In Japan's capital city, a reverence for tradition doesn't mute an enthusiasm for change.
By Aarti Virani
May 5, 2016
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I was raised in the port city of Kobe and remember my family’s maiden voyage to Japan’s otherworldly capital. It was a three-hour train ride that had us hurtling through rice paddies and fishing villages until we pulled into a concrete labyrinth, swathed in a canopy of blinking crimson lights. A majestic, five-storied pagoda rose in the distance.
Tokyo has left me speechless since that first encounter: a neon-tinted blur of shrine visits, market tours, and seemingly endless elevator rides. It’s been over two decades since my initial trip, though I’ve returned numerous times, always inspired by the city’s steady commitment to renewal. Despite enduring a decade-plus economic slump and a devastating earthquake in 2011, the world’s largest megalopolis continues to display unrivaled grace and optimism.
A transformative undercurrent, essential to Tokyo’s survival strategy, runs through its 400-year-old feudal foundation. It’s evident in the recent demolition of the iconic Hotel Okura, which was an exemplar of 1960s Japanese modernist design. The Yoshiro Taniguchi–designed property will be replaced by a pair of vertiginous glass towers—constructed by the architect’s son—in time for the 2020 Summer Olympics. (The original happened to be built in advance of the 1964 Tokyo games.) Change also surfaces in the form of a new home for Tsukiji, the gargantuan fish and seafood market, best known for its boisterous tuna auctions. It will soon end its 80-year tenure in the city’s pulsing nucleus and relocate to a man-made island, a mile and a half away. Even Tokyo’s ability to retain the coveted Michelin-star since 2009, a distinctly European benchmark for excellence, is a testament to how readily it pairs deep-rooted culinary traditions with boundary-breaking techniques.
Though it seems like the crush of 13 million residents operate solely on bullet-train speed—just spend an evening at the Shibuya Crossing, a swarming intersection where thousands of pedestrians simultaneously traverse from five different directions—a careful second look will reveal pockets of tranquility: hushed teahouse pavilions, dimly lit whiskey bars, or even the shade of a maple tree in Shinjuku Gyoen, often dubbed Tokyo’s answer to Central Park. If it’s marvels of the architectural variety you’re seeking, then it’s best to view them from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Disregard the decidedly drab name—the observation deck here offers the city’s most sought-after skyline view. Breathtaking, incandescent, and ever changing, it’s a view that embodies the formidable spirit of Tokyo itself.
Tokyo’s cultural scene was once starkly binary, leaving visitors to choose between its bygone Edo past and a sci-fi future. Today, the two worlds fuse to create alluring hybrids, confirmed by spaces like SCAI The Bathhouse, a 200-year-old public bath turned avant-garde gallery in Yanaka—a set of rickety lockers still graces the entrance—that’s played host to biennale bigwigs like Anish Kapoor and Jeppe Hein. Fresh from a recent makeover by Kengo Kuma, the local architect designing the city’s National Stadium for the 2020 Summer Olympics, the Minato district’s Nezu Museum contrasts clean, modern exteriors with more than 7,000 Asian antiques. Much of the prolific collection once belonged to railway mogul and tea ceremony enthusiast Kaichiro Nezu, which explains the prevalence of brew-related paraphernalia. The Mori Museum, one third of Roppongi’s famed Art Triangle, is known for its funnel-shaped elevator designed by Richard Gluckman (of Whitney Museum fame), and rotating photography, fashion, and architecture exhibits. Another member, with its curvy glass facade and a staggering 150,000 square feet of installation space, is the National Art Center, the largest of its kind in Japan. It forgoes a permanent collection, however, relying on captivating cameos instead: Current displays include a Renoir retrospective and a spotlight on fashion icon Issey Miyake. Incidentally, Miyake is the founder of Tokyo Midtown’s 21_21 Design Sight, an experimental design think tank with a sloping, steel-plated roof designed by Tadao Ando, inspired by Miyake’s “piece of cloth” sartorial philosophy.
