Tokyo: Sale of the 21st century
The style-setters' secret is out. Now ordinary shoppers are heading for Tokyo to try out its special brand of retail therapy. Andrew Tuck visits Japan's shopping Nirvana
Sunday 22 October 2006
They'll sell you everything. Hardware, make-up, bathroom accessories, even what you need for a party. The main branch of Tokyu Hands, in bustling Shibuya, is spread across seven floors, all jammed full of eye-catching stock. This is where the city's hip and stylish teenage boys and girls come to buy their hair dye. It's where newly weds stop by to kit out their bathrooms with traditional wooden bathing stools and stiff-bristled brushes for thorough back-scrubbing. And it's where business men and schoolgirls alike buy their stationery (you should also visit one of the vast dedicated stationery outlets such as Ito-ya in Ginza, to see how particular and obsessed the Japanese are about anything to do with pens and paper).
Tokyu Hands has also become a place of pilgrimage for discerning western shoppers because it gives an insight into the everyday lives of Tokyo's residents (it's like Through the Keyhole without actually having to enter anybody's house). The designer Paul Smith loves the place - he says that he enjoyed an entire day here. Another fan is Polly Dickens, the chief buyer for the Conran shops, who spent an intense week in Tokyo earlier this year searching for design products for her store's current Japanese showcase.
But it's not just the likes of Dickens who are heading east for their retail therapy, increasingly, ordinary travellers are going to Japan just to shop. They are lured by brands and products you can't find anywhere else in the world and Japanese fashion labels, such as Comme des Garçons, at almost reasonable prices. Also, winning over the visitors is the glorious forelock-tugging service culture and the amazing amount of money and effort retailers put into designing statement stores.
The best place to see this commitment to lavish building is in Aoyama, the home of the Prada shop. Designed by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron (the people behind Tate Modern and the under-construction stadium for the Beijing Olympics) it is said to have cost $80m (£43m) - and it's worth every cent. It's a tower, made from a honeycomb of green glass panels, which even on a rainy afternoon looks like a glinting crystal. Apparently, it hasnice clothes, too.
Prada is on the road known as Omotesando, which is Tokyo's Rodeo Drive or Bond Street. This is also where you'll find the largest Louis Vuitton store ever built - it has a private shopping salon that stocks the coolest products from around the globe - and not just those made by LV. Then there's Omotesando Hills, a shopping mall designed by Tadao Ando, Japan's most famous architect, which is packed with elite Japanese and western labels. The centre has the calmness of a museum - aided by soothing Japanese music - and the gently rising escalators interlink to form a beautiful criss-cross pattern.
For those in search of a slightly different style, near here is the main A Bathing Ape shop, the country's coolest streetwear brand, worn by the likes of hip-hop producer Pharrell Williams. At the other end of Omotesando is Harajuku, where every weekend Tokyo teenagers gather to parade in their often bizarre fashion statements, although even the Goths and punks among them seem oddly sweet. Takeshita Dori is the street where they buy their looks.
But it's not all big bucks or outlandish looks. There are lots of cheap fashion and homeware stores, including branches of the two chains that have also made it big in the UK: Muji and Uniqlo. And if you are in Ginza, take time to visit the Muji store at Yurakucho, which not only sells the desk tidies and tea towels we see in the UK, but also entire flatpack houses, big enough for a family of four. If you think it's a struggle putting together a self- assembly wardrobe, then this may not be the best memento to ship home. The store has a huge restaurant and a food section where you can buy good gifts.
Smart and sedate, Ginza is also home to many of the department-store giants such as Matsuya (which has a good one-stop shop for traditional Japanese design) and Mitsukoshi (the oldest department store in Japan, with a history dating back to the 1600s). Although Japan has a reputation for being achingly modern, most of these stores seem to be proudly old-fashioned, even quaint. Walking around them can be an exhausting experience. At least Matsuya has a calming restaurant with a menu that has pictures on it, so when your Japanese grammar fails you, you can just point with confidence.
Less frenetic than Shibuya or Shinjuku, Ginza is a wise place to shop on your first couple of days, when the jet-lag is at its worst and crowds can seem an impossible task. Indeed, many local people come here just to stroll the streets and window shop, including older women dressed in traditional kimonos.
And only when you are back to full strength should you contemplate a trip to the state-of-the art electronics megastores. Perhaps the biggest challenge awaits you in Akihabara where there's a district known as Electric Town, which has some 600 retailers clustered together. It will either be your idea of hell or heaven. If you can't face the trek, then try Bic Camera (it's near the Muji store), which has floor after floor of TVs, iPods and, yes, cameras. It's advisable to do your research in advance, however, because although the prices are good and you can often shop duty free, they are not always better than the UK.
When you do finally hand over your Yen, one of the most satisfying sights is seeing how carefully your purchases are then wrapped. When I bought simple bowls from an old-fashioned homeware store, two women proceeded to carefully place each one in a sheet of glossy red paper and then each parcel was tied with a tight ribbon. As I left, they bowed and thanked me. Now that's the service I want in my local supermarket where you think it must be a national holiday if they crack a smile. If you go for a drink at the Park Hyatt, the hotel made famous by Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, check out its shop where you can buy rice crackers which come in elegant wooden cases that make them seem as valuable as vintage Krug.
You should also make sure you get up very early one morning to visit the tuna auction at the Tsukiji fish market, a piece of unbeatable retail drama. I left it until the morning of our departure and had only skimmed my bed after a night in a karaoke bar where I had triumphantly - in my bleary opinion - duetted to Elton John and Kiki Dee's "Don't Go Breaking My Heart". But even though I was a feeling a little unsteady, it was worth the effort and what's more, I got an early sushi breakfast at one of the many market restaurants to calm my gurgling stomach.
