http://www.donki.com, where you can see Donpen-kun for yourself.

A bit before Don Kihoote, on the right, you'll find the 100 Yen Plaza, which has 5 floors of products that all cost 100 yen. Some products are amazing (where else can you get a new frying pan for $1?) but the selection is understandably rather constrained and as for quality, you do tend to get what you pay for. (Or less.) And both places compromise on service: if I go shop at Tokyu Food Show, one person takes the 100g of styrofoam-packed thinly sliced pork meat from the shopping basket, a second person rings up the purchase and a third person lovingingly wraps it up while humbly asking whether she may have the honor of placing a bag of ice atop my honorable meat, so it will not dishonorably spoil in the truly fearsome August heat and her miserable family will not be forced to disembowel themselves. (OK, so I made that last part up. I hope.) At Donki, you are given a plastic bag and -- gasp! -- told to pack it yourself. I suspect that this goes a long way to explain why a package of Corn Flakes costs 525 yen at Tokyu and 250 at Donki.

At any rate, I am now the proud owner of a Zojirushi NS-DK05, aka ƒ}ƒCƒRƒ“†”ΡƒWƒƒ[(Maikon-suihan-jaa), which according to my limited understanding of the mysteries of ˜a»‰pŒκ (wasei eigo, Japan-made English), means something like My-Controlled Cook-Rice-Ger, the "-jaa" being phonetically copied from the "-ger" of words like "Challenger". This "my-control" part is a little ironic, as the device is as fully automated as possible: pour in N cups of rice, add water to the line for N cups, and press the button -- in 45 minutes, presto, ‚ bowl of absolutely perfect rice. Almost worth the 6290 yen I paid for it... and this was the cheapest model in the shop, some 20000+ yen versions featuring all kinds of cute extras like LCD displays, and more like than not, a Tamagotchi and i-mode phone lurking in there somewhere. I do vaguely regret not buying the one named "Snugly", which suggests that you "enjoy it in a calm time", keeping the home warm and cozy and all that. Still, this is one of those (few) purchases so far that are definitely coming back to Finland with me.

My new teapot!
I found another one of them in Tawaramachi's legendary Kappabashi-doori, the restaurant wholesale district and world plastic food HQ already mentioned in J2J. Last time around, I spent half a year looking for the Perfect Teapot, just something simple, unglazed and unsymmetrical, but still with enough skill to hint that it wasn't from the rejects pile of a kindergarten pottery class -- but no, they're not in style anymore, and the few I spotted were meant for the tea ceremony and priced way out of my league (and I mean way: even back in the 1800's one daimyo forked out his province's one-year rice production for a single teacup). So back I went today, looking for frying pans, noodle strainers and similarly exciting things. I sauntered past that familiar little corner shop that sells somewhat overpriced high-end pottery downstairs and ludicrously overpriced "trip here and pay for it the rest of your life" handmade and pedigreed pottery upstairs, and boom -- there it was, lying forlorn in a corner of the summer discount stacks out in front, for a mere 980 yen. I already have a perfectly usable one back in Finland, and I do have better things to spend money on, but on the other hand I do need one here too and if I don't buy it now... and snap, 2079 yen changed hands and the pot and two matching cups were mine. I'm mildly annoyed since they didn't give me The Pot from outside, but one in the same series (of course these are straight from the factory, otherwise there'd be at least two more zeros in that price!), whose light brown blotches are a teensy bit too symmetric for my liking... but the cups are perfect and it'll doCsince (when in company) I always drink my tea by candlelight anyway.

As you may have figured out by now, it hasn't been a terribly exciting week, almost all my time and energy has gone into working out my living arrangements and figuring out trivia like what, exactly, I'm going to spend the next year here doing. (I'm still working on that last one.) On Friday, the lab was kind enough to hold a welcoming party for me in proper Japanese style, ie. lots of good food and an all-you-can-drink deal. And as usual there was a slight disparity between the general drunkenness levels of gaijin and nihonjin... Much to my annoyance, my ability to speak Japanese remains painfully weak, as my brain brushes the cobwebs off everything it hasn't used in years, but I'm again starting understand most of what is said and kanji recognition was at full speed from the very beginning. Give it another week or two...

It's painfully hot and sticky right now and Japan is gearing up for the Obon holiday season when prices are high and absolutely everybody else is on the road, so it looks like I'll be pushing back most of my travel plans until the beginning of September or so. I've started to vaguely formulate a travel plan for going up through Tohoku to Hokkaido, naturally visiting all the nuclear power plants along the way, taking maybe 2-3 weeks to do it. Time is no longer a problem, money is more so. According to my preliminary budget calculations I'll have around 50,000 yen in disposable income each month, which is barely sufficient for a week of travel. (For comparison, J2J 19's 9-day Tohoku trip cost me 100,000 yen.) On the other hand, being in a hurry is expensive; the Way of the Thumb isn't particularly predictable, but it cuts Japan's usually murderous transport costs to almost nil and this time I'll have a tent and sleeping bag with me. As a research student, I set my own schedule, and thanks to the Libretto I can work with (almost) equal ease at home, in the lab, in the subway or camping in the boondocks. And I once I get my wearable setup up and running, things should only get better.

One more thing: it looks like I'll be back a little earlier than I had planned. While my visa expires on August 1st 2001, due to the many bunglings with my date of arrival, both my scholarship and ridiculuously cheap apartment end on May 31st, putting a bit of a crimp in my budget. This is not really a problem, since the Japanese summer is as uncomfortable as the Finnish summer is pleasant, and (assuming I can get my stuff stowed away somewhere, which shouldn't be a problem) I can still travel freely around Japan -- or Asia, for that matter -- for the rest of those two months. But I still suspect I'll be back in Europe for July's Love Parade 2001 and a sorely needed new round of shopping for gaijin-sized clothes.

03: Grunt! Grunt! >>