Since I was brought up in a city and have travelled to about two dozen of them, I can attest to at least one universal fact about them: cities have rhythms.
They might occur with perfect periodicity or with the irregular percussion of a jazz drum solo but either way, they set the beat to which a city moves.
In London for example, asides from the obvious day/night cycle and the awful bass-thumping from your inconsiderate neighbour’s speaker at three in the morning, the buses come every fifteen minutes, the guards at Buckingham Palace change on the hour and a tourist manages to block your path at least every twenty seconds. Every few months or so, the clouds part, just a fraction, and everyone goes temporarily mad worshipping the big glowing orb in the sky.
If you have the pleasure of finding yourself in Tokyo, and want to play the role of urban physician, the best place to measure a “pulse” is at Shibuya Crossing, just South-West of the city centre. In the two days I spent in the city, no other rhythm made its presence felt quite like that scramble crossing. Neither has this observation escaped notice from film-makers, photographers and artists, who have all paid tribute to the clockwork pedestrian rush that takes place there every few minutes.
The crossing is essentially just a busy intersection in the shopping district of Tokyo with five sets of painted stripes that suggest a path to pedestrians for getting to their desired street. They are somewhat ignored in the process.
When the lights turn green, you can feel the lifeblood of Tokyo flowing in every direction. Tourists, business-people, shoppers, drunks and pretentious bloggers cascade isotropically under neon-plastered skyscrapers for sixty glorious seconds before cars begin to run everyone off the roads in the most polite, Japanese way possible.
I won’t argue whether or not you should take some time to visit it, you can read various people arguing about whether or not they considered it worthwhile (for my part, it gets a wholehearted yes), but I can advise you on how to enjoy it.
As best as I could figure, there are three major spots to see the crossing in action.
The first is through the window on the walkway connecting Shibuya Station to the adjacent mall. Since you’ll most likely be arriving here by train, it’s worth stopping briefly to watch it from there, and also to take in the “The Myth of Tomorrow”, an enormous, abstract mural spanning the other wall, depicting the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The other two options allow for a slower, more considerate viewing. By which I mean, you can sit there, drink coffee and stare for an hour or so. And if you’re a pathological people watcher (an “ogler”, as David Foster Wallace would say), you’ll want to sit it out and enjoy the recurring swathes of crowds for at least a few dozen cycles.
Both remaining options are cafés on the first floor of buildings, whose windows overlook the action.
Option #1 is the Starbucks situated opposite the station, rumoured to be one of the busiest in the world. If you’re lucky, you might be able to grab a seat by the window.
#2 is the Café L’Occitane, in between the shopping mall and the Starbucks. Again, there are a few tables by the windows.
One could compare the relative benefits of the view, the food, the quality of service, the comfort of the seats etc etc but all those metrics, like the painted stripes on crossing, turn out to be fairly irrelevant.
Because after travelling through the concrete-and-plate-glass jungle of Tokyo all day, being bombarded with advertising on every square inch of surface in the city, when you arrive in Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s busiest wards (over two million passengers come through the train station every day), with every other person carrying a shopping bag from a luxury store and a hyper-beam of branding aimed straight at your face, it’s enough turn the stomach of the most die-hard free market capitalist. Being in a chain store is the last thing you’ll want.
Unless of course, you’re sold on joining the exuberant, fashionable crowd and fancy blending in with Tokyo’s stylish elite, in which case I wouldn’t bother wasting time in overpriced cafés when designer clothes stores abound in every direction.
For the oglers however, it seems only sensible, being the sort of detached, analytical sorts who enjoy people watching from a distance, to pick the least chain-y of the two. Or, to be less flattering, to pick the more hipster-y between L’Occitane and Starbucks. Obviously, you can’t make personal, profound observations on Human Nature (or search “for data on some reality to fictionalize,” to quote DFW again) while crowd watching from a temple of human homogeneity and corporate blandness, embodied by the franchise of an international conglomerate. You’re too cool for that.
So, which is most non-conformist, anti-capitalist, individualist choice between the Starbucks and the Café L’Occitane? And, by direct logical extension, which one should you sit in to experience Shibuya Crossing?
At least by popular interpretation, Starbucks loses this battle hands down. After all, doesn’t Starbucks typify the chain store like no other? Is there any sign of the loss of independent shops and the rise of mass-market appeal, stronger than the presence of a Starbucks?
