Sunday, August 05, 2007

Luxury Shopping

Generally speaking, I don't wish for my husband and I to have more money than we do. It's not that we're rich, but rather that we're not poor and with some frugality, we manage to do just fine. We have no debts. We pay our bills on time, buy occasional, (usually) moderate indulgences, and save a bit for the future. When there's been an emergency (like the refrigerator going belly up or a computer dying), we've had enough on hand to manage it. I consider us very fortunate despite the fact that we can't go around buying every new yuppie toy that comes down the pike.

Sometimes though, I wish that money were no object and I could live every day of my life buying wherever I like. Note that I didn't say "whatever" but "wherever". When I was quite a bit younger, I used to have the hunger for new things and itch to buy them but at some point that (thankfully) vanished. Now, on occasion, I yearn more for a better quality of experience while shopping rather than any given item. Today, I had one of those more enjoyable experiences.

Last night my husband slept very poorly and got less than 4 hours of sleep. When this happens, I like to do what I can to comfort him, particularly when he has to go to work with so little sleep under his belt. Usually, this involves attempting to fulfill any whims he has when he gets home. Sometimes, it involves preparing him any homemade dish he desires though I also didn't get much sleep because his difficulties woke me up and I couldn't go back to sleep between 4:00 and 7:00 am (I feel sorrier for him though!) so he probably won't ask me to overtax myself in this regard. On rarer occasions, I'll head off to the local "luxury" supermarket and pick up some treats for him in case he's in the mood to overindulge during his miserable evening following his miserable day.

The best market in my area is Queen's Isetan and the shopping experience is so much better there than at the cheap place (Utakarya) I usually frequent that I sometimes wish I didn't have to live like a normal person and could shop there full-time. The compare and contrast is as follows:


Queen's Isetan has the Tokyo equivalent of "valet parking". There are not one but two bicycle rent-a-cops who make sure everyone who parks by the store, which is right next to a subway exit, is going into the shop so there is almost always ample parking. If there is no ample parking, they park your bike for you so you don't have to struggle to squeeze it in. When you exit the store, they remember which bike was yours and pull it out of the line-up for you. They even ask you which direction you are riding so they can point the front wheel in the right direction!

At Utakaraya, there's one rent-a-cop but he patrols the front of the store watching for shop-lifters who might pick up the produce stacked in front and make a run for it. While this may seem overly paranoid, I once saw a fellow walk off with some vegetables there. Not only is this fellow not involved in bike parking but most of the area near the shop is roped off so that people can't park in front of the vending machines lining the side of the shop. You've got to walk a fair way down the street to cram your bike into a space in front of an a rusting playground. More often than not, you'll come back to find someone has either shoe-horned their bike into a space next to yours in such a way that you have to unlock their hand brake lever from your handle bar to extricate your bike or your bike has been knocked over onto the ground.

Shopping Comfort:

Many stores in Japan only have enough space for two people to barely squeeze by the aisles so that they can cram more stock into a smaller space. At Utakaraya, that's more like 1.5 people. The entire shop is about 1/6 the size of Queen's Isetan so they have to make the most of it. It also doesn't help that Utakaraya is always full of what appear to be confused old people who block what little space there is. There's one door in and one out and food is stacked on either side of each door such that people stop in the doorways as they enter and exit and gawk at the items on display. This makes it really hard to get in and out. Utakaraya is also perpetually grubby. I'm sure they clean it every day but everything is worn and carries the patina of heavy and long-term use (not unlike certain parts of my apartment, ahem). The tables for packing your bags are worn, thin plywood with chipped edges. One of them is badly warped. The baskets sometimes have fallen bits of vegetable or fruit stems and leaves in them from the people who used them before you. There are also about 4 carts total (and at least 1 of them has a malfunctioning wheel) for placing your basket in and pushing around on days when you buy a lot of heavy items. Also, the air conditioning can sometimes be sub-par in the summer, particularly since the automatic doors seem to stick open at times and there are so many people in such a small space.

At Queen's Isetan, everything is gleaming and clean as if little elves with toothbrushes are not only scrubbing every nook and cranny but magically replacing portions of any mildly worn surface. Pristine baskets are stacked high at the entrance which is wide enough for 5 old ladies to stand in and gawk and still let you get inside and there are two long rows of carts which never have wheel problems. Of course, all the food is inside the shop so people don't linger at the entrance and old people are scarce because the prices are too high for those on a limited income. The air conditioning is generally adequate though it can be a little hot near the front because they tend not to air condition as heavily near the registers. I guess they feel the shopping area should be cool and comfortable but the clerks can sweat it out.

