What’s in Store?

As malls bloom and the economy quivers, one can’t help but ask, Where’s the “real” retail reality.

Ever since real estate magnate Minoru Mori’s Roppongi Hills complex clawed its way out of the ground in the middle of Tokyo in spring 2003, the city has been besieged by a sort of silk-lined arms race among mall developers. With more than eight million square feet of stores, hotel rooms, apartments, and cultural landing spots, Roppongi was difficult to top. But it’s been easy enough for developers to aspire to the same goal—namely remaking a neighborhood through a combination of ambitious architecture and the kinds of optimistic crowds these new malls draw. (So optimistic, in fact, that one wonders, in the middle of another sleepy spell on the Nikkei stock market, whether it might not be wise to turn the exchange into a mall as well.)

In just the past year or so, the competition has become particularly intense. The six-million-square-foot Tokyo Midtown, which opened in the spring in Akasaka-ku, was perhaps the clearest attempt to steal Roppongi’s mantle. Packed with a mall