Japan. Just saying the country's name evokes images of a vibrant, unique, and sometimes strange land. Sure, a lot of Japanese things are considered normal now—like how most people have a favorite sushi place, and anime shows are broadcast on local channels. Still, some things are still somewhat alien to most, such as natto (fermented beans) and films like Akira (if you are adventurous, go see it). Back to the point: Japanese culture is so diverse that there is something for everyone. And this holds true for watches as well.
My story with Japanese timepieces begins in the mid-1980s with a Casio calculator watch. I don't recall the model number but it was a black one, with a simple two-liner LCD screen and buttons so small that even my eight-year-old fingers had a difficult time punching in the right numbers. While not the first calculator watch (some say it was Pulsar that made the first), Casio certainly took the idea and ran with it. In the 1980's alone Casio had over a dozen versions of the calculator watch—one of which was worn by Marty McFly in Back To The Future, and another by Sting when he was a member of The Police. Nowadays you can have a piece of nostalgia for very little money – re-releases of this '80s icon go for as little as P1,500. When you think about how much variation a single company had for such a niche item like a calculator watch, it gives you an idea of the breadth and depth of the scope of Japanese watchmaking.
Another one of Casio's 1980s hits is the G-Shock family of watches. Beginning with the aim of making the world's toughest and most reliable watches, Casio released the now-iconic DW-5000C, the first ever G-Shock. I've owned some sort of G-Shock since I was in college, and the vast amount of styles, functions, colors and sizes meant I could meet 50 other guys wearing their own G-Shocks and none of us would have the same one on our wrists. All this personality and functionality doesn't break the bank, either. The DW-5600, which is essentially a re-release of that very first model, goes for less than P3,000, whereas the limited edition models can fetch 10 times that, or more. While I can't say it was done intentionally, the sheer number of collaborations, special editions, and high tech functionalities continues this Japanese predisposition for having something for everyone.
Even today, I still wear a G-Shock. In fact, I'm wearing a GMW-B50001JF as I write this article. It's a more modern interpretation of the DW-5000C, with a beautiful polished stainless steel case that has a brushed bezel finish as well as up-to-date features like Bluetooth phone connectivity. At P32,000, it's one of the more expensive G-Shocks, but it has presence like few other watches—particularly in this price range—can hope to have. While my watch has the resin band, there is a version with a polished steel bracelet, which means that even businessmen and bankers now have a G-Shock built for them.
If you want to start with something affordable, the ever-popular SKX007 is a professional diver's watch that's worth much more than it's P10,000 price tag suggests. It's a simple, no nonsense tool whose appeal is in its utilitarian nature. Perhaps the most iconic Seiko diver is the “turtle,” so named because its case shape resembles the shell of a turtle. There are so many dial colors and special editions that collecting just this one model is enough to fulfill some collectors. One of the current variants, the SRPC91, is among my favorites. As part of the “Save the Ocean” lineup, this model has a beautiful dark-blue-to-light-blue gradient on its dial, which matches the radial gradient of the rotating bezel. As a bonus, part of the proceeds are donated to the Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center for marine life conservation.
I personally focused my efforts on vintage automatic chronographs, and while this sounds like a very narrow field, I am no more starved for choice than a gourmand would be at the buffet table of a 5-star hotel restaurant in Paris or New York. It would cost less than said buffet, too – prices for vintage Seiko chronos start at a very reasonable P10,000, and rarely exceed P70,000 even for the most sought after references. With model nicknames like the UFO, Helmet, John Player Special, and Kakume, you know you are in for very distinct styles. I started out with the "Pogue" family, specifically the 6139-6002. The nickname comes from NASA astronaut Col. William Pogue, and it was the first automatic chronograph in space. The red/blue “Pepsi” bezel is common enough in the watch world, but the brushed steel cushion case, metallic yellow sunburst dial with a bright red sweep hand gave it a distinct and colorful personality. The Seiko 6138-8020 is another of my favorites. It's nicknamed the “Panda” for its black subregisters and white dial. Upon closer inspection, however, the dial is closer to a silvery-white, with a vertical linen-like finish.
The model I am currently enjoying, however, is the 6138-0040, known as the “Bullhead.” The variant a lot of collectors look for is the brown Bullhead, which—as the name suggests—has a brown bezel, a dark brown dial with gold subregisters and an orange sweep hand. For this watch, they rotated the movement 90 degrees counterclockwise, moving the crown and pushers to the 12 o'clock position, so that the pushers resemble the horns on a bull's head. The case is also an oddity—at 44mm it is huge for its era, and the case itself is a wedge-shape, with the top of the case being significantly thicker than the bottom. This is so that it can be used as a table-top timer, which is very useful in motorsport. It is this racing connection that led me to purchase the blue variant, which had a black bezel, black dial and blue subregisters, with a yellow sweep hand. It is said that Ayrton Senna, arguably the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time, once owned a blue Bullhead. A lot of the claim is anecdotal in nature, with little or no hard evidence found. Whether or not it actually has racing heritage isn't the point, but the story (if true) is pretty cool.
On the other end of the spectrum, Seiko's top tier brand—Grand Seiko—spares no expense in the pursuit of horological excellence. Be prepared to spend well into the six-figure range for one of these. You might have to look very closely to see it, though. From afar, Grand Seikos don't seem all that impressive. But like most things, the details are what separate the truly great from the merely good. One of the most popular models is the SBGA211, better known as the Snowflake Dial Spring Drive. With a name like that, you expect the dial to be a thing of beauty, and it really is. Words don't do justice to the intricate details of the white, almost rice-paper finish. The bevels on the baton indices and hands are gorgeous. But what gets to me is the smoothness of the movement of the seconds hand. Thanks to the Spring Drive movement, it's in perpetual motion, without any trace of skips or pauses. I read once that the execution of the Grand Seikos are akin to that of a prized katana, a tool that is honed to its purest and exacting form, making it a beautiful object to behold.
Casio and Seiko may be the most popular watches from the land of the rising sun, but they aren't the only ones. Orient, Alba and Citizen are powerhouses in their own right. A growing independent watchmaking industry also offers even greater individuality. It's easy to get hooked on Japanese watches thanks to their combination of quality, personality, and relative affordability. Don't get me wrong—I love my Swiss timepieces. They hold a special place in my heart, and I started my love for watches there. But I will say this: if you are willing to look hard enough, explore, and allow yourself to go into the rabbithole that is Japanese watches, you will discover a veritable treasure trove of amazing finds that you won't get from anything else. Much like a trip to Japan itself.