The only store Tokyo needs

by Monty DiPietro

"Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose."

All ex-hippies should recognize the lyric from ‘Me and Bobby McGee.’

And many of you freedom-lovers probably feel that Tokyo is not exactly the most free place on earth. We live in a city with incredibly rigid rules and conventions - a city where asking a waiter if you can order the lettuce, tomato, mushroom and bacon salad without the bacon will convene a quartet of waiter, cook, cashier and tooth-sucking manager to seriously discuss whether this menu-mutation can be tolerated.

Yes, we have no freedom - but there is hope.

Because hard-luck Tokyo is due for a disaster.

And while the city is less than flexible, it is incredibly resilient. So whether we are leveled by an earthquake, North Korean nuclear bomb or an attack by Godzilla, I am confident that those of us who survive will be witness to the birth of a new, improved, Tokyo.

A free Tokyo.

However, if last year’s oil spill, or the Great Hanshin Earthquake of ‘95 are any indication, we can forget about assistance from the authorities.

Instead, in true Tokyo style, the phoenix-rising phenomenon will be evidenced first and foremost on the retail sales front.

The only store we’ll need is Don Quixote - pray to God it’s still standing the morning after.

Inaugurated last month in obvious anticipation of the impending disaster, Don Quixote is a first in the city - it is massive, it sells everything, it is open all night.

A tiny sampling of the wares: Twelve different brands of Amyl Nitrate, a selection of reclining massage-chairs, CDs, black Spanish olives, Chanel sunglasses, ‘Jaminator’ synthesizer-guitars, Sterno, radio-flashlights, radar detectors, 50 kinds of dildos, Coleman stoves, refrigerators, mountain bikes and brass knuckles.

Plus rooftop parking for 75 cars, and a ‘Hotok’ stand out front that sells 700 of the Korean pancakes a day.

Made of dough, cheese and grease, the ‘Hotok’ is delicious. Not taste-wise, for the ‘Hotok’s’ flavor approximates lard-soaked cardboard. No, what is delicious is the freedom that a ‘Hotok’ represents.

For 200 yen, you can buy a ‘Hotok’ and stand there in the street chomping the gooey thing along with a gang of co-conspirators, lips glistening a smile in the light of Shokuan-dori street lamps. In these parts, eating in the street is more than ok, it is what Don Quixote is all about - freedom.

Standing proud and iridescent on the fault line between Kabukicho’s blow-job bars and Okubo’s low-end love hotels, on the turf of Shin Okubo’s Southeast Asian and South American sex-trade streetwalkers, Don Quixote is a seed, a probe, a germ and a savior. Open until 6am every single day of the year, Shinjuku’s newest and largest discount shop is at the vanguard of a neighborhood that is beautifully out of control, and careening toward a future of variety and possibility.

Okubo-itchome is the ne plus ultra of Tokyo’s foreign ghettos. Official figures have it that one in three residents is non-Japanese - the actual ratio is much higher. Koreans make up the bulk of the foreign population, while white-bread Westerners, thankfully, are rare. This is also where those punch-perm fashion horses, the boys of the Yakuza, make their digs.

The night air carries a buzz, an edge, the aroma of garlic. There is an almost constant chorus of the horns of normally docile taxi drivers who are rendered impolite by osmosis as they navigate Shokuan dori. This din is frequently pierced by the sirens of ambulances carrying the fallen to towering Okubo Hospital, Tokyo’s worst medical institution.

And then there is Carla.

A platinum-blond Brazilian with the biggest breasts in Japan, Carla has been working the Okubo-itchome streets for six months. Last week the cops got together and hauled a 10 square-meter mini-koban onto the edge of a small concrete park I call ‘Misery Koen’ - so that they could sit inside and watch the action on the stretch of road where Carla and her colleagues ply their trade.

Carla seems unconcerned. Defying the cold drizzle in an unbuttoned white jacket over an almost overkill push-up lace brassiere, she pops a bubble of chewing gum, looks toward the cubicle with its wire mesh-covered, mirrored windows and laughs, "I wonder what they do in there all night."

Carla has seen a lot of changes during her time in the neighborhood - she has been chased by an angry gang of resident obasan vigilantes, harassed by the police and witnessed a couple of stabbings. But nothing prepared her for the arrival of Don Quixote.

"It has everything," she says as we are drawn, moth-like, toward the mesmerizing red and yellow lights of the behemoth "But those Hotok are terrible."

And yet there she is, taking a break to wolf down one of the slippery brown messes. The smell of burnt batter coalesces with that of her sticky sweet perfume, and the olfactory sonata plays out for the benefit for a couple of pre-schoolers and their parents, shameless victims of the late-night munchies.

As Carla heads back to work after picking up some Green Gum, I wander over to Don Quixote’s most unsettling display case.

Between the ‘Natural Ecstasy’ pills and the air guns is the shop’s knife selection. Sinister little pinky-sized blades, stainless steel folding numbers and big old pig-gutting bastards - a complete range. Why?

"Well, they could be used by sportsman," hesitates a young female clerk, "or for camping...Anyway, we want to offer everything at Don Quixote!"

Ultimately, freedom is not only about getting what you want - it is also about allowing others to have what they want. Don Quixote understands this.

The new Tokyo will not be without its seedy side - after all, people who are free have nothing left to lose. So, I guess I can rationalize the knife section.

It comes with the territory.


Montreal-born Monty DiPietro, 38, is an artist, performer, and writer living in Kabukicho, Tokyo.

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