Aman Tokyo, a street scene, and the Meguro Dori.
Travel Destinations

‘It’s like Recto but safe:’ An eclectic Tokyo itinerary for the design-inclined

From their version of Las Casas to the restaurant Kill Bill was shot: design geek Enrico Suarez, a Tokyoite for the past three years, sketches an itinerary that will allow us to see this metropolis like it’s the first time.
Enrico Suarez | May 28 2019

“I must warn you, I don’t think I am the best person to say what good design is and what is not,” says Enrico Suarez who, you have to take our word for it, is being totally modest about his eye for design. We asked him to give us a design itinerary of Tokyo where he has been living for three years while working in the marketing team of a giant international brand. The guy also deejays, by the way, hosts parties, and creates pieces for the cool Filipino indie clothing brands @sometimessocialtokyo and @theartisanclothing.

Our Tokyo guide Suarez is also a DJ, a party host, and founding member of The Artisan Clothing.

“I’ve come across some very random, quirky, and peculiar places that I feel would not be at the top of the list for a first-timer in the city, but would be great for someone who wants something different.” The number of times most of us have been back to Tokyo, we think we’re ready for just that: a change of places to stay in, cafes to discover and bars to explore, among other things. Kix, as we like to call him, calls it “a list of unpopular suggestions.” We’d like to call it a rundown of places we’ll penciling in on our to-visit list the next time we’re in his side of the woods.

What does Kix love most about living in Tokyo? “Wow, that’s tricky,” he begins. “Maybe it’s the nooks and crannies. I like to walk. I pick a station and just walk around and I still constantly get surprised by my neighborhood and places I think I already know from being here the past three years. The fact that an upscale natural wine bar can be beside a fetish bar amuses me. It’s like that Pinoy expression: Lakas ng trip.” His choices of destinations for the design-inclined is a trip all its own. So we’ll let him take over.  

 

Other destinations in Japan:

 

THE 3-DAY TOKYO ITINERARY

Day 1: Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

Think Las Casas but with modern Japanese architecture. The Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum. Photograph from Nesnad on Wiki Media Commons

Japan is a city that is always a couple of minutes ahead into the future but it’s also very refreshing to see that it has put great value in its heritage. An hour away from Shibuya by train, The Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum is a must-see, at least for people willing to get out of the big city. The museum has relocated, reconstructed, and preserved some of the most important buildings and structures of the 17th to the 20th century that were designed by various prominent families and  influential Japanese architects who established Japan’s Modernism Movement. Think Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar but with Japanese modern architecture thrown in to the mix.  It takes a day to get through the 7-hectare property so I suggest you don’t commit to any other plans that day.

 

Day 2:  Naka Meguro, Meguro Dori, Daikanayama, Ebisu

Start your day at Breakfast Club, a wonderful cafe, restaurant, and bar at night that serves up traditional Japanese and diner fare. The place may not look like much from the outside to unassuming passersby but the beauty of Breakfast club is in its details: You’ll know you’re at the place because of the Eames bench they have out front on the side street. Order a cup of coffee that they pour into vintage McDonald’s Fire King mugs from the 70’s. Easily locate the bathroom with the comfort room sign hand-painted by Barry McGee. Read the Tom Sachs staff reminders on the bathroom walls as you wash your hands. See custom-made signs hand-painted by Alex Ross. On the way out to the next spot, pick up some Breakfast Club merch designed by Sk8thing, Olympia Le-Tan, and other known contemporary artists.

The beauty of The Breakfast Club is in the details. Photograph by Enrico Suarez.

Meguro is not just lined with cherry blossoms in spring. The main stretch of Meguro Dori is a chair and furniture geek haven. The whole strip is lined with interior shops that sell both new and antique furniture from Japan and all over the world. Looking for first edition mid-century modern furniture? They are available in abundance and in very, very, good condition in numerous shops in the area. It’s easy to get lost and spend hours just ogling at the amount of merchandise.

A furniture haven: Meguro Dori. Photos by Enrico Suarez. 

If you end early, head over to Daikanayama T-site. Named as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, it was built with the idea of creating “A Library in the Woods.” Get lost in their wide collection of magazines, art books, and more. For dinner, try Ivy Place the restaurant at the center of the complex. 

