On a recent visit to Japan I toured temples and shrines in Kyoto, visited temple complexes in the chilly mountain stillness of Koyasan, a centre of esoteric Buddhism, and soaked in mineral baths and ate delicious and strange things at a village onsen in Wakayama prefecture. Most of these experiences were unfamiliar. Each activity was truly unto itself; at no point could I have been anywhere but Japan.
Some of my favourite impressions of Japan, however, weren’t rooted in tradition at all. They were provided by convenience stores and replicas of cultural forms I knew from other places and times, faithfully recreated and more appealing than their originals.
7-Eleven and Lawson are the two leading convenience store chains in Japan. 7-Eleven is broadly familiar, of course; Lawson was licensed in Japan from a long-discontinued Ohio convenience store. Both sell inexpensive (and delicious!) fast food. Rice balls were a particularly fabulous discovery, priced around 120 yen (70p; €.85) – and quite filling. These stores are truly convenient for international travellers, too. 7-Eleven’s cash machines accept foreign cards and both stores offer free wifi, photocopy machines, and eager employees. They stock snacks I wanted to eat, services I needed to access, and cultural objects I wanted to examine. And they were ubiquitous.
The Lawson brand was originally an American import, if only in name, but became something quite specifically Japanese on its own terms. In this way, it provides a kind of model of another dynamic in Japan: the presence of outstanding replicas of cultural forms from other times and places.
Tom Downey’s recent article in the Smithsonian celebrates the Japanese taste for taking Americana and improving upon it. Downey takes bourbon, jazz, clothes, and hamburgers as test cases. It’s a fascinating article. Read it. But this impulse within Japanese culture certainly doesn’t confine itself to Americana. The French pastries I ate in Japan were absolutely extraordinary; the pretzels tasted as if they’d just emerged from a bakery in Nuremberg.
Moreover, you don’t need to catalogue a particular industry or artisanal product to see the effects of this dynamic. I found it on display in small one-off cafés run by individual proprietors. One Kyoto café served me a crustless club sandwich and a “soda with ice cream,” which turned out to be an ice cream float in a green soda that tasted like the unholy offspring of bubble gum and artificial grape. It delivered a pleasurable charge of air-streamed modernism: Here is a thing that looks terribly unnatural and is simultaneously a thrill to consume. It reminded me of how much I’d once loved random American diners. Another café delivered the replica effect more gently. It had macramé art on the walls and served its scrambled eggs with the tiniest bit of ketchup. Both details took me back to my California childhood, as if I was in a casual West Coast café in the late 1970s.
My friend Ellis Avery, a writer who has lived in Japan and who wrote a fantastic award-winning novel set in the country, patiently listened to me catalogue my love affair with these elements of Japanese culture. She finally said: “People loved these things enough to recreate them faithfully – and invite you in.”