Tokyo: The sweetest city in Asia
C. James Dale
Tokyo — home of sushi, soba and sake — is no slouch when it comes to sweets. Bakeries abound. Candy is plentiful. Chocolate comes in all shapes and sizes. If the folks who put together the Michelin guide gave out stars for businesses devoted to sugar in all its glorious incarnations, Tokyo would no doubt grab a galaxy’s worth. Here are some of our favorite high-calorie hangouts.
This international artisanal shop, which started in Barcelona and is now in cities worldwide, promises “a unique experience in each piece of candy.”
Staff make the sweet stuff on-site, cooking up and coloring the sugar and glucose in the back, then heading to the front display counter to pound, mold and cut stiff, sticky blobs.
Customers can buy bags or jars of small candies (prices vary) with delicate designs in their centers — sometimes fruit (cherries, watermelon), sometimes words (“Love,” “Thank you”).
Large lollipops that would take days to lick down to the stick are also available. Sugar-covered jellies sit neatly spaced inside glass cases.
Papabubble also does custom orders. A 15-minute walk from Shibuya Station or Nakano Station.
Shibuya: 17-2 Kamiyama-cho, Shibuya-ku; +81 (0) 3 6407 8552.
Nakano: Arai 1-5-13, Nakano-ku; +81 (0) 3 5343 1286; www.papabubble.com
Chocolate: Chocolatier Erica
The Tiffany’s of chocolate in Tokyo.
Erica’s in Shirokanedai has been providing patrons with a fancied-up fix for 30 years, wrapping a wide selection of treats in distinctive blue-green boxes.
Truffles come in different forms, dusted with cocoa or with a hard chocolate exterior, flavored with rum, brandy or Earl Grey tea (¥632, US$8.30, for four).
Other products range from the delicate (mint-chocolate leaves, almonds embedded in an artistic chocolate shell) to the decadent (chocolate bars stuffed with marshmallows and nuts).
Visitors can order and go, or sit and feast in the café while sipping coffee, tea or hot chocolate. A seven-minute walk from Shirokanedai Station.
4-6-43 Shirokanedai, Minato-ku; +81 (0) 3 3473 1656; www.erica.co.jp
Krispy Kreme this is not.
Nico aims to bring a little bit of France to Tokyo’s Hiroo Ward. The chairs and decor feel “French café.” The wooden floor is worn.
A retro bike with a wood box for a basket sits at the entrance, along with a handwritten sign: “Nous vous proposons un moment de détente. Avec des beignets, savourez un instant de Bonheur.”
Translation: “We suggest you take a minute to relax. With donuts, savor a moment of happiness.”
The donuts are all neatly laid out, some branded like cattle with the “Nico” name. Varieties include plain, café espresso, coco milk, sesame milk (our recommendation) and maple nut.
But Nico’s bakers also aim to make salt lovers feel welcome, so they’ve created basil-tomato and sausage-cheese donuts.
Everything ranges in price from ¥160 to ¥200. Espresso (¥400) and cappuccino (¥500) are also available. Less than five minutes from Hiroo Station.
Hiroo SK Building, 5-14-4 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku; +81 (0) 3 5447 0025; nico-donut.jp
Ice cream: Ice Cream City
Ice cream lovers need look no further than this Mecca for the cold, cool stuff.
“National Geographic” named Ice Cream City one of the top 10 places to eat ice cream, and it’s easy to see why if you can get past the kitschy entrance.
Families, couples and gaggles of youngsters wander around from booth to booth, ordering soft ice cream, ice cream in crepes or on waffles, hard ice cream chopped up, filled with fruit or nuts or chocolate chips or sprinkles or all of the above and then put back together. Gelato is also available.
The arcade in the center of Ice Cream Town adds to the frenetic, sugar-fueled vibe, as does the small TV that plays ice cream-themed cartoons on a loop.
Visitors can also buy containers of handmade ice cream from Hokkaido at the Cup Ice Museum.
Flavors range from boring-old vanilla and chocolate to sea urchin, crab, garlic (with or without mint), miso noodles, curry, oxtongue and shark’s fin (apologies to the World Wildlife Fund).
Ice Cream City is part of the Namja Town amusement facility (¥300 entrance fee), which is located inside the Sunshine City complex, a 10-minute walk from Ikebukuro Station.
3-1-1 Higashi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku; www.sunshinecity.co.jp
Cakes and scones: Haco
This quaint, hole-in-the-wall shop is so popular people can often be seen waiting in line outside to get a seat inside — amazing, considering one of its specialties is the simple scone.
It’s the atmosphere and the accoutrements that keep customers coming back.
The scones are laid out along with dollops of cream, jam and honey. Ditto for the cakes. Haco’s homemade ice cream (¥630) changes monthly (almond apricot is the flavor for August).
Most people get a tea or coffee set, which doesn’t come cheap: scone set ¥1,260, three-dessert set ¥1,570, six-dessert set ¥2,100.
1-35-5 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku; +81 (0) 3 5449 9400; www.hocoweb.com
Traditional Japanese: Usagi-ya
The folks who run Usagi-ya have been serving up traditional sweets for decades.
Their star product is the dora-yaki, a golden brown, Japanese-style pancake filled with sugary adzuki bean paste.
The Ueno location, one of two in Tokyo, is a seven-minute walk from Okachimachi Station. Look for the white rabbit on the store’s exterior.
Customers come and go in waves. Staff constantly move from the front to the back, bringing out one, two, three of the warm dora-yaki (¥200 each), or boxes of them.
The woman behind the counter operates like a persuasive drug dealer, making offhand remarks about how the soy ice cream (¥270) goes really well with the dora-yaki. She’s right. It does. We’re hooked.
1-10-10 Ueno, Taito-ku; +81 (0) 3 3831 6195; www.ueno-usagiya.jp
Sprint to Narita on a luxury Hermes helicopter
C. James Dale
My Tod’s tap nervously as I watch the ground slip slowly by.
I glance at my Rolex.
“Relax,” I chuckle to myself. “The jet won’t leave without you.”
I pick a piece of fuzz off my Ermenegildo Zegna suit and adjust my Louis Vuitton Evasion sunglasses.
The pilot looks back at me, smiling, and I acknowledge him by raising my glass of Cristal.
Then I settle into the helicopter’s soft, calf-leather seats and thumb through a Japanese luxury magazine (back to front, of course).
I gaze out the tinted window and wonder if the people below are taking note of this remarkable flying machine’s pedigree.
My chariot is l’Hélicoptère par Hermès, a bespoke beauty properly called Eurocopter EC135 that defines jet-set style.
So powerful is the spell it casts that it can make you feel like a tycoon, even if you’re wearing Banana Republic jeans, worse-for-wear Valentino sunglasses and scuffed-up Skechers.
The $10 million Hermès helicopter (black, white, with a splash of orange) is the fastest — top speed is 250 kph — and most fabulous way to get from Tokyo to Narita International Airport.
“Our female passengers say it makes them feel like they’re inside a Hermès bag,” says Takako Otsuka of Mori Building City Air Services.
Tom Cruise inaugurated this luxury airport transfer service in 2009, and since then it has ferried more than 4,000 passengers between Narita and central Tokyo.
I tested this chic chopper out one sunny morning, lifting off from a heliport atop a midtown skyscraper.
“Where are you headed?” I asked the passenger across from me after sitting down, trying my best to seem blasé.
“London,” he replied.
“Business or pleasure,” I asked, yawning.
“Business,” he said.
Then he cut short our warm exchange by turning to look out the window as we swooped past Tokyo Tower.
I did the same, wishing I had in fact ordered Champagne as the cabin filled with white noise, and train tracks, streets and freeways below became ever smaller.
To my left was the metropolis’ measureless expanse. To my right, the deep blue of Tokyo Bay.
Fifteen minutes later, we touched down at a heliport that’s a short limo ride away from Narita.
Paying big bucks to take a pimped-out whirlybird to the airport when plenty of car, train and bus services exist in Tokyo might seem wacky.
But it’s part of the growing “experiential” side of luxury travel.
“All over the world, luxury shoppers tell us they’d rather spend more on experiences than on clothes and jewelry,” says Michelle Eirinberg Kluz of Boston Consulting Group.
A BCG report from June 2012 suggests experiential luxury now makes up almost 55 percent of total luxury spending worldwide and, year on year, has grown 50 percent faster than sales of luxury goods.