Maybe not, but to be fair, we should judge Starbucks and L’Occitane by their relative markets. After all, Starbucks is a coffee chain and L’Occitane, dubious cafés aside, is primarily a beauty products retailer. To get a sense of how much they contribute to a lack of corporate diversity, we should be comparing how giving either company your money increases their respective share of their primary markets.
Disclaimer: I am not an economist. If you find the following analysis hand-wavey and imprecise, I refer you to the name of this blog.
In Starbucks’ case, their American market share comes to 36.7%, and taking the proportion of branded European coffee shops that are Starbucks (1965/19472 ≈ 10% ), ~20% seems like a reasonable middle-ground estimate for their share of coffee shops in developed countries.
L’Occitane is a little trickier to estimate, but since L’Oreal’s market share in cosmetics is about 10% , and the ratio of L’Occitane’s revenue to L’Oreal’s is ~0.065 , that puts my estimate of L’Occitane’s market share at just under 1%!
Even with my butchery of economic analysis, I think the order of magnitude difference gives this round to L’Occitane for being the underdog.
L’Occitane 1, Starbucks 0
So L’Occitane isn’t making a dent in the cosmetics market the same way Starbucks has done for coffee shops. But perhaps you, intrepid ogler, don’t care much for market shares and instead think the bigger criticism to levy at giant corporations is how the nature of their businesses affect their customers.
Perhaps we should be looking at how much good Starbucks or L’Occitane do for people. How much do their customers actually benefit from buying their products? How do each of their products improve the average person’s day?
Or rather, the average woman’s day. Although I couldn’t get hard figures on L’Occitane’s customer demographics, there are a few hints that most of their products are marketed to (and presumably bought by) women; their website layout relegated all “men’s” products to a separate column of their website and on their page of best selling products, only 2 of the 15 seemed to be marketed towards men .
So for a sensible like for like comparison of which company best benefits their customers, it makes sense to focus on women.
Which brings me to an interesting find. For the reasons you might expect, women’s use of cosmetics and make up has been found to “increase their perceived attractiveness, give them more confidence, and create a favorable impression in work and social settings”. Interestingly, or depressingly depending on how you want to look at it, there is mild evidence to suggest that using make up gives you enough social leverage at work to help you earn an extra 4000 USD every year .
Coffee, meanwhile (drunk in moderation, which it turns out most people do ) seems to have quite a few positive psychological effects at work , including increased alertness, cognitive function and encouraging a short breaks centred around the act of drinking it. That arguably make you a happier and more productive worker, which might be a good excuse to bring up the next time you hop out the office to go to a café.
Still, it doesn’t sound like coffee is offering anything quite so impressive as an increase in salary and noticeably better appreciation from your colleagues, especially since the body quickly adjusts to a certain level of caffeine consumption. Does L’Occitane win this round as well, on the merits of cosmetics?
Well, the obvious counterpoint to the “Wear make up, it makes you look pretty and people like you more,” line of thought is, “Hey, how about people start liking me regardless of what my face is like instead of escalating the arms race of beauty standards?”
Naomi Wolf argues in her book “The Beauty Myth”, that the use of cosmetics (as well as “diet, pornography and plastic-surgery industries”) are part of our cultural tool-kit for enforcing beauty standards on women as a means of controlling their behaviour . There’s also evidence that the social benefits associated with make up have less of a return on investment past a certain, and totally arbitrary, point of grooming (and instead make women perceived as less competent ).
Now, it’d be fun to take the stereotypical male, western physicist approach and just assume that if I read a couple of papers or opinion pieces, I could easily determine the true utility of make-up by using my big clever head to look at numbers and exercise scientific understanding rather than my empathy. But the truth is, I have no bloody clue whether make up feels empowering or burdensome to most women. If you think my understanding of economics is lacking from the preceding section, you definitely won’t appreciate my attempts at emulating being a woman.
So, since we’re looking to be as socially aware as possible and coffee seems to have straightforward utility with hardly any health consequences for most people (with moderate consumption), I’m going to have to say Starbucks takes this round.
L’Occitane 1, Starbucks 1
As wonderfully modern, clean and futuristic Japan is, it has a bit of strange obsession with over-packaging things . Which makes the choice of a sustainable, responsible company to give your money to, all the more important when you arrive at Shibuya.
