Many years ago, I remember reading an article on the sale of used school girls panties from vending machines on the streets of Japan. According to the article, this was a market that was driven by Japanese businessmen, whose perversions had created a veritable gold mine. Now, I am sure that 90 percent of men are excited by the mere mention of Japanese school girls panties. Add the word "used" to the front of these 4 words though and the percentage of those that would admit to still being excited, would probably dramatically decrease (please note the use of the word "admit").
Mention that you are going to Japan these days and people's number 1 question is often focussed on this very topic. We may expect, statements along the line of, "Wow, Japan, I'd love to see Mount Fuji in Autumn", or "You're going to Japan, I've always wanted to see the Golden Temple in Kyoto". Alas no, it seems that the urban myth of the Japanese school girls panties, vending machine is the issue on the tip of many people's tongues (and yes there was a filthy pun intended there).
But is this an urban myth, or does such a vending machine really exist? With an impending trip to Tokyo, I decided to do some Internet research and upon inputting the words "Japanese school girls panties, vending machine" into Google, I was inundated with hits. After, maybe 30 mins of carefully filtering through these results, I was left more confused than when I began. Photo's of these vending machines abounded, although others said that Japanese law had been changed over a decade ago and such machines had been outlawed. It was decided, my trip to Tokyo would focus on this weird and wacky phenomenon and the Japanese school girls panties, vending machine would be my Holy Grail.
A coincidence means that I will start my trip travelling with Taryn, a fellow British, English teacher in Korea. I meet Taryn at Changwon's Namsan bus terminal and we head to Gimhae airport. Before we have already boarded the plane, Taryn informs me that she has had several requests from people, to bring her a pair of used Japanese school girls panties back from Tokyo. "Excellent", I think to myself, I have chosen the right focus for my trip. Taryn, informs me that she will not actually be fulfilling these requests and I assume that at some point there will be a parting of the ways, so that we can both fulfil our hobbies. She is more interested in Japanese art, than panties, although I guess that it could be argued that this is art. A collision of colours, so to speak. Like a Jackson Pollock of bodily fluids, especially when the Japanese business men have finished with them.
A trip to the Imperial Palace, is rather uninteresting, so we head to Shinjuku, the very heart of technological Japan. The streets that you see in "Lost in Translation", a sort of real life "Blade Runner". Huge animated screens dominate the front of buildings, a proliferation of fashion empires such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton, with hordes of professional shoppers peering through their windows in awe, at the latest designs, and people dressed up to the nines in every possible type of fashion, scurrying across multiple road crossings in search of their own Holy Grails.
The juxtaposition of poverty and wealth, as ever in these mega metropolises is extremely evident. Homelessness is rife in Tokyo, the demographic, mainly that of middle aged men. I later try to understand why this is the case and I am led to believe that this was caused by the Asian financial crash of the late 90s. The men in question, full of great shame, decided to up and leave their families, with their tails firmly between their legs. In Tokyo, they would become invisible - just another statistic, swathed in cardboard in the rain. Given Japan's penchant for suicide, I assume that these are the ones that are too scared to carry it out. Their life's without purpose, but their survival instinct stronger than their desire to remove themselves from this world.
Walking through Shinjuku station, I think that we are passing a urinal, the stench of urine is overwhelming and causes me to wretch. I turn around just in time, to notice that a particularly vile looking (and smelling creature) is almost upon me. I rush off, like Usian Bolt leaving the starting blocks, to escape my terrifying fate. Of course, I feel desperately sad when I think about the future that these people have to face, and my mind is consumed with thoughts of how they can survive, with no goals or rewards. My sadness apart, I still find it particularly amusing when we see a tramp couple (yes,I know that this is politically incorrect), having a domestic, by employment of a series of inarticulate grunts. The source of this argument appears to be that the male vagrant, has found a porn magazine which he is hastily flicking through, with his back turned to his irate lady friend. The lady in question is hunched beyond repair and pushing a trolley full of cardboard and paper, from where I guess the horny male has found his prize. Mr Tramp is shielding himself against the wall, with his back turned, not only to his wife but also the hundreds of people that are walking through the underground station shopping mall in search of their Louis Vuitton bags. He in turn, is on search of his penis. Most people seem to ignore the scene that unfolds before them, although how they can ignore the awful smell, is beyond me. Taryn and I try, unsuccessfully to get a sneaky camera shot of the whole episode.
After a ridiculously expensive bowl of soup (normal by Tokyo standards) and a failed trip to a free art gallery, which it turns out is in fact a shop, Taryn looks exhausted and heads off home. I have my suspicions that she is heading for the area of Ginza and its supposed many art galleries, and my suspicions are later confirmed. Anyway, perfect - now to find my Holy Grail.
I know that Kabukichio is the main red light district of Tokyo and is very close to Shinjuku. Where better a place to start my quest than this? I follow a Lonely Planet walking tour of the Shinjuku area which if I navigate correctly will take me to the seedy part of town. Ironically enough, the portal to this district of adult entertainment turns out to be via a temple named Hanazono-jinja. I locate the temple, take a few minutes to watch people praying and then head off through the rear exit into an area called "Golden Gai". "Golden Gai", is a succession of narrow streets, which play host to over 220 drinking dens. These dens are small, bohemian and often xenophobic. Allowing access to nobody but the Japanese. The whole area is an insight into how Japan looked before their post war economic miracle. The Yakuza (Japanese mafia), where actually paid to burn these type of areas down, to make way for economic development in the form of shopping malls and office blocks. The fact that "Golden Gai" still survives today is only down to the endeavours of some of the areas supporters who took turns to guard it at night, to save it from the arsonist's torches.
