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Thursday, June 3, 2004


Shall we meet at Sutaba, Tsutaya or the dog's tail?

Doing the machiawase (setting up a meeting place) is one of things that define Japanese relationships, especially relationships in Tokyo.

Elsewhere in the world, people can just drive to each other's houses and socialize there, but such a practice is uncommon in this city, where everyone lives at least an hour's train ride away from everyone else. Getting together entails selecting a meeting place, and the person's choice of venue is an indicator of his or her personality, and the degree of intimacy in the relationship.

If you're under 25 and on a first date with Shibuya as your destination, then 80 percent of the guys will suggest "Hachiko-mae (in front of Hachiko, the dog statue outside the station)," upon which the girls will ask "atama, soretomo shippo (the head or the tail)?" Hachiko is perhaps the best-known machiawase spot in Tokyo, and clusters of people gather around the tiny statue at any given time of day, scanning the crowds for their machibito (the person one is waiting for).

Having said so, everyone knows the Hachiko rendezvous is for beginners. As couples mature and relationships evolve, people tend to cross the street to meet at Sutaba (Starbucks), on the first floor of the landmark Tsutaya Biru (Tsutaya Building).

The drawback to Tsutaya no Sutaba is that the place is typically crammed with folks trying to locate each other, shouting into their cell phones over the full-blast music. Says 21-year-old Fumiye Kojima, who refuses to meet anywhere else: "Ame ga futtemo daijyobudashi, okigarude oshare dakara (It won't matter even if it rains, and besides, the place is chic and easygoing)."

Other machiawase points in Shibuya include the Moyai-zo (Moyai Statue) located on the opposite side of the station from Hachiko. The Moyai came over from Niijima, one of the seven Izu Islands south of Tokyo. In island slang the word means "to help each other."

If you're going to Aoyama, then the popular meeting spot is in front of Mizuho Bank, which faces the famed 246 strip. The Aoyama crowd is older and more snobbish -- they'll be standing in various positions of ennui or nonchalance, with everyone carefully spacing themselves out instead of bunching into clusters.

If you're into ogling media celebrities while waiting, the first-floor cafe in the Spiral Building is just as likely to yield results as the Yoku Moku cafe, located on the side street known as "Cinderella Doori (Cinderella Avenue)." Both cafes are famed for high prices, impeccable staff and tasteful decor, not to mention the additional stress of trying to make your extremely expensive coffee last until the machibito shows up. Which explains why more people prefer to simply stand in front of the entrances.

The honya (bookstore) is always a good waiting site and Tokyo is blessed with many easy-to-find, landmark bookstores.

The Kinokuniya in Shinjuku, the Hourindou in Ikebukuro, Maruzen in Nihombashi and the ABC in Roppongi are just a few examples. The honya machiawase crowd is different from both the Hachiko and the cafe crowds. They are interi (intellectual) types who will tell you which floor or section in the shop to go to and will be reading with intense concentration 15 minutes before the appointed time. Men are more likely to suggest a honya, whether the meeting is amorous or not.

Women, when going out with their girlfriends, prefer the depato (department store) and like to display their shoppers' sophistication by appointing places like: "ikkai shomen genkan haitte esuka mae (in front of the escalator located nearest to the main entrance on the first floor)" or some rendition thereof. On any weekday evening, the depato in Ginza are thronged with well-dressed ladies chirping into cell phones: "No, no, not THAT escalator, THIS one!"

And then there are the creative types who aren't satisfied with just any machiawase site -- those who opt for a particular karaoke bokkusu (karaoke room), manga kissa (comic-book reading room), gesen (game centers) with all the latest models, or even obscure tsuri-doguten (shop for fishing gear). Actually, fishing shops are not that rare, and you'll find at least one near every major terminal station (along with shops for mountaineering equipment).

A friend of mine always asks to meet at a foot-massage place, and her reasoning goes like this: "If one of us is late or can't show up at all, at least one or the other will be feeling good after 15 minutes." In the list of machiawase spots, this one illustrates sheer brilliance.

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