Tokyo’s Cutting Edge
Published: April 2009
By Lynn Yaeger
Style informs every aspect of life in Japan's capital, so we dispatched our shopping guru, Lynn Yaeger, to map out a definitive guide to the city's one-of-a-kind boutiques, must-have souvenirs, and fashion-forward streets.
Five minutes after you arrive in Tokyo, you're struck by it: this is the most stylish city you've ever been in, a place where fashion is taken so seriously that many of its women and men are themselves veritable works of art. Europe may once have been the continent from which serious chic flowed—the Parisian women with their famous scarves, the Romans flaunting burnished bags and shoes, the London Savile Rowers in their strict tailoring— but these burgs have been vanquished, and then some.
The challenge of shopping in Tokyo is to try to see everything. It's impossible, of course, but made easier by taking taxis (plentiful and cheap) and giving up on the idea of chasing down addresses without help. Most street addresses in Tokyo are maddeningly vague, though this problem is somewhat ameliorated by the willingness of the general population to point—or even take—you in the right direction. Lost, I once stopped in a store and asked the clerk for assistance. She disappeared into the back for so long, I thought she had forgotten all about me, but when she finally emerged she was brandishing a color Yahoo! map.
To help you plan your attack, T+L has done the legwork for you. We hit the ground running to uncover 38 only-in-Tokyo shopping experiences. Our comprehensive guide is organized by neighborhood, with a complete address book. Although each shop has its own distinct personality, all are united in having pristine displays and exquisite customer service. No matter which places on our list you visit, nearly everything you see—pricey or bargain-basement, traditional or groundbreaking—will be on the cutting edge of style.
Sit at an outdoor table at Anniversaire Café and watch the multitudes stroll down the main drag: Lolitas in their baby smocks and towering shoes, matrons head-to-toe in this season's Prada except for one unique Japanese accessory, the surgical face mask. In Tokyo, individuality reigns supreme, but that doesn't mean fads and trends don't exert a powerful pull. Six months ago it was high-heeled boots paired with hot pants—and although this combination would make the wearer resemble a streetwalker anywhere else in the world, on a young Japanese girl it manages to look innocent and playful.
Aoyama is the city's central shopping neighborhood for high fashion, bisected by Omotesando, a broad boulevard surrounded by a warren of little streets, themselves crammed with excellent shops. Here are all the homegrown stars—Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto—along with the other heavy hitters you're accustomed to seeing everywhere in the world, but there's a twist: the buildings themselves, from Chanel's Peter Marino-designed black and white cube to Jun Aoki's stacked-box design for Louis Vuitton, seem to be competing in some extraordinary modern-design contest.
Herzog & de Meuron's wildly ambitious edifice, a sharp-angled six-story crystal accented by convex and concave glass bubbles, offers the full range of the house's famous goods, some of which actually look more at home in Tokyo than they do in their native Italy: a small black nylon purse decorated with a beaded bear, for example, plays into the Japanese love of comic characters.
Comme des Garçons
The sales staff looks so good in outfits that you might first dismiss as borderline unwearable—frothy tutus paired with rubber jackets; sweaters made of fishing net—that you will rapidly discard your residual reluctance and come out bearing a shopping bag containing an Oswald the Lucky Rabbit T-shirt, a muslin-and-tartan pleated skirt, and, for good measure, a gold Lurex fedora.
This new mall (the local community is still angry over the number of beloved traditional houses mowed down to make room for it) has sweeping ramps like those in New York's Guggenheim Museum, and every imaginable high-end shop, from the predictable—Yves Saint Laurent, Dolce & Gabbana, Jimmy Choo—to the unexpected. At SJX, silver skull cuff links are $175 and a tangerine-colored plastic watch is $306; Tabio has a stunning array of socks that make great souvenirs.
This Japanese designer was famous long before the crop of avant-gardists that included Yohji, Comme des Garçons, and Issey swept in. Recently the windows offered mannequins robed in traditional kimonos sharing space with others dressed in Mori's meticulously detailed gray flannel trouser suits. Curiously, the small mall located below the store has a number of dealers specializing in Edwardian and Victorian jewelry. The bracelets and brooches may hail from Europe, but the rigorous way they have been curated and their stunning quality are thoroughly Japanese.
