Meghana Gandhi is more than a little obsessed with global retail experiences. Needless to say, Tokyo was a slice of heaven for her.
TOKYO, Japan – I tell people that Tokyo is like Times Square on crack, but that only captures a fraction of what the city is about. Its energy is unparalleled; its architecture, strikingly modern; its style, diversely edgy. Contrasts — between tradition and subversion, between bustle and quiet — abound. The people are outrageously helpful. The quirkiness is endearing. (Where else are the buildings numbered according to the historical order in which they were constructed?)
I don't exercise while on vacation, but I ended up running around a lot when I was in Tokyo because I am a type-A+ coolhunter, and the number of curious, exciting, cutting-edge, and/or just plain mystifying things to see is limitless. Here's one curious New Yorker's favorite eye candy:
Destination Department Stores
Laforet (1-11-6 Jingūmae, Shibuya-ku; +81-3-3475-0411) in Harajuku contains several floors of jaw-droppingly cool shop-in-shops, offering mens- and womenswear and accessories that range in style from ethereal to skateboarder to Americana. Bonuses include ice cream on one floor and an impressive museum on the top floor. Isetan (3-14-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; +81-3-3352-1111) in Shinjuku has a large, elegant basement food hall and an equally lovely, well-manicured roof garden for eating or just chilling.
Kitsch by the Hour
"It's not, um, a hotel like this," stammered the bewildered Park Hyatt concierge when we asked him for directions to Love Hotel Hill, a collection of seedy, elaborately-themed hotels around the top of Dōgenzaka in Shibuya. As indicated by the names, design inspirations include the "Caribbean" and "Dixy." Intended for, well, extremely short-term occupancy, these buildings are short on amenities (few even have front desks) and long on kitsch.
A wide variety of fashion risk-takers abound, so the city's streets are saturated with subjects for every aspiring Sartorialist. On Sunday afternoons in Harajuku, you'll find representatives from Tokyo's famed subcultures — the Lolita girls, Goth-Lolitas, and cosplay ("costume play") characters among them — gathering and posing on Jingū-bashi, the bridge linking the shopping boulevard Omote-sandō with the Meiji-jingū Shrine. Inspired? Drop by one of the upper-floor stores on Takeshita-dōri, a main shopping drag in Harajuku, and you'll be able to recreate the looks.
You'll notice a common sight outside Shinto shrines: thickly-tied stacks of ema, small wooden plates on which visitors write wishes and omikuji, randomly-selected fortunes. The tiny Chingodō-ji shrine (2-3-1 Asakusa, Taitō-ku), which honors tanuki (the raccoon dogs that figure in Japanese folklore), has beautiful strands with rainbows of paper cranes. While I was chatting with the sweet attendant, he folded a pink crane for me.
Cardigans and Cakes
The garments at Comme Ça (3-26-6 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; +81-3-5367-5551) in Shinjuku are fairly uninspiring, akin to those at a punkier Express. The store's top-floor café, however, has a gorgeous spread of fruit-and-cream-topped cakes in saturated, vibrant hues.
Arcades and Maids
In Akihabara, or Electric Town, the streets are filled with stores papered in floor-to-ceiling advertisements for discount electronics, people with megaphones encouraging passersby to take advantage of the aforementioned deals, anime porn stores, manic gaming arcades, and women in maid costumes handing out fliers for so-called "maid cafés." (Somehow, this combination makes sense. Since gamers haven't historically had the best luck with women, why not create a supportive environment in which they can hone their pick-up skills?) In these (entirely G-rated) cafés, patrons are treated as "masters" and served by the maids. Along with their milk-heart-topped cappuccinos, café-goers can get one-on-one conversation time or play games with a maid. Don't get too excited: By "games," they mean Uno.
New-Age Retail Architecture
Anchored by the honeycomb-like tower of the Herzog & de Meuron Prada, Aoyama (like Harajuku's edgier, more modern older sister) contains streets dappled with futuristic-looking stores like A Bathing Ape (5-5-8 1F Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; +81-3-3407-2145), a sneaker-populated house of mirrors.
Sculptures in the Sky
A bullet train and (winding) bus ride away from Tokyo, The Hakone Open-Air Museum, set in the verdant hillside, has more than 100 modern sculptures strategically scattered throughout the 70,000-square-meter grounds, making for an incredible combination of art and environment. There's also a Picasso Pavilion with more than 300 of the artist's works, mostly pottery.
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