Microcosmographia by William Van Hecke

Spoken Words Project

So you know by now that I am a huge Clammbon fan. Our last trip to Tokyo was planned around my finally getting to go and see a couple of Clammbon shows. This is a little story about a side-quest I undertook on that same trip.

For all the 13 years I have been visiting Japan, folks there have always tended to point accusingly at my messenger-bag, backpack, or leather briefcase and ask, “Isn’t that much too heavy to carry around?” Even if it didn’t contain a heavy PowerBook or MacBook, or even an iPad, even if it was mostly empty, they just wouldn’t accept that it was an okay thing to carry around town. Regardless of the actual weight, I think they found that the form factor of these bags made them seem too heavy.

Anyway, at last I gave in and agreed to hunt down a lightweight tote bag of the sort that seems to be in style in Japan right now for women and men both. But with so many brands and styles out there, how could I choose? As always, I needed some sort of direction, some emotional hook to guide me toward a thing that I would find meaningful. This is how my brain works.

Well, the connection made itself pretty promptly. See, getting back to Clammbon, part of the appeal of this band for me has always been how their visual presentation complements their music. Going all the way back to their earliest videos, Ikuko always wore some sort of quirky, handmade accessories, mismatched nail polish; that sort of thing. The videos themselves were intentionally rough and playful rather than perfectly polished. The album covers had a surreal, childlike art style, usually courtesy of the illustrator Amigos Koike. And starting in 2004, the band started associating itself with a textile and fashion designer called Spoken Words Project. SWP created two album covers for Ikuko’s solo work, and for a good while she wore their artsy, bohemian dresses on stage almost exclusively.

Piano Tanoshisou kanashisou Ikuko harada

Organic, extemporaneous, and playful — yet also deliberate, quiet, and poetic. That brand name, Spoken Words Project, seems so apt.

For the longest time it didn’t even occur to me that I might someday get to own a SWP product. Why would it? They were a boutiquey little Japanese brand making women’s clothing that prolly cost like a super tall yen stax so tall like you wouldn’t believe.

But at some point I found myself looking at the SWP site, and following links to retailers that carried — whoa yeah!! — SWP tote bags!! That was a thing I could get away with buying. This was my mission: I would seek out any store that carried the brand and find a bag that would serve me well for years to come, and remind me every day of the band I love and the trip I made to see them.

Again, that is how my brain works. Sure, I enjoy owning things. But ideally, they should be things with meaning. I want an object that can become an emblem, and I want an experience that can become a story.

Well, nichey Japanese retailers' web sites are not great. So when shopping time came, the best information I had was “go to Shibuya and try to find these stores and hope one of them has what you want.” I didn’t have a lot of time, and I was painfully aware of how odd it probably looked for an awkward white guy to be wandering alone on the women’s floors of the department store, gawking this way and that into each display. (As an aside, this is probably the nearest sense I have ever had of the sense of uncertain unbelonging that less-privileged people than myself probably feel as they move around in public every day.)

At Parco, I found a little shop where the products were laid out individually and lit dramatically, to emphasize how special and expensive they were; that place carried a couple of SWP scarves and dresses. I stared at them uncomfortably, looked around the cramped little space to see if there were tote bags hiding somewhere, decided that there weren’t, bumped into some displays, and escaped.

On to another shop. After a sweltering and rushed walk, all the way on the other side of the station, I found my way to a place called Desperado. Not knowing what to expect, I walked into a dang treasure vault. The entire store was packed with precisely the sort of whimsical, charming, and colorful products that I had come for. Already late for an engagement to meet up with a dear friend of mine from a decade past, I quickly found the SWP section and boggled at the selection: not just bags, but also bedding, towels, and miscellaneous crafty items. I’d honestly thought I would not be coming home with a SWP tote bag, but there in front of me was a rack of several of them. I made myself focus and, for five intense minutes, fretted about which bag was the right one. At last I picked the one that seemed to best embody what I like about the brand. Then I changed my mind, then changed my mind back, then made myself bring the dang thing to the counter.

I am shy enough normally, let alone in a foreign country. But this was a special occasion, right? I made myself talk to the hyper-hip lady who was selling me the thing.

“This is such a lovely store!”

Her, after taking a moment to be startled that I was speaking decent Japanese: “Oh, thank you!”

“To tell the truth, I’ve been a fan of this brand for a long time, and I was really looking forward to coming to Japan and finding something of theirs.”

“Really! Well, this is a great example of their work. You know, every item they make is one-of-a-kind.” Then some talk about where I’m from and how I came to know Japanese. Then, “How did you find out about this brand?” A fair question, considering how not-at-all-world-famous it is.

“Well, there’s this band… And the singer is always wearing their stuff…”

“Which band is it?”

“They’re called Cl…Clamm–”

“Oh! Yes, she used to come in here quite a lot! But she is so busy now, you know…”

Whuh! Harada Ikuko was a regular in the store where I was buying a thing. Woo!

We talked a bit more, and she seemed genuinely happy that her store had helped make a little connection to something meaningful for me. I promised I’d be back. She insisted on doing the Japanese thing where the clerk follows you to the entrance, carrying your merchandise, and handed me a little complimentary cookie on my way out.

From there I rushed to meet up with my old friend Tets. He took me to world-class sushi at this tiny place down an unmarked stairwell, where the chef continually lobbed miserable puns at us. From there he dragged me to my first maid-cafe experience… but that is another story.

Desperado shopping bag, the cookie, and Spoken Words Project tote bag

Update: In 2014, I went back to Desperado and picked up some more SWP…