In 2005, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs adopted an idea mirroring Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness. Capitalizing on the popularity of the Bhutanese quality of life indicator, the Gross National Cool, a once amorphous concept, turned into a full-on economic initiative as well as a means of portraying Japan to the world. On a recent trip to Japan I sought to discover the “Cool Japan” for myself.
My initial inquiry began before I left for the Land of the Rising Sun with news articles and press clippings and quickly devolved into simply watching recent Japanese films on Netflix. My “research” did, however, lead me to the film Adrift in Tokyo which is not only stunningly filmed but also served as an insight into hip, modern Tokyo. The film follows Fumiya Takemura (Joe Odagiri – a pioneer of cool in his own right) and Aiichiro Fukuhara (Tomokazu Miura) along with a slew of eccentric characters as they traverse the city from Shinjuku to the Ueno Zoo to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department.
In watching the film I got a sense of the vastness of the city along with its truly unique culture and various subcultures, all of which are fascinating in their own distinct ways. We see Takemura with his mullet-esque hair (which mysteriously works really well) and skinny jeans and are introduced to the urban hipster archetype alongside cosplay enthusiasts who would not feel out of place in Akihabara Electric Town. In Tokyo, it’s hard not to find your niche while simultaneously delving into the unknown. For example, I had the fortune of visiting a cat café (a personal highlight) and the daunting task of purchasing cool clothing.
Walking along Omotesando, an expansive boulevard not unlike New York’s Fifth Avenue, I was quickly reminded of my sartorial inadequacies but also amazed by the beauty of my surroundings (both edificial and human). While Omotesando itself is home to architectural gems like the Tod’s and Prada Tokyo stores and the enormous Omotesando Hills shopping complex, it was the side streets toward Harajuku that beckoned me and it was here that I came upon the Studious boutique. I was immediately filled with an overwhelming desire to purchase every item in store but settled on a single shirt by the store’s own brand that is quickly becoming my favorite. The boutique was impeccably curated, the employees were incredibly attentive and kind and it had the kind of inventory that would make any fashionista salivate.
From Harajuku, it is just a short walk to the Meiji shrine, a must-see for history enthusiasts and those interested in Shinto religion. The shrine and its surrounds are like a peaceful oasis in the city and stands in stark contrast to the bustling, trend-heavy Harajuku. Despite its status as an important tourist site in Tokyo, I felt a great sense of calm and reverence. In a city as hectic as Tokyo, it was fantastic to find a place to slow down, take a stroll, and soak it all in.
I felt similarly at peace in Meguro, a neighborhood often likened to Williamsburg or Bushwick in Brooklyn. It is trendy, quiet, and has a distinctly local feel. From my base at the CLASKA design hotel, I explored the neighborhood which was teeming with cafes, restaurants, and an unusually large amount of furniture stores (considering the prevalence of really cool apartment buildings, one must presume there is a market).
After one of the best (and most stylish) breakfasts I have ever had, it was off to Kyoto. The city is, to put it simply, a dream. Despite its modernity and population of nearly 1.5 million, the city is intimate and charming. After checking in to the Hyatt Regency, a lovely city hotel that truly captures the feel of the city, I headed out on a jaunt to discover Kyoto. A walk around the gion district or a hike to the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine transports one back in time. Whereas Tokyo can be familiar and comfortable, I felt that I was peering into a Kyoto from afar, a mysterious delight.
The evening of my final night in Japan, on a walk after a fabulous kaiseki dinner I began to reflect on my time in Japan. I realized that even after nine days in the country I had barely scratched the surface. One thing that can be said about the Japanese is that they are passionate. This passion can come in a vast array of forms and that makes Japan special. Nature, design, art, history, athletics, music. You name it, Japan has it.
So, the question becomes “What is your Cool Japan?” Now is the time to get out there and find it.
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