Is it possible to enjoy a business trip to a place you've been to 16 times before? Yes, if you're fashion designer Cynthia Rowley and are bound for Tokyo with your husband and daughter—and a yen for soba noodles, hipster shops, and fun
We touched down in Japan the day Princess Sayako surrendered her throne to marry a commoner. The sacrifice she made for love was straight out of a fairy tale and cast a romantic glow over our four-day stay. Although I'd already made 16 trips to Tokyo—I actually have more stores in Japan than in the United States—this was the first time I'd brought along my older daughter, Kit, who's seven, and my husband, Bill, who's a writer. When I go alone for business, I work nonstop: approving fabric swatches, fine-tuning designs to better suit the overseas market, crunching numbers. This time, I aimed to have some fun as well.
DAY 1: A LOOONG RIDE
As anyone who has traveled to Asia can attest, after being trapped on a plane for 14 hours, trying to entertain a small child—and limit TV viewing when a flat-screen is this close—well, it's a minor miracle if you disembark with your sanity. And, in our case, things went from bad to worse. At customs in Narita Airport, we were informed that my daughter's passport had expired (oops!) and that we'd need to straighten out the necessary paperwork at the American embassy before leaving the country. (Note to parents: kids' passports are good for only five years.)
After checking into our hotel, the members-only Uraku in posh Aoyama, we opted for a swim in the penthouse pool (an extra $25 for the pleasure). They made Bill cover up the dollar-sign tattoo on his left arm with gauze before we entered the gym area (tattoos are strongly associated with the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia), and I was none too crazy about the granny swim cap I was required to don. Kit, on the other hand, was happy as a clam, splashing around in this rooftop aquarium. We then showered, unpacked, and called it a night. Our pediatrician had said that if Kit couldn't sleep we could give her a nip of Benadryl, but it felt too much like slipping her a shot of whiskey.
DAY 2: THE VIEW FROM 52 STORIES UP
Once we'd fueled up at the new Dean & Deluca outpost—cappuccinos for Bill and me and a fruit cup for Kit—we took a cab to Roppongi Hills, a honeycomb of high-end hotels, museums, stores, and restaurants. We explored Roku-Roku Plaza, home to an enormous Louise Bourgeois cast-iron spider (aaaahhh!), before heading 820 feet skyward in Mori Tower to Tokyo City View, its observation deck. Pressed up against the glass, Kit immediately spotted Tokyo Tower, the red replica of the Eiffel Tower, which she recognized from her favorite book, Madeline. I pointed out a patch of treetops in the distance—the Imperial Palace grounds, where Emperor Akihito and his family reside in a castle surrounded by a moat. It was like Cinderella come to life for Kit, this idea of a country where royals are real, taxis have little doilies on their headrests, and everybody bows to each other.
The thrills continued one flight up at the Mori Art Museum, which always has something interesting on display. Imagine a blue-chip gallery atop the Empire State Building and you'll know what this experience is all about. Art was my major in college, before I fell into fashion, and Bill and I are avid photography collectors; searching for new talent on the contemporary scene is always a big part of travel for us. Here, we checked out the gallery's retrospective on Hiroshi Sugimoto, the celebrated Japanese photographer known for his lonely images of blank movie-theater screens. Kit loved his photos of wax figures that look so lifelike you'd swear they were alive.
Returning to earth, we hopped on the sleek underground Metro and headed for the Imperial Palace's East Garden, where Kit ran willy-nilly across the serpentine paths and lush lawns. She said the gardens reminded her of New York's Central Park: a wooded sanctuary plopped down in the middle of concrete and steel giants. (Isn't it funny how, even in childhood, we look for ways to make the places we stumble across relatable to the ones we know?) But there's nothing back home like Japan's crooked black pines, which are called kuro-matsu—they look like something Dr. Seuss would have dreamed up. You really know you're out of your environment when even the foliage is alien.