“Although experiences are more intangible than an item, consumers consider them more memorable,” says Eirinberg Kluz.
That appears to be the case for people who are choosing the Hermès helicopter to make their arrival to downtown Tokyo, or departure from it, unforgettable.
“Some people use this service when they go on a honeymoon, go abroad for their anniversary or to make a marriage proposal,” says Otsuka.
“It seems to be a special event for most passengers to take a helicopter flight, especially using our ARK Hills heliport,” says Otsuka’s colleague, Akiko Nguyen.
She’s also quick to point out that the rooftop location, 37 stories above ground level, was featured in the 2010 movie “Inception.”
“We’re having very positive feedback from passengers. It’s an unusual experience looking over the city of Tokyo,” Nguyen continues.
“For business travelers, the efficient transportation minimizes their travel time.”
Business or pleasure, Tom Cruise or Leonardo DiCaprio, if you can afford the tab on the Hermès helicopter, it’s all yours — literally.
The service has changed recently, so instead of being able to book individual seats, passengers must reserve the entire chopper.
The downside: it’s more expensive. The upside: no small talk with London-bound businessmen.
My London-bound businessman was on his way to his private jet or first class seat by the time the ground crew told me we needed to head back to Tokyo.
I finished my latte in the small heliport lounge, grabbed a few more magazines and all too soon was airborne again.
I looked down and three employees were saying goodbye, bowing in unison. I gave them a wave, regretting that my Yves Saint Laurent Chyc cashmere-lined suede gloves were at the cleaners (and that I hadn’t had a manicure in a week). Then we were off.
I sat back and prepared to drink in the view again (in lieu of Cristal). Flying in style — it sure beats taking the bus. Now if only they could do something about my wardrobe …
The basic rate for renting the Hermès helicopter for a one-way transfer (including car service) is ¥280,000 (US$3,578).
Insider Guide: What to do in Tokyo
The Japanese capital is still Asia’s premier metropolis. Here’s where to find Tokyo’s best hotels, eats, drinks, nightlife and attractions
Tokyo is a city that can roar one moment and whisper at the next, a place where almost anything seems possible. And sometimes is.
After all, 13 million people share this 2,188-square-kilometer piece of the planet, which is home to some of the world’s top restaurants, stores and cafés.
It’s also a one-stop mecca for the best of Japan — culture, quality products and impeccable service. For the visitor wondering what to do in Tokyo, the choices are limitless.
The city has endured the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, bombings of World War II, the implosion of its housing bubble in the 1990s and heavy effects of the March 2011 tsunami/earthquake that hit Japan. Each time, its people have dusted themselves off and rebuilt.
Many tourists already feel an affinity with Tokyo thanks to Hollywood — 1978’s “Bad News Bears Go To Japan,” for example (what film were you thinking of?).
But you can’t say you really know what to do in Tokyo until you spend your mornings walking through its temples, shrines and parks; your afternoons exploring its neighborhoods and back streets and your nights feasting in its restaurants, drinking in its bars and — why not? — hitting its famed karaoke joints.
The Peninsula Tokyo
A Peninsula hotel is like that frustrating friend who, no matter how hard you look, has no flaws. Not one.
You could say the luxury chain favors quality over quantity, given that it has fewer properties in the world than you have fingers. (Paris in 2013 will make ten.)
The Peninsula Tokyo is located in the city’s ritzy Ginza district, a stroll away from designer boutiques and Michelin-starred restaurants.
Push for a room with a view of the neighboring Imperial Palace.
1-8-1 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku; +81 (0) 3 6270 2888; from ¥60,000 per night; www.peninsula.com
“Lost in Translation,” Bill Murray, ScarJo. There, we’ve said it.
Nearly 20 years since it opened (and eight years after a major renovation), the Park Hyatt Tokyo still attracts the rich and famous who know what to do in Tokyo.
The hotel occupies a pricey piece of sky, beginning on the 41st floor of a high-rise in the city’s Shinjuku neighborhood.
Rooms are well decorated and comfortable with eye-catching views of Tokyo’s sprawl.
Bring your swimsuit because the 20-meter pool is worth a few laps.
Some guests might consider the Shinjuku location a bit out of the way.
3-7-1-2 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; +81 (0) 3 5322 1234; from ¥60,000 per night; www.parkhyatt.com
This five-star stunner takes up the top nine floors of the 53-story Midtown Tower (along with the first three levels), with views rivaling those of the Park Hyatt.
The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo has a range of accommodation options, including a Japanese-style room for guests who want to walk on tatami mats and bed down on futons while considering what to do in Tokyo.
The Japanese restaurant features a 200-year-old teahouse for private dining. The spa and pool are essentially on a par with the RC’s competitors.
The location is close to Tokyo’s lively Roppongi neighborhood.
9-7-1, Akasaka, Minato-ku, +81 (0) 3 3423 8000; from ¥43,000 per night; www.ritzcarlton.com
The folks who build Westin hotels snagged themselves a location to brag about when they set up shop in Tokyo’s residential Ebisu neighborhood.
Sure, these are not luxury rooms, but they’re nothing to complain about and they’re just a few strides from Yebisu Garden Place, with its shops, restaurants and beer museum (the headquarters for Sapporo Breweries are there, too).
Nearby Ebisu Station is on the Yamanote Line, the train loop that circles the city. Also within striking distance are the neighborhoods of Hiroo, Nakameguro and Daikanyama.
1-4-1 Mita, Meguro-ku; +81 (0) 3 5423 7000; from ¥22,500 per night; www.starwoodhotels.com
This hotel is for travelers who crave designer digs.
Its 18 rooms are divided into four categories: Japanese modern, tatami, weekly residence and “DIY” — the latter being custom creations of Japanese designers.
One is called “Someone’s atelier” and has framed art leaning against the walls. Another is known as “Pajamas” and has a bed frame covered with stuffed animals.
Claska also houses a café, dog grooming salon, gallery, shop, event space and rooftop terrace.
Some might feel the hotel is away from the action. It’s a short bus ride or a 20-minute walk from Meguro Station.
1-3-18 Chuo-cho, Meguro-ku; +81 (0) 3 3719 8121; from ¥7,875 per night; www.claska.com
The latest Michelin guide has awarded its highest ranking — three stars — to 17 restaurants in the Tokyo area.
Compare that to Paris, where just 10 eateries hold the coveted trois étoiles handed out by the French tire company and it’s pretty clear fine dining has to be at the top of any “what to do in Tokyo” list.
One of the latest establishments to win top honors is Ryugin, run by chef Seiji Yamamoto. Called “brilliant” and a “molecular gastronomist” by food critics, Yamamoto opened his restaurant in 2003 with a clear goal — “to pursue the possibility of Japanese cuisine.”
Here’s a guy so dedicated to understanding food he sent an eel for a CT scan so he could better understand how to carve up the creature for his signature soup.
Ryugin offers a modern spin on the traditional, multi-course kaiseki meal, making creations out of products ranging from Wagyu beef to monkfish liver pâté to shirako (a k a milt or fish sperm).
Diners who would normally say “delicious” are forced here to search for more emphatic terms.
1/F Side Roppongi Building, 7-17-24 Roppongi, Minato-ku; +81 (0) 3 3423 8006; moderate to expensive;www.nihonryori-ryugin.com
Don’t bother trying to count the sushi restaurants in Tokyo (we didn’t) — there are just too many.
From high-end to back alley, there are enough places peddling this famous raw-fish-based creation to keep this city’s customers satisfied, not to mention the millions of annual visitors.
One way to grab some of the best sushi in Tokyo and to take in a venerable tourist site at the same time is to dine at Sushi Dai, located at the Tsukiji fish market. It doesn’t get any fresher.
Izakaya are to Japan what tapas bars are to Spain. They sell Japanese food of different forms and flavors — grilled meat, seafood, veggies, the works — along with sweaty mugs of draft beer and whisky soda.
It’s all at your command with the press of a button. The atmosphere can be smoky and loud, full of families or drunken salarymen depending on where you end up.
Ask anyone in Tokyo and they’ll point you to their favorite. One of ours is Sasano, an upscale izakaya hidden above a ramen shop in Roppongi, a stone’s throw from the Tokyo Midtown development.
The owner focuses on creating dishes that go well with the many different varieties of sake he has in stock.
Popular choices include salted fish and squid, fresh sashimi (straight out of the restaurant’s fish tank), sea urchin and marinated salmon roe sushi and the negi-ton, or grilled chicken with chopped fresh green onions and vinegar sauce.