The tuna auction starts at about 5am and is where dealers come to secure the best fish for the city's demanding restaurateurs. Vast sums are paid for each fish and as they are sold the porters drag their huge decapitated bodies away to the waiting trucks. Oddly, the traders don't seem to mind the presence of tourists. Just make sure you don't catch the auctioneer's eye, no matter how much you love fish, you'll never get one of these beasts in the overhead locker.
THE COMPACT GUIDE
HOW TO GET THERE
Andrew Tuck visited Tokyo as a guest of Virgin Atlantic and the Conrad Tokyo.
Virgin Atlantic (08705-747 747; virginatlantic.com) offers return fares from London Heathrow to Tokyo from £820. The Conrad Tokyo (00 81 3 6388 8000; conradhotels1.hilton.com), 1-9-1 Higashi-Shinbashi, Minato-ku, offers double rooms from £240 per night.
Japan National Tourist Organization (020-7734 9638; seejapan.co.uk).
OUR TOP FIVE TOKYO SHOPS
Where can you find this city's best shops and what are the essential items to buy? Take some tips from the experts...
Chairman and creative director of Wink and founder of 'Wallpaper*' magazine
Maisen, 4-8-5 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku (00 81 3 3470 0071). Pork tonkatsu and corporate identity doesn't get better than at this culinary institution. Ideal after an afternoon spent in Harajuku and Aoyama.
Amadana, 3F Main Building, B Omotesando Hills, 4-12-10 Jingumae, Shibuya (00 81 3 3408 2018). Tucked away in the bottom of Omotesando Hills, this electronics brand has picked up where Bang & Olufsen left off. They also do a mean-looking fan, toaster and juicer.
Tomorrowland, 1-23-16 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku (00 81 3 5774 1711). The best in accessories on the ground floor, and in the basement, a delicious mix of modern classics tailored in Japan and Italy - for both men and women.
Bonjour Records, 24-1 Sarugakucho, Shibuya-ku, (00 81 3 5458 6020). If you have the time, spend an hour in the Daikanyama branch but if your shopping hours are limited, go for the express version in the basement of fashion store Isetan.
Bals Tokyo, 1-10-21 Nakameguro, Meguro-ku, (00 81 3 5773 5500). A good one-stop for dog outfits, coffee, Japanese modern design classics and also the T-shirts from Graniph.
MD of IndustrieFutura, business advisers to creative companies, who regularly works in Tokyo
Bunkaya Zakkaten, 3-28-9 Jingumae, Harajuku, (00 81 3 3423 8980). This is the best shop in Tokyo - it feels like the whole of Portobello Road Market has been crammed in here. It sells T-shirts, bags and ephemera.
Tokyo Hipsters Club, 6-16-23 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, (00 81 3 5778 2081). Shop, exhibition space and restaurant designed by Tom Dixon (British designer for Habitat). Theme is apparently Aristocracy Gone Wrong, all set in a brutalist concrete environment.
Reed Space, 6-4-6 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku, (00 81 3 6804 6973). Sister gallery-shop to Reed Space New York. Designed to be a "learning experience" - even if you are only here to buy a cool book or T-shirt.
Hysteric Glamour, 6-23-2 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, (00 81 3 3409 7227). Behind the Dior shop is the store for the label loved by the Harajuku teen set (the look is a bit like US skate brand Stüssy).
Tokyu Hands, 12-18 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku, (00 81 3 5489 5111). I love this store that sells everything you can imagine for the home, DIY and hobbies. Great for Japanese cookery tools, stationery, toys ... you name it.
Tailor, with 16 shops in Japan
Isetan, 3-14-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku (00 81 3 3352 1111). This is the best menswear store in the world. The selection is amazing - there are always lots of surprises. We have a department on the fourth floor.
Gift shop at the top of Mori Tower, Roppongi Hills. Great choice of gifts but I really like the painted postcards and spectacular views.
Celux, at the top of the Louis Vuitton store, One Omotesando, 3-5-29 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, (00 81 3 5410 8131). Members only, it's for Tokyo's most discerning consumers.
Laox, 1-15-3 Soto Kanda, Chiyoda-ku, Akihabara (00 81 3 3255 5301). I love this place in Electric Town for buying gadgets. You can get everything from iPods to cameras.
Ginza Motoji, branches throughout Ginza, visit motoji.co.jp for full details. I had a man's bespoke kimono made at this specialist store, which was an amazing experience: drinking green tea and selecting silk, which all happened around the table they were then cutting the fabric at.
Creative director of the Conran shops and curator of Wa-Japanese Style, which runs at the shops until the end of October
Idée (00 81 3 5797 3023), 3-17-1 Patamatamagawa, Setagaya-ku. A one-stop shop for designer furniture that also has a bookshop, gallery and café. Wonderfully quirky.
60 Vision, 8-3-2 Okusawa, Setagaya-ku, (00 81 3 5758 3851). Has a great collection of products - furniture, glassware, luggage - revived from the 1960s, and a café to match, which sells unhealthy 1960s food.
Omotesando Hills, Shibuya. This new shopping centre has an amazing collection of shops. For a full list of the stylish residents, visit omotesandohills.com.
100% Chocolate Café, 4-16 Kyobashi 2-chome, Chuo-ku (00 81 3 3273 3184). Everything here is chocolate themed, from the ceiling - like a giant chocolate bar - to the waitresses' outfits. Sells 56 varieties from around the globe.
Ito-ya, 2-7-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, (00 81 3 3561 8311). This company has set the global benchmark in unique and class-leading stationery products. It offers the most innovative, distinctive and quality crafted office, art and school supplies available.
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