Omotenashi, or bow-over-backwards Japanese hospitality, is ubiquitous throughout the capital, whether you’re staying in a whimsical boutique hotel or a plush high-rise retreat. Spanning 10 floors of a Shiodome skyscraper, Park Hotel Tokyo is home to 18 “Artist Rooms”—suites with hand-painted murals by popular Japanese artists, ranging from Hiroko Otake, who was spurred by the national obsession with cherry blossoms, to Hiroyuki Kimura’s austere sumo-accented wall. Four distinct themes, including one filled with framed wildflowers, shape the 21 rooms at Claska, created by furniture and home-appliance craftsman Tei Shuwa. In Asakusa, matcha green carpets and vibrant fabric panels by Marimekko’s Masaru Suzuki accentuate the 137 rooms at the Gate Hotel,a modern juxtaposition to Sensoji, the city’s oldest temple complex, across the street.
With inimitable Imperial Palace views, Aman Tokyo, the brand’s first city property, offers dramatic natural flourishes in the form of rock gardens and a stunning reception desk, crafted from the trunk of a 250-year-old camphor tree. Longtime Aman collaborator Kerry Hill Architects put a contemporary spin on a ryokan in the 84 rooms, with sliding shoji screens and low-slung daybeds. One of the latest additions to the jagged cityscape is Toranomon’s Andaz Tokyo, the combined vision of Taiwanese-American designer Tony Chi and local mastermind Shinichiro Ogata. The harmonious results: traditional touches such as the lobby bonsai tree, expansive rooms with Hokkaido walnut wood paneling and deep soaking tubs, and a clean-lined indoor pool on the 37th floor.
As the world’s Michelin-star stronghold, Tokyo’s dining culture reflects the dignified metropolis itself: steeped in artisanal traditions, but poised for change. Japan’s culinary epicenter is a blend of European transplants and homegrown heroes, all catering to increasingly cosmopolitan palettes. Tucked inside a generous green patch of a sprawling Midtown shopping complex is the Tokyo branch of a Kyoto stalwart, Canoviano Café. The Tadao Ando–designed structure—it’s virtually identical to 21_21 Design Sight, which sits next door—gives an unexpected sleek aesthetic to the organic Italian trattoria. Tender tofu dishes, served in stackable lacquer boxes, take center stage at Shiba TofuyaUkai, a collection of 55 tatami-clad dining rooms in a centuries-old sake brewery. Each private chamber faces the restaurant’s focal point—a slow-moving, wooden waterwheel—and interior garden, dotted with carp ponds and maple trees. Further afield in Meguro, Yakumo Saryo is the creation of the aforementioned Andaz hotel designer Shinichiro Ogata. The teahouse and restaurant are a Zen minimalist’s nirvana, awash in stone, wood, and natural light.
The futuristic AO towers, in the shopping district of Aoyama, are the setting for Two Rooms, where black granite counters and custom artwork by Masashi Ozawa outfit two spaces connected by a water-terraced bridge. On the 40th floor of Shinjuku’s legendary Park Hyatt hotel (Bill Murray fans will recognize it from the indie hit film, Lost in Translation), Kozue is a stylish sake and kaiseki bar, wreathed by dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows that offer glimpses of the cone-shaped Mount Fuji.
From Rem Koolhaas’s Coach flagship, an unofficial ode to the Rubik’s cube, to Renzo Piano’s slender glass Hermès tower, global architectural stars have often been summoned to imagine the Tokyo outposts of international luxury brands. While these urban castles are destinations in their own right, the city’s kaleidoscopic shopping landscape also exudes plenty of local flavor. The brainchild of designer Eiji Hatanaka, Iconstocks high-end labels like 3.1 Phillip Lim, T by Alexander Wang, and J.W. Anderson. A residential vibe infuses a converted split-level Omotesando home, complete with a bedroom, kitchen, and even a garage that doubles as a pop-up boutique. A former paper processing plant in sleepy Nakameguro is now the site of Traveler’s Factory, a wanderlust-themed stationery shop; your haul might consist of retro bumper stickers and notebooks splattered with vintage airline ads. At Okura, unisex jackets and tees get0 the aizome (or indigo-dye) treatment, using an all-natural technique that finds its roots in the 10th century; the rustic ceiling is studded with seashells and driftwood. A succession of wavy bamboo slats lines architect Kengo Kuma’s Pigment, a traditional art supply store in Shinagawa teeming with over 4,000 paint vials and rare animal-hair brushes. Channeling a library in the woods, Tsutaya, part of a trio of interlocking buildings with latticed front, is a shrine to the analog age. British transplant Klein Dytham Architects is behind the cavernous bookstore, which includes a generous range of English titles, and draws crowds to its swish, leather-bound café, Anjin.