“I’ve been going to Japan for 20 years now – we’ve had a store in Tokyo for the past 11 – but it’s that first visit, and the immediate feeling of familiarity, that I still remember. I think I must have been Japanese in a past life; I connected so quickly with its people and culture, and their respect for tradition and honouring whatever it is in front of them – whether that’s fashion, food, ceramics, woodwork or architecture – in the most dignified, respectful way. As a designer, I’m always looking to reframe context and find new ways of looking at the familiar, so in Tokyo, for me, it’s like creative feasting. The one thing to always expect is the unexpected.
The first thing to do on arrival is head straight for a bowl of thick, chewy udon noodles because it is like soul food, it comforts and settles you. Menki Yashima has been around for 40 years, located in a very nondescript building, but as you take your place on one of its 12 seats, you start to understand Japan right away. You’re surrounded by the owner’s collection of toys and kitschy posters, which have nothing to do with the udon they serve. It says everything about the charm of Japan and putting things together in such a contradictory yet harmonious way. The first time our Japanese partners brought me here, it was like, “Wow, welcome to Japan.”
After noodles, I would say head to the New York Bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt for a dirty martini, and let the day fall into the night. The thing about the Japanese is that whether it’s cooking a steak or mixing a drink, they do it to the nth degree; they’re scientists about it, and here is no exception. If you’re actually staying in the hotel you’ll always get a good night’s sleep, thanks to its legendarily comfortable beds. You really get that Bill Murray moment from Lost in Translation.
Tokyo, for me, is all about shopping, looking at art and wandering the streets of different neighbourhoods. You can buy incredible vintage fashion pieces because they’ve scoured the globe and then curated them in a way that’s just the best-of-the-best. J’antiques, in the Nakameguro neighbourhood, is like a luxury boutique but with an eclectic array of vintage. But for the best in designer vintage, head to Laila – whether it’s beautiful Chloé pieces from the Karl Lagerfeld or Phoebe Philo eras or 1980s Thierry Mugler, the taste level is super-chic. It’s pricey, but the quality is immaculate.
By complete contrast, H Beauty & Youth in the fashionable Aoyama district is an intriguing multi-brand shop where independent fashion and streetwear labels, both local and international, mix in with a pizza parlour and a vintage store. It’s a multi-level, multi-sensorial experience and a great place to tap the local zeitgeist.
The craftsmanship in Toyko – and all across Japan – is unparalleled. And it’s everywhere. At Utsuwa Gallery’s Chidori ceramics shop, the hardest thing will be figuring out how to bring all the beautiful pieces back in your suitcase. Look for the rough, earthy Bizen ware plates and bowls in very natural hues. Bizen ware has a wonderful weight, which lends real nuance and taste to food; even the sound when you scrape the bottom of a bowl or plate with your fork becomes part of the eating experience. And there is an amazing florist and plant shop in the Harajuku district called Fuga, where you can be inspired by incredible presentation; not just flowers but the way they can transform even the most common household plant, with a little bonsai help, into beautiful forms.
A visit to the basement of the Isetan Shinjuku Department Store is a must because it has to be the most beautiful grocery store in the world. It’s in an elegant 1930s building, recently modernised but still with old-world charm, just a few blocks from Shinjuku Station. Everything is picture perfect and heaven for a foodie like me (I published a cookbook, More Than Our Bellies, with Viviane Sassen earlier this year). Here you’ll find bento boxes and sparkling sake mixing with the finest European chocolates or green yomogi (Japanese mugwort) bagels. The Dashi stock powder, green tea and traditional wagashi Japanese sweets in incredibly pretty packages are the things to take home.
For lunch, head to Bondy, where they serve only the very best Japanese curry, and go early to avoid the queues. It’s tricky to find – the entrance is on the second floor of a second-hand bookshop in Jimbocho – but it’s one of those secret institutions filled with locals. Order the Japanese boiled potatoes with butter, chicken curry with steamed rice, and finish with a tiramisu. Very schizophrenic, but that’s Japan for you. For the ultimate in traditional Japanese cuisine, there is Sushi Hiroo Katsura, only 12 seats at a beautifully lacquered bar, run by a sushi master and his wife. You’re never given a menu – he simply looks at you, looks at your party, then serves you whatever he thinks is best. And Kanetanaka (although it was designed by Hiroshi Sugimoto, so the mood is ultra-modern) has a similar approach to ever-changing, seasonal menus. At both restaurants you just sit and say thank you as you’re served the very best of everything they do. If you think you’ve already had really good sushi, come here and think again.
When you need a break from sushi, go to An Di, which does an exciting modern Japanese take on Vietnamese cuisine. My parents are Chinese, but I was born in Thailand and I grew up in a Vietnamese community, so I love coming here and ordering familiar dishes that actually taste completely different – summer rolls made with lotus root, mushrooms, shiso leaves and seasonal clams with a ponzu dipping sauce, or banh xeo crêpes, which are more like open tacos, filled with sashimi meat and seasonal herbs. The sake-laced broth can leave you a little tipsy too.
Tokyo also inspires with very good art. The National Museum of Modern Art in Kitanomaru Park hosts a permanent collection and also showcases modern Japanese artists, but each artwork will be deeply rooted to Japanese culture in some way, no matter how modern it is. Like with a surrealist painting, the subject will be Japanese not European; or you’ll recognise the history of Japanese calligraphy in the brushstrokes of even an abstract piece. Taka Ishii Gallery has the latest and most interesting young artists, and it provides a great gauge for what’s happening on the local art scene in Japan. I travel a lot and I’ve always been a fan of the in-between, the journey not the destination, so going to a gallery like this and appreciating different disciplines is a key part of the continual creative learning experience.
But Tokyo is as much about the old as it is the new. There is nothing anywhere else like the experience of walking through the Imperial Palace’s beautiful park surrounds, which is home to the Emperor. In such a crowded, congested city, it is remarkable; despite the palace being located so close to the city’s financial centre, the gardens are absolutely pin-drop quiet. You never hear a car honking its horn. It’s so quiet you can hear the leaves rustling.
Nearby is the Palace Hotel Tokyo, which is classic and timeless in a five-star western-style luxury hotel kind of way. It’s right across from the Palace, and has beautiful views. Where the Park Hyatt Tokyo is a bit sexier, more designed and discreet, the Aman Tokyo offers yet another perspective on a Japanese hotel: it’s pared-back and stunning. It’s also a great place to go for its Italian restaurant, Arva. Like everywhere you go in Japan, because they obsess about getting everything absolutely right, this is one of the best Italian restaurants you will ever go to in the world.
For a deeper perspective on Tokyo, I would actually recommend a break from its buzz. You can catch a train or drive about an hour and a half outside the city to the Odawara Art Foundation, established by Hiroshi Sugimoto in 2009. The building is set into the landscape of the Hakone Mountains, overlooking Sagami Bay, and every view is like looking at one of Sugimoto’s photographs. It’s quite an experience – classic and modern, and with contrast and contradiction executed in such a harmonious way. I might not speak Japanese – I’m too shy to try, but I can read body language so I get around that way – but I certainly share this nation’s language of always searching for balance.”