Tuesday, September 22, 2009

IKEA in Japan

I went to Ikea for the first time last week. I didn't even know there was an Ikea in Japan. I'm not even sure how I found out there was an Ikea in Japan. Maybe I read about it online or maybe someone mentioned it in passing. Either way, I went to Ikea for the first time last week.

Ikea in Japan is exactly like Ikea anywhere else. This was somewhat disappointing because I was expecting it to be less Swedish and more Japanese. I thought it would follow the McDonald's model, which is to say import the original but add a few items on the menu that can only be found in Japan (like the shrimp burger and the egg burger, for example).

So I was expecting Ikea to be Ikea but with a Japanese twist. Futons instead of beds. Chopsticks instead of forks. Sushi instead of meatballs. But no. The Japanese Ikea did not deviate in any way from the Swedish original. Well, except for the smoking area. I don't remember seeing a smoking area next to the entrance of a Canadian Ikea.

Despite being located in an industrial area in the middle of nowhere (just like in Canada!), the store is extremely easy to get to (not like in Canada!). Ikea offers a free shuttle bus from one of the busiest train stations in downtown Osaka.

The bus was one big moving advertisement for Ikea. Inside the bus, there was an instructional video on how to shop at the store. I think the fact that there's a right way to shop at the store (following the arrows with your little pencil and piece of paper) partly explains its success in Japan. Ikea is already very Japanese. There is a correct way of doing things, there are lots of instructions and explanations, everything is very orderly and clean, there is a proper route that you have to follow. The store is practically a microcosm of Japan.

The bus also contained several ads featuring the Ikea cafe, which were meant to stimulate your appetite during the 25-minute ride so that by the time you finally arrive at the store the first thing you want to do is order up a plate of meatballs with lingonberry sauce. (Which is exactly what we did.)

The menu contained standard Ikea fare, except for the green tea lattes and Japanese curry. The rest of the Japanese Ikea experience was exactly the same as the Canadian Ikea experience. There were the same showrooms containing the same furniture. The same marathon floorplan winding its way through model living rooms, bathrooms and bedrooms. The same massive marketplace. The same airplane-hangar-sized warehouse. And, finally, the same long line ups at the checkout counters.

I picked up a few items for my new apartment (I'm moving on Thursday. But that's a whole other story). Of course, furnishing my apartment was just part of the reason I went to Ikea. I really just wanted to see if it was any different in Japan. And even though it wasn't any different from any other Ikea anywhere else, it was still very Japanese.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Stationmaster cats and goats

Regular readers of this blog may remember a post I wrote about a cat named Tama who was hired to be the stationmaster of a railway station in rural Japan.

Tama has an office, wears a uniform and greets commuters as they come in and out of the station during rush hour. The cat has become so popular that the railway had to hire a human employee to assist the feline stationmaster. Tama has drawn in thousands of tourists from across the country and has single-handedly boosted the local economy by 1.1 billion yen.

In an attempt to copy the success of Tama, other railway stations in Japan are jumping on the "animal as stationmaster" bandwagon. There are now several cat stationmasters and at least one dog stationmaster. (The dog is a Yorkshire Terrier by the name of Maron, who works at a small railway station in northern Japan. He seems much more agreeable about wearing a full uniform than the cats. The cats only deign to wear the hats.)

In an effort to one-up the kitties, the latest animal to be appointed to the role of stationmaster is a goat called Koma. Koma reports for duty at Uzen-Komatsu station. No word yet on how that's working out.

These animals don't just laze around the station or sleep on the job. These pets are put to work. They work six days a week, eight hours a day. They pose for pictures and entertain their fans. They give TV interviews and attend local events as VIPs. They're treated like real employees. They even have to go to meetings.

Some PR people recently arranged a meeting between Kotora (the feline stationmaster of Kichigahara station) and Bus (the feline stationmaster of Aizu Ashinomaki Onsen station). Unfortunately, the meeting didn't go very well. The cats hated each other.

Only in Japan!

Friday, September 11, 2009

A very Canadian summer

When I was back home for a visit a few weeks ago, a friend asked me what I missed most about Canada when I was in Japan. We were driving through the streets of Toronto at the time and it hit me that what I missed most about Canada was right there in front of me.