I contemplate a drink in one of the "Golden Gai" drinking dens but after asking around, I realise that I am too early. "Oh well", I think to myself, "the Holy Grail of perverts is possibly around the next corner". Kabukichio is magnetic North and my loins are the compass. I look ahead and notice activity of a very animated kind, afore me. And there it is, Kabukichio, in all it's pinkness (pink is to Japan, what blue is to the West). A warren of sexual activity.
As I wander the streets, I try to take in my surroundings. Tall, neon illuminated buildings surround me in every direction, each advertising "girlie shows" and indeed the male equivalent. Peep shows, sex shops, strip shows, live sex shows and dvd masturbation cabins. Then there's more specialist stuff advertised, including the ubiquitous "Soapland" establishments. Later research tells me that this is a place where people pay $500 to have have a bath with a prostitute (just a tad overpriced I'd say).
My search for the Holy Grail, continues in a porn dvd room. I am convinced that if anywhere is going to yield results, it's going to be this place. I wander countless aisles, all stacked with an interesting range of Japanese porn. Whatever the perversion, the Japanese school girl seems to be central to its theme. The store is completely full of Japanese men of every age, who have a little pink basket full of porn dvd's. I watch, as they take these baskets to the cash desk, often pausing at one of the shelves of sex toys to stock up on lube or more interestingly, fake rubber vaginas. I observe,as they pay up and disappear through a discrete entrance to what I later find out, is a masturbation room, complete with a comfy sofa, massive screen, tissue dispenser and sink (don't ask). To an outsider, it all seems very civil. The most basic of human impulses, dispensed of in a suitable environment. The men go to such establishments on their way home from work, to rid themselves of their daily stresses. Once they have been relieved of their sexual burdens, they re-enter the relative normality of Japanese society, with their briefcases and their umbrellas replacing their cock's and their lube.
Satisfied with my observations of this side of Japanese life, but dissatisfied in the unsuccessful completion of my task, I head back out into Tokyo's sex filled streets.
Grabbing, an overpriced can of beer from a convenience store, I wander around looking for vending machines. These are so common in Japan however, that when I spot one, my initial excitement is soon replaced by disappointment when I realise that it is actually dispensing beer, or coffee, or snacks or plastic vaginas or lube. I am about to terminate my search and go home, when out of the corner of my eye I spot my "Holy Grail". There it is, in all its pinkness. A vending machine, clearly displaying a picture of a posterior clad in a pair of cotton panties. The machine, is positioned outside a sex shop, the owner of which is sitting outside cautiously guarding his gold mine. I really want to take a photo, but I do not have the nerve. How will his reaction be? Earlier in the day, I tried to take a photo of a pachinko gambling palace and was warned not to. Surely this guy does not want me taking pictures of his holiest of holy. Rather suspiciously, I loiter around the shop entrance, taking casual sips of my beer to help my nerves. The guy does not go, so I hatch a new plan. Ok, so If I can't get a photo - I'll have to purchase the wares.
With the bravery of a Kamikaze pilot, I swoop at the machine and under closer observation note that the price is 5000 yen (approximately 5 quid). With cowardice of an Italian cruise liner captain I make my retreat, to a quiet corner where I can retrieve the said amount from my wallet. In retrospect, taking a photo would have been easier but the goal posts have now been changed. I find a 5000 yen coin, wait for a time when there are fewer people passing by and I charge at the vending machine.
The coin slot is the same as those bubble gum or toy machines machines that you find in the streets in England. In theory, you drop the cash into the slot, turn the little handle and an egg containing your prize falls into a compartment below. With the stealth and accuracy of a Sumo wrestler, I launch at the machine and throw my money into the slot. I grab the handle and with shaking hands and give it a twist. I then watch with horror, as the coin flies through the air (in slow motion), eventually hitting the ground. This is only the beginning of the drama. What had started off as a highly surreptitious act, soon develops into a street drama. The coin, upon hitting the ground, does a few revolutions of the vending machine, which in turn alerts the attention of half of the street. Not known for their hostility, the kind people of Tokyo decide to come to my aid.
Typically, the coin comes to rest under the vending machine, far enough under to not be able to retrieve it. Anywhere, else - no problem. I would just cut my losses and head out of their with my head down. The gathering masses, are having none of it however. I am a guest in Tokyo and they will help me all they can. A couple of guys heave up the machine, whilst I lie on my stomach and pull out the coin. Not satisfied with this, one of the guys takes the coin from my hand, places it in the slot, turns the handle, retrieves the plastic egg containing the panties and hands it to me. I nervously tell him "Arigato" and head off to a less crowded place.
Upon opening the egg, I am greatly perturbed that the panties are neither school girls nor used. They are in fact, a terrible colour of purple, whilst the picture inside is of a mature lady wearing a blue pair of pants that look nothing like the ones in my egg. This disappointment leads me back to the machine to take a photo anyway. The whole act seems less seedy when the contents of the egg are of a less naughty nature.
So, I can neither prove or disprove whether the Japanese used school girls panties, vending machines is indeed an urban myth. But at least I managed to return home with my girlfriend a present from Tokyo.