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

Horn is a New York free-lance writer.

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.

All of this, however, is still the stuff of department stores: selling things. What makes the Tokyo emporiums completely different from anything you'll find in the West is their mass marketing of high culture.

It started just after the war, when Mitsukoshi opened a large theater near the main store in Nihombashi.

"Almost all the city's theaters had been destroyed after the war. The Mitsukoshi Theater helped people get through the bleak post-war years, helped feed their dreams for the future," says Matsuyama. "And Mitsukoshi became a part of those dreams, a place for people to go to satisfy them." It made a trip to the department store more than mere shopping--it became a cultural event.

Other stores opened theaters, too. A visit to the main branch of the Tokyu store today will show just how far things have gone. In September, 1989, Tokyu opened the Bunkamura (Cultural Village). This seven-story complex houses a 2,150-seat concert hall, a 757-seat theater, two cinemas, an art museum, art gallery, recording studio, book shop, travel agency and European-style cafe.

The inaugural performance at the concert hall, given by the Bayreuth Festival Ensemble, was sold out months in advance.

Bunkamura is not a department store, but as Chizuko Yamamoto of Bunkamura's Planning Department points out, "Of course, Bunkamura and the Tokyu department store are connected on the first, third and sixth floors, so many people can come to Bunkamura to see a show or concert, and then drop by a related exhibit in the store, eat at one of the store's restaurants and maybe buy something."

When the Bayreuth Festival Ensemble was appearing at Bunkamura, Tokyu drew concert-goers into the store with a display of turn-of-the-century Bayreuth costumes, sketches of stage sets and other memorabilia in the store's eighth-floor exhibition hall.

"In Japan, department stores are like a Coney Island, a Disney World," says Pepi Krakower, an artist whose work has been exhibited and sold both at galleries in New York's SoHo district as well as at the Seibu department store. "People go there not only to buy things, it's also a cultural playground for adults."

More than 7 million people have visited the Seibu Museum since it opened in 1975. And for good reason--the best exhibits of Japanese and Western art are held here. If you're visiting Tokyo and you want to see a museum, forget the National Museum--go to Seibu or any of the better department-store museums.

Once a major show is set, exhibit planning personnel, merchandise buyers and display professionals get together to look for the right tie-ins.

"At Mitsukoshi, we put together a profile of the kind of person who would come to this event, and then we feature the kind of products that might interest them somewhere near the exhibit," Matsuyama explains.

It's been a winning strategy for everyone. Young artists make reputations and sales. Shoppers broaden their cultural horizons and raise their standard of living. And corporations garner profits and prestige.

"It's really part of our social obligation," says Chizuko Yamamoto. Expressing a sentiment echoed at Seibu and Mitsukoshi, Yamamoto says, "We owe it to our customers to help support the arts."

A sense of obligation; there's nothing more traditional in Japanese society. And when you're a customer, you'll feel this attention in everything from the exquisite wrapping of your smallest purchase to the presentation of the world's finest artwork for your pleasure.

Of course, if you just want a necktie, the selection will dazzle you.

Tokyo's department stores? I'm sold.

GUIDEBOOK

Tokyo Department Stores

There are more than 50 department stores in Tokyo, which gives new meaning to the words "shop till you drop." What follows is a brief selection of Tokyo's best. Almost without variation, they are open from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Information desks at store entrances offer English-language floor guides. Overseas visitors can cash traveler's checks or exchange money at most stores.

GINZA STATION

Matsuya. Stop in the basement for Japanese tea and traditional sweets. 3-6-1 Ginza. Closed Tuesdays.

Printemps. A Japanese version of the famous French store. 3-2-1 Ginza. Closed Wednesdays.

Wako. Favored by Japan's old aristocracy. 4-5-11 Ginza. Closed Sundays.

Matsuzakaya. Another venerable institution, now a bit faded. 6-10-1 Ginza. Closed Wednesdays.

Hankyu. Proof that the Japanese also believe that living well is the best revenge. 2-5-1 Yurakucho. Closed Thursdays.

Yurakucho Seibu. Where the young money goes to spend it. 2-5-1 Yurakucho. Closed Thursdays.

Mitsukoshi. Not nearly as impressive as the main branch in Nihombashi. 4-6-16 Ginza. Closed Mondays.

NIHOMBASHI STATION

Takashimaya. Italian tailors, French chefs, a world of shopping. 2-4-1 Nihombashi. Closed Wednesdays.

Mitsukoshi. The grand dame of department stores is still grand indeed. 1-4-1 Nihombashi. Closed Mondays.

SHIBUYA STATION

Tokyu. Several locations throughout Shibuya, starting in Shibuya Station. Bunkamura complex is next to the main branch. 2-24-1 Dogenzaka. Closed Thursdays.

Shibuya Seibu. Including the Seed Building, seven stories of men's fashion. 21-1 Udagawacho. Closed Thursdays.

SHINJUKU STATION

Isetan. Three buildings, one is exclusively restaurants. Tea at Babbington's is fun. 3-14-1 Shinjuku. Closed Wednesdays.

Odakyu. Always a good choice for traditional pottery and crafts. 1-1-3 Nishi Shinjuku. Closed Tuesdays.

IKEBUKURO STATION

Seibu. The main branch, connected to Parco and across from Wave, Seibu's six-story record store. 1-28-1 Minami Ikebukuro. Closed Thursdays.

Tobu. Suburban shopping comes to the big city. 1-1 Nishi Ikebukuro. Closed Wednesdays.

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