Soaking up the sensory overload of Tokyo’s famed shopping district
The simplest act of crossing the street takes on a whole new meaning in Tokyo’s busiest district, Shibuya. Under the glare of countless advertising screens and neon signs, hundreds of people swarm to the perimeter of the famed intersection every few minutes in anticipation of the inevitable mad dash across. Welcome to Shibuya.
On the southern side of the hectic crossing lies Shibuya Station, one of the busiest in the city. Immediately outside the station is Hachiko Square, a favourite meeting and loitering spot for Tokyoites and tourists alike, and home to the most photographed object in Japan: the Hachiko statue. Providing inspiration for multiple movies, mangas and even video games, the fabled story of Hachiko the dog is as engrained into Japanese culture as after-work karaoke and sleeping on the subway.
The story begins back in 1924, when a professor at the University of Tokyo took in a golden brown Akita as a pet. Over the following years, the pair would develop a routine in which the dog would greet his master at Shibuya Station at the end of every working day. However, one day in May 1925, the professor suffered a fatal cerebral haemmorage, never returning to the station to meet his dog. Hachiko reportedly continued to return to the station to every day for nine years to wait for his master’s return.
This year marks the 80th birthday of the Hachiko stature, its original version was erected in 1934 with Hachiko himself present at its unveiling. Thousands pass by, pat and pose next to the country’s ‘faithful dog’ every day. Everybody from young trendsters wearing funny little hats and lens-less spectacle frames; inebriated businessmen rushing for their last trains home, confused backpackers studying oversized street maps; to young couples meeting for their first date. Hachiko has seen it all.
Yen well spent
Across the road from Hachiko Square lies a labyrinth of shops and boutiques where you can while away the hours fingering through the height of Tokyo fashion. If luxury brands are on your wish list, then take a stroll northeast from Shibuya Station along Aoyama Dori to the upscale shopping avenue of Omotesando. Often referred to as ‘Tokyo’s Champs-Elysees’, Omotesando Avenue is lined by beautiful green Zelkova trees, and beyond the leaves you’ll find ranks of flagship luxury stores, many boasting incredible feats of architecture, such as the glass-meshed Prada Aoyama and Tod’s organic, tree-inspired boutique.
If the ‘everything-under-one-roof’ style of shopping gets you going then the giant department store Hikarie will keep you busy, for days. Opened in April 2012, the 34-floor Shibuya Hikarie (hikarie.jp.en) offers shops, art galleries, restaurants and even a 2000-seat musical theatre. The project was initiated to bring back sophistication to Shibuya shopping after the district had become a playground for teens and youngsters in recent years.
The eclectic fashion stores that have become so synonymous with Shibuya over the years are still going strong, however. You only have to step into the Shibuya 109 department store (shibuya109.jp) to be overwhelmed by brightly coloured garments, shoes, accessories and toys – basically everything a teenage Japanese girl needs to stand out from the crowd. But Shibuya fashion is forever changing according to Yuzuru Nakamura, a visual merchandiser for Forever 21: “People don’t wear the same things for long; they mix a variety of fashions to create their own style”, she says. “Neon colours and 1980s fashion are hot among youngsters at the moment, they love their crop tops and skinny bottoms. But soon it’ll be something else.”
For souvenir shopping, make your way through Center Gai – a narrow street which serves as the nucleus of Shibuya assault on the senses. Pass by the persistent pings of Pachinko parlours and the ever-so-cute pet shops and make a beeline for Udagawacho, where you’ll find department store Tokyu Hands (tokyu-hands.co.jp), the largest household goods store in Tokyo. Throughout its seven floors you’ll find everything from origami paper pot plants to talking toilet seats. For gifts that you won’t find anywhere else, this place wins hands-down.
Chewing the fat
For the uninitiated, eating in Tokyo can be as daunting as it is delightful. Food is everywhere, but English signage and menus can be rare. Luckily, the ever-inventive Japanese often use plastic replica display dishes to entice customers into their restaurants. A phenomena that started as early as the 1920s. sampuru – deriving from the English word ‘sample’ – dishes have come an art form over the decades, with workshops available on how they’re made and sampuru-making competitions regularly held.
Grabbing sushi from a conveyor belt or ordering ramen by pointing at a pretend dish certainly makes life easier, but it isn’t exactly a sociable or immersive experience. For this, find an izakaya. Found in abundance throughout Tokyo, and usually spotted by a red lantern, or akachochin, hanging outside its doors, the izakaya is Japan’s answer to the British pub.
Traditionally shops where customers can sit inside while drinking sake, izakayas have become the go-to establishments or after-work drinking, eating and socialising. Here, patrons will typically come in groups or settle onto a solo bar stool and chew the fat with a bartender-cum-cook who will keep the sake flowing and yakitori grilling until it’s time to stumble into a taxi home.
One such place is Yakitori Tetsu (Tel +81 3 3462 7262), found on the second floor of the Miki Building in Dogenzaka, just around the corner from Shibuya station. The second you enter, you’ll be engulfed by the sounds of sizzling yakitori and a chorus of ‘kanpai’ (‘cheers’ in Japanese).
Its welcoming manager Xiaofeng Gao, a Chinese native who moved to Tokyo four years ago, thrives on his izakaya’s ambience. “I love the restaurant’s atmosphere – I can chat with customers, prepare delicious food for them and see the satisfaction on their faces,” he says. “It feels even better when I eat the food myself. Our house special is the chicken ovaries, but chicken hearts are the most tasty.”
Like Shibuya itself, you’ll find that everything happens at once in an izakaya – sit, drink, eat, chat, cheers! But, take a moment to soak it all in, you’ll never want to leave.