Menus are in Japanese only, but the owner speaks some English.
2F, 9-6-23 Akasaka, Minato-ku; +81 (0) 3 3475 6055; moderate to expensive
Diners who yearn for Italian can find a few solid options in Tokyo. And Aponte, just around the corner from Yebisu Garden Place, is about as solid as they get.
There’s one table and one private room, so most customers sit elbow-to-elbow at a counter surrounding the kitchen.
From here, they eat, drink and watch staff chop garlic, boil pasta and create some generally savory dishes, including the excellent lemon-cream-sauce spaghetti.
1-12-26 Mita, Meguro-ku; +81 (0) 3 5773 0580; moderate;www.aponte-ebisu.com
Good Honest Grub
The folks at Good Honest Grub say they make the best brunch in Tokyo. We don’t doubt that for a second.
You can get regular eggs Benedict, but consider holding the ham and trying crab or young sardines or hijiki (edible seaweed) or spiced tofu or a host of other toppings.
The sweet tooth crowd can gobble down French toast, meringue pancakes or banana pancakes with Canadian maple syrup.
If you’re really hungry, try the Lumber Jack Breakfast (sausage, bacon, ham, roasted tomato, baked beans, hash browns and toast — ¥2,000).
2-20-8 Shibuya-ku, Higashi; +81 (0) 3 3797 9877; moderate; www.goodhonestgrub.com
Anyone who thinks youth is wasted on the young might find contradictory evidence if they make the trek out to ageHa, a large venue in east Tokyo with multiple dance floors, rooms and a pool.
Club-goers wondering what to do in Tokyo get to feel the beats of some of the world’s best DJs, who pump out music through banks of speakers ageHa claims you can “feel with your whole body.”
There’s enough lighting to illuminate a Pink Floyd reunion tour, and the club hosts a gay dance event every two months called Shangri-La at ageHa.
Getting there is a hike, but there are shuttle buses to and from Shibuya Station.
2-2-10, Shinkiba, Koto-ku; + 81 (0) 3 5534 1515; cover charge can be upward of ¥3,500, depending on the event; www.ageha.com
This cavernous basement establishment is popular with expats, young and not-so young, although not everyone will admit they go.
The crowd packs the dance floor to tunes that New York grew tired of a couple of years ago. Muse sometimes feels like one of those end-of-night pick-up spots, but it can be a fun place to party. Call it a guilty pleasure.
B/1F, 4-1-1 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; +81 (0) 3 5467 1188; weekend cover ¥3,000 for men includes two drinks, women free; www.muse-web.com
The winding streets near the west entrance of the JR Ebisu Station are home to a wealth of bars and restaurants, most all but hidden from sight.
A couple of signs outside Bar Tram do their best to entice passersby: “Get Drunk Differently,” they say.
Head up the stairs and squeeze through the half-door entrance and you’ll understand what that means. Bar Tram’s specialty is serving absinthe, the strong and some say mind-altering drink that’s also known as “the green fairy.”
Patrons sip the stuff solo at the bar or at small tables. Small groups can also gather on a pair of comfortable leather couches.
There are plenty of varieties of absinthe to choose from, plus there’s a small section of booze at the bar labeled “Dangerous Bottles.”
Bar Tram is not everyone’s tipple. It accommodates only about 20-25 people and the air is usually thick with cigarette smoke.
2/F Swing Building, 1-2-13 Ebisu-nishi, Shibuya-ku; +81 (0) 3 5489 5514; small-axe.net/bar-tram-top
Tokyo is famous for its top-notch, old-school bartenders; men (and some women) who have honed the craft and adhere to a strict set of rules when they mix up the classics.
Among the best, Star Bar is a cozy establishment in Ginza squeezed into a space no bigger than a single train car.
This is where top barman Hisashi Kishi works his magic, using five distinctive shake patterns to blend his creations, including his celebrated Sidecar.
B1/F Sankosha Building, 1-5-3 Ginza, Chuo-ku; +81 (0) 3 3535 8005; seat charge ¥2,000; www.starbar.jp
Bar High Five
Hidetsugu Ueno used to toil away at Star Bar before opening up his own place, Bar High Five (also in Ginza). Some people have closets that are more spacious than this watering hole, which can accommodate just a handful of lucky drinkers.
Ueno is fluent in English and famous for his White Lady.
4/F, 26 Pole Star Building, 7-2-14 Ginza Chuo-ku; +81 (0) 3 3571 5815; seat charge ¥1,500
Anthony Bourdain featured Bar Ishinohana on his TV program, “No Reservations.”
That’s probably because owner Shinobu Ishigaki is an award-winning bartender with a penchant for creative garnishes. Really creative.
He readily mixes all the big-name drinks, but his signature is the Claudia, a rum-pineapple-vermouth concoction that features a cherry plunked inside a dug-out radish, with a lime peel coiled like a snake around the stem of the glass.
B1/F Daini Yaki Building, 3-6-2 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku; +81 (0) 3 5485 8405; no seat charge; www.ishinohana.com
This swank establishment in Aoyama is a favorite with Tokyo visitors. Japanese who know what to do in Tokyo love it, too.
And Mark Zuckerberg must “like” it, as well. Regulars spotted the Facebook founder and his entourage there last New Year’s Eve.
Two Rooms has low lighting, lots of wood and an expansive terrace. It also has a private room just off the glass-faced, walk-in wine cellar (home to 1,800 bottles).
Drinks don’t come cheap. A glass of wine or a cocktail will cost you ¥1,400-¥2,300.
Two Rooms has a sister location in Roppongi, the R2 Supperclub.
5/F AO Building, 3-11-7 Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku; +81 (0) 3 3498 0002; expensive; www.tworooms.jp
If you’ve come to Tokyo to pour your heart out in song, you’ve come to the right place.
Walking around town, you wouldn’t know that the karaoke business is in decline. It seems like there’s one of these singing havens on every corner.
That’s a lot of people belting out “Living on a Prayer.” Clearly, an old-fashioned, stonewashed singsong is what to do in Tokyo, even in 2012.
This karaoke chain has branches all over the city. The hourly rates are cheap and the closing time is late.
One go-to outlet is in Roppongi, where the rooms are spread out over three floors.
7-14-12 Roppongi, Minato-ku; +81 (0) 3 5770 7700; usually ¥500-600 an hour per room; big-echo.jp
Mancy’s puts a fancy, VIP spin on the karaoke experience.
Rooms have large sofas, plush cushions, soft rugs, artwork and mood lighting. It’s pricey, but a worthy experience nonetheless.
1-3-9 Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku; +81 (0) 3 5574 7007; ¥4,000-¥20,000 an hour per room; www.trhd.jp/mancys
Shopping / Attractions
Better pack a backup credit card. You’ll need it if you’re planning on shopping in Tokyo or doing much traveling around this expensive city.
Starting at the top, the luxury and designer gang’s all here, some of them in well-designed digs — the Prada outlet in Aoyama and Louis Vuitton store in Roppongi are both photo-worthy.
Many beat a path to the 34,000-square-meter Omotesando Hillscomplex, which has about 100 brand-name shops and restaurants.
Roppongi Hills is another attractive destination for shopping and sightseeing. Visitors can find Hugo Boss and Diane von Furstenberg, along with Banana Republic and Zara.
The sprawling complex is also home to unique Japanese shops, including jewelry designer Yoshinob.
In addition, Roppongi Hills has a hotel, the Grand Hyatt Tokyo(rooms start at ¥38,000), a movie theater with a VIP screening lounge (¥3,500 gets you a ticket and a drink) and an observation deck with 360-degree views of Tokyo and the surrounding area (¥1,500 per person).
For an extra ¥300, visitors not prone to vertigo can step outside onto the Sky Deck. Still puzzling over what to do in Tokyo?
The Oriental Bazaartraces its roots to 1916 and boasts that shoppers who visit can get almost anything related to Japan.
Visitors will find kimonos for adults and kids, Hello Kitty key holders and lacquerware, along with art and antiques.
5-9-13 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; +81 (0) 3 3400 3933
Takeshita Dori is one of the places Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls go to stock up on cheap togs and accessories.
The 400-meter-long walking street is a must-see for visitors keen to sample some of the styles worn by Japanese youth — frilly dresses with low hemlines, wigs, trinkets and T-shirts.
Keep your camera on standby — Tokyo’s cosplay aficionados like to strut around in this area (and closer to the train station), showing off their outfits like proud peacocks.
