Live the sweet life and (window) shop like Japan’s wealthiest in Aoyama, home to Omotesandō, Tokyo’s very own Avenue des Champs-Élysées.
If you’re feeling extra fancy and looking to treat yourself with some major retail therapy, or if you just want to know how the top 1 percent of Japan live, then Aoyama is the place for you. It’s got all the top international and local fashion brands, trendy independent retailers, museums, a jazz club, cafés, global cuisine restaurants, the outer gardens of the famous Meiji Shrine, and a cemetery worth visiting, all wrapped into one.
You’ll feel like you’re in a giant art museum, surrounded by all the beautifully designed architecture and overpriced pieces of luxury. But even if you’re like the rest of us plebeians, Aoyama is just as welcoming and enjoyable to the 99% of the population who can only afford to shop there with their eyes.
It’s a 5-minute subway ride from the Shibuya Station. Simply take either the Ginza Line or the Hanzomon Line bound for Oshiage (SKYTREE) and alight at Aoyama-itchome (1 stop). It’s also around a 40-minute walk if you’re feeling adventurous or if you get carried away and spend all your money shopping there. If you’re coming from Shinjuku, take the Toei Oedo line to Roppongi and alight at Aoyama-itchome (1 stop). It will take you around 50 minutes to get there by foot.
Places to See
Omotesandō initially served as the main road leading to the Meiji Shrine during the Taishō era and literally translates to ‘frontal (omote) approach (sandō)’. Nowadays, it’s primarily known for Omotesandō Hills, a shopping haven where you can find all of the top local and international high street to haute couture fashion brands against a lush, picturesque landscape. As a self-proclaimed shopaholic myself, I find that what sets Omotesandō apart from all the other luxury shopping districts around the world is the service. Yes, it is only logical to be provided with top-level customer service given the prices that these items command and this is consistent in every country. But Japan is different because you get the same level of service regardless of whether you purchase a tiny keychain, go on a full on a shopping spree, or not buy anything at all. They treat you the same way no matter what you’re wearing, how old you are, or what country you’re from and it’s refreshing, to say the least. Here, no one pressures you to do anything, so you get to fully enjoy the experience whether you intend to buy something or just want to look around… and don’t forget to look up because the architecture of these buildings are equally as stunning!
This modular marvel of glass encased in steel beams, panels, and mesh, forming rectangular parallelepiped units stacked in an irregular pile is a befitting location for the world’s biggest fashion brand. Designed by architect Jun Aoki to represent a stack of their iconic LV trunks, it somehow manages to be a work of art in itself without taking focus away from the merchandise. The upper level also hosts art exhibits and adds another dimension to the overall shopping experience. Dare I say that this store beats out their iconic Champs-Elysées counterpart and I say this for a very unusual reason. Call it fate, but after a whole day of window shopping, a full bladder led me to the most pleasant surprise. In the country at the forefront of lavatorial technology, they take it 10 notches further, touching on the realm of art. The modern woodblock pattern that continues from the walls to the ceiling make you think that you’ve entered an oak room, but the sinks give its identity away. The toilet bowl has all the bells and whistles, even the ones you never thought you needed. It was a throne in every sense of the word. I am very much aware of how strange I am sounding right now, but I seriously recommend paying this comfort room a visit if ever you’re in the area and the need arises.
Upon first glance, the Dior building doesn’t look too remarkable. It’s essentially a trapezoidal glass building made of glass. But if you know Dior, then you know that there’s more to it than what its simple appearance lets out. The building really comes to life at night, as it was designed with an inner translucent acrylic skin, curved to mimic the draping of a garment, and embedded with fiber optics that illuminate the different floors in different intensities and create the illusion that the entire structure is floating. Pritzker Prize laureate SANAA (Japanese architect duo Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa) made clever use of light while maintaining the clean and classic aesthetic of the brand. Another unique feature of the Dior building would be their employment of a separate designer for its interior. The clean layout with digital projections of floral patterns on the walls is New York-based interior designer, Peter Marino’s modern take on the traditional feminine elegance of the fashion house.
Taking inspiration from the zelkova (elm) trees that line Omotesandō, Toyo Ito’s organic curved concrete design borrows from its surroundings while enhancing it at the same time. Its green-tinted glass windows fill its interiors with light and also reflect the foliage outside, creating an ever-changing facade.
We can learn a lot about the meaning behind the building’s design by understanding the definition of its name. According to the dictionary, a gyre is a spiral or a vortex it was named this way because it was intended to be a structure that embodies the individuality of the businesses that occupy it and creates a welcoming atmosphere for the public—reeling them into the space like a vortex. Its layout also pays homage to the Spiral Building by Fumihiko Maki and Tadao Ando’s Omotesando Hills, as well. Personally, I think that The Gyre perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Omotesandō, creating cutting-edge modern architecture with a soul.
Designed by Dutch architects, MVRDV (with significant input from Takenaka Corporation), the retail complex is supposed to look like a stack of 5 boxes, rotated on a common axis to create terraces that are accessible from the outside. The Gyre is home to Chanel, Maison Martin Margiela, Bulgari, the first Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Design Store outside of New York City, a hair salon, and a number of restaurants that serve local and international cuisine.