It's Tokyo's answer to Paris's Colette or Milan's 10 Corso Como. All three of these much touted shops carry the latest luxury labels, fashion books, toys, and eccentric—though by no means inexpensive—accessories. Raff Simons and Alexander McQueen are shown alongside argyle sweaters whose inside labels read EDUCATION FROM YOUNG MACHINES. The walls are fuchsia; a huge chandelier with hanging multicolored glass shaped like Christmas ornaments dangles over a mammoth staircase; on the lower level, Zelda Fitzgerald's collected works, translated into Japanese, lie next to a punk teddy bear made from a lisle stocking, studded with nails, and marked a cool $700.
Liquor, Women and Tears
These beautifully crafted men's clothes have an unabashedly naughty vibe, which may have something to do with the 80's Versace revival emerging in Tokyo's most forward-thinking shops (scoff now, then see it on Milan runways in six months). The shop features gorgeously tailored suits and necklaces that spell out CORRUPT in diamonds, along with silver New Balance sneakers and a maroon velour smoking jacket trimmed in gold.
This temple of sartorial excess has recently undergone a renovation, with the former surreal-laundromat décor—piles of clothes stacked ceiling-high in the windows—now replaced by a somewhat more conventional interior: barn walls, a wrought-iron fence used as a room divider, and three old theater seats on which to catch one's breath. The clothes, elegantly made if notoriously strange, make Comme des Garçons look like Liz Claiborne: a $3,200 chiffon jacket sinks under a profusion of pink blossoms; a skirt is buried under a welter of crimson feathers.
A Bathing Ape
Sweatshirts, T-shirts, and caps are emblazoned with APE SHALL NEVER KILL APE in this extremely popular and influential shop, the brainchild of Japanese enfant terrible DJ Nigo. The store's white-tiled interior resembles a very fashionable shower stall, and though the merchandise seems meant to appeal to streetwise hipsters, everyone from preschoolers to matrons loves the place. On a recent afternoon a woman in a pale-pink cashmere overcoat and sleek black patent heels stood at the cash register, purchasing several rolls of Bathing Ape toilet paper decorated with the brand's trademark simians.
In the same mode as Bathing Ape, but not as well known internationally, Original Fake showcases the work of New York graphic artist Brian Kaws, replacing apes with robots. A sweater with droids rendered in rhinestones ($700) is meant to be worn with a pair of Vans embellished with the shop's other trademark logo, an X.
Doubt that the 1980's are coming back?The fresh eyes of Tokyo's most outré fashionistas beckon you to reconsider polyester safari shirts, trench coats with gold epaulets and big brass buttons, and a heart-shaped zebra-striped satin purse. Even the name of the shop is a pun.
Hand-knitted PVC wire has been fashioned into bags, totes, and purses—with astonishing results. A small grass green tote trimmed with a white crown is $463; the plastic surface gives off a strange, almost iridescent glow.
Like so many English names of Japanese shops, this one gives absolutely no indication of what is to be found inside. In fact, the clothes have a Brideshead Revisited air: heavy cotton trousers sport button flies and tiny back buckles; classic shirts are made of unbleached muslin.
Tie Your Tie
This exquisite haberdashery is a testament to the Japanese obsession with British tailoring. Here is everything a young bloke would need for punting on the Cam: tweed jackets, custom-made brogues, cashmere pullovers, caps, rare snakeskin belts, and of course, neckties.
Tokyo's famed shopping thoroughfare teems with visitors, but it's not nearly as much fun to explore these days as the city's smaller neighborhoods. Still, you can't consider yourself a serious Tokyo shopper without spending at least one afternoon here, if only to gawk at the architecture, which rivals Aoyama's in originality and sheer spunk. Hermès is cloaked in black glass; a store called Opaque has a frosted façade on which the name of the shop, projected on the milky glass, appears, shimmers, and disappears. Stop by Le Café Doutor—it's run cafeteria-style, but they're used to customers who don't speak a word of Japanese—for an expertly poured latte before setting out.