End the night with drinks at Bar Martha. A discreet record bar tucked in a quiet street in Ebisu. Look for the sign with the word “bar” and records that lean against a wall.

 

Day 3: Roppongi, Azabu Juban

Roppongi has had a reputation for being Tokyo’s red light district –the place where international bankers and expats go to play after work. It wasn’t always the case. Tokyo Midtown in Roppongi was envisioned to be the center of design and culture in Japan. The area is scattered with facilities like 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT, Suntory Museum of Art, The National Art Center, and the Mori Art Museum. They are all walking distance from each other. These places showcase different works by a wide variety of designers, artist, creators, and the like. Yearly, an art festival is held and the whole place is taken over by installations and different activities everyone can enjoy for free. (If you’re in Tokyo this week, the next Roppongi Art Night will be held on May 25 this year.)

The National Art Center is located in an area for arts and design. Photograph from Wiki Media Commons

For dinner, the popular go to would be Gonpachi, the set of Kill Bill’s restaurant scene, also a favorite among celebrities. I, however, suggest Bunon, an old renovated Japanese house not far from Gonpachi, that serves mainly Japanese Izakaya food. Here, they pair dishes with natural wine—a fun break from the usual beer or highball. The menu is in Japanese but they are more than happy to walk you through it. The trick is to ask for the omakase and have them recommend the wine to pair for each dish.

The set of Kill Bill's restaurant scene. Gonpachi, Ginza. Photograph from the Official Website

A visit to Bar Gen should not be missed. The bar is a welcome reprieve from the cramped and loud bars that are scattered everywhere in the city. In this bar, the centerpiece is the bar counter that only sits eight, and made with a single piece of wood that is said to be 500 years old. The decor is minimal so as not to take away from the drinks that Gen Yamamoto crafts and serves himself.

Suntory Museum of Art. Photograph from the Official Website

 

Where to stay

The Japanese’s dedication to service and hospitality is unparalleled. The natural thing to do for any traveler is to book a hotel and I don’t blame them. Places like Aman Tokyo, The Park Hyatt, and The Ritz Carlton are easily some of the most luxurious and easily accessible hotels one can stay at. And while hotels are never a bad choice, there are more interesting accommodation options in the city. Hoshinoya Hotels, for instance, a Japan-based Ryokan operator that started out in Karuizawa, Nagano has a lovely outpost in Tokyo. The hotel’s concept was to imagine Japan if it continued to modernize without the influence of the West; to take Japan’s traditional design elements and bring it to the present. The result: a beautiful oasis in the middle of Otemachi’s Financial District, equipped with an onsen, tatami mat floors, Shoji screen doors, and a central lounge – a key concept to bring the “small ryokan” feeling into a building complex — on each floor where you can help yourself to complimentary refreshments and snacks.

Aman Tokyo. Photo by Enrizo Suarez

If the full-on luxe is too intimidating, there’s always Trunk, the new Ace Hotel-inspired hotspot situated in the heart of Shibuya/Omotesando where all the creative set come and hang, or stay on their quick trips to Tokyo.

Hoshinoya, Tokyo. Photograph from the Official Website

For those who prefer AirBnb type accommodation, there’s The Reversible Destiny Loft. A wild card suggestion but, if you want the trip to count, might as well try your luck at securing a short stay in one of the apartments. These apartments designed by the Architect/Artist couple Arakawa and Madeline Gin look like playgrounds with candy colored walls, spherical rooms, ladders and poles.

Trunk Bar. Photograph from the Official Website

 

The Pasalubong Line: Ginza Line

Spiral, Omotesando.

The last day should be dedicated to a little shopping for souvenirs and pasalubong. The Ginza Line has proven to be the most convenient as it stops at all the popular shopping destinations such as Ginza, Omotesando, Aoyama, and Shibuya. Cibone and Arts and Science are easily two of the most notable. Their great focus on beautiful products from clothes, fine crafted Japanese home ware, and furniture have made them go-to places for Tokyoites to see thoughtful home improvement and gift ideas. If you don’t have time to spare, located in the same general area is Spiral, a convenient one-stop art complex to do all the last minute shopping before your flight out.