Takeshita Dori also has cafés, fast food outlets, a Hello Kitty ice cream stand and a three-story ¥100 shop (Daiso, Japan’s version of the Dollar Store).
Takeshita Dori is located directly across from the Takeshita Exit (not the main exit) of JR Harajuku Station.
This neighborhood is Tokyo’s bastion of bohemia, a place where college and university kids go to hang out and maybe catch some live music.
Shimokitazawa has big brands (such as French chain Petit Bateau), but is known more for its local boutiques, which sell everything from vintage clothing to vinyl.
The Shimokitazawa Garage Department (2-2-8 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, +81 03 3412 0847) is a trendy indoor bazaar with 20 or so small stores selling hats, used and new clothing, jewelry, bags, bikes and T-shirts.
Village Vanguard (Marche Building, 2-10-15 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, +81 (0) 3 3460 6145) is a national chain in Japan, but some say its coolest outlet is in Shimokitazawa.
It’s billed as an “Exciting Book Store,” but it offers much more. A dizzying array of stuffed toys, watches, cards and Japanese manga, plus joke items (poop-shaped hats, plastic purses that look like blackfin tuna) and light sex toy fare.
Temples and shrines
What to do in Tokyo? Temples, that’s what.
Most people who visit Japan end up setting foot in at least one shrine or temple. Tourists often head straight for Tokyo’s oldest temple, the Senso-ji Buddhist Temple in Asakusa.
After walking through the Hozomon Gate, visitors will see the main hall and the five-story pagoda. The Shinto Asakusa Shrine stands next to the main building.
Nakamisa Dori is also nearby. It’s a shopping street selling a vast range of items, including Japanese yutaka (summer kimono), fans and ninja costumes for kids.
There are also dozens of cafés and restaurants in the nearby area —take the Ginza, Asakusa or Tobu lines to Asakusa Station.
Meiji Shrine in Harajuku is a big draw with the foreign and Japanese tourist crowds. The Shinto shrine, surrounded by a small urban forest (170,000 trees), is dedicated to the souls of Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken.
Visitors walk through the large torii gates and up a gravel pathway to the shrine buildings.
Meiji Shrine is packed during the New Year period — take the Chiyoda or Fukutoshin lines to Meiji Jingu Mae Station, or the Yamanote Line to Harajuku Station.
Not into big crowds? Head to a neighborhood temple, such as the Meguro Fudoson Ryusenji Temple — take the Tokyu Meguro Line to Fudo-mae Station, walk 10 minutes.
This is where Japan’s emperor and empress rest their pampered royal heads. The Palace, a 10-minute walk from Tokyo Station, was built in the late 1800s, destroyed during World War II and then rebuilt.
It’s surrounded by gardens and a moat, with two bridges (one stone, one wooden) forming the entrance to the inner grounds.
Aside from guided tours, the Palace grounds are open to the public only on December 23 (Emperor Akihito’s birthday) and January 2 (Imperial Family’s New Year greeting).
The Imperial Palace East Gardens are open all year round except Mondays, Fridays and special occasions. For the most current information, always check The Imperial Household Agency website before visiting.
April is cherry blossom season in Tokyo and for about three weeks, the city floats on a cloud of pink-and-white flowers.
It’s the time of year friends and family get together to sit in parks for hanami, or flower viewing. This also involves a lot of eating, drinking and boisterous merrymaking.
Tsukiji fish market
You’ve got to be a morning person if you want to check out the real action at Tsukiji. The market, which handles the largest volume of fishery products in Japan (more than 450 kinds), opens its famous fish auction at 5 a.m.
It also has a sometimes-overlooked outer market, where shoppers can pick up seasonal fruit and vegetables, beans, spices and more.
Take the Hibiya Line to Tsukiji Station or the Oedo Line to Tsukijishijo and follow your nose.
Tens of thousands of people pack Ueno Parkto stroll or hold hanami parties — take the Yamanote Line to Ueno Station.
Others flock to Kitanomaru Park, part of the outer gardens of the Imperial Palace and home to the National Museum of Modern Art, the Science Museum and the Nippon Bodokan, a venue for martial arts competitions and concerts — take the Tozai Line to Kudanshita Station or Takebashi Station.
The cherry trees that hang over the Meguro River in Nakameguro are also stunning. Vendors set up stalls selling food, beer and pink Champagne.
Lanterns lining the river are lit up at night, adding to the ambiance — take the Hibiya Line or the Toyoko Line to Nakameguro Station.
The two towers
Poor Tokyo Tower. For more than half a century, the 333-meter tower was the tallest in the land. People came from far and wide to zip up to its observatory deck and take in the views of Tokyo, Mount Fuji and Mount Tsukuba. They’d also meet its weird, phallic mascots, the Noppon Brothers.
About 150 million people have climbed Tokyo Tower since it opened in 1958 (¥820 to the 100-meter deck, ¥600 more to the 250-meter deck).
But now it has a rival — the 634-meter Tokyo Sky Tree, which is now the world’s tallest tower.
Two observatories (350 meters and 450 meters) will be open to the public as of May 22. The higher of the two will feature an “air corridor” — a glass outer walkway, with an eye-watering ¥3,000 to get to the 450-meter deck.
Tokyo Sky Tree can be accessed from Narihirabashi Station on the Tobu Isesaki Line — the station name will change in May to Tokyo Sky Tree Station — or Oshiage Station on the Hanzomon and Asakusa subway lines.
Tokyo Tower can be access from Akabanebashi Station on the Oedo Line, Kamiyacho Station on the Hibiya Line, Onarimon Station on the Mita Line and Daimon Station on the Asakusa Line.
Tokyo’s stunning palace for the printed word
The duo that designed Tokyo’s latest architectural wonder is turning an age-old phrase by that quintessential Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci, on its head. “Art is never finished,” said the Italian painter, sculptor, architect and you-name-it-he-did-it. “Only abandoned.”
Sure, if you visit Daikanyama T-Site [Japanese], an upscale retail complex that opened last December 5 in the city’s trendy Daikanyama neighborhood, you might notice that Mark Dytham and Astrid Klein’s creation is not quite done.
On a sunny January morning inside Anjin [Japanese], a chic and comfy café-lounge that sits atop one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, the founders of Klein Dytham architecture (KDa) are told — with polite words and bows — they’ll have to sip their cappuccinos at a different table.
The lighting guy’s arrived. Apparently one of the fixtures is hanging too low.
But while Dytham and Klein might be playing musical chairs (or in this case, musical designer couches), they aren’t planning on abandoning their chef d’oeuvre. They like it too much. Plus, it’s just down the street from their office.
“We sort of designed it for ourselves almost,” chuckles Dytham, a Briton who’s been in Tokyo since the late 1980s. “I have breakfast here most mornings.”
“For me it’s like an extended living room,” says Klein, a German who moved to Japan in 1988 after living in Italy, France, and Britain.
A living room and more
T-Site is actually many things: A swank outlet for the venerable Japanese movies-and-more chain,Tsutaya [Japanese]; a Starbucks; a café-lounge; a place to buy electric bikes; a hotel, hospital, and store for pets; a restaurant; a camera shop; a gallery; and soon, an anti-aging clinic (placenta shots anyone?).
But above all, digital age be damned, this place is a palace for the printed word, the brainchild of Tsutaya owner, Muneaki Masuda (who, because of scheduling conflicts, declined CNNGo’s interview request).
“We thought he was kind of nuts building a bookstore of this scale,” says Dytham. “But as we began to work on the project you realize that this notion of ‘back to the books’ is actually really important.”
KDa beat out more than 70 of the best firms in Japan to win the rights to this project by coming up with what sounds like a remarkably simple concept.
“We knew this idea of the big Ts, the Tsutaya T, was going to be this thing that would stick in [Masuda’s] head, and we decided to go for it,” recounts Dytham.
And they went for it with gusto. Smaller, glass-reinforced concrete Ts combine to create the big Ts that dominate the facades of the three main pavilions and their 4,300 square meters of floor space.
On the inside, these structures are connected by (you guessed it) another T, which is called “Magazine Street.” The walkway links the buildings and is lined with glossies from all over the world.
Grab a book, book a trip
Wander around and you’ll find film and television DVDs, tens of thousands of them, along with CDs and vinyl. And, of course, there are the books.
Many, many books. All lovingly laid out to catch the eye of anyone interested in subjects ranging from philosophy to food.