Whenever we travel, I stash granola bars and loose crayons in my purse. I also try to have the addresses of a couple of toy stores on hand, in case Kit starts to melt down (read: needs a bribe to forge on). Kiddy Land, right across from hipster Cat Street, is full of high-pitched squeals, spinning wheels, and busy hands. We ripped through its five stories faster than you can say "Tamagotchi" and left with a doll whose head is shaped like a tofu cube. We continued on to the Ginza district, Tokyo's Fifth Avenue, and came across the flagship store for Uniqlo—the Gap of Japan. My husband got a bright-green cashmere V-neck; Kit picked out a pair of pink cords and fuzzy, snow-white mittens. Kit also got a beading set at our last stop, Hakuhinkan Toy Park. Back at our hotel room, she melted the beads together with a hair dryer.
DAY 3: FASHION, ART, AND EDAMAME
I had to squeeze in some business—an appearance at Isetan, a humongous department store much like Bloomingdale's or Macy's. It's where I have a boutique, one of my 40 Cynthia Rowley outposts in Japan. I design kidswear for the Japanese market—something I'm hoping to get into soon in the States—so it was very fun picking out a faux-fur vest and deer-print dress for Kit.
Before returning to the hotel, we backtracked to Nadiff Gallery, an art-and-photography bookstore near Omotesando. You can't miss the yellow door frame out front. Steps lead down to this underground lair, which has a café and lots of anime and Murakami paraphernalia (stickers, plastic figurines, pens) to keep the children occupied while Mom and Dad browse the coffee-table tomes. Bill and I happily came away with a Matthew Barney book from his Drawing Restraint series, hard to get in the States.
My Japanese partners treated us to dinner at Gonpachi, dubbed the White House because of its eggshell exterior. They boast that George W. Bush ate at this fortress of traditional food when he came to town, but we were more impressed by the stylish interior design. It looks like the set in Kill Bill in which the Crazy 88's attack Uma Thurman: open kitchen, 30-foot ceilings, wraparound mezzanine, wooden everything. While you wait for your table, you can watch them roll and cut soba noodles by hand in the front window. Soba and edamame, it turns out, were about the only native dishes we were able to get Kit to try. There was no way she was going to eat a shrimp tempura roll (yuck!). So much for all those palate-expanding nights that I fed her salmon-skin rolls when she was a baby.
DAY 4: HOW DO YOU SAY "MICKEY" IN JAPANESE?
On our last full day, we made good on our promise to take Kit to Tokyo Disneyland, just a 15-minute ride from Tokyo Station on the Japanese Rail. Kit was psyched that she was finally tall enough for Space Mountain, and it was utterly surreal to hear Donald Duck singing in Japanese. Otherwise, all the rides and stores were nearly identical to what you would find in Orlando.
I guess it really is a small world, after all.
Asakusa View Hotel
Located in Asakusa, one of Tokyo's historic districts. Request a traditional tatami-floored suite; they're roomy enough for families and just steps from a rooftop garden and wooden soaking tubs. (3-17-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku; 81-3/3847-1111; viewhotels.co.jp/asakusa/english; tatami suites from $370.)
Keio Plaza Hotel
In Shinjuku—a centrally located neighborhood—the Keio Plaza has a seventh-floor open-air pool and kid-size Japanese robes and slippers; upper-floor rooms have fantastic views. (2-2-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; 81-3/3344-0111; keioplaza.com; doubles from $205.)
Tokyo City View and Mori Art Museum are here, in Mori Tower. Minato-ku; roppongihills.com`.
6-1-9 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/3409-3431.
5-7-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3569-6781.
Hakuhinkan Toy Park
8-8-11 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3571-8008.
4-9-8 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/3403-8814; nadiff.com.
1-3-11 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; 81-3/5771-0170; gonpachi.jp.
Tokyo Disney Resort
Take the JR Keiyo Line to Maihama Station. Urayasu-shi, Chiba; tokyodisneyresort.co.jp.
Site of Cynthia Rowley's biggest Tokyo department store boutique. Toshima-ku; 81-3/3981-2211.