Glittering fashion boutiques? Check. Gourmet dining? Double check. But the Ginza area of Tokyo also has character and personality worthy of a day or two of exploration.
Ginza, Tokyoâ€™s premier shopping and entertainment district, has a well-founded reputation for being exclusive and eye-wateringly expensive. It certainly can be; after all, the area grew up around an Edo-era silver mint, and in modern times became an early symbol of the Japanese capitalâ€™s prosperity. But beyond its neon-lit boulevards, this 87-hectare pocket of central Tokyo is also an endlessly fascinating precinct of hidden bars, generations-old businesses, and quirky finds. The cityâ€™s principal kabuki theater resides here, as does a huge concentration of art galleries. Itâ€™s also a great place for strolling. The term ginburaâ€”or â€śGinza wanderingâ€ťâ€”was coined a century ago by flaneurs of that era, but it still has currency, as a day spent exploring these streets will attest.
Where to Stay
Hyattâ€™s millennial-minded Centric brand made its Asian debut last January with the opening of the Hyatt Centric Ginza (from US$400). Situated on Namiki-dori amid a stretch of luxury watch stores, the hotel is just steps from Ginzaâ€™s main shopping streets on a site formerly occupied by the headquarters of the Asahi Shimbun newspaper company. That heritage is referenced throughout the property in details like the type blocks used for room numbers and elevator foyers decorated with old typewriters and rolls of newsprint. Designer Yohei Akao, a Super Potato alumnus, has also incorporated the themes of fashion, entertainment, and Ginzaâ€™s urban landscape, which appears in map-like artworks and in the dense pen drawings by Kanagawa-born illustrator Nobumasa Takahashi that frame the windows of each of the 164 rooms and suites. There may be no spa, no pool, and little in the way of views, but thereâ€™s no better base for a full Ginza immersion.
Where to Eat
Youâ€™ll have to book way ahead to score one of the 10 counter seats at Sukiyabashi Jiro, whose three Michelin stars and international exposure in the 2011 documentaryÂ Jiro Dreams of Sushi have cemented its standing as one of the best sushi restaurants in the world. Tucked unassumingly in the basement of an office building near a Ginza metro station exit, itâ€™s just steps away from another Michelin-star recipient, Bird Land (B1/F, Tsukamoto Sozan Bldg.), an upscale yakitori joint where the chefâ€™s omakase (tasting menu) is the way to go.
Fresh produce and ingredients from metropolitan Tokyo star in the menu at Namiki667, the third-floor dining bar at Hyatt Centric. Here, French-trained chef Shingo Hayasaka slow-cooks his dishes in the open kitchenâ€™s quartet of baking ovens, producing perfectly roasted cuts of hay-smoked Akigawa beef, crispy conger eel beignets with curried ravigote sauce, and delicate crĂ¨mes brĂ»lĂ©es. (If the weather is nice, grab a seat on the terrace, which overlooks the action on the restaurantâ€™s namesake street.) For post-dinner cocktails, slip across the block to Bar Yu-Nagiâ€”ask the hotelâ€™s concierge to point the way. Itâ€™s a tiny, dimly lit basement nook where yukata-clad owner and bartender Toshiyuki Kamiki, who once worked at an agricultural cooperative, mixes his drinks with premium fruits and vegetables from local farms. His Bloody Mary, featuring plump tomatoes and Spanish sherry vinegar, is a standout.
For a memorable tea and food pairingÂ experience, book the private room at Higashiya Ginza, a sleek tea salon and wagashi sweets shop above Chuo-dori. Itâ€™s owned by designer Shinichiro Ogata, whose beautiful ceramic tableware can be purchased on-site. A tea master prepares the various pours of premium gyokuro (shade-grown green tea) as you look on, matching them to a four-course seasonal menu that might include miso-marinated yellowtail or duck breast with sansho pepper sauce.
Ginza is also home to some old-school coffeehouses (kissaten) that are worth seeking out for both their retro vibe and their yoshoku cuisineâ€”Western-influenced comfort food like curry rice and tonkatsu (pork cutlet). Kissa You, a compact 40-year-old cafĂ© located across the road from the Kengo Kumaâ€“designed Kabukiza theater, is among the most popular, especially with kabuki actors; try the omu-rice, a buttery, jiggly omelet served atop ketchup-fried rice.
Where to Shop
While the epicenter of Tokyo fashion has shifted west to districts such as Aoyama and Omotesando, Ginza remains home to the flagship stores of most major luxury houses, including HermĂ¨s, Bulgari, Gucci, Tiffanyâ€™s, and Armani. Youâ€™ll also find high-end historic department stores like Matsuya Ginza, which opened on Chuo-dori back in 1925. In need of sustenance? Grab some takeaway sushi or hand-cut soba from the basement food hall and enjoy it on the buildingâ€™s rooftop terrace, where a venerable Buddhist shrine solicits divine assistance for the fashion business.
A newer addition to the neighborhood is Ginza Six, a retail complex spanning two city blocks that comes complete with its own Noh theater, a big rooftop garden, a 12-meter-tall digital waterfall, and an excellent bookstore, Tsutaya, on the sixth floor. From here, a two-minute walk will bring you to Dover Street Market, the local outlet of the multi-brand concept store chain established by Comme des GarĂ§ons founder Rei Kawakubo. Expect plenty of avant-garde fashion and gallery-worthy art installations.
If shopping for pens and paper doesnâ€™t sound terribly exciting, thatâ€™s because youâ€™ve never been to Ginza Itoya, the mother of all stationery stores. First established in 1904 and now occupying a lean 12-story building, Itoyaâ€™s flagship outlet stocks leather-bound agendas, calligraphy supplies, a rainbow of fine papers, and an incredible array of writing instruments, including one-of-a-kind maki-e (laquerware) fountain pens that go for as much as US$30,000. And even if youâ€™re not in the market for a tailored kimono, head to Ginza Motoji for a look at the shopâ€™s exquisite selection of hand-loomed silks and linens from across Japan, including the snow-washed ojiya-chijimi fabric from Niigata that has earned a place on UNESCOâ€™s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. A few doors down, the owner also runs a studio dedicated to the weaving heritage of his home island, Amami Oshima; most days, you can watch an artisan clacking away on a traditional loom in the shopfront.
What to See
Beyond the glitz of its main boulevards, Ginza, like nearby Nihonbashi, harbors some venerable family-run businesses. One is Kobikicho Yoshiya, which has been turning out dorayaki (sweet red-bean pancakes) since 1910. Time your visit right and you can watch the baker hand-mix the batter and pour it in perfect little circles on the griddle. Also in the back lanes of east Ginza is Nakamura Katsuji, a fifth-generation letterpress workshop that anyone with a fondness for moveable type should visit. The unassuming two-story building alone is worth the detour; rebuilt after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, it survived the bombing raids of World War II, making it one of the oldest structures around.
Another is the Okuno Building (1 Chome 9-8 Ginza). Dating to 1932, this was once among the priciest apartment blocks in the city, with a telephone in every room and the cityâ€™s first manually operated lift. Since the last tenant departed a decade ago, the Okuno has morphed into a warren of more than 20 small art spaces that provide a refreshing alternative to Ginzaâ€™s numerous corporate galleries. Figuring out how to work the elevator is all part of the fun.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2019Â print issue of DestinAsian magazine (â€śGame For Ginzaâ€ť).