If queuing were an Olympic sport, then the Japanese would take gold every time. While the British are somewhat famous for forming orderly lines at bus stops, I’m not sure they actually enjoy waiting until it’s their turn. On the other hand, the Japanese love nothing more than lining up for seats at restaurants (why don’t more places embrace the concept of the reservation?), boarding flights (the rest of the world should take lessons in this area as Japanese passengers are always ready with boarding passes face-up and passports open at the correct page), shop openings (the arrival of any new café or shop concept can generate queues that stretch for blocks) and special edition give-aways.
On Sunday afternoon, while guiding some clients around Tokyo, I witnessed just such a phenomenon on the streets of Ginza. The first clue that something was up was the unusually high number of shoppers wearing traditional yukata (think more casual, easy-style kimono for men and women) and jinbei (think the perfect summer get-up of shorts and wrap jacket for men). Early August may be the season to wear traditional summer dress but the scene around us looked like we were walking on to the set of a historical drama – the only signs that might have looked out of place in a period epic were funky men with massive headphones around their necks and girls wielding glittering mobile phones covered in lemon and hot-pink crystals.
As we rounded a corner we were confronted by the most elegant queue any of us had ever seen – hundreds of people of all ages dressed up in their summer best and fanning themselves with decorative foldable fans and more traditional paddle-style versions. There were families with little girls in bright yukata and boys in happy hued jinbei. Mothers sported elaborate up-dos and complicated eye make-up while dads tried to outdo each other in bold stripe yukata and wooden sandals.
“What’s everyone queuing for?” I asked my colleague.
“I’m not quite sure,” she said, also baffled by the scene. “Let me run over to someone and ask.”
While she dashed to speak to someone in charge of marshalling the line, now in the many hundreds, tourists were stopping to take photos and, as if on cue, groups of young girls assembled in their intricately printed robes giggling behind fans and making peace signs for the friends and family who’d be seeing their images uploaded seconds later.
“OK, I’ve got the story,” said my colleague, breathless in the heat. “The local retailers got together to launch a promotion encouraging people to wear traditional summer dress and anyone wearing a yukata today gets a little prize.”
Around the next corner, in front of the Shiseido confectionery shop, was a long tent staffed by young men and women in particularly elegant dress. While one shepherded little groups along to collect their treats, other staff were rifling through boxes handing out goodies, taking down names and snapping photos.
As our tour around Ginza continued, we ended up walking behind a pair of older gentleman accompanied by a chic older lady. The trio were all in subdued, earthy coloured yukata and the men had their oval fans neatly tucked into their obi (woven sash) at the back. As they chatted and laughed, I felt this could have been a scene from Ginza in the early 1960s as one gentleman sported a straw trilby and gold aviators while the other wore chunky frame glasses with a smoky half-tint and had the most perfectly clipped beard. Their companion reminded me of those perfect Japanese women I used to see in pictorial magazines from the early 1970s – flawless skin, silver hair pulled back tight, a little drawstring bag in one hand and a sun parasol in the other. She could have been in her early sixties but was probably closer to 80.
A few minutes later, the three were lost in the Sunday crush. I imagined they’d all slipped off to a cool little restaurant for soba and ice-cold beers. Or perhaps they hopped into an exquisitely preserved Mercedes and were all heading to her wonderful rambling house in Yokohama to listen to her collection of old vinyl while enjoying a crisp bottle of sake from a tiny brewery in Hokkaido.
I’m not sure if I was taken by the nostalgia of the afternoon or just the simplicity of practical national dress. As most of us endured the heat and humidity of Tokyo in August in our western summer uniform of shirts, shorts and shoes, I was envious that the Japanese had a functional ensemble that was uniquely their own (a westerner can never quite pull off such a look) and allowed wearers to look both dignified and comfortable. What could be more practical than crisp cotton, open shoes, a robe that allowed men to show a bit of chest and a fan for keeping the brow cool? If only we had such a costume for the summer streets of New York, London and Rome.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at www.ft.com/brule