In Tokyo: A View of the City, Donald Richie describes the Ginza as it was in 1947: "At this crossing there are only two large buildings standing. The Ginza branch of the Mitsukoshi Department Store, gutted, hit by a firebomb, even the window frames twisted in the heat. Across the street is the other, the white Hattori Building with its clock tower; much as it had been with its cornices and pediments." Then as now, the Hattori building contained Wako, a beautiful old-world department store that features an elegant curved staircase and a surfeit of superb if quiet merchandise. An exquisite apple green silk skirt suit is $1,835; the shoe department offers a Japanese take on Ferragamo. There's not a tutu or a rubber jacket in sight.
Of all the architectural flourishes in and around the Ginza, the Mikimoto boutique, designed by Toyo Ito & Associates, is arguably the most thrilling. The lavender façade, perforated with cutouts that look like cow spots, or maybe Swiss-cheese holes, erases any preconceptions you may have that this is a staid, old-line jewelry company. In fact, this fall the famous pearls will be showcased in a new collection designed by Yohji Yamamoto.
A sweet-faced girl in black Goth robes has painted a line of blood from mouth to chin; she's holding hands with her best friend, who could pass for Little Bo Peep. This hugely influential, style-mad kiddy-land, enthusiastically adopted by everyone from John Galliano to Gwen Stefani, may be slightly less wacky than it once was, but that doesn't mean throngs of wildly dressed teenagers don't still travel in from the suburbs on weekends accoutred in their outrageous finery to walk up and down, window shop, eat ice cream, and admire each other's costumes.
This is the headquarters for those giant babies, locally known as Lolitas, who favor tiny skirts distended by vast crinolines, patent shoes with bows, oversize pink-gingham newsboy caps, and other cutie-pie cult items. Even if you find the appeal of these garments fairly incomprehensible, you can't help but admire the passion with which their young adherents put the look together.
A multistory building containing dozens of shops specializing in whatever is newest for the younger set (on a recent visit, this included fuzzy pink sweatshirts and matching pom-pom boots.) It's fun to stroll inside, but the real action is out front, where the metal display cases, shaped like giant flowers, are surrounded by extravagantly dressed young people.
It's not enough for you to wear a fairy-tale getup: your puppy has to have an active fantasy life too. Indulge in the local penchant for dressing pooches with the purchase of a Harajuku-style dress for your lapdog; or a cable-stitched poncho for a sportier pup; or even a hooded jacket with bunny ears, for a bit of interspecies fun.
This excellent resale shop—most of the stock is too recent to be called vintage—has all the big brands and is delightfully free of the musty smell that plagues so many secondhand stores. Unfortunately, the prices are hardly bargain-basement—an Undercover cotton top with visible childlike stitching and many deliberately dangling threads is marked $350.
STILL, SOMEHOW, I BELIEVE WE'LL ALWAYS SURVIVE, NO MATTER WHAT is scrawled on the side of one of the neighborhood's many small, raffish boutiques, though this wistful sentiment is contradicted by the sunny dispositions of most of the shoppers. This area might remind you of New York City's SoHo—too many shops to count, a combination of vintage stores, young-designer venues, and chain boutiques—though with its hilly topography and winding streets, it also feels a little like San Francisco. It's more sprawling than it might at first appear; allow several hours to explore.
The local affection for jeans is given full sway in this small shop, whose interiors seem based on a Montana mountain cabin, albeit one with a stained-glass door. The stock includes such cross-cultural staples as plaid lumberjack jackets, flannel shirts, and a full range of Japanese denim. Above one rack a sign reads denim care station. "They are waiting for repair," the saleswoman offers.
A French song is playing in the background the day I unearth this hard-to-find, intensely hip shop located down a small alley. Though you'd swear the goods are vintage, the clerks insist they're all brand-new. A brown dress with a teardrop print is $98; oblong bags made of fake pink snakeskin are meant to be carried with the store's silky polka-dot frocks.
Ethereal garments hang from the racks of this large shop; but for the sun pouring in it would feel like a grotto. Sweatshirts are feminized with dropping flower appliqués; a ruffled, gauzy peach dress ($393) is as wispy as a dandelion.
