Travel

By Kelley Granger

The night lights of Ginza
Source: http://www.3deearts.com

Which came first, glamour or the Ginza?

It was 1872 when the Shiseido Pharmacy opened up in Tokyo’s storied Ginza district and modeled itself after a western style apothecary. Founder Arinobu Fukuhara was keen on forward-looking ventures – after visiting the States, he adopted an American drugstore-esque soda fountain and also introduced an unusual commodity to the Japanese – ice cream. Shiseido defied the conventional with its early product line – in 1906, they debuted two brands of skin-toned face powder at a time when white face powder was the prevailing product. As Japan began to turn an eye to the west, Shiseido was already ahead of the curve.

It’s no wonder that such an avant-garde company would be based in an area that is just as vibrant and thriving as they are. Imagine a cosmopolitan, futuristic shopping haven with cutting-edge architecture and glitzy neon lights that illuminate the night – that’s how Derek K. Ong, luxury travel manager at Absolute Travel (http://www.absolutetravel.com), describes Japan’s Ginza district. New Yorkers, think a 5th Avenue and Times Square hybrid, a fantastical nighttime light display coupled with some of the best shopping around.

“This is where Tokyo’s wealthy come to see and be seen,” Ong says. “Ginza is the oldest and most recognized area for luxury fashion in Tokyo and is considered the most prestigious area to shop. For visitors, it’s a great place to people-watch.”

The dining area of the Shiseido Parlour
Source: http://www.shisedio.co.jp

Ong says the highlight of Ginza is its general atmosphere – the social scene, structural design and fashion. “The area is as much about the boutiques and shops as it is about galleries and restaurants,” he says. “Some of the luxury stores, like Hermes and Christian Dior, were designed by renowned international architects and are very unusual.” Also not to be missed is the Shiseido Parlour, a stylish fine-dining cafe inside the Shiseido building that began as the old pharmacy’s soda fountain in 1902 (today it serves American fare). For more of a local culinary influence, you don’t have to go far from the shopping. “Some of the best local cuisine in Tokyo can be found in the food halls of posh department stores, like Mitsukoshi – you can browse and sample local delicacies, sweets and seasonal snacks,” Ong says.

The faà§ade of Hotel Seiyo Ginza, a Rosewood Hotel

If you want to make like a local, make your way to the Hotel Seiyo Ginza, where Ong says the neighborhood women take a break from the stores for afternoon tea. “Take a cue from the locals and join in this tradition,” he says. Ong also recommends the hotel for an overnight stay, as it’s the only luxury, boutique-style accommodation in Ginza that’s in the heart of the action. For more information on the hotel, check out: http://www.seiyo-ginza.com.

But before you hop on that plane for your 14 hour direct flight, consider hiring a private guide for at least a portion of your stay. “Japan is one of the safest countries in the world and some aspects of Japanese culture will be familiar to Americans – but generally things work very differently there,” Ong says. Unlike so many other places Americans visit, he says few people speak English and the signage is in Japanese. Not only that, but local transport can be hindered by a complicated subway system too. “A local guide will help you get where you want to go, assist with ordering food and show you the best shopping spots,” Ong says. “Guides can basically introduce you to many aspects of this fascinating city that you might not otherwise find.”

If you’d rather have at it alone, by all means. Just make sure you practice this phrase:

“Sumimasen.”

(Translation: “Excuse me.”)

Originally published May 2008
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