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Tokyo Travels

21_21 Design Sight - Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo tour from a design and art lover’s perspective — by Natasha Jochman.

One of my favourite movies is ‘Lost in Translation’, but I was actually mildly disappointed when I went to Japan for the first time in August 2013 to find that nothing was in fact lost in translation (everyone was so helpful!) and I didn’t experience a whiff of culture shock. That said, that was the extent of my disappointment – in all other aspects, from the architecture, galleries and museums, to the fashion, product designs, fabrics and food, Tokyo wowed me and exceeded my already high expectations. Here’s a whistle stop tour of my art and design favourites.

‘Insight and a discerning eye are essential in design’ is the welcome statement as you enter 21_21 Design Sight in Roppongi, situated in a stunning low-rise structure perfectly representing Japanese design aesthetic – combining ground breaking technology with a beautiful concept. The roof is a huge slanting triangle of folded steel, that gently slopes down to the ground — inspired by a piece of folded cloth!

My background is in textile design, and it was here that I ‘experienced’ one of my favourite exhibitions of all time: Colour Hunting, directed by Dai Fujiwara. One of the design centre founders/directors is Japanese textile and fashion designer Issey Miyake, and the centre puts on exhibitions, talks and workshops focusing purely on design from a more exploratory perspective. The exhibition beautifully balanced tradition and technology with quirky video installations, natural dye studies and interactive elements where visitors could take part.

21_21 DESIGN SIGHT Exhibition "COLOR-HUNTING" directed by Dai Fujiwara.

21_21 Design Sight. “Color – Hunting”, Exhibition directed by Dai Fujiwara

The design centre is located in the sleek, modern district of Roppongi (literally translated, it means ‘six trees’). Home to embassies, nightclubs and a large shopping centre, it is here that I stumbled across another highlight, Aoyama bookstore, which stays open until 11.30pm every night and commands a prominent spot on Roppongi Dori. The selection of design and art books here is truly extensive, covering anything and everything, with most titles written with Japanese and English translations.

After such new, contemporary approaches to design, I was eager to see a more traditional overview of Japanese art and design, so I visited the oldest and largest museum in Tokyo – Tokyo National Museum (TNM) in Ueno. If you have limited time, this is a great place to head as the TNM boasts a huge permanent collection of over 600 calligraphy, sculpture, decorative art and archaeological pieces and artefacts, all under one roof. The museum is situated in Ueno Park, which used to be the grounds of the Kaneiji Temple, one of the city’s largest and wealthiest in the capital. The park is also home to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, National Museum of Western Art, Ueno Zoo and National Museum of Nature and Science.

From the TNM, I took a short walk north to Yanaka Graveyard, a peaceful place to stroll around, with many of the tombs elaborately decorated. You can also visit the grave of the last shogun of the Edo period, Tokugawa Yoshinobu. The contrast with the 24/7 buzz and noise of the surrounding city was refreshing.

Famous for the crazy, unique fashion style based on Manga characters and anime, I spent a couple of hours people watching in Harajuku. The main street leading up from the station is always busy with groups of young people hanging out and ‘dressed to impress’ (more accurately, dressed to shock and make a statement!). The long boulevard between Harajuku and Omotesando stations is lined with fascinating shops and boutiques selling quirky clothes and accessories. Don’t miss Tabio Sock Shop – I love the designs here, ranging from cutesy to playful and sophisticated. Who knew socks could make such a design statement?


Harajuku – Tokyo, Japan

Venture away from the crowds and into the backstreets, and the atmosphere calms and the crowds thin – these higgledy piggledy streets feel a far cry from the city and are home to the city’s creatives who go about their work in studios, small independent galleries and boutiques. One such place is Design Festa, a unique venue to see young artists and designers at work in their art studios. There’s also a café and bar at the back – a great place to refresh and relax and mingle with the younger crowd.

For a slightly pricey yet very special designer dinner suggestion, head to the Shangri La hotel’s signature restaurant, Nadaman, on the 29th floor, with spectacular panoramic views of the city. Everything from the seven-course chef’s special Omakase on the Kaiseki menu was beautifully presented, with delicious, refined flavours, and we washed down each dish with some specially selected Fukuju Saketini – sparkling sake.


Even a trip to the shops provided unexpected inspiration! If you’re like me and love homewares, especially textiles and ceramics, definitely make sure you visit a Japanese department store. I loved Isetan in Shinjuku, a vast store spread out over eight buildings! Head straight to the 5th floor in the main block to find items designed by local designers and artisans, plus you’ll find an extensive range of interior homewares, fabrics and an art gallery featuring well known (and less known) Japanese brands. If it gets too much, take a breather on the roof terrace.

There’s no shortage of stationery shops in Japan, but if you’re a fan of paper then head to Itoya in Ginza to check out the vast collection of traditional handmade paper (washi) and writing paper, as well as conventional stationery, tools for Japanese calligraphy and origami.

A final tip: If you still haven’t found gifts and souvenirs to take home for friends and family, then for antiques, art and well-priced kimonos all under one roof, head to the Oriental Bazaar in Harajuku (there are several other locations around the city).


21_21 Design Sight
9-7-6 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Tel: 03-3475-2121

Aoyama Book Store
6-1-20 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Tel: 03 3479 0479
Open: Mon-Sat 10am-11.30pm, Sun & hols 10am-10pm

Tokyo National Museum
13-9 Ueno Park, Taito-ku, Tokyo, 110-8712, Japan
Tel: 03 5405-8686 (Domestic Calls)

Design Festa
Gallery EAST/3-20-2, Jingumae,Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0001
Gallery WEST/3-20-18, Jingumae,Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0001
Tel: 03-3479-1442

Tabio Sock Shop

Ito-YaItoya Stationery Store
3-7-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku,
Tokyo (temporary location) Transport Ginza Station (Ginza, Hibiya, Marunouchi lines), exit A13
Tel: 03 3561 8311
Open: Mon-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 10am-7pm

Isetan Department Stores
3-14-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo

Nadaman Restaurant
Shangri-La Hotel (Tokyo Station)

Oriental Bazaar
9-13 5-chome Jingumae Shibuya-ku Tokyo, 
150-0001 Japan
Tel: 81-3-3400-3933
Open: 10am-7pm; Closed: Every Thursday

Text and photography by Natasha Jochman.
Natural Born Vagabond™, November 2013

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