Some Places to Eat at The Gyre:
- Ukai Tei: A Michelin starred teppanyaki restaurant, grilling fresh, locally-sourced ingredients with a French twist.
- Bianca: A spacious Italian restaurant with an outdoor terrace overlooking Omotesandō. Their Lunch Set Meals are a great deal at around 1,300 yen.
- Smoke Bar and Grill: Try out their grilled steak and smoked chicken and if you’re a big group, they offer rates of 1,500 yen per meal. Meat-lovers, rejoice!
- Cerfeuil: This gourmet grocery store has a wide selection of preserves, jams, and pickles among other regional Japanese food products that are difficult to come by elsewhere. This would be a great place to find a special souvenir or gift for foodies with the most discriminating tastes.
130 shops (and 38 apartments) inside a sleek building designed by Tadao Ando on a 250-meter stretch of land with a $330 million budget, this shopping attraction that houses high-end boutiques of luxury brands from all over the world is only for the deepest of pockets!
Even those who aren’t patrons of the brand will still be able to appreciate the architecture of this $80 million dollar, 6-story glass masterpiece designed by renowned Swiss architects, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.
Spiral Building (Wacoal Art Center)
Designed by the acclaimed Japanese architect, Fumihiko Maki, and inspiration behind The Gyre, the Spiral Building is a multi-purpose space filled with restaurants, art exhibitions, and cafés. It gets its name from its impressive giant spiral staircase and its open-plan layout. Right at the lobby, you’ll also find a pop-up retail event for everything from traditional Japanese crafts to the latest trendy sneaker. Don’t miss out on the Spiral Market, a lifestyle store that carries both classic and contemporary Japanese (and international) designs that allow you to fuse art into your everyday life.
Although the origin of this (cat)chy name is unclear, one thing’s for certain: Cat Street is where all the cool cats are. Originally named Kyu-Shibuya-gawa Yuhodoro (Old Shibuya River Pedestrian Lane) or Yuhodo for short, this famous backstreet goes all the way from Harajuku, crosses The Gyre, and continues as a pedestrianized street to Miyashita-koen intersection in Shibuya. It’s got the trendiness of Takeshita Road with the sophistication of Omotesandō, minus the horde of tourists… it’s in the Goldilocks zone, the perfect middle ground between the two extremes and a personal favorite of mine. Shop one of a kind vintage gems, trendy street style pieces, or classic tailored garments. Cat Street has got a little of everything. After spending a few hours walking around, my top 2 go-to places for a quick snack would be Daihachi Takohanamaru for Osaka-style Takoyaki or octopus balls (500 – 550 yen) or Luke’s Lobster for Maine-style seafood rolls (950 – 1,600 yen), depending on how much money I have left.
Harajuku Gyoza-ro is a really popular and affordable gyoza (Japanese dumpling) place, as well. Given its equally amazing taste and price point (300 yen for 6 pieces), you’re going to have to wait in line for it. From what I’ve gathered, though, it’s well worth the wait! They have a vegetarian option too, and that’s always a plus!
Laforet is a department store for everything a hip young Japanese person would need (and want). It has 13 floors of over a hundred shops, selling items at every price point from relatively-affordable local brands to high street fashion like Vivienne Westwood. What’s nice about this department store is that they carry a lot of independent Japanese labels with cutting-edge styles. They don’t just sell clothes, though, and they sell stuff for men too. If you’re visiting on either late July or January, be on the lookout for their biannual Laforet Grand Bazar Sale and you’re bound to score an unbelievably awesome deal. I heard that some items are discounted by up to 90%! After an hour or two in here, you’re bound to need a break from all the chaos, and they’ve got you covered with a selection of food establishments on the second floor and even a Laforet Museum of art music and culture on the sixth floor.
Don’t let the name fool you because Kiddyland can bring out the inner kid in anyone. This four-story paradise for kids and kids at heart is packed with all sorts of dolls, toys, character goods, and kawaii items. With its vibrantly painted walls and cheerful music on blast, you won’t be able to miss it if you tried!
The United Nations University (UNU)
If you’re dropping by Aoyama on a weekend, it would be a good idea to get there early in the morning at around 10 am for UNU Farmers Market held in the university plaza just outside Omotesandō Station (it usually lasts until 4 pm). With over 40 stalls of fresh, organic, and local products mostly grown by farmers in the Kanto region and a variety of reasonably-priced food trucks to choose from, it’s no surprise that it’s one of Tokyo’s longest-running and highly-attended weekend markets. Did I mention that you can sample the food? They also host events (like the Coffee Festival) from time to time, which is always a lot of fun. You can get a head start at shopping because some stalls also carry antiques and vintage clothing. Overall, the Farmer’s Market is a good place to relax and chat with the friendly locals, even if you aren’t planning on buying anything.