Visit the travel section and you might bump into the travel concierge, someone who’s paid to help you research and arrange vacations.
“It looks almost impossible to make money on this kind of space, ratio to the sales, but as a place for the customers it’s really right,” says Salvador Nissi Vilcovsky, a designer who arrived mid-morning to have a coffee and type away on his laptop.
“I think it’s rare to find this kind of space in Tokyo,” says the 43-year-old Argentine. “It’s more of an open feeling. The location is good. And the design,” he says, swinging his head around. “I think they did a great job.”
It’s a sentiment shared by others, whether they’re regulars like Nissi Vilcovsky or first-timers.
“I like it here. The white and the wood,” says Seigo Ikeda, a 21-year-old from the northeastern Japanese city of Sendai. “I feel cozy here.”
Carefully curated space
That feeling of coziness pervades every corner. Low-energy and solar-power generating windows splash light everywhere.
Upstairs in Anjin, people walk on distressed wood floorboards and lounge on low-slung, leather couches surrounded by shelves filled with bound magazine back issues: “Esquire,” “Brutus,” “Domus,” and “Screen.”
Stacks of books form the base of the bar and the side tables.
The menus, though, are all digital. The wait staff hand-deliver iPads to new arrivals, who can choose their order (café au laits go for ¥900) and then scan the catalog of the art and rare items on display or for sale (the asking price on a 1958 edition of J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” is ¥147,000).
Taking in the carefully curated space T-Site has become, it’s hard to imagine construction crews broke ground in January 2011 and worked through the aftermath of one of this country’s worst crises.
The feat is not lost on the architects, who were presenting design updates at 2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011.
“We couldn’t get any glass in Japan. All the glass factories shut down,” says Dytham of the post-disaster difficulties.
“No elevators. No escalators. No plywood,” chimes in Klein.
“So the glass in the end came from China,” continues Dytham. “There was no steel, again, for the buildings out back. It was like Apollo 13. ‘This is what the steelyard’s got …”
“Make it from this,” finishes Klein.
“We just took a deep breath and got on with it,” says Dytham.
Made in Japan Success Story
It’s success story brought to you by a country some have called lost and stagnant. A shot in the arm for the retail industry, which a few observers have said is dead or dying. And a tribute to a medium many worry is living out its twilight years.
“It’s not just the architecture. It’s not just the interior. It’s the content that’s really the thing that drives this and makes you want to come inside,” says Dytham. “I think this really shows people what can be done … with books.”
Daikanyama T-Site is a five-minute walk from Tokyo’s Daikanyama Station. It’s open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.
MEMBERS ONLY: TOKYO’S SEXIEST PARTY GETS READY TO TAKE ON ASIA
BlackList on the move to 2012, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and beyond
C. James Dale
TOKYO - A trio of dancers moves provocatively on a small stage as the dry-ice smoke swirls around them, their lithe frames clothed in outfits last seen on Jane Fonda in the 1968 cult classic, “Barbarella.”
Sometimes their faces wear playful smiles. Other times, it’s a pout. The default, though, is the mouth-agape pose, the look designed to express ecstasy and eroticism, but which screams, “I practice this at home in front of a mirror.”
This isn’t a strip club. It’s the BlackList party, Tokyo’s sexy, members-only, once-a-month naughty night out, brainchild of two French expats who just wanted to create a fun evening for friends.
“We are one of the more long-lasting, successful parties in Tokyo,” says 38-year-old Benoit Lavaud, the co-founder of BlackList.
“When I arrived in Japan in 2004, I didn’t like the music and club scene. I suggested to Cedric (Alberge, his partner) that we create our own parties where we will put our own music and invite only our friends.”
Lavaud says that meant introducing a concept that didn’t exist in Japan at the time — a closed guest list.
BlackList is now like the Facebook of the Tokyo club scene — friends, and friends of friends, are all welcome. And best of all, there’s no cover charge because, according to Lavaud’s philosophy, friends don’t make friends pay.
“The buzz started and everyone wanted to be in,” he says. “BlackList’s first party welcomed 600 people. We never stopped.”
Those who are on the BlackList get a plastic membership card, and their names and email addresses are kept in a database. Membership has its privileges, but you still have to get past the Amazon who’s in charge of the door.
Even if the guys who run the party say you can bring a few friends with you, don’t count on her receiving the message.
“You can only take one guest with you,” she says impassively to my group on a Saturday in November, the night of BlackList’s sixth anniversary party. Then she delivers her classic line, complete with shrug and smile.
“I’m only doing my job.”
We play it cool — no one wants to be blacklisted from the BlackList — and soon get the dispassionate wave-in from one of the managers.
Then it’s push-shove to the bar, side-shuffle to the back of the club, and we’re finally settled in the VIP section. I ask Lavaud if he has time to chat for a few minutes at some point.
“But we can also do that by phone so you can enjoy the night,” he says, moving his arm in a semi-circular arc, showing off the place like it’s his living room.
All about the atmosphere
And so, enjoy I do. The DJ booth starts cranking out a clubby boom-boom-baunch-baunch soundscape. The room vibrates. The dance floor crowd gyrates.
A man with an electric violin hops on stage to provide accompaniment, his rapid bow unleashing notes that race back-and-forth between piercing highs and gut-tingling lows.
“I’ve been here about 45 minutes and it’s probably the best party I’ve been to in Tokyo,” says Justin, a JP Morgan employee who’s new in town.
That’s the kind of “wow” effectBlackList has on first timers. It’s a well-dressed, well-heeled, well-mixed crowd (50/50 foreigners and Japanese, according to Lavaud), with a dash of sexy, a pinch of anything-goes and a hint of camp.
It’s all about designing the right atmosphere, complete with DJs, dancers, drummers and the odd hula-hoop girl and fire juggler.
“Our concept is to bring good music, in good locations, with good people and good entertainment, as well as good service,” says Lavaud.
It’s a recipe that keeps members migrating back, month-after-month.
“I like coming with my friends and meeting new friends — it’s like a hub,” says Sayoko, one of BlackList’s original members. “It’s the kind of place where you can dress up. It’s fun and I can hear new music.”
Plans to expand
Now that Lavaud and Alberge’s French invasion has successfully conquered Tokyo, they are looking to take the show on the road, mostly to accommodate friends who have left Tokyo for other places in Asia. The target cities for 2012: Hong Kong and Shanghai.
“We need to be sure to find the right clubs that give the best service, with the right location and design,” says Lavaud. “It’s not easy, so we’ll take our time to do it perfectly.”
So for now, Lavaud will focus on his friends in Tokyo, who number in the thousands. BlackList, he says, is his one big night out a month, and he sure seems to relish it. When he’s not mingling in the crowd, he’s behind the DJ booth, dancing and skipping on the spot and lip-synching to the music, the ringmaster keeping watch over the carnival.
By the time 2 a.m. rolls around at the sixth anniversary party, the dancers have gone through a couple of costume changes, trading their “Barbarella” outfits for Neil Diamond sequin hand-me-downs, and then fluorescent Chiquita Banana getups.
Now they’ve got props: rainbow-colored glow sticks they’re waving around like police batons or, well, you get the idea. Once in a while, they pose with patrons for photographs.
Then it’s back to the grind. The music keeps pumping. A roomful of strangers and acquaintances gets friendlier. Membership certainly does have its privileges.
WHAT TO DO ON NEW YEAR’S EVE IN TOKYO
The new Tokyo dilemma: Go out, go traditional, or give back?
C. James Dale
TOKYO - I’ve agonized over the whole New Year’s Eve thing for as long as I can remember. It used to be simple: fondue with the family, followed by banging pots and pans outside at midnight (it’s a British thing).
It’s a been mixed bag since then: 1997 — my university girlfriend wanted to try an open relationship over the holidays (she met Rob, I met Carmen, we broke up); 1999 — I ended the 1990s dancing in a gay club with an peculiar husband-wife duo (they hinted at a threesome, I demurred); 2007 — I slept through midnight to catch an early plane to St. Bart’s in the French Caribbean (a bikini-clad Penelope Cruz walked past me on New Year’s Day).
When I moved to Tokyo, I brought with me the desire to have the Best. New Year’s Eve. Ever. Still, last year my wife and I ended up on the couch, watching NHK’s cross-country temple-tour show, “Yuku-toshi, Kuru-toshi” (“Old Year Out, New Year In”), on a cell phone while drinking prosecco.
