Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ginza, Ginza

Hey hey, Ginza! As someone was saying to me just last night, it's always high on the list of places that people want to go when they visit Tokyo. I'll flatter myself by saying that I'm an experienced Ginza visitor, and from that dubious position of expertise I'll also say that I think most visitors don't get good value from Ginza. Not just in the monetary sense, although it's all too easy to get bad value-for-money food and drinks in Ginza, but in the fun sense. Since I had a fun Saturday afternoon, I thought I'd share it to give any visitors (or indeed Tokyo residents) a few quirky ideas for things to do in between shopping and dining.

First, just over Ginza's northern border into Kyobashi, there's a pen store that I've always wondered about. It's near international grocer Meiji-ya (you may know the Roppongi store; I think Ginza may be the original), and right next to the Kyobashi metro stop (Ginza line). Saturday morning while cycling I saw that the pen store now said 'museum and cafe' outside, and resolved to go. Turns out that the museum is from Pilot corporation, and contains a timeline of pen development through the ages (bark, quills, fountain pens, etc., etc.), then this display of elaborately-decorated fountain pens. There are about 40 here, mainly done in various degrees of extravagance in the maki-e style, the thing where gold leaf, gold dust and paint are used to create intricate pictures on a lacquer base.

I was complaining mentally that it was a shame you can't get right up to the pens - even 2 or 3 feet away through the glass is too far to appreciate them properly. That must be why this nifty standalone computer is set up right in front of the display, allowing you to pick a pen, zoom way in on it, rotate it around, and simulate writing the Declaration of Independence with it (well...).

Incidentally, comparable pens can be bought new, just down the street at Ito-ya, for $3000 - $30,000.
In a vacant lot just into Ginza 1-chome, there's a popup, temporary Mini store. They have a bunch of cars to look at, mini-themed merchandise and also a little soccer field on the roof - some kind of World Cup tie-in. The girls working there are all wearing shirts that say 'Score with me'; that seems like a very cheeky modern British advertising strategy, and I wonder if it travels effectively. Do the staff or customers understand it?

Ever seen those tobacco stores in Ginza? I have, lots of times, but this one next to the Mini store is the first one I've been in. It smelled pleasantly pipe-y, and had a museum-worthy collection of smoking implements. If you don't find this quirky and interesting...well, there's plenty of other stuff.

One thing you should try to find is galleries - Ginza is absolutely full of quirky little galleries like this one, called Ippodo. They were a little bit under-development, so the koagari area was closed off with screens, but this selection of carved wooden miniatures by 25-year old artist Sakiyama Chisui was charming - minute attention to detail, quirky faces, etc. Illustrating one of the danger-points of Ginza, the individual pieces at left, and yes they're every bit as small as they look - mostly about the size of your thumb's first joint - each piece was 2 or 3 thousand dollars (prices on the site above if you click through). Fun to look at though!

Ippodo, incidentally, has a branch gallery in Chelsea, on 26th street between 10th and 11th. (You and I are both so worldly that we don't have to specify what city we're talking about, right?).

Outside, there was a big line for the Asahi Extra Cold Bar, a pop-up standing bar serving their flagship Super Dry at -2 degrees (as noted on the sign below the name). I grant you, beer served just below zero seems like a good thing, but waiting in line for half an hour at 30 degrees kinda destroys the benefit, doesn't it?

Saving the quirkiest for last, it's the new Abercrombie and Fitch Japan store.  I read something about this and sorta wanted to see it, but was put off right from the entrance and almost didn't go in.

When I last lived in America, Abercrombie was pushing the youth envelope but still had a bit of 'outdoor' heritage left - like L.L. Bean, but getting more hip all the time. I hear this store is a bit like the current concept they're using in America and Canadia, but more extreme. In a word, it's like a club.

The lighting is very, very dark, except spotlights on some of the merchandise. The music is very, very loud for a retail store, and is sort of generic 140-bpm bass-heavy, house. The smell is very, very strong - they pipe in their signature fragrance, but not in a subtle way. The staff is very young, and very hip, and all wearing matching Abercrombie. And dancing. And clapping. And singing. I kid you not, it's supposed to be a club atmosphere, and they're going for it. When you encounter a staff member, they say 'Hey, whats going on? Welcome to A&F!' but most of them don't speak English as a first language, so the last part comes out as a mumble. (Of course, the mix of foreign staff that they have is far beyond any other store you could visit, which is equally weird.) I had to ask the kid in the elevator what they were saying, and he apologized for his accent since he didn't speak any English aside from 'Hey what's going on'. The elevators are another great point - each floor is very small, so they're using all 13 floors pictured at left. But with only two elevators, they're made the efficient choice of not allowing people to stop at intermediate floors. We realized this around the 4th floor, and ended up trekking all the way to the top and taking the elevator down. Of course this let us fully appreciate the paintings on the walls all the way up the stairwell - mostly-undressed men in various locker-room poses. And taking the elevator down positioned us perfectly to see one of the resident models, who was standing just opposite when we landed, shirtless and flexing his massive pecs.

All of this sounds old and cranky, but I think you've gotta go see it. We tried to go to some other stores afterward, and it was strangely disorienting, like a complete absence of stimulation.  This is a very good writeup, done around when they opened (Christmas) with lots of pictures to get you some more atmosphere.

A lot of younger people don't like Ginza - it's viewed as an old person's destination compared to Shibuya, or I guess too upscale and staid compared to Shinjuku. Neither of these are unfair characterizations, but there are plenty of quirky and fun things to see, plus cafes and restaurants and bars, so consider making a day of it. Just plan ahead and be careful out there - danger to your wallet is never more than a doorway away.

1 comment:

  1. During the years, we stayed in different areas of Tokyo when we visit. When we were younger and lived in California, we flew in to Haneda using China Air (Taiwanese) and stayed in Shinbashi and Shinjuku. Later years after we moved to the East coast, we often stayed in Asakusa (View hotel was our favorite). Now, as any good American tourists should do, we stay in Ginza Marriott. The first day in Japan, we usually wake up around 3-4 in the morning and walk to Tsukiji Market to have a breakfast. We like Ginza but visited none of the places you mentioned. It is nice to know you are the self-appointed Ginza expert (among other things).