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Alone in Japan: Exploring a Culture That Embodies Obsession

You’ve surely heard the phrase “a body in motion stays in motion” at some point in your life. It’s actually the second half of Newton’s First Law of Motion, and while I won’t try to convince you that I’ve led some mysterious past life as a physics professor, that law-turned-adage has always applied perfectly to my experience as a watch dealer.

It’s a career and passion that has me bound to the road more often than you might realize and the truth is, once I’m on the road and I’ve settled into a rhythm, it becomes addictive. I have a compulsion to stay on the trail and hunt watches, but I also love taking in different cultures and places and the perk of international travel isn’t lost on me – even when things are rough and you start to lose yourself a bit in the perpetual travel.

In my last Chasing Time dispatch, myself and my right-hand man, Craft + Tailored’s Operations Manager, Tyler Vanes, were hunting watches and immersing ourselves in Hong Kong’s horology culture. It was a whirlwind trip and we scored some killer pieces, connected with friends both new and old, ate some incredible food, and ultimately really enjoyed an opportunity to revisit a place that was very, very different from the last time I was there. As that trip started to wrap up, it occurred to me just how easy the travel from Hong Kong to Japan was. The idea of squeezing in a Japan trip on this excursion to the East was hard to ignore; Tokyo is only around a five-hour flight from Hong Kong and while I had not been to Japan in many years, it’s a country I’ve always been fascinated with. I booked a flight and parted ways with Tyler, who had to return home to Los Angeles to ensure things kept running smoothly at C + T HQ.

There is simply nothing that compares to the way Tokyo makes you feel. Japan – and Tokyo in particular – has a way of making someone with an enthusiast’s obsession for almost anything feel a little more normal. It’s a culture that really appreciates the fine details that make things special and a culture that understands what a difference nuance makes across all niche interests. The Japanese tend to embody obsession in a way no other culture really does, and for someone like myself, that’s obsessed with everything from vintage Porsches, to leather jackets, to old guitars, to hi-fi audio, being in Japan is refreshing because it’s a place where other enthusiasts always seem to throw themselves wholly into the things they care about. Passion is respected here. That said, I find it’s also a culture that keeps it quieter and more understated than we do in the US – at least when it comes to watch collecting. Maybe that’s tied to it being such a polite and private culture, but while watch collecting is certainly still celebrated in Japan, it’s done in a more reserved way. The conversations tend to happen behind closed doors and the dealers here don’t post heavy pieces to social media like we love to. It adds another layer of mystique to the experience, but it’s also something that requires a different kind of etiquette.

I’ve been increasingly interested in sourcing vintage watches that haven’t been circulated in the Western markets. While there’s no shortage of great vintage watches making the rounds in the US, there’s something special about bringing pieces to market that just haven’t been handled or even seen by our peer dealers, that haven’t been passed around from site-to-site, and that have most likely never left Japan after arriving from Switzerland. Japan has historically been something of a closed market as far as exports of vintage go, so there’s an added layer of intrigue to the “unseen” watches for me. I also think we’re starting to reach a point where buying and trading domestically is making the watches available a little stale. This trip was a chance to meet with Japanese dealers and start building a more open exchange between C + T and the Japanese market. Call me old fashioned, but I still believe there’s a lot of value in connecting in-person and that the internet isn’t going to do everything for your business. I also tend to find really clean examples of watches here; it’s possible that’s due to the reverence for one’s belongings the Japanese have (and you can see it in how gently dealers handle watches here) or a matter of these watches not being worn too much as the Japanese market tends to prefer modern pieces, but it’s a win for vintage buyers either way. I grabbed a blue dial Datejust here that had virtually no bracelet stretch, its dial was flawless, it had the caseback sticker intact, and I was almost certain no one had ever opened the caseback before when I unscrewed it to check the movement. Examples like that are sadly becoming harder and harder to find.

I’ll dispense with too many “stranger in a strange land” cliches, but if you’re a Westerner that’s ever traveled to Tokyo solo, you know just how alien and alone the place can make you feel when you first arrive. Even beyond the interactions and the language barrier, things like the cleanliness of the city can be jarring for someone from LA; it’s spotless. The feeling of being alone gets very real here, even with the massive population, and I love that feeling as much as I hate it. There is an element of discomfort in being alone in such a distant culture that has become my normal. I think most people avoid being uncomfortable or finding themselves in places of uncertainty. So many of us want to live in little predictable boxes with predictable circumstances and routines. Stability has its charms, but being in Japan has reminded me that I want to be out chasing my passions, sitting in the corner of a noodle shop that has not a single English word in sight, slurping noodles with strangers. As such, my favorite meal in Tokyo was at what outwardly looked like a hole-in-the-wall ramen spot called MENくらい, which literally translates to “Men Cry” because the ramen is so good it makes men cry.

The noodles they make at Men Cry are these incredible, thick soba noodles and the recipe has been passed down for something like eight generations. That spot was a perfect example of how Japanese culture fosters the creation of masters and how obsession makes for quality here. Everything from the ingredients used in the noodles to the consistency of the broth, to the way that it was all cooked seemed to be fretted over at this shop, but it makes a difference. It was just incredible. I had the Abura soba and it was so good that it may have ruined every noodle spot I hit back home in LA for me.

I think Tokyo has a really interesting duality of somehow feeling both unwelcoming and inviting at once. No one really interacts with you on the streets, but one of my favorite experiences on the trip was at an incredible record-listening bar called Bar Martha in Shibuya City. There was an element of community there that felt like everyone in the room was there for the same reasons. The vibe inside is pure noir. A known DJ spins phenomenal record selections on a hi-fi rig that uses all of the best components like Altec and McIntosh, and a trio of Garrard 301 turntables, and must be heard in person to truly be appreciated. You can still smoke in bars there, so it feels like a trip back in time hanging out in the haze of cigarette smoke with other patrons. Every detail of the experience was considered at Bar Martha and I ended up making friends with a gentleman wearing an impeccably tailored bespoke suit, Jacques Marie Mage frames, and a gorgeous vintage 18k yellow gold Omega Geneve manual wind dress watch. Of course, we started chatting about watches and it turns out he went to school in upstate NY at Syracuse. Small world. There’s something about being in a place where every detail is considered, chatting with a guy that obviously pays close attention to the sartorial decisions he makes, listening to records in an environment that was designed to bring them forward as more than background noise, that you just don’t experience as purely elsewhere. The minute the DJ was done with a record, an assistant wiped it down and inspected it before putting it back in its sleeve. Polished brass ashtrays with beautiful patina were swapped out constantly by the staff for fresh ones. The bartenders had an assistant whose sole job was to scrutinize and polish every glass before it was used. It was a scene marked by this brilliant choreography that I had to just stop and watch for a bit. I’m sure for a lot of people, Bar Martha is simply a cool bar to enjoy some high-end whiskey at, but for me, it felt like an affirmation of all the things I love as an enthusiast and detail-minded obsessive. I left that bar reminded of why I do what I do and why traveling to the edge alone can be draining in the moment, but ultimately refuels me every time.

Founder and CEO of Craft + Tailored, Cameron Barr searches the globe for vintage timepieces and ephemera. His passion for telling the stories behind these incredible objects laid the foundation for C+T.

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