While having lunch with a friend recently, the conversation turned to the furniture giant, Ikea, which recently opened a store on Port Island in Kobe.
She was saying how much she was looking forward to tasting some Swedish meatballs. From the tone of her voice, I wasn’t sure if she was talking about the country’s cuisine in the store's restaurant or if she was hoping to find a dishy Swedish shop assistant to spend the night with.
My suspicions were confirmed when I asked her what else was on the restaurant menu, to which she replied, "There's a restaurant?"
The Swedish meatballs are the brown ones. The elephant balls are the yellow ones.
I decided to go along to see what all the fuss is about. On the streets leading to the store for some miles out, there were several signposts like this....
A bored board man attached to a board.
There was also an endless stream of cars pouring into the store's car park. This man was working his baton so hard and fast that shortly after this photo was taken he suffered a hernia....
This is how a man looks just before suffering a hernia.
The doors opened at 10 sharp and in poured a crowd of enthusiastic shoppers. It was great fun. The atmosphere was electric.
But soon after, things started to go awry.
The new store is claiming to be the biggest Ikea in the world. And they're probably right. In fact, it might be bigger than some medium-sized countries.
Wandering around the store, it's easy to lose your orientation. Even easier to forget the time. Some people had even forgotten their own names and could be seen shuffling about aimlessly with expressionless faces and vacant stares. Others were just looking at the ground, dribbling.
The place reminded me of a Las Vegas casino - little natural daylight, no clearly marked exits and no clocks. The only thing missing was the free beer.
The store is so enormous that it'll likely take you a very long time to get out. My advice is, if you're going to go there, cancel all other engagements for the next 14 days.
A customer asks why there are no exits shown on her map.
I spoke to some people that had been stuck in there since opening day a month ago. They had rancid body odour and big beards. The men weren't in much better shape either.
While I was there, a woman who had clearly been in the store for several weeks gave birth to a baby in the kitchen utensils section. A nearby plunger (price 600 yen) came in handy during the delivery. It was a little girl. They named her Ikea. Ikea Watanabe.
There are computer terminals dotted around the store that seem to be for the sole purpose of teasing customers who are desperate to get out. "Find it!" it says of the exit. Meaningless clues appear on the monitor such as: "It's a door to the east, but not on the east side."
"We're trying! We're trying!" Two weary shoppers failing to solve the clues.
Granted, they've kindly laid out a number of beds for those stuck in overnight, but there aren't nearly enough of them.
Beds for shoppers stuck in the store for another night.
I stumbled across a computer terminal with a message from the manager asking for customer comments....
I knew it would be futile, but in desperation I left a simple question.....
After several days, I caught wind of a commotion in the corner of the sofa section. Someone had found the exit, a small door to the outside world. About 20 of us scrambled through the gap to freedom. A young couple who had just bought a small bed couldn't get it through the space so they had to saw it into little bits first.
But we were free. It was at this point when I saw the queues. There were hundreds of innocents waiting to get inside, not knowing the fate that awaited them (apart from a couple who had a tent with them).
And in that moment, those long lines brought to mind iconic queueing photos from days gone by.....
Queueing for food - England, 1944
Queueing for jobs - Poland, 1982
Queueing for home furnishings - Japan, 2008