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THE TIMES SHOPPER

ASIA-PACIFIC ISSUE: ENCHANTMENTS OF THE FAR EAST : He's Sold on Tokyo Stores

April 28, 1991|MARK HORN | Horn is a New York free-lance writer.

TOKYO — Men don't usually like to shop, and I am no exception. So when I travel, the last thing I want to do is visit a department store. Sometimes, however, it just can't be avoided.

On my first trip to Tokyo, I found myself one morning on the way to a business meeting in desperate need of a necktie. I emerged from Ginza Station right in front of the Matsuya department store just in time to see them opening their doors for the day's business. I dashed in, hoping to get out quickly with a suitable tie--only to be stopped by the shock of being greeted by several hundred uniformed, white-gloved employees bowing in my direction.

" Irrasshaimase, " they all sang out in one voice.

Was I the one-millionth customer to come through the door? Was I going to win a trip to New York?

"They're saying welcome," my associate, Hiroshi, informed me. "They do this every morning to the first people who come in. After all, we're the customers."

I chose a tie quickly and the salesman, intuitively understanding what I wanted, tied it into an exquisite knot as I rolled up my collar. Clearly this was a city where I could really learn to enjoy shopping. The only problem was where to start.

In the area around Tokyo's Shinjuku station alone, you can stop at the Isetan, Marui, My City, Mitsukoshi, Keio, Odakyu, Halc, My Lord and Lumine department stores. There are at least as many stores in the Ginza and Shibuya districts as well. In this highly competitive atmosphere, the Japanese shopper has come to expect superior service at the very least. No wonder all the employees bow. But for the Japanese, service isn't enough to bring them through the door.

"With so many stores to choose from, we have to do more to attract people," says Yoichi Matsuyama, assistant manager of Mitsukoshi's central operating office.

So Mitsukoshi, and other leading Japanese department stores, have turned themselves into destinations people want to visit and spend time at instead of just places in which to shop.

The best place to start a visit to one of Tokyo's department stores is at the bottom--the basement food floor.

"We don't really compete with supermarkets," says Mitsukoshi's Matsuyama. "We sell things you won't find there--the finest imported foods, the best of the season."

That's an understatement. A department store food floor is a United Nations of gastronomy.

A walk down one of the aisles at Matsuya Ginza's food floor engages every sense. Open barrels of pickled vegetables cry out in bright hues. The salespeople cry out as well; these gourmet markets are the only place in a department store where the staff is pushy--they invite every passer-by to sample the daily specials: spicy Parma ham, lusciously juicy New Zealand star fruit, rich Austrian pastry. In fact, the food floor is Tokyo's secret free lunch--if you don't mind eating just a little bit of everything.

If you're willing to pay for a whole meal, you can have that, too. Generally located on the top floor of each store, you'll find a variety of restaurants, each specializing in a different cuisine. Of course you can eat traditional Japanese favorites such as tempura or sushi. But you'll also find Italian, French, Russian and Chinese restaurants. Lunch at these restaurants is a bargain, with complete set meals for as little as $9.

For light eating, it's more fashionable to go to tea. At the Isetan department store in Shinjuku, young "office ladies" meet over scones at Babbington's. At Mitsukoshi, elegant housewives arrive in chauffeured limousines for high tea at the Harrods Salon.

And yes, when you're finished eating you can actually shop at these stores. In fact, at Isetan, you can pretend you're shopping on Fifth Avenue in New York. Along one aisle you can stop at branches of Cartier, Ferragamo and Gucci. At Mitsukoshi, you can shop at their branch of Tiffany's.

If it sounds as though the Japanese have money to spend, you're right. The Seibu Department store in Ginza offers everything from investment-grade wines from France to investments on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. You can buy gold, silver and other commodities, including real estate in Japan or abroad.

Of course, when you're in Japan, the last thing you want to shop for is something you can get at home. The things to shop for in Tokyo are traditional Japanese goods. At Matsuya, you can find lightweight cotton kimonos in a variety of indigo patterns for about $20. At Seibu, the Japan Creative department offers modern interpretations of traditional Japanese lacquerware. You can buy a set of five chopsticks for about $8, or a small bowl for as little as $10.

Nowadays there may be nothing more traditional than electronics--and at any store you'll find high-tech toys that have yet to be introduced overseas. The latest offerings include a laptop hi-fi VCR that folds up into a briefcase for only $1,200. Remember, though, not all Japanese electronics will work in the States. It's best to make your purchases at export-only shops.

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