Ota Memorial Museum of Art
This homey museum with a collection of over 12,000 ukiyo-e woodblock prints is located near the Harajuku Station. Although 12,000 sounds massive, the museum only exhibits around 70 –100 select pieces on rotation (including works by Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, Ukiyo-e masters), so people don’t get overwhelmed or lose interest midway through and there’s always something new to see. Ukiyo-e roughly translates to ‘pictures of the floating world’ and this collection was owned by a very generous man named Seizo Ota, whose dying wish was to share it with the public.
Ukiyo-e is indeed a beautiful Japanese art form and if you’re interested to get to know more about it, check out their website because they occasionally hold lectures and even offer grants to people who are seriously interested in it. They have a Japanese-style rock garden where you can chill out and enjoy the ambiance. The shop in the basement sells tenugui (traditional hand-dyed, thin cotton towels), so you can take a little piece of art home with you. Be prepared to take your shoes off before entering the museum, by the way!
Aoyama Reien (Aoyama Cemetery)
I know it’s quite strange to start with a cemetery, but hear me out… If you look beyond the fact that it’s a cemetery, you’ll realize that it’s quite a scenic spot. Being Japan’s first public cemetery, it has a wonderful mix of grave styles and is an unexpectedly beautiful place to view cherry blossoms during spring. Fans of Hachiko (I mean, who isn’t?), the world’s most loyal dog, will be happy to know that his actual resting place is here, as well.
Killer-dori (Killer Street)
Speaking of death, follow your cemetery visit with a stroll down this killer road, which fortunately pertains more to the millennial term slay rather than the legal term murder (which is never a good come-on for any place). Shop for trendy and more affordable streetwear in this area that’s been around since the 1970’s.
Blue Note Tokyo
Be transported to the 1920’s New York and enjoy live music from the biggest names in jazz. Blue Note Tokyo is a branch of the legendary jazz club and seats around 300 people. These show-stopping performances do come at a price, though. Be prepared to shell out around 6,000-10,000 yen per ticket before food and drinks. It would be best to just grab a drink or two while you’re there, so you get to fully appreciate the music without much distraction. For reference, a beer would cost you around 700 yen, so you’re better off eating somewhere else beforehand.
The museum is aptly named after the man who started it all, Kaichiro Nezu, the former President of the Tobu railway. Looking through this 7,000-piece collection of paintings, sculptures, pottery, textiles, bamboo crafts, and tea ceremony artifacts, it’s incredible to think that this all started off as one man’s personal collection and has slowly expanded through kind donations from other private collectors. Mr. Nezu had a particular interest in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony and so a highlight of this museum is its charming tea ceremony house in a garden surrounded by ancient stone statues.
In the spirit of all this grand, drop by the Chokokuji Temple next door to stand in awe before a statue of the Buddha that’s over 10 meters tall. Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum Not to be confused with the Taro Okamoto Museum of Art in Kawasaki, the Taro Okamoto Memorial Museum was the original home and studio of the beloved avant-garde artist of the same name. Go see this museum and peek into the beautiful mind of this creative genius and his one of a kind works.
Restaurants and Cafés
Yasaiya Mei Omotesandō: They specialize in Kyoto-based dishes and source their ingredients from 50 farms across the country. Although they serve mostly vegetable dishes, they also have meat and fish options too.
Aoyama Flower Market Tea House: A pleasant retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city, this greenhouse-turned-teahouse is a great place to unwind and people watch while enjoying a cup of tea and French Toast.
Bills Omotesandō: This restaurant that originated from Australia is insanely popular for their breakfast dishes.
CICADA: A must-try Mediterranean restaurant with a café, a bakery, and a pool! There’s lots of menu items to choose from, but their bestsellers are the pasta sets and mezze Platters.
Brown Rice by Neal’s Yard Remedies: A highly-rated restaurant with a wide range of great-tasting, healthy dishes.
Napule: An award-winning pizzeria that serves authentic Italian dishes with organic ingredients imported all the way from Italy. The pizza is cooked in a kiln especially handcrafted for the restaurant, as well.
Golden Brown: A popular burger joint where the Australian beef patties are made fresh daily.
Café Kaila Omotesandō: A local branch of the award-winning Hawaiian pancake shop is always packed with people. If you can, try out their famous Kaila Original Pancake made with fresh fruits (bananas, berries, and oranges), which is limited to only 300 orders a Day.
- Meiji-jingū (Meiji Shrine): Tokyo’s grandest Shinto shrine
- Yoyogi-koen (Yoyogi Park): a peaceful retreat to relax and unwind
- Harajuku: iconic hub for Tokyo street fashion
- Takeshita-dōri (Takeshita Street): the bustling, crowded, energetic main shopping street of Harajuku where you can find everything from crazy street fashion, accessories, and cosmetics, to delicious sweet or savory crepes, giant rainbow cotton candy, and trendy snacks
- Kawaii Monster Café: Experience the zany side of Harajuku on steroids and attend a themed night for a psychedelic sensory overload so intense that you think they spiked your coffee!
- Design Festa: Be inspired by the DIY art of various artists in this labyrinthine Harajuku landmark and chat with one of them, if they happen to be there.
Come and visit Aoyama and discover its vast wealth of culture, art, fashion, food, and elm trees!