On Easter morning every year I wake up early—usually to walk to a spring in a gritty red hillside near my house and splash cold water on my face, my head, walk home. This year, though, I woke up early to catch a plane. To Tokyo.
On Easter morning this year JFK was deserted, my flight on Japanese Air was under-booked, and I got to curl up across two adjacent seats while furiously typing away at a Frankenstein paper due that week for my Literature class. I was headed to Japan for Dior’s reshowing of their Spring ‘17 Couture show— it’s customary, I hear, for big luxury brands to take their collections on the road in Asian markets, where many have lucrative client bases. This particular reshowing was of the show I'd already walked in Paris, and was to occur on the roof of a new Dior boutique in a high-end district of Tokyo called Ginza.
But that was still two days away. First came fittings, which afforded us a few nights to (attempt to) adjust to the 13-hour time difference and explore Tokyo, and which felt for all the world like summer camp. A luxurious camp, of course, cause we were all—models, designers, atelier, casting, hair and makeup—put up in the Grand Hyatt in Minato, where our buffet meals in the French dining room were covered by Dior and our fittings took place in a conference room now overgrown with studio lights and racks of taffeta gowns. For three days I shared meals, and a room, with fellow models, and spent my mornings with a pair of other American models wandering the streets of quirky Shibuya and commercial Harujuku. One morning we went to a gallery of cat statues painted on by various artists, and for $15 bought and painted our own plaster cat figures on the spot. Another morning we went to “Kiddyland,” a five-story toy store fabled among Japanese pop-cultural enthusiasts for the unfathomable softness of it’s stuffed pillow-creatures and unprecedented variety of HelloKitty gadgetry. Yet another morning, I went to the National Art Center to see a retrospective of Yayoi Kusama’s painting, garish and lonely and polka-dotted. That wasn’t with the American girls but with a Dutch model—a comment, perhaps, on the distinction between the European and American ways of seeing a place?
But this place, what a place it was. Japan was fantastical and bizarre and inventive. I went there doubtful that I would enjoy it (I’ve always been enchanted by Europe and the Mediterranean; by Asia never), but I left somewhat under Tokyo’s spell. The city was crowded and bustling, but in an impeccably organized, tranquil way: subway platforms were patrolled by stewards who directed us and helped us on and off trains; crosswalks soared above streets on pedestrian overpasses, allowing traffic to move below; and on escalators all the Japanese stood to one side to leave a lane clear for those in a hurry, a practice I find New Yorkers perpetually disregard.
Fascinating was the artificiality of many aspects of the culture (I found a profusion of plastic surgery clinics, diet pills in cucumber-print sachets advertised as “New Yorker’s Superfood Diet,” arcades of photo-booths offering filters to brighten your skin, blush your cheeks, enlarge your eyes). Equally notable, however, was a contrasting authenticity, a quirkiness and idiosyncrasy which made Japan unlike any country I’ve traveled to yet, and which made it surprisingly endearing. Drug stores sold plastic Totoro molds to shape sticky rice in kid’s lunch boxes, and city buses had eyes painted on them. Starbucks peddled cherry-blossom lattes, grocery stores stocked green-tea-flavored Reeces, cantaloupe KitKats, Borsch-flavored Lays. It seemed to me that Japan thrived on a fusion of the high tech with the whimsical: all was aesthetically designed, modern, high-quality and, above all, surprising, imaginative.
When at length the day of the show arrived, that imaginative spirit was not absent. Night had fallen by the time all Dior’s guests were seated on the benches looping around the maze of catwalk on a rooftop commanding a sweeping view of Tokyo. A strong wind had risen and the hair-stylists were mourning the instant demolition of their handiwork as the show soundtrack thundered up from the bowls of huge speakers stationed around the rooftop and we filed out into the warm gale like birds or lilies being torn at and billowed and flung on the night. Needling my way into the wind wall and along the roof’s perimeter, I could see the winking city below me and feel my gown streaming behind me, and the six minutes it took me to complete the circuit were enchanting and exhilarating and made me worry I would lose all my layers of taffeta or be swept into the audience in a dropping purple wad like an iris after a rain. The music boomed, the wind battered, the view glittered and the sky was vast and vehemently mauve. Moments like this, when all your senses are overwhelmed, are filled and roaring with magnificence, are like being removed, existing externally for a moment from your body and seeing time swell around you. Like standing on a pedestrian overpass and watching the traffic stream by.
At the airport on my way out of Tokyo I stocked up on sweet mochi filled with bean paste and some children's origami sheets that I’ll never use but that looked adorable. It was a few days after Easter and I had turned my Frankenstein paper in, and walked for Dior for a second time in my career. I’d walked a show as imaginative and unusual as the city it occurred in, I’d seen artifice and authenticity and how each was equally valid to the identity of this culture and this experience. I’d been enchanted by Tokyo, and it was a few days after Easter. Who knew bean paste could taste so sweet?