Food Selection:

There are a wide variety of imports at Queen's Isetan (including the wafers pictured above). There is also a lot more ethnic food and many exotic ingredients to prepare a great variety of non-Japanese dishes. The fresh fruit and produce look great. All of it is actually fresh, firm and has good color. It also has its own bakery with a wide variety of bread and pastries. There are always bagels and (well-made) scones. These two items are relatively hard to find in the average baked goods section in most supermarkets.

Even the weird Japanese baked concoctions are good. The items pictured above from left (clockwise) are a mini "hard" melon pan, a slice of chili pizza (with actual meat chili and plenty of cheese) and a tea-flavored scone. The chili pizza was my lunch and it was damn tasty.

Queen's Isetan also has a wide variety of store-brand products which are incredibly good quality. One of my husband's favorites is the "Extra Vanilla" pound cake. It's a tiny little cake that is no bigger than a large muffin in the U.S. but it's very moist and flavorful. The areas near the check-out counters are full of a huge number of these green-labeled food items neatly displayed in racks.

At Utakaraya, the produce is sufficiently bruised such that it looks as though some of it fell off the back of a truck and some of it is wilted or aged-looking. I'm pretty sure that one of the reasons some of their fresh food is so cheap is that it's the type of stuff that places like Queen's Isetan ship off because it's approaching a point where quality is slipping. I'm also pretty sure most of the meat at Utakaraya is frozen and re-thawed before put on display. There are no imported treats and the baked goods section is a small area near the registers which carries a limited selection sometimes surrounded by crates full of day-old buns and an-pan for cheap.


Obviously, Utakaraya is about as cheap as it gets in Japan. A head of lettuce which is 300 yen at Queen's Isetan is likely no more than 160 yen at Utakaraya and is as low as 100 yen on occasion. Peaches can be had for 100 yen verses 250 yen at Queen's Isetan. One of the reasons I never do "regular" shopping there and reserve my rare visits there for their high quality expensive treats is that I can't afford to spend so much on a weekly basis for the basics. Still, the shopping experience is so much more comfortable that I sometimes wish I could.

Going to Utakaraya makes me feel like I'm at one of those sales T.V. shows like to show where people are climbing all over each other trying to get to bargains for irregular sweaters and slightly-damaged shoes. Going to Queen's Isetan makes me feel like a regular human being buying groceries.


Miko said...

Hey Shari, wouldn't it be great if we could go to department basement floors for our grocery needs every day? Oh, I just love those places - culinary microcosms of Japan! You should go there and take some pics for us. Avoid weekends, though.

I know exactly what you mean about "quality of experience." I don't want to sound snobby, but I gave up shopping at the cheap place near my home when I realised that the "clientele" were even cheaper. I kept bumping into some really nasty and inconsiderate (old) people there. The last straw was when an elderly man pushed me and yelled at me because he thought I'd taken his place in the queue (I would never do that). I vowed never to go back. Now I do my grocery shopping at a large, middle-of-the-range supermarket about 10 minutes on foot from my home. I really don't like shopping in general, so I'm in and out as quickly as possible. It's nice to do it amongst relatively polite people, though.

Alex Case said...

Valet parking Japanese style!? Love it!

TEFLtastic blog-

Roy said...

"go around buying every new yuppie toy that comes down the pike."

I bet you were thinking about me when you wrote that ;-)

Shari said...

Miko: I must say that I've never been treated so badly at the cheap place. I'm wondering if they yelled at you because you don't look obviously foreign and they leave me alone because I so clearly am? Or maybe your old people are just crabbier than the ones around here? ;-)

Like you, I also dislike shopping and just get it over with as quickly as possible. I can't understand people who shop for a hobby. :-p

Roy: LOL. I can truthfully say I was thinking of me quite a few years ago when I itched for all the Mac goodies I read about and you never entered my mind when I wrote that.

CMUwriter said...

The Japanese need to hurry up and make food available in pill form so you don't have to go shopping as much Shari. Or at least gum form, but lets not forget Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.