"I miss this," I said, as we drove through city blocks lined with tiny restaurants serving cheap food from around the world. Indian, Thai, Greek, Jamaican, Korean, Ethiopian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Lebanese. Ten different countries in two city blocks.

I miss being able to have a burrito for breakfast, a falafel for lunch and souvlaki for dinner. I miss Red River cereal. I miss blending in with the crowd. I miss being able to speak English with everyone I meet. I miss being able to read the cereal box while I eat breakfast. I miss Grape Nuts. I miss the wide-open spaces, the small big cities and the unspoiled wilderness. I miss George Stroumboulopoulos. I miss Tim Hortons.

Don't get me wrong. I love Japan. But I often feel like an outsider living on the fringes of a world I am part of but don't really belong to. I am not Japanese and I will never be Japanese. I am treated with respect and kindness by most of the people I encounter. But the polite smiles and deep bows only serve to highlight the distance between us.

So it was nice to get out of Japan and go home for a few weeks. I spent a little bit of time in Vancouver and a lot of time in Toronto. It's funny how you notice things that you never really paid attention to until after you've been out of the country for a while. Take the liquor store in Ontario, for example. The stores are nicely laid out with helpful signs for each section: Ontario wine, B.C. wine, Australian wine, South African wine, Chilean wine, fine scotches, Japanese sake. And then, the one section I had never noticed before: The Party Zone. Classy!

Of course, no summertime visit to Toronto would be complete without a trip to the CNE. I like the CNE for the atmosphere, the free samples and the mini donuts. I hate the rides. I do not look at the rides and see fun, thrills and excitement. I look at the rides and see nausea, terror and the possibility of serious injury or death. (I like the ferris wheel, though. Ferris wheels are nice and slow and you get great views from the top.)

My sister was getting frustrated that I wouldn't go on any of the rides (not including the ferris wheel. We rode it twice). So I made a deal with her. I agreed to go on one ride as long as I got to choose it. I looked around the midway and immediately ruled out anything that went upside down. I also nixed anything that was more than five feet above the ground and moved at a high speed. Roller coasters were out of the question. We were too tall for the kiddie rides. The haunted house was too lame. The only option was the tilt-a-whirl.

The tilt-a-whirl didn't look so bad from a distance. But appearances can be deceiving. I knew I had made a mistake when, just before the ride was about to begin, a greasy carny walked over to our car, gave my sister and I a pair of high fives and yelled, "ARE YOU READY TO GO FAST?!?!"

"No!" I said in a panicky voice. "We want to go slow!"

But it was too late. The platform started moving. We were going around and around in circles, slowly at first and then faster and faster. Parts of the platform were raised and lowered, which caused the cars to spin in different directions and at different speeds. The cars would swing and snap unexpectedly. Not only was the platform rotating in one giant circle, but our car was spinning wildly at the same time. I started to feel violently ill. I couldn't focus my eyes. We were being spun around and around and around and there was nothing we could do to stop it.

"Let me off!" I screamed. "I'm going to be sick!"

But no one listened. The ride seemed to last an eternity, with me struggling not to vomit all over my sister's lap. I can't believe people actually pay money to put themselves through this type of torture and they actually enjoy it. I almost wept with relief when it was over.

After the madness of the CNE, my family escaped to Georgian Bay for two days. We went to the town of Lafontaine, which is where my grandfather's side of the family is from. The Marchildons were part of a group of families from Quebec who moved to the area in the 1800s. It's still very much a francophone community today (it's also the only place in Canada where every second mailbox has the name "Marchildon" written on it). The lake is one of the most beautiful places in the country.

We drove up to Georgian Bay with my dad's canoe tied to the roof of the car (does it get any more Canadian than that?). I should explain that the canoe is my dad's pride and joy. He built it himself, out of wood and entirely by hand. The canoe is a work of art (he told me to say that. He also told me to put a picture of it up on my blog. Here you go, Dad!).

One of my favourite things about Toronto is the TTC. I love the way the subway stations smell. They have a distinctive smell. If I had to describe it, I would say it's a mixture of old newspapers, stale air, dirt and metal. You're hit with this smell as soon as you walk through the doors. The smell hasn't changed in 30 years. There's something comforting about it. It smells like home.