TOKYO: FATHOMLESSLY HUGE
The Japanese capital city is big in every respect, whether it is the population of its vast metropolitan area, its character, activity, colour, appetite for life or influence on design. Wherever you are in Tokyo, the message is the same — stop, look, abso
Wherever you are in the city, the message is the same — stop, look, absorb, indulge, appreciate
My mission in Tokyo was to explore the concept of takumi. I first heard the term in conversation with my friends at Lexus and realised that while takumi (the word translates literally as ‘craftsmanship’) applied to the manufacture of Lexus vehicles, it has far greater resonance. Each person I met in Tokyo was asked the same question: what does takumi mean to you? The conclusion I drew is that takumi is as much a state of mind as a statement of artisanal quality. “It’s about attitude and taking great pride in your work,” explained interior designer and Wonderwall founder Masamichi Katayama. The personal satisfaction and sense of pride that comes from knowing you have done the very best job you can. And how to describe Tokyo? That, too, is a state of mind. Experiencing just a few days in this megalopolis of almost 38 million people is an amazing polarity of energy, clamour, serenity, claustrophobia and expanse, where extreme kitsch and high-design coexist without apology. Tokyo is like nowhere else on earth — an intriguing and seductive parallel universe.
HOW TO DESCRIBE MODERN TOKYO? Novelist Haruki Murakami, the unofficial laureate of Japan, whittled it down to two words: “fathomlessly huge”. It’s not just a measure of the massive urban sprawl (minus a discernible city centre), but a gauge of the infinite possibility that, like the origami crane, folds, flattens, pleats and pops from a single plane. If you want to feel the tonal registration of Tokyo before trying it as a tourist, then toss out the travel guides and dip into Murakami, because no writer can better furnish words for this tightly plotted parallel universe in which everything looks strangely familiar but unfurls into surrealist fantasy. You can feel the magic realism the minute you step off the plane at Narita airport. The sheer weight of numbers says that process will stall, but it never does. The everyday flows with a miraculous efficiency into the neon futurism of Tokyo, where towers of capsule living squeeze tiny alleyways flushed with a 1940s ››
In Japan there is deference to the collective will that delivers flow and dissipates frustration. Call it empathy. Call it respect. Call it ‘missing’ in the West
‹‹ film noir romanticism. Everywhere an improbable density of humanity inhabits an impossible dimension of architecture. To contextualise that compaction, greater Tokyo has a population density of more than 6000 people per square kilometre; greater Melbourne has 440. And yet the capital of Victoria is verging on one big snarl (in both traffic and trait). Yes, yes, it co-relates to a depth of infrastructure, but in Japan there is deference to the collective will that delivers flow and dissipates frustration. Call it empathy. Call it respect. Call it ‘missing’ in the West. This ‘we’ over ‘me’ in Tokyo turns menial tasks into meditations (translates to impeccable service and faultless style) and assures that vending machines aren’t vandalised, lost objects get returned, graffiti is an anomaly, dark alleys don’t harbour danger, and all public transport arrives on time, making the world’s busiest Metro system a cinch. Just pick up a Pasmo pass (the smart card that substitutes for tickets), download the Tokyo Subway Navigation for Tourists app (a brilliant way-finder that rationalises the network into an easy read) and surface in the blink of an eye in upscale Aoyama, where you’ll find the architecture of more Pritzker prize laureates per square kilometre than anywhere else in the world. The stylistic tensions are electrifying. Note, this is not a pedestrian city like Paris, but an amalgam of districts, nay mini-cities, each of which can be easily reached by train or taxi (remember, few drivers speak English so carry hotel cards in your daily kit). Traverse them on foot or forego the exquisite pleasure of stumbling upon a mini-masterpiece by the ‘metabolist’ likes of Arata Isozaki, the grey-haired, grandee of Japanese architecture whose alumni includes Shigeru Ban.
Getting lost is its own reward in Tokyo, but if you allocate a day for each district and match your mood to its micro-culture, you can’t go wrong. Nakameguro is charmingly hip; Daikanyama is upscale cool; Shinjuku is a mix of electronics, department stores and bars; Shibuya is a mindblowing congestion of commerce; Ginza is 30 blocks of luminescent luxury. And Omotesando is the big-brand boulevard fronting backstreets filled with extreme refinements of fashion and food. There you will find merchants specialising in American workwear of the 1920s, 12-seat bars belting out nothing but Bob Dylan, baristas who’ve done time in Melbourne’s Brunswick Street and lobster rolls that put Long Island to shame. Nuancing is a national sport. Tokyo sips on its own world-best blended whisky (Suntory’s Hibiki 21 Year Old) and sups at one of 13 three-star Michelin restaurants (three more than in Paris), but don’t make the mistake of denigrating the city’s connoisseurship as a cute infatuation with the West. This town appreciates ‘good’ and it will refract it through its own cultural lens until ‘really good’ becomes ridiculously rarefied. If Tokyo was an epic story bound on the bookshelf, its dust jacket would describe a spiritual science-fiction set in a near future that continually folds back into the past; an exquisitely crafted, return-to classic that defies comparison.
opposite page, clockwise from top left: Vogue Living editor-in-chief Neale Whitaker at Samurai jazz bar in the Shinjuku ward. The Aēsop Tokyo shop in Meguro. Street view of Shibuya ward. clockwise from above left: Staircase at The Park.Ing concept store in Ginza. Fashion shop window. A house in Shibuya. The view from ANA InterContinental Tokyo hotel. Shoes offffff for dinner. Ginza’s Tokyu Plaza. from far left: Tonkatsu restaurant in Meguro. Cotogoto gift shop in Suginami ward. Narukiyo restaurant in Shibuya.
this page, clockwise from top left: Ueno Park, near the University of Tokyo. Rooftop of Tokyu Plaza. Cotogoto gift shop. Entry to an izakaya bar-restaurant in Chiyoda ward. Lunch is served. Green Fingers furniture and plant store in Setagaya. Classic architecture. Bar Rouge in Shinjuku.
FOR MORE VOGUE LIVING IN TOKYO, VISIT VOGUELIVING. COM. AU this page, clockwise from top right: Yoyogi Park in the heart of Tokyo. Walking beneath the cherry blossoms near Nakameguro River in Meguro. Decor at a bar. The famous Meiji Jingu Shinto shrine in Yoyogi Park. Kaikaya by the Sea restaurant in Shibuya. A view from the Park Hyatt hotel, the venue featured in the fifilm Lost in Translation. Aēsop Tokyo. Detail of wall art.