As a child, my single mother never told me about her finances, which gave me zero clue as to how much she earned, spent, or saved. It was a luxury to receive anything fancy; the concept of getting only what you need—not what you want—was consistently emphasised on the rare occasion that we were out together.
While my mum was busy working to financially support my grandmother, brother, and I, my dad was imprisoned for drug consumption. As a result, I lacked attention from my family members (especially my parents) while growing up.
And so I became an otaku in primary school. An otaku is best described as a person unhealthily obsessed with a topic (usually anime and/or manga), so much so they’re unable to function properly in society. Otakus usually talk about their undying love for their fictional waifu (wife) or husbando (husband).
I distracted myself from the neglect I felt by turning to anime and MMORPG PC games. I always preferred to rush home to my laptop after school to level up in my favourite MMORPG, Tales Runner, or catch up with Japanese anime, Death Note.
My classmates talked about Naruto during every morning assembly, which made me curious to find out what the hype was all about. Eventually, my curiosity drove me to watch Naruto one day after school. After binge-watching the first season, I started watching other Japanese animated series that caught my interest.
This fuelled my love for Japanese culture and aesthetics, which resulted in a burning desire to visit Japan.
The main thing that prevents me from saving as much as I want to is the necessity to purchase my daily meals. Despite living under the same roof as my grandmother, she has gotten lethargic due to her age, so she’s often too tired to cook for me.
Instead, I buy the cheapest alternatives, restricting myself to $2.80 cai fan (2 vegetable and 1 meat).
Being a slave to four adult cats and four kittens also makes saving harder for me, as I have to pay for the cats’ litter and food.
Because of my financial situation, going to Japan isn’t a great financial decision–AT ALL. A direct flight to Tokyo is already $1,251; it’ll take about a year or two to save up that much money just for flight ticket itself.
And what about accommodation? Food? Expenses? Shopping? Who knew my life could get any worse?
Remember: I never understood the concept of saving money. So a trip to Japan? Please.
I was only convinced to visit when I saw an Instagram story of my piss-drunk guy friends cosplaying as schoolgirls in the store at 4 AM.
The first time I went to Don Don Donki was on a date. I couldn’t stop being fascinated by everything; whenever I wanted to leave the store, another product would steal my attention.
My endless stop-and-stare at every other item was a never-ending cycle that my date had to go through. He even complained that his legs were starting to ache, though clearly that didn’t stop me from picking up almost every product. The place felt like a maze, but I walked down every available aisle—twice.
I never expected the supermarket to feel “authentic”; the packaging featured Japanese hiragana, which I couldn’t read, and the only thing written in English was the ‘nutritional facts’ sticker that translated the name of the product and the price label. The lights were too bright, the crowds were too loud, and the rows of colourful and kawaii snacks were exactly as I imagined what Japanese supermarkets would be lined with.
I knew I was in a departmental store in Singapore, separated from my financial reality only by a demented blue penguin in a Santa hat which could make my dreams come true.
Yet I could’ve sworn I was in Japan.
For example, Don Don Donki imports matcha powder and the varying flavours of kit-kat that were once exclusive to Japan and a rare discovery in local supermarkets. In addition to the slightly deranged, cheery ambient music played in store, these always make me feel as though I’ve stepped into a supermarket scene in anime.
Some of their products are seasonal too. Although they are restocked, it’s hard to predict whether you’d get the same thing the next time you’re there. This is unlike local supermarkets where the same items are typically restocked until they’re sold out.
When I visited Don Don Donki’s cereal section on a Tuesday and Friday of the same week, the flavours displayed for Calbee granola cereal were entirely different. While ‘hypebeasts’ enjoy collecting sneakers of limited quantity, my ‘hype’ friends religiously look for the limited flavours of Calbee’s granola cereal every week. Matcha flavoured granola cereal, hello?
Don’t even get me started on the trolley of instant noodle cups stacked precariously on top of each other, ready to be grabbed or toppled over. Nissin’s flavours in particular, like cheese curry and chilli tomato, aren’t anything I’ve seen elsewhere.
On top of the vibrant colours and cutesy cartoon characters on every single packaging, this cornucopia of culinary delight is staggering to say the least.
Many people believe Japanese products are more expensive than local or even Western products, because of the quality, design, and reflection of their culture. I myself am guilty of coveting Japanese products simply because they’re Japanese. But coming from someone who’s perpetually broke, Don Don Donki’s items are relatively reasonably priced (though I can still barely afford anything).
In fact, local supermarkets retail Japanese products at a higher price compared to those sold in Don Don Donki.
Take this essential household item for example. In sunny Singapore, fans are a must. If you’re on a budget, a mini table fan in Don Don Donki costs like, what, $15? Dude. Even if you were to splurge, the exclusivity of and quality of a Japanese product make it worth spending on.
For all I know, these products might soon be available in other supermarkets too, such as Fairprice Finest and Marketplace, if they aren’t already. Yet Don Don Donki’s products are not just products; to me, they’re a reminder of the claustrophobic Tokyo streets I see in anime, the characters in Tales Runner, and the longing I feel whenever I look at online ticket prices to Japan.
To me, this is Japan compressed into a whole store. It’s like a Japanese Mustafa Centre, and it’s the closest I can get to setting foot in my dream destination.
Since my dad went to prison for drugs when I was three, I lacked a father figure while growing up. I found the worst ways to seek self-validation; I’d incorporate memes from 9gag into my everyday life just to gain the attention of my classmates, then laugh hysterically every time because I found everything funny. I learned to treat life as a joke because no one took me seriously.
Rather than cry myself to sleep, I turned to dark humour as a coping mechanism. If you know me well enough, you’ve probably heard me say, “Do you want to hear a joke about my father? I’d tell you, but I have no father.”
65% of the time, nobody laughed except me.
Don Don Donki became my refuge. Whenever I stepped into my mini Japanese haven, I felt welcomed because Japan was the reality I wanted to live so badly. And whenever I had to leave this temporary home, I would be reminded of how I logged into Tales Runner every day to hang out with my online friends and play a few games until the sun rose the next morning.
From watching anime, I’ve noticed that most Japanese people are reserved. Similarly, in Don Don Donki, everyone minds their own business, content with browsing things they need to purchase.
I, on the other hand, usually only admire from afar the items on display.
Still, window shopping has become a personal ritual for peace of mind, and helps me feel less alone.
And while I’m here, escaping to Don Don Donki gives me the time and space to think about the life I’ve led and the choices I would have made had I done certain things differently. People say that your childhood can define you, but I don’t want my childhood to be my future.
To me, Don Don Donki is not just a departmental store. It’s a nudge in the right direction.
So as I wait for my probation to end in a year’s time, I’ll continue to visit Don Don Donki and imagine the dizzying variety of things I will finally get to admire in the Land of the Rising Sun—whenever that may be.