Colour by Numbers
Owned by the same team that runs Loveless, and decorated with similar insouciance: you're greeted at the door by a pair of taxidermied rabbits balancing on a soccer ball. Inside are sneakers studded with nail heads alongside a plaid jacket with bondage straps—and a built-in backpack.
Elegant despite its name, this long, narrow glass-fronted shop specializes in pieces by self-taught Japanese fashion designer Ed Tsuwaki. Canvas slip-ons are decorated with carefully drawn antelopes; tunics are patterned in clean black and white stripes.
On sunny days, the irresistible tidbits from this tiny dry-goods shop spill out onto its front patio. Along with spools of ribbon and lace, there are remnants of vintage children's fabric, some of which have already been made into little tote bags.
Rough brick walls and antique table lamps sitting askew on the floor make this hat emporium feel like a deconstructed general store. There's everything from trapper hats and furry fedoras to scarlet fur-felt Borsalinos ($166), Stephen Jones berets that say TIME TRAVEL, and chapeaus for any gender, every taste.
This bohemian neighborhood is named for the canal that runs through it; in cherry blossom season, falling petals turn the water a breathtaking pink. This is the anti-Ginza: you won't find any big names in the boutiques that line both its banks.
The witty collection includes clothes by the eccentric English designer Paul Harnden, who prides himself on 19th-century detailing, plus men's vintage wristwatches and faintly sinister gloves that instruct wearers to "insert trigger finger."
Per Gramme Market
A big messy vintage-clothing store that's young, cheap, and fun to dig through. If you have your heart set on a vintage kimono, there's a rack of them here, starting at a wildly affordable $34. Schoolgirl kilts are $25, and there's even a big section, believe it or not, of well-worn cowboy boots.
The owner of this shop rides around Tokyo dispensing his wares from a bookmobile. A Jenny Holzeresque LCD ticker running around the ceiling reads TAKE A COFFEE GET SOME FEELING; left-wing political tracts and Beat Generation tomes are among the specialties, but there are also Olive Oyl comics in Japanese, as well as vintage Vogues. The store's slogan, everything for the freedom, is emblazoned in red on white denim jackets and carryalls that close with little bows ($131).
Though its windows face the canal, you enter this shop by walking through a dark parking lot where unlocked bicycles, themselves providing a cultural shock, are neatly lined up. The merchandise is a mix of the practical (industrial mailbags) and the ethereal (a shredded georgette dress worthy of a supercool Miss Havisham).
APC Surplus Store
As at any surplus store—with last season's overstock—the finds in this small discount APC store can be hit-or-miss. On a good day, you'll unearth men's jackets, structured women's dresses and tops, and accessories (belts, sunglasses, wallets)—at up to 50 percent off.
The cawing of crows offers an incongruous counterpoint to the intense rock music pouring from storefronts in this neon-lit neighborhood, which comes alive with sexy energy at night. During the day, it's a mecca for shoppers craving the next new thing.
This multistory outpost is the epicenter of cutting-edge Tokyo. On a recent visit, I found its plethora of boutiques pushing pink quilted heart-shaped handbags, gold padded-bra tops with chain straps clearly informed by a Superfly aesthetic, and other youthful indiscretions.
A slightly more sober cousin to 109, spread over four stores. If you get lost, cheerful guides wearing hats that seem lifted from Ludwig Bemelmans's Madeline are on hand to help. Among the many international temptations (by Vivienne Westwood, Miu Miu) is rock-and-roll, celebrity-friendly jewelry by Royal Order.
Bare metal shelving serves up the incredibly affordable clothing that has made this brand a worldwide sensation. Though the big draw is knitwear—this season's hot number, the smocked sweater, is a paltry $33—there are also slinky skirts for an astonishing $10.
On three consecutive evenings, Japanese acquaintances insisted I visit Roppongi Hills, Tokyo's immense cluster of modern skyscrapers bursting with restaurants, shops, a nine-screen cinema, and even an art museum. Though the shopping is glittery it is also slightly sterile—who needs to come to Tokyo for Coach and Tiffany's?The real retail excitement is in the gift shops on the observation deck, where you'll find limited-edition designs by Takashi Murakami, including plush-toy versions of his strange creatures and the quintessential Tokyo souvenir—a candy tin featuring a cartoon depiction of Roppongi itself, with smiley Murakami characters gamboling in the skies above.