Trust me when I say, the last thing you’ll want on your conscience after throwing away your fiftieth plastic wrapper of the day, is how many polar bears your chosen café is is killing via environmental negligence.
And given Japan’s excessive working culture, you probably don’t want to be thinking about how much undue pressure each company is applying to their employees either. Take a train back at midnight in any Japanese city and you’ll notice a conspicuously large number of offices with the lights on and people still inside.
The question of measuring the total environmental, corporate and social merits of a company is arguably too complex to derive any meaningful answer to at the level of approximation I’m offering. Thankfully, there are people that handle this sort of thing.
The Corporate Social Responsibility Hub (CSR) claims to provide a methodology for reducing all those complex considerations of social governance into one, handy number .
It turns out Starbucks scores a 56, out of a best possible score of 100, on the CSR rankings  while L’Occitane gets a 53 . Which was a surprisingly narrower victory than I anticipated.
You might be tempted to say “You can’t fundamentally reduce the multi-dimensional, qualitative problems of corporate responsibility to a single number, as though anyone can meaningfully map societal issues onto integers for the sake of comparison.”
If so, my response is: boy oh boy are you reading the wrong blog.
L’Occitane 1, Starbucks 2
As we’ve been alluding to, part of your decision as to which café to sit at, is driven by the natural desire to retain your individuality, to exercise your right to choice and make rational, independent decisions. Oglers, of course aren’t tourists like everyone else, they’re special. Right? A sort of meta-tourist for the post-modern age.
So to distinguish yourself from the masses you’re so intent on observing, you’ll want to go to the less crowded of the two.
On this front, we have a clear winner. Assuming that the number of reviews is proportional to the number of visitors to each café (unless Starbucks’ customers have a stronger propensity for reviewing virtually identical coffee shops), L’Occitane appears to be less frequented going by the number of Google (95 against Starbucks’ 462), Yelp (31 againt 73) and Trip Advisor (234 against 603) reviews.
This, of course, also has the advantage that you’re more likely to actually find a spot by the window for your people-watching.
Round IV to L’Occitane.
L’Occitane 2, Starbucks 2
With the scores neck and neck between our two competitors, I come to the grand finale of this extremely important article.
The most optimal choice is…
…whichever one you feel like, of course. They’re both basically soulless cafés at the end of the day. That said, you’ll certainly enjoy Shibuya crossing from either one.
Since I hate it when writers pull this sort of fence-sitting nonsense, I’ll tip the scales for L’Occitane since it’s the only one I went to, and offers a small advantage: it serves alcohol. A glass of red wine pairs well with an hour of introspection about the lives of hundreds of thousands of strangers just beyond the glass.
To make up for this dissatisfying conclusion however, allow me to suggest two other places where rather than attempting to be aloof, you can connect with people face to face and pick up on the more subtle rhythms of Tokyo’s drum-line.
In the (in)famous ward of Shinjuku (an imperative to visit if you’re ever in Tokyo), as you wander over to the Gyoen National Garden along the main highway, you’ll probably spot this food stand.
The proprietor is a young friendly Japanese guy only too happy to share a sample of both his delicious home-made curries and ask you what it’s like wherever you’re from. Pop music tinkles out from the back of his obscenely coloured van as he fixes you a meal. And for what it’s worth, the food was also very good.
Meanwhile, north of Shibuya, in a the cosy, aptly-named ward of Kita, is the one of the best brews you’ll have in Tokyo, nestled in a little shop called Stella Coffee. There, you’ll meet a similarly charming Japanese shop-owner who meticulously keeps track of the temperature of the water as he tips the kettle, slowly and artfully, into your pour-over.
This isn’t atypical for Tokyo, but unlike the busier parts of town, you’ll find yourself alone with plenty of time to spare for a chat with your barista who, like the curry vendor in Shinjuku, will express his genuine interest in wherever your from. To quote Chekhov: “An intelligent, cordial and sympathetic fellow — as people mostly are whom we meet on our travels.”
The speakers outside his café play big band jazz music to the mostly vacant but honest street where people do real things like take their children to school, go jogging and pick up a pastry for breakfast before work. Don’t drink your coffee in the shop, wander around with it in hand and soak in the neighbourhood.
It’s one of the slower rhythms the city has to offer, but also a gentle reminder that despite the fact it feels like an alien planet most of the time, Tokyo is a real place where people go about their lives. Just like home.