This year, I’m resolved things are going to be different. Sure, some say Tokyo is a boring place to be when clock strikes midnight, mostly because locals stay home or leave the city to be with family.
I don’t buy it, and you shouldn’t either. Let’s share plans. Here are mine …
I’ve always wanted to be surrounded by hundreds of people for the big five, four, three, two, one. How about ageHa, a huge club in the east Tokyo neighborhood of Koto (near Shin-Kiba Station; buses also run from Shibuya Station)?
Its Countdown 2012 party includes four different settings (Arena, Water, Island, Box) and a variety of DJs (special advance ¥5,500, advance ¥6,000, door ¥7,000).
“The concept is ‘One night, one groove,’” says organizer Daisuke Fukiage. “It features a wide variety of good electronic music artists and you can experience a special groove and the fusion caused by the artists performing based on the concept,” he says. “Most of the people stay until dawn.”
But I might be too old for the club scene. A good meal washed down with even better bubbly sounds like a sound option. Tokyo’s top hotels are happy to oblige.
The Peninsula in the glitzy Marunouchi neighborhood will be serving a five-course dinner at its restaurant, Peter. For a cool ¥20,000 (per person), you’ll be tucking into caviar, quail eggs, roasted French Turbot, and a variety of other delectable dishes. Best of all, the Champagne is unlimited.
“It’s the ideal place to welcome 2012 while savoring Chef Patrice’s international cuisine and marveling at the city’s bright lights,” says the Peninsula’s Mark Kobayashi.
Not to be outdone, the Ritz-Carlton is offering its own countdown party. Paying ¥20,000 (plus service charge) buys revelers “light bites,” a free flow of Champagne and live entertainment at the Lobby Lounge & Bar.
“In this area, Roppongi, there would be so many options after countdown,” says the Ritz-Carlton’s Miho Inagawa. “You can dance all night, sip at the romantic bar, or enjoy the Ritz-Carlton’s panoramic view.”
The Park Hyatt in Shinjuku is guaranteeing “captivating views promising hope for the coming year.” But don’t hope for all-you-can-drink champers.
A five-course meal at the New York Grill ranges from ¥21,000-¥35,000 and includes only one glass of Louis Roederer Cristal.
Pay ¥10,000 at the New York Bar and you’ll be able to snack on canapés and sip (one glass of) Champagne as you enjoy a jazz performance.
Many people in Japan jam into Buddhist temples on New Year’s Eve, where bells ring out 108 times to help the faithful dispel their earthly desires.
Not into big crowds? Head to a neighborhood temple, such as the Meguro Fudoson Ryusenji Temple (from Meguro Station take the Tokyu Meguro Line to Fudo-mae Sta., walk 10 minutes).
Why not organize a “Last New Year’s Ever” get together? Remember that Mayan prophecy? December 21, 2012 (or thereabouts) wraps up a 5,126-year cycle on the Mayan calendar, which some say means the world will come to a cataclysmic end.
Have friends over and put the John Cusack film “2012” on a loop. “Watch the worst disaster movie again on purpose?” asks Tokyo-based film critic Don Morton. “Signs point to no.”
Alright, so how about “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?” 2012 is the Year of the Dragon, after all.
The David Fincher edition came out on December 21, or you could just watch the original release by Swedish director Neils Arden Oplev.
Then round out your astrological evening by playing a drinking game with Neil Somerville’s “Your Chinese Horoscope 2012: What the year of the dragon holds in store for you.”
“Dragon years favor progress, but opportunities do need to be taken when they arise,” writes Somerville. “In 2012, the solar system is also likely to open up more of its secrets.”
Every time Somerville makes a vague prediction or gives ambiguous advice, take a shot. A dangerous game with lines such as, “The Internet will continue to have a great impact …” and “The film industry, too, will enjoy some major successes.”
Go nowhere, get up early, and give back
Not to be that guy, but I’m also seriously considering saving the money I’d spend on clubbing, drinking Champagne and liquor and cutting a check to support the folks who will be really happy to see the back of 2011.
By that, I mean the people who had their lives turned upside down following the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear crisis.
There are plenty of charities to choose from — just check out our list.
Now that I think about it — I’ll throw a party and collect donations. Good food, good friends and, of course, the 62nd edition of NHK’s “Kohaku Uta Gassen,” the celebrity TV singing contest (7:15 p.m. – 11:45 p.m. on NHK).
With omnipresent J-Pop sensation AKB48 making an appearance this year, how can you possibly go wrong?
TOKYO DAY TRIP: SURPRISINGLY GOOD WINE EXCURSION
Yamanashi Prefecture vintners aim to be the talk of the international wine scene. They just might stand a chance
C. James Dale
KATSUNUMA, JAPAN - It’s a beautiful, warm Sunday in autumn, the kind of weather Tokyo residents long for after the city’s sweltering summer. The kind of day that lures people outdoors.
Not me, it seems. I’m standing inside a cave that’s damp, cool and crowded. Thankfully, I’m with a few friends. Even better, there’s plenty of wine to go around.
I’m in the tasting room of the Budo no Oka Center (Grape Hill Center) in Katsunuma, trying to get better acquainted with a Japanese industry I’ll admit I know little about — winemaking. I had no idea I’d even be here 24 hours ago. Then I got a text message.
“We’re going to wine country tomorrow,” wrote my friend Catherine. “You should come.”
After a flurry of texts, a couple of calls and a six-hour sleep, I find myself on the platform at Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station at 8 a.m. with a group of friends. We crowd onto a train and settle in for the 90-minute ride to Yamanashi Prefecture, sometimes referred to as Japan’s Napa Valley.
Rolling into Katsunuma-budokyo Station, we get off the train and take it all in: clear blue skies, fresh air and green hills and valleys.
We stroll along the roads that wind through the vineyards. Bunches of plump grapes hang temptingly within arm’s reach. Our thirst builds.
Nectar of Nippon
Farmers have been growing grapes in Yamanashi Prefecture for more than 1,000 years, but winemaking only began in earnest in the latter half of the 19th century. These days, about 200 wineries around Japan are mashing up and fermenting 100 percent domestically grown grapes, selling a range of bottles that appeal to a variety of tastes and budgets.
“The Japan wine industry has already been established and the knowledge of wines of trade people in Japan is very high,” says Toshie Nakashima, a spokesperson for the Japan Wine Challenge, the largest competition of its kind in Asia.
Japanese wines are also building a reputation in other parts of the world. Suntory International Wine won the gold medal at the Challenge International du Vin in France for its Taru Hakkou Koushu 2008. Winemaker Mercian took home 14 awards at international wine competitions this year.
“Japanese wines have gained some recognition in Europe,” says Nakashima. “Now Selfridges and some top restaurants in London list them.”
Some smaller vintners are busy focusing on perfecting the production of the native koshu grape, a hybrid of vitis vinifera, which is the species responsible for the world’s most popular wines. They’re hoping to show Japan isn’t just capable of producing wine, but fine wine.
Given my knowledge, or lack thereof, of Japanese wine, my palette is ready for anything once I get inside the Budo no Oka Center, aplace where local vintners offer their wares for sampling or sale.
I pay ¥1,100 for a small, metal tasting cup and head underground. The cave is filled with hundreds, perhaps thousands of bottles: Chateau Honjyo 2008, Chateau Mercian 2010, Grace Koshu Barrel, Ikeda Winery Grand Cuvée 2010. Where to start?
“I’m not drinking anything under ¥2,000 a bottle,” declares one of my friends.
We then spend the next hour alongside people of all stripes — some in Hugo Boss and Polo, others wearing Harley-Davidson hats and leather vests — working our way from dry to sweet white wine, dry to sweet red wine. Experts we’re not, but we definitely win points for enthusiasm.
“It tastes smoky,” says Catherine, of one variety. “You know, like when you taste smoked chips?”
“Smoky good, right?” someone asks absently.
Suffice it to say, the train trip back to Tokyo is a little hazy.
A few weeks later, I decide to go shopping for Japanese wine in my neighborhood. One store doesn’t stock any domestic varieties. Another has three lonely bottles surrounded by hundreds of reds and whites from Italy, France, Chile and New Zealand.
Still, despite appearances, sales of Japanese wine are on the rise. They jumped more than 20 percent in the first six months of this year at the Tokyu Department Store in Tokyo’s Shibuya district.
Wine specialty shop, Cave de Re-Lax, reported a 9 percent increase in domestic wine sales during the same period.
