Saturday, December 11, 2010

Retro design in Tokyo's Marunouchi district

Today we walked along the Marunouchi area to check out what's new in our old stomping ground. When we used to live in Tokyo, we were around the Hibiya-Ginza-Marunouchi area at least several times a week. Marunouchi was once the country's premiere business district and then the big recession in the 1990s happened and it slowly degenerated into a rather depressing nothing-land in spite of its prime location next to the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Station.

Then, ten years ago, developers started rebuilding this area and today it's become a really nice area of refurbished buildings and brand-new buildings with great restaurants and world-class food shops, and really cool stores. I particularly like the fact that there's lots of space in a city where overcowding everywhere is the norm. There are lots of people shopping and walking around Marunouchi, but you never feel it because everything is very well spaced out. For me, it's the one place in central Tokyo where you can actually swing your arms while walking and not have to fear hitting somebody.

Once very modern, but cold and boring

Marunouchi used to be all about glass buildings, in line with the trend in the past decade of ultra-modern lines and uber-cool industrial designs. These looked nice but, frankly, after a while everything started to look alike and become boring and cold. However, today, I was happy to note that Tokyo is finally rediscovering classic designs and a nostalgia for the old that was never there before. Retro is the new cool in this city, and uber-modern, it seems, is on its way out in favor of warm classic designs. Frankly, the latter seem more "human" to me.

Leading the pack is the Mitsubishi Ichigokan, a new building in Marunouchi created by Mitsubishi Estate that was made from scratch but was actually made to look old and very turn-of-the-century. Can you imagine that? After years of hyping up the new in this city of the frenetic modern, companies are now taking pains to make things look old. Or at least partially old. This building is a faithful reconstruction of the first office building in Marunouchi in 1894. Just like designs of the past, it has old-fashioned window sashes and pipes protruding from the walls. So uncool until last year, and so easy on the eyes this year. It stands out wonderfully amidst a sea of cookie-cutter glass buildings, for its warm colors and soft design.

Nostalgia is so "in"

Next to it, too, is the Marunouchi Park Building, a modern building with all the infrastructure of the 21st century but still with lots of nostalgia. Every restaurant in this building is full of retro design and nostalgia. When we walked in, there was an old-style Chinese restaurant and a brunch place with lots of colorful photos lacquered onto its very long bar. There was also a restaurant with comfy-looking leather chairs serving Hainanese Chicken Rice at a reasonable price. Perhaps, with the ongoing recession in Japan, everyone misses the good old days when things were easier and more optimistic?

Roses and green in the middle of Tokyo

But trust Tokyo to take things one step further and improve what they see. They've beautifully merged the old-looking and the new; and in between these two buildings, they've created an open-air space called the Ichigokan Plaza and ingeniously placed lots of greenery along walls and pipes so that no extra space is taken up but you now have a cozy garden in the middle of some of the most prime real estate in the most expensive city in the world. Forty kinds of roses are planted here, including the Charles Gater rose, the Her Majesty rose, Lady Mary Fitzwilliam rose and the Captain Hayward rose. These roses bloom from late May to early June, and then again from late October to early November.

They've also added lots of interesting cafes and restaurants, and food outlets. I was happy to find a lot of my favorite food brands from Europe (including Echire butter from France and Cacao Sampaca from Spain) with outlets here -- no need to travel to Europe for a food fix since most of the good stuff is now available in Tokyo! And even the restaurants inside the building were all about nostalgia and the good old days.

A food shop by Joel Robuchon,
one of my favorite restaurateurs

There's also a small outlet of Cacao Sampaca,
a great favorite of the Spanish Royal family,

conceptualized by Albert Adria of El Bulli.
I just love the chocolate ice cream
and hot chocolate to-go here.
They also have chocolates with varying degress of cacao.

My favorite French butter brand
just opened a shop in Tokyo
selling the most amazing croissants.
You can smell the goodness of their butter just from outside.

The croissants sell out fast.

Just some of the (pricey) retro goods
being sold these days in Tokyo.

Don't these items look like
they came out of your grandmother's kitchen or storage?

Another little detail previously unknown in Tokyo design.
These roses were encased on an elevator wall!

The view from the 2nd floor
of the Marunouchi Park Building.

Looks like London in the 1950s --
not that I was born then, though!

Even the Christmas decor is
so decidely old-fashioned this year!

Some dining picks in Marunouchi:

36F Marunouchi Bldg.
Tel. (03) 3283-2002

36F Marunouchi Bldg.
Tel (03) 5220-3331

Marunouchi Brick Square
Tel. (03) 6269-9330

36F Marunouchi Bldg.
Tel. (03) 5220-4686


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