An Ordinary Day in Paradise – Tokyo post-tsunami

STREET SCENE REV

Visiting friends from the U.S. are looking for handmade Japanese mulberry washi for gift wrapping. We begin the day at Ozu Paper in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi district. My friends had anticipated a five-minute shopping stop before they realized that washi comes in hundreds of different textures, colors, weights and styles. After about an hour, they settle on enough paper to insure striking and sumptuous-looking gifts for a long time to come.

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Nearby, we make a quick stop at the seven-story Itoyah store in Ginza, truly the Nirvana of stationary enthusiasts, and wade through every kind of note pad made, racks of different fine point pens and clever nifty gadgets. Itoyah is located next to architect Kuma Kengo’s superbly designed Tiffany’s flagship store on Ginza’s main drag, an architectural must-see. Though my friends are impressed with the multi-faceted glass façade of the building, their attention soon shifts back to one of their objectives for today’s excursion. They want a handbag by a Japanese designer, Hiroko Hayashi. After browsing around, they find a very simple bag of obvious originality, quality and finish that is asymmetrically designed. Compared with big name European designer bags in the neighborhood, the Hiroko Hayashi bag is surprisingly affordable and completely unique.

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We next take the subway on a brief trip to Musee Tomo for a solo show of ceramic artist Suzuki Osamu, Japan's Living National Treasure in the field of Shinoware. This small, privately owned museum is an esthetically designed with a minimalist display space and superb lighting of works. Though tempted to stay for dessert in the all glass restaurant overlooking a Japanese garden, we opt for a short taxi ride to Tadao Ando’s 21_21 Design Sight, an internationally acclaimed space, for an exhibition of Shiro Kuramata and Ettore Sottsas, two of the world’s leading designers of the late 20th century.

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After a light lunch at a small, back ally bistro, we walk over to the Axis Building, a center for design. In addition to Savoir Vivre, a shop/gallery of contemporary lacquer, ceramic and glass functional ware, we pop into a shop on the same floor with fine crafted Danish lighting fixtures then downstairs to a store featuring originally designed kitchen ware. After dropping one more flight to the architectural book store, we are ready for our main destination across the hall. Yes, Axis is home to the renowned Nuno Studio, the textile design group recognized by the international fashion and interior designer world for their innovation and sensibility. After checking out their line of all original, finished clothes and accessories, my friends opt to buy cloth from a roll. For a small extra fee they have the edges finished to create a scarf. Though Nuno supplies scarves to the New York MOMA museum shop, the selection available here at their Tokyo shop is enormous in comparison.

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Roppongi district has changed more in the last seven years than probably any major city district on earth. The once aging and frayed bar and club district has been transformed into a center of cutting edge architecture, cuisine and art. There are four new art museums within a seven minute walk of each other. We take a short cut through the Galleria to the Life and Design Store, a furniture and house ware store specializing in fine designed products, all made in Japan. The owners of this company support local crafts people and small business. Though cheap offshore made goods are plentiful in Japan, a significant number of people here still retain centuries-old skills, passed down over generations. Many young people are working hard to support what could be the most extensive existing craft tradition left on earth.

From here, a ten-minute walk brings us to author Amy Katoh’s Blue and White, in Azabu Juban, one of Tokyo’s more intimate neighborhoods featuring shops, cafes and galleries catering to local residents. Blue and White is like a salon for established and budding artists, craftspeople and collectors, as well as for newcomers to Japan who are trying to find their way through one of the world's largest and most exciting cities. It has created a much needed international forum for a generation of creative people to share their work. In addition to the carefully chosen works of textiles, ceramics and paper crafts, much of the draw of the shop is Amy's warmth and enthusiasm. We all buy a traditional indigo towels decorated with messages in supporting tsunami victims with proceeds going to the relief effort.

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It is getting late as we arrive at the Roppongi Crossing intersection to dine at Honmura-an. For me, it is a special restaurant as it is run by Koichi Kobari, a third generation restaurateur who ran the very popular branch of Honmura-an in New York’s Soho district for 18 years. To everyone’s delight, he returned to Japan a few years ago to take over his family’s Roppongi branch. After a handsome, minimalist interior make-over by Koichi Hara of San Francisco’s Japonesque Gallery, the restaurant reopened and offers contemporary Japanese cuisine. Koichi is a great host, often seen moving from table to table to chat with guests, many of whom are regular customers from the neighborhood and part of the design, fashion or art world that congregates in Roppongi. We go for the a la carte menu, relying heavily on Koichi’s suggestions. The combination of innovative food, great functional ceramics and lacquer ware and the quiet, upbeat atmosphere make this one of my favorite restaurants in the city.

It is only 7:30 pm when we finish our relaxed supper, so we head over to the Mori Art Museum located in the Roppongi Hills, an area considered to be one of the world’s finest examples of urban renewal. Seven years old, this multi-billion dollar project is home to Asahi TV, an all weather, high-tech outdoor performance stage, a 5-star hotel, residential towers, an office tower, a cinema complex, high end shops, restaurants and a restored, 17th century samurai’s garden. Today, the Mori Museum features work of artist Yukihiro Taguchi who combines elements of drawing, performance, animation and installation in his work. I continue to be awed by the extent of the Mori’s exhibitions.

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Roppongi, like much of Tokyo, is alive at night in pubs, bars and cafes. Jazz is bigger here than in the U.S. It is about 9:30pm when we get out of the museum show, so we grab a quick drink in a café bar featuring piano jazz and end the day with a short subway ride back to our hotel.