The Japanese love affair with sleek architectural projects continues unabated: joining Roppongi Hills and Omotesando Hills is Tokyo Midtown, composed of six high-rise buildings and containing, among many other draws, a Ritz-Carlton hotel, an art gallery designed by Tadao Ando, and last, but by far not least, stores that are a cut above the usual expensive and exquisite high-end mall fare. Lucien Pellat-Finet cashmere is here, along with Issey Miyake's Pleats Please; Via Bus Stop, which offers a carefully curated selection of European brands, is in the house as well. Best of all, Muji, a Japanese chain with a worldwide cult following, has merchandise here you can't find at any of their other stores.
This brand-new retail neighborhood—the bulldozers are still at work—is located near Tokyo's main train station and has a Blade Runner-ish appeal. Unfortunately, while trees entwined with little pink lights provide some softening, the long expanses lined with shops still have the feeling of a somewhat soulless concrete plaza. Nevertheless, most shoppers seem perfectly happy to board the glass elevators that whisk them between destinations, from Diesel to Bottega Veneta, from Harrods to YSL.
Togo Shrine Market
There are many flea markets in Tokyo, but on the last Sunday of every month, the grounds surrounding the Togo Shrine are transformed into a terrific antiques market. Not only is the physical setting lovely, but the goods invariably include obis, vintage kimonos, antique dolls, trunks, and other wonderful collectibles. And when you're through with the market, you're a stone's throw from Aoyama, where you can revisit Comme and Yohji and Issey and have yet another espresso at the Anniversaire Café.
3-5-30 Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/5411-5988.
Glassarea Aoyama, 5-4-41 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/5468-3547.
APC Surplus Store
1-25-1 Aobadai, Meguro-ku; 81-3/3719-2921.
A Bathing Ape
5-5-8 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/3407-2145.
E-204, 17-5 Daikanyama-cho, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/5459-0085.
20-3 Sarugaku-cho, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/3477-7909.
Colour By Numbers
20-23 Daikanyama-cho, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/3770-1991.
Comme des Garçons
5-2-1 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/3406-3951.
1-14-11 Aobadai, Meguro-ku; 81-3/5459-1747.
5-5-1 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/5778-3717.
3-6-1 Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/3406-1021.
Yamada Bldg., 5-6-18 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/3486-6488.
1-11-6 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/3475-0411.
Le Café Doutor
Ginza Green, 5-7-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/5537-8959.
Liquor, Women and Tears
5-3-10 FROM-1st, Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/5778-4380.
3-17-11 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/3401-2301.
2-4-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; 81-3/5218-5100.
10-1 Daikanyama-cho, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/6805-6286.
Scenic Sekine Bldg., 6-28-4 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/3406-6978.
2-4-12 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3562-3130.
19-11 Daikanyama-cho, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/5428-5080.
4-12-10 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/3497-0310.
Oh Bldg., 5-3-25 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/3499-3333.
15-1 Udagawa-cho, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/3464-5111.
Per Gramme Market
Mori Bldg., 1-6-5 Kami-Meguro, Meguro-ku; 81-3/3760-3777.
1-6-5 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/3497-0379.
5-2-6 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/6418-0400.
1-7-2 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/3478-0287.
6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku; 81-3/6406-6000.
109 2-29-1 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/3477-5111.
11-1 Sarugaku-cho, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/5728-2897.
Tie Your Tie
6-13-26 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/3498-7891.
Togo Shrine Market
Togo Shrine, 1-5-3 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; last Sunday of each month.
9-7-1 Akasaka, Minato-ku; tokyo-midtown.com.
1-6-5 Kami-Meguro, Meguro-ku; 81-3/3715-9278.
Apiadaikanama 101, 26-7 Sarugaku-cho, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/3462-7471.
5-3-18 Bleu Cinq Point C, Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; 81-3/3407-1232.
16-17 Utagawa-cho, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/5728-8431.
1-23-5 Aobadai, Meguro-ku; 81-3/5773-5586.
4-5-11 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3562-2111.