Vintners in this country are hoping their time has come, that Japan will be the next New Zealand of the wine world. It’s possible.
There are some solid varieties on the domestic market. But for a country better known for sake and whiskey, building an international winemaking profile remains a major challenge.
Case in point, the Skype call I received as I type away on this piece.
“What are you doing?” asks my friend Dennis in Montreal.
“Writing a story on Japanese wine,” I say.
“You mean Japanese wine actually made from grapes,” he exclaims, bursting out laughing.
They may be winning awards, but Japanese vintners still need a breakthrough before they will be the toast of wine lovers at home and abroad.
THE BUZZ ON COCKTAIL CULTURE
C. James Dale
Sleek bars high over Bangkok. Barcelona drinks that bellow and smoke like something out of Macbeth. And chic spots in New York and Tokyo.
The world is increasingly filled with high-end bars with space-age ingredients and wild, “can you top this” décor. Here’s a look at some of what’s going on in a few of the world’s major cities.
BAR ISHINOHANA: Shinobu Ishigaki’s hands are moving so quickly my eyes can’t keep up. “What’s he cutting,” I ask my friend, Nicholas Coldicott. “A cherry,” he mutters. “Maybe a radish.” We’re at Bar Ishinohana, which bucks the trend toward locating in the tony Ginza neighbourhood with a spot in Shibuya, the city’s flashy entertainment district.
Though Ishigaki’s won awards for the form and flare he uses, he’s more interested in carving up elaborate garnishes than talking up his reputation. He sets a glass in front of me – a cherry plunked inside a dug out radish, a lime peel coiled like a snake around the stem. It’s a ‘Claudia,’ the rum-pineapple-vermouth concoction celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain featured on his TV program.
Instead of flipping bottles and shakers around à la Tom Cruise, Japanese barkeeps ooze a bygone-era charm, quietly mixing up classic cocktails with custom-made tools and time-honored techniques in tiny venues. Daini Yaki Bldg., B1, 3-6-2 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0002. (81) 3-5485-8405 . www.ishinohana.com
BAR HIGH FIVE: “We have to know what the customer wants before they tell us,” explains Hidetsugu Ueno, the suave owner of Bar High Five in Ginza. Moments after we arrive, he fixes his famous White Lady (gin, Cointreau, lemon juice) and hands it to me with a side of history. Bartending, Ueno contends, is a Western job, something Americans brought here in the 19th century.
“Japanese are not very good at creating something. But we’re good at copying.” 26 Pole Star Bldg., 4F, 7-2-14 GinzaChuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061. (81) 3-3571
BAR TENDER: “Everyone looks to Japan because bars here try to stick to the standard,” Kazuo Uyeda tells me. That can mean anything from an obsession with buying flawless, slower-melting ice, to a fierce loyalty to classic recipes, to devising the best way to shake it all together. Uyeda, who’s spent more than four decades in the business, is known for his legendary ‘hard shake,’ a furious pumping and twisting motion he designed to keep a cocktail cool and smooth.
A waiter in a white tuxedo – hair slicked back, eyebrows manicured – glides over to drop off a dainty glass containing Uyeda’s signature gimlet. A friend and expert on the subject leans in to inspect it. “You can tell that’s been hard-shaked,” he murmurs, pointing at the tiny shards of ice floating on the cocktail’s surface. The gin-lime union is soft and devoid of a sharp edge. It’s also damn cold, a chill that lingers for the duration of the drink. Hard Shake Bar Ginza Tender, Nohgakudo Bldg., 5F, 6-5-15 GinzaChuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061. (81) 3-3571-8343
STAR BAR: A cozy establishment squeezed into a space no bigger than a single TTC streetcar, this is where Hisashi Kishi works his magic. We order two of his celebrated sidecars and watch like sports fans as he starts by vigorously frothing the ingredients. “It gives a better aroma,” Kishi explains. He then mixes it all up with one of his five shake patterns, which he varies depending on the drink. Technique is so important to Kishi that he makes his staff train with a shaker filled with rice to help them associate the right sound with the right shake. The end result is unbeatable – a delightful blend of cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice. SankoshaBldg., B1F, 1-5-3 Ginza,Chuo-ku, 104-0061 Tokyo. (81) 3-3535-8005 .www.starbar.jp
CLASSIC COCKTAILS IN TOKYO
(Photo: Tony Law/Redux)
C. James Dale
If you’re fed up with elaborate mixology, and have downed too many drinks topped with unidentifiable foams or freeze-dried herbs, a trip to Tokyo should put you right. In the rest of the drinking world, cocktailmaking may have morphed into a wacky science, but in the Japanese capital, a small coterie of barmen focuses on making the classics better than anyone else does. In doing so, they safeguard a cocktail culture first imported by Americans in the 19th century. “This is a Western job, but it’s Japanese work,” explains Hidetsugu Ueno, bartender and owner of Bar High Five, tel: (81-3) 3571 5815, while serving me his feted White Lady (gin, Cointreau and lemon juice).
Nicholas Coldicott, a contributor to Whisky Magazine Japan, compares the likes of Ueno to sushi chefs, who undergo long apprenticeships before being regarded as experts. “They see themselves as masters of the bar,” he explains. Devotion to the craft can mean anything from devising flawless methods for employing ice (the now popular ice ball, which melts more slowly than ice cubes and thus keeps drinks colder and less diluted for longer, is a Japanese invention) to finding the best way to shake, not stir. “Japan’s bars always try to stick to the standard,” says Kazuo Uyeda, owner of Tender Bar, tel: (81-3) 3571 8343. Uyeda is renowned for his “hard shake,” which he devised to improve a cocktail’s temperature and texture. “When you taste it, you’ll feel ice shards on your tongue,” Coldicott says as a waiter in a white tuxedo floats over with Uyeda’s signature gimlet. The mix of gin and lime juice is soft, not sharp, the chill deep and sustained.
There’s an artisanal quality, too, to the work of Hisashi Kishi, whom Coldicott hails as “the best bartender in Japan.” Like so many excellent Tokyo establishments, Kishi’s Star Bar, tel: (81-3) 3535 8005, is no bigger than a subway carriage. We order two of his famous Sidecars and watch as he froths the ingredients. “It gives a better aroma,” Kishi explains, before mixing them up with one of his five distinct shaking patterns. The result: an unforgettable union of cognac, Cointreau and lemon juice, and a sense that one is savoring something that has become, in spite of its foreign origins, beautifully and ineffably Japanese.
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Planes, trains, helicopters (and submarines!) for the super-swish set.
The bottom line$538 one way, $896 round trip (mcas.co.jp)
You name it and Tokyo’s burger restaurants are using it. Make room, tomatoes and onions: Here come avocado, foie gras, prosciutto, egg, blue cheese, eggplant, asparagus, baby corn, mango. Sometimes, the toppings are distinctly Japanese – grated wasabi, fried seafood and even rice patties substituting for hamburger buns. Once in a while, they’re soaked in different vinegars, letting the mouth know that this is a whole new burger experience.
Some of Tokyo’s burgers look like sea creatures; others are dressed up for special occasions, like the cherry and cream cheeseburger at Burger Mania during cherry blossom season. A few spots encourage diners to break with tradition and squish their side of crispy onion rings right on top of their burgers, often adding to an already growing pile of extras.
If you’re a vegetarian and you’re feeling left out, don’t. Veggie burgers are also on the menu – juicy slabs of tofu or mushroom that look every inch as appealing, and menacing, as the real thing.
“Burgers have become a very casual food in Japan, just like rice balls, and [they’re] a very popular choice for lunch,” says Ken Saito, a blogger and expert on this city’s bun-and-patty predilection.
In Saito’s world, burgers are a blank canvas. He maintains that the taste depends on how restaurants cook each ingredient – and how they stack them. “The taste changes if you eat the hamburger upside down,” he says.
Saito’s love of burgers bloomed after a stint in the U.S. as a boy. These days, he writes reviews and posts photos of some of Tokyo’s best burgers, from the most expensive to the most unusual. It’s a mouth-watering tribute to this city’s burger culture, which has changed significantly since McDonald’s opened its first restaurant here in 1971 and the homegrown MOS Burger got in the game a year later.
“The first burgers were a treat, a foreign thing, like pizza,” Robbie Swinnerton, a restaurant critic for The Japan Times, told me between bites at Burger Mania in Tokyo’s Shirokane neighbourhood. “All the same, it was still a burger chain, a franchise as cheap as they can make it.”
That changed in the 1990s, Swinnerton explains, as Japan’s economy took a decade-long slumber. A movement sprang up for foods with better-quality ingredients at more reasonable prices. Gourmet burger restaurants were born. Fast-forward to 2010 and you’ll find no shortage of these places in Tokyo, catering to every taste.
“Like everything in Japan, there’s an alchemy process,” Swinnerton says. He was midway through a Burger Mania platinum burger, which uses strips of beef in place of the ground-beef patty.
“People are working, working, working on an idea, until they come up with something. It’s still very much a burger. But it becomes a Japanese burger.”
With one eye on the grill, Burger Mania owner Shunsuke Moriguchi gives his take. Burgers allow for a certain type of creativity, he says. He points his spatula at a stack of tomato, onion and lettuce, waiting to be united with a bun and patty. There’s a certain foundation a burger must have, he says, and from there, anything goes.
“The result is a more visually satisfying burger,” Saito says. “Because Japanese people like colourful food, the gourmet burgers have become very popular.”
But it’s more than just a visual thing.
“There’s a certain exoticism. Burger equals America,” Swinnerton says. “In a sense, you eat a burger because you want a little vicarious trip to America.”
While imitation is a form of flattery, in Japan it’s a form of ownership, a chance to take something foreign and make it Japanese. And, in some respects, to make it better.
ALLEY ADVENTURES IN A TOKYO HOT SPOT
C. James Dale
TOKYO - At first glance, it appears reports of Shimokitazawa’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The central Tokyo neighbourhood, a bastion of bohemia, is alive and well on this sweaty summer night. Look around, though, and you’ll see the signs – literally. “Shimokita is Dead?” read the posters, advertising an end-of-August weekend event complete with music, comedy acts and lectures. The “save Shimokitazawa” movement sprang up several years ago after local officials approved a plan to dig a subway tunnel and rework a couple of main roads.
Many argue this urban facelift, expected to start in 2013, will erase some of the wrinkles that give this neighbourhood character. The narrow, covered streets and alleyways which twist and turn beneath raised railway tracks near the stations will go, and with them the part of “Shimokita” that feels distinctly Japanese: the little discount shops, the hole-in-the-wall restaurants, the tiny bars and that pair of open-air urinals tucked away into a corner, draining to who-knows-where.
Most people who have strolled through this district would agree the impending change is lamentable (although few will miss the urinals). The neighbourhood’s down-tempo vibe has made it a favourite with Japanese students, hippies and twentysomethings. It’s a music lover’s dream, chock full of live venues and shops shilling new, used and rare CDs and records. Theatre adds to Shimokita’s allure, with stages both big and small hosting plays on any given night. Then there’s the shopping: an eclectic mix of stores selling everything from clothes to sex toys to big plastic Buddhas. The slap-dash layout makes it infinitely charming and it’s easy to see every inch of this place on foot.
You’ll usually find yourself wandering small, car-free streets. Shimokita is only a 10-minute train ride from two of Tokyo’s main train stations, Shibuya and Shinjuku, yet surprisinglyit’s a place few tourists tread. They’d be wise to check it out, though, before construction begins. Shimokitazawa might not be dead, but it could possibly lose its distinctive style.
HOW HUNGRY, how hot?
Usaya occupies a corner spot in the winding back streets, just a short walk from Shimokitazawa station. The young chef likes to design distinctive, inexpensive meals, so on some nights all he wants to know from you is how hungry you are, and whether you like spicy food. Patrons sit at a long, wooden table or small outdoor tables and feast on seared tuna medallions, hearty shrimp-vegetable dishes, udon noodles and edamame. 2-24-14 Kitazawa; 080-3158-4613 .
FAST FOOD, TOKYO-STYLE
If you’re in the mood for a quick bite, head to Yakitori Techan, where older Japanese men rub shoulders with young expats, sitting or standing as they sip cold beer or sake and order all sorts of skewered veggies and meat for a few hundred yen each.
A cook in the centre of the bar sweats over a small, red-hot grill. Take a risk and try the bitter grilled goya, an Okinawa vegetable that resembles a zucchini with polyps. Or check out Gindaco, which serves up searing hot balls made of octopus and vegetables for a good price. Yakotori Techan: 2-24-4 Kitazawa; 03-3465-1917 .
Gindaco: Kitazawa 2-11-18, 1F; 03-5779-6900 .
Shimokitazawa has big brands (such as French chain Petit Bateau), but it’s known more for its local boutiques which offer something for everyone. The Shimokitazawa Garage Department is a good first stop. The trendy indoor bazaar has 20 or so small stores selling hats, used and new clothing, jewellery, bags, bikes and T-shirts making fun of everything from a Japanese delivery company to North Korea. Village Vanguard is a national chain in Japan, and some say its coolest outlet is in Shimokita. It’s billed as an “Exciting Book Store,” but it offers much more: a dizzying array of stuffed toys, watches, cards and Japanese manga, plus joke items (poo-shaped hats, plastic purses that look like black fin tuna) and light sex-toy fare. Soma is a small shop that sells used clothing and vintage shoes (a sumo wrestler recently traded in size 15 high-tops). Feith carries second-hand clothing by Japanese designers.
Garage Department: 2-2-8 Kitazawa Village Vanguard: Kitazawa 2-10-15, Marche Bld.; village-v.co.jp
Soma: 102, 2-12-2 Kitazawa; 03-5430-0307 Feith: 2-5-7 2F Kitazawa; 03-5432-0588
DROP THE NEEDLE
Shimokitazawa boasts more than two-dozen stores selling used and new music, among them the best vinyl shops in Tokyo. Flash Disc Ranch has a wide selection of albums, ranging from $7 to $30 apiece. Serious music lovers will likely make their way to Vinyl Story. It has a narrow niche – British rock and folk vinyl from the 1960s and 1970s. Its most expensive album? A 300,000 yen ($3,621) copy of Songs of David Lewis (only 50 copies were ever made in 1971). Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day is a close second at 280,000 yen ($3,380).
Flash Disc Ranch: 2-12-16 Kitazawa; 03-3414-0421 .
Vinyl Story: Wakaba Heights #103, 2-12-2 Kitazawa; 03-3412-0178
If live music is your thing, you’ve come to the right place. Club Que is hidden away in a soundproof basement. Soul Gumbo was playing the night I dropped by, its lead singer shaking his afro as he belted out lyrics in Japanese. At nearby Daisy Bar, another subterranean spot, fans of the ska-punk-rock fusion band the Chainsaws exposed their ears to dangerously high decibel levels on a recent Saturday night.
Club Que: Big-Ben Building, B2F, 2-5-2 Kitazawa; 03-3412-9979
Daisy Bar: 2-2-3 B1F Kitazawa, 03-3412-0847 , daisybar.jp
Pas encore prêt-à-porter?
Japan Fashion Week tries to keep up
“It’s just really not on the same level as New York and Paris, especially the runway shows,” she said with a sigh last week. “It’s more off-the-rack kind of stuff.”
It’s a harsh assessment, but perhaps there’s some truth to it. Aside from designers such as Issey Miyaki and Kenzo, the Japanese are known more for their mainstream clothing lines, and how they bring their styles to the street, than their haute couture. Still, organizers of the 11th Japan Fashion Week are pushing ahead. The event runs from October 18-24 and features runway shows, exhibitions, and installations.
First up was Tokyo-based designer Sara Arai with the araisara spring and summer 2011 collection. The runway at Yebisu Garden Hall was actually a big square platform, done up in white and made whiter by blinding lights that shined down upon it. The show started off with ethereal string music, so soft you could hear the pounding of the models’ platform wedges as they strutted around. The line itself had some good moments, but fell short of being a cohesive collection and seemed to lack direction.
Toward the end, the show was being driven by hard driving club beats. But it never seemed to reach the kind of crescendo or provide the pizzazz you expect from top-notch runway events. I found myself drifting back to the conversation I’d had with Ia about Japan Fashion Week in general.
“There’s just no spirit,” she told me. “We could go out there to Shibuya (one of Japan’s main shopping districts) and ask any young person if they know Japan Fashion Week is on right now, and they won’t.”
But Ia isn’t totally blasé about this fall’s lineup. She confided that she’s more in a menswear kind of mood, and is looking forward to Tuesday’s yoshio kuborunway show. So while she might have left her heart in New York, Ia will still be attending the shows, the events, and, of course, the parties at Japan Fashion Week.