How Traditionalism and Modernism Coexist in Today's Tokyo
Emboldened by shifting cultural and artistic norms, Tokyo is playing with tradition like never before.
Today’s Tokyo is a clash of extremes. On one end, traditionalists guard centuries-old convention, wary of losing or diluting their cultural heritage in globalization’s wake. That devotion to authenticity applies even to imported products and practices: take the adoption of American heritage styles by Tokyo’s fashion set, or the wave of Japanese chefs besting Parisians at their own cuisine.
Yet one need only glance around the capital to see the opposite camp at work. The center of the world’s largest metropolitan area, Tokyo has long been a hypermodern hub for technological and cultural innovation. This is, after all, the birthplace of bullet trains, Nintendo, and the cosplay phenomenon.
Until recently, Tokyo’s two sides had remained distinct: ryokans and teahouses in one corner, capsule hotels and robot cafés in the other, and never the twain shall meet. But that’s starting to change, as some of the city’s forward-thinking creatives bring their quest for originality to the realms of traditional art, food, fashion, and hospitality. “Tokyoites are always looking for something different,” says city tourism representative Aki Hirai. “More people today are willing to break with tradition in order to explore new territory.” As the city prepares to host the Summer Olympics—and an influx of international visitors—in 2020, the transformation has shot into overdrive, with many shops and restaurants angling to show foreigners the modern interpretation of refined Japanese culture. While long-established customs remain steadfastly in place, there’s also an air of evolution about the town.
That’s clear at the Hoshinoya Tokyo (doubles from $780), the city’s first luxury highrise ryokan. The swank 84-room property, which opened last summer near the Imperial Palace, is a cross between a Japanese inn and a contemporary Western boutique hotel. Hoshinoya observes traditional ryokan customs, with guests treading barefoot on tatami mats in breezy yukata, lightweight summer kimonos. But rather than the typical floor cushions, guests lounge several inches higher on (remarkably comfortable) bamboo sofas. The beds are still low and Eastern-inspired, but with plush Western mattresses in lieu of futons. At the hotel’s restaurant, Japanese and French flavors come together in chef Noriyuki Hamada’s East-meets-West cuisine, a rare moment of high-end fusion in a city where culinary purism still reigns.
The style world has embraced the shift with remarkable flair. Avant-garde designer Jotaro Saito sells chic kimonos with color-streaked prints and embellished obis in his posh Roppongi Hills boutique. Though kimonos are typically reserved for special occasions, Saito’s designs—often made with nontraditional fabrics like jersey and denim—have everyday appeal. The 117-year-old glassmaking company Hirota, in the Sumida ward, uses old-world techniques to create unusual renditions of classic glassware, like sake bottles in the shape of kokeshi, Japanese dolls. And in the antiques-store-filled Nishi-Ogikubo district, Rozan gives experimental ceramics—silvery sake cups and fantastically shaped vases and dishware—equal billing with traditional pottery.
Few cultures approach food and drink with the solemnity of the Japanese, for whom even modest adaptations of culinary standards feel seismic. Popular mini-chain Afuri (entrées $9–$13), long praised for its delicate yuzu-spiked broth of chicken and dashi, made waves when it debuted vegan ramen—a rarity in Japan, where stocks are almost universally meat- or fish-based. The “farm-to-counter” bowl, anchored by umami-rich vegetable broth, is piled high with produce. Hearty noodles enriched with lotus root impart a heft akin to whole-grain pasta.
The change is even more apparent at Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience, which revamps Japan’s ancient tea ceremony from its glass-enclosed perch in the Omotesando neighborhood. At the bar, owner Shinya Sakurai and his team brew traditional and esoteric blends while taking their chosen medium to boozy new heights. The green-tea gin and tonic, infused with two kinds of sencha leaves, is a refreshing revelation—the tannic bitterness of the tea balances the gin’s floral notes. Splendid, too, is the theatrically poured matcha beer, a crisp Yebisu lager made extraordinary with a swirl of freshly steeped matcha, which lends an earthy note and a spectral hue to an otherwise standard drink.
Though Sakurai’s work is itself part of Tokyo’s changing landscape, even he is surprised at the popularity of his approach. “Sometimes I am too close to understand or know the value of what we do,” he says. “But we are making a new interpretation, and I think that appeals to Tokyoites.”