AN EXPLORATION OF TOKYO’S DESIGN DELIGHTS, OLD AND NEW
Neale Whitaker falls head over heels for Tokyo’s design aesthetic.
You don’t need to go looking for design in Japan,” said a colleague before I headed to Tokyo recently. “It will find you.” I wasn’t sure what she meant at the time, but now I understand. Why did I wait so long to experience this extraordinary country? Seated 12 floors above the crowds at The Apollo (the super-cool Tokyo outpost of the Sydney eatery), I watched the Shinkansen bullet trains glide into Ginza station. They’re a metaphor for the efficiency, precision and pace that make this city tick.
I guess Japan had me at the ATM that spoke politely in English and played a tune while it dispensed my cash. Then it had me in the hotel bathroom when my toilet seat stood to attention as I opened the door. Anticipation is everything. And then again and again over the next few days Japan stole my heart – from cherry blossom ice-cream to matcha (green tea) Kitkats and the exquisite presentation of a $20 sushi lunch, while seated shoeless and cross-legged on tatami mats. From jazz piano in a Shinjuku cocktail bar to the dizzying six-storey geometrics of the world’s most famous Prada store in Aoyama. Japan just has it.
In design terms we’ve heard a lot recently about wabi-sabi, a Japanese concept that translates as celebrating “a connection to the broken, the unloved, the coarse and unrefined”. In other words, it’s an embrace of age and its impact on surfaces and materials. Just as we increasingly value provenance and craftsmanship, so too can we value the beauty in imperfection. It’s a logical counterpoint to the ultimately disposable world of social media – and something the Japanese understand very well.
But that’s just one part of the Japanese story. As celebrated Tokyo-based interior designer Masamichi Katayama pointed out to me, there’s a parallel premium on transience. The Japanese see nothing wrong in demolishing buildings to create new ones, as that way ensures lineage and continuity. The shiny and new is just as valuable. It’s an intriguing contradiction in a land that thrives on them. And as I slid back a delicate bamboo screen at the new Hoshinoya Tokyo hotel (based on traditional ryokan design) to reveal the concrete jungle outside, I grasped why the Japanese aesthetic has never seemed more relevant. With respect for the past and open-armed embrace of the future, it’s the best of all possible worlds.