While Tokyoites - possibly the world's most dedicated shoppers - continue their long love affair with futuristic shopping malls and starchitect-designed flagship fashion stores, a new and innovative breed of small-scale luxury retail villages is proving popular with young and old alike.
These 21st-century consumers appreciate the combination of classic and cutting-edge shopping, dining and entertainment inside exceptional architectural design and interiors. The concept is a dramatic departure from mini-city-like malls such as Shibuya Hikarie, Tokyo's new 34-storey shopping centre, or the likes of Hong Kong's Times Square or Elements.
The first "village", opening late last year alongside a series of buildings designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Fumihiko Maki in upscale Daikanyama (renowned for its quirky boutiques and cafes frequented by Tokyo's wealthy), was Tsutaya's T-Site. The leading book, music and movie retailer is a household name throughout Japan - 35 million Japanese reportedly hold a T-points loyalty card for their 1,300-plus stores throughout the country.
Owner Muneaki Masuda, often referred to as Japan's Richard Branson, was convinced that the market would embrace a completely different retail experience that combined new technologies with traditional favourites, led largely by design. Faced with some opposition to his plans to fly in the face of evidence that traditional bookstores were struggling because younger customers had moved to online retailing, he decided to delist the company from the Tokyo Stock Exchange so as to retain complete freedom over the uncompromising quality of design and content of the Daikanyama project.
In less than a year T-site has won the World's Best Shopping Centres prize at the prestigious World Architecture Festival (WAF) Awards 2012 and been praised by the judges for "proposing a new direction combining retail with a social experience and integrating online retail with a tactile, physical experience".
The new-style retail environment combines three low-slung, elegant white pavilions connected via a "magazine street" and elevated bridge designed with a thoughtful integration of the interior and landscaped outdoors within a relaxed village-like setting. The "library-in-a-forest" design concept was created by Tokyo-based British architects Klein Dytham Architecture (KDa), who won the original keenly contested design commission from a star-studded list of 70 Japanese architects (including the likes of Kengo Kuma and Tadao Ando) thanks largely to their witty integration of the well-known eponymous brand's "T" in the T-inspired site layout, building shape and distinctive logo-perforated screen facade.
The project brief called for a range of design skills including architecture, interior, furniture and visual merchandising display aiming to define a new vision for the future of retailing. "We were not the favourites to win the design competition," recalls KDa co-founder Mark Dytham, "but integrating the brand into the very fabric of the site structure appealed to Muneaki Masuda, who immediately realised we understood what was at the core of the concept. He wanted to do something very different, particularly with the interiors where we worked closely together to create a new cultural experience."
The result is a fascinating showcase of Tsutaya's regular offering of art, design, fashion and travel books and magazines, together with a sleek new-generation Starbucks cafe, luxury convenience store and a jazz club bar lounge, all with a wonderfully curated but relaxed ambience that encourages visitors to linger a little longer over their latte or book. Masuda was particularly keen to create an environment that would attract the over-50 "premier-age" customer, hence the designers concentrated on creating a complementary blend of old and new, focusing as much on traditional print as on contemporary digital media, with RFID- tagged books and DVDs, iPads, DVDs burned onto discs while you wait, self-service check-out consoles, and efficient but unobtrusive people tracking. Sandblasted wooden flooring, retro leather furniture and an interesting selection of vinyl and classic artworks together with experienced staff - including a dedicated in-house travel concierge - set the stage for unique shopping outings.
Style is at the core of the concept. A hammered-steel central staircase created by Japanese craftsmen provides a statement entrance to the upstairs Anjin lounge bar and performance space with one of the best selections of vintage design magazines and books in Japan. There is a very definite retro feel here tempered with KDa's bespoke book-lined bar and tables that offer a refreshing blast of creative irreverence (Dytham says they have received numerous requests to recreate the unusual range of furniture).Elsewhere, KDa's custom-designed displays, such as floor-to-ceiling glass towers displaying beautifully crafted pens and Muji art director Kenya Hara's stylish graphics throughout, achieve Masuda's vision of laid-back but highly sophisticated shopping. T-site is also open from 7am to 2am daily, another unusual experience in Tokyo, where most stores open at about 11am and close hours before the subways stop around midnight.
Meanwhile, across town in another Tokyo suburb, music creatives Shinichi Osawa and Tadeshi Kobayashi's Yoyogi Village espouses a similar ethos of understated individuality and distinctive style, with an eco-conscious theme. The design-conscious duo turned to award-winning Japanese interior designer Masamichi Katayama of Wonderwall and "plant hunter" landscape designer Seijun Nishihata to create their vision of a modern eco-friendly shopping and dining oasis in the city. The result is an immaculately conceived secret garden in the city ('Yoyogi' means "generations of trees").
The sense of entrance is reinforced with a statement timber gateway set into a wall of glass and steel that opens on to an exotic central garden. A landscaped path winds past a Roots & Beat Coffee shop, travel agency, contemporary art gallery, and Pour-kur bakery offering stone-kiln-baked pizza made using home-made yeast from gastronomic favourite Pour-quoi restaurant in Shonan. Nearby, the Urban Research boutique specialises in "pre-organic" cotton clothing. All boutiques and cafes are housed in simple but inviting white-painted converted containers - a friendly reminder of the benefits of reusing resources. Further within the village is Code Kurkku restaurant, a collaboration between kurkku (a popular organic restaurant in nearby trendy Harajuku) and executive chef Yasuhiro Sasajima, whose Kyoto restaurant, II Ghiottone, has a devoted following thanks to its exceptional Italian organic cuisine with a Japanese twist.
One of the most exciting design elements here is a vast, dramatic vertical garden of green plants in Code Kurkku's entrance that creates a distinctly natural backdrop to the modern-meets-retro style Music Bar, which, as one would expect with musical founders, sports state-of-the-art acoustics and music selected by Osawa. Natural wood floors, double-height ceilings with pendant lamps, and a striking black cantilevered staircase that leads to an exclusive VIP dining-room play on rural Japanese architecture without once dipping into theme park theatrics.