If you're someone that appreciates the beauty in good design, then it's worth paying Japan a visit for that reason alone. There are a myriad of spots to check out that are aesthetically pleasing - from thousands of years old shrines and temples, through to modern structures like Tokyo Skytree - and even smaller retail outlets and eateries that are artful and inventive in the ways they present both their storefronts and their goods.
"Where to start, though?" you might be asking. Here are 10 different spots across Japan that show off some fascinating construction, interesting composition, or perhaps are just plain cool to look at.
21:21 Design Sight Museum
One stop you can't miss if you're a lover of good design is the 21:21 Design Sight Museum, located in the Roppongi area of Tokyo. It was created by the fashion icon Issey Miyake and the well-known architect Tadao Ando, who boasts an impressive list of designed buildings - one of which is the nearby Omotesando Hills shopping complex. As well as showing off some interesting exhibits here, part of the intent behind creating the museum was to encourage public interest in design - as well as inspiring people to notice the elements of beauty in the everyday world around us. The museum here is open from 10am until 7pm daily, but they are closed on Tuesdays and over the New Year's Holiday period. Adult admission will set you back 1100 yen.
You can find 21:21 Design Sight at the map address below, and their website with exhibition details can be found here.
The Tsutaya store in Tokyo's Daikanyama area is part of the "T-Site" complex, which comprises of several different eateries and retail stores. The design here was the winning submission from 80 different architecture firms, and part of what makes up the unique exterior is a laced facade design in the shape of the letter T. The complex is constantly on lists of the best designed bookstores not just in Japan, but on the planet - it's a beautiful spot to stop in, browse the shelves, and perhaps grab a coffee to enjoy while you read. They've also got an impressive range of stationery at the store here, if you're a lover of all things pen-and-paper.
The Tsutaya Bookstore at the T-Site complex is located at the map address below.
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art
Located in Kanazawa, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is definitely worth a visit - as is all of the city, and not just because it's easily accessible now from Tokyo with the direct shinkansen link. There are a range of both temporary and permanent exhibits at the museum here, with one of the best known being Leandro Erlich's "The Swimming Pool", which you can either observe from above or below the surface. As well as having an excellent lineup of displays that will have you appreciating both art and design, the actual structure of the museum itself is worth a look - it was conceptualized by the Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, who have completed other big-name architectural projects such as France's Louvre-Lens Museum.
You'll find the museum at the map address below. Getting to Kanazawa from Tokyo Station is a cinch - either the Shinkansen Kagayaki or the Shinkansen Hakutaka will get you there in a straight shot. You can check Hyperdia for shinkansen departure times on your preferred travel date.
Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower
The Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower is without a doubt one of the most eye-catching structures on the Tokyo skyline. As you may have already guessed from the name, the tower is actually an educational facility, and was designed to look like a cocoon. The whole concept behind that design choice was because a cocoon is something that enables a caterpillar to grow and flourish, and that's the goal with the students attending the various educational facilities here too - it should be a place that allows them to go ahead and build their wings. If you want to gaze at the building for yourself and appreciate the design elements, head to Shinjuku, and it's situated right across from the train station. You can find the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower at the map address below.
Sunny Hills Omotesando
Affectionately known as "the matchstick building" by many people, Sunny Hills is located on the backstreets of the Omotesando/Aoyama area of Tokyo - and it definitely stands out as some unique design. The building has a very eye-catching lattice framework - and it's all joined together without nails, which is a trademark of many Japanese wooden structures. If you'd like to check out the building from the inside, the Sunny Hills store sells pineapple cake and tea, which might be the perfect pick-me-up fuel to get you through your day of sightseeing in the city.
If you'd like to admire the design at Sunny Hills - and enjoy some cake and tea, too - you'll find them at the address below. They're open daily from 11am until 7pm.
Sleek design doesn't all have to be glossy and new - some of the world's best designs are hundreds of years old. The UNESCO World Heritage listed Ryoan-ji is a rock garden located in Kyoto, believed to have been built somewhere around the 15th century. The garden here is comprised of pebbles that are raked daily, and 15 strategically placed boulders of various sizes. There are often different ideas put forth about what the garden and its design are meant to represent, but the general consensus is that it is simply intended to allow for reflection and meditation - so feel free to put your own take on it when you visit. You'll find Ryoan-ji at the map address below. Adult admission is 500 yen.
A chain retailer that cares about design? It's possible, in Japan! Muji sell everything from household goods to beauty supplies and even clothing, but have minimalism in mind when doing so. Part of the design appeal of Muji is their commitment to using less unnecessary packaging and as a result minimizing waste - two factors which seem to be more and more important in purchasing decisions for consumers nowadays. If you're someone who isn't a fan of giant brand names emblazoned all over what you're buying and you appreciate simplicity but functionality in the products you buy, then Muji is a must for your shopping itinerary while you're here.
Muji stores are located in various spots across Japan - you can visit their website here for the full list of store locations.
Sure, it's not the most budget-friendly place to shop, but even window shopping here is worth your while if you're in the area. The design of the Tokyo Prada building catches your eye immediately - and not just because it's located amongst some residential apartment space. Not only is the building itself a unique shape, but the diamond-shaped design of the window panes has seen many people likening the structure to a kaleidoscope. The light that those windows let in means it's as beautiful on the inside as it is from the outside.
Planning to shop (or window shop) at Prada? The address details are below.
This building houses a tea shop, and it brings out the best in modern, chic and minimalist design. There are plenty of more traditional looking spots to grab yourself some sencha in the city, but there's something so appealing about the sleek lines and the unfinished concrete exterior that makes it hard to resist this place. Plus, they do some really great tea here - and even that is engineered with modern design in mind. The brews served here are hand dripped, which is probably a term we're all more used to hearing in terms of coffee - and everything is executed with precision, from the temperature of the water through to the brewing time down to the second. Definitely worth a visit if you're after a unique tea experience in Tokyo.
You'll find Tokyo Saryo at the map address below. They're open weekdays from 1pm until 8pm, weekends from 11am until 8pm, and closed on Mondays - so bear that in mind if you're planning a special trip.
Cafe Kitsune is a design lover's dream - it's a perfect blend of the old and the new. It's situated in Aoyama, just a stone's throw away from the beautiful Prada building mentioned above, and the business space was made from a traditional Japanese house that was renovated. Combine those traditional design elements like sliding doors and wooden accents, with a deliciously modern spin (case in point: the patterned monochromatic wallpaper) and you'll definitely be bringing out the camera to take a snap or several. If you're looking for threads in your Tokyo travels as well, Cafe Kitsune are an offshoot of the clothing retailer Maison Kitsune - and they're situated literally a minute's walk away from the coffee shop.
You can find Cafe Kitsune at the map address below. They are open daily from 9am until 7pm.
If you are fascinated by all things design, then Japan has no shortage of spots for you to visit - and hopefully some of the aforementioned options might make your list while you're here. From the old to the new, and from places for shopping to eating and so much more, this country has plenty of incredible design elements that are a feast for the eyes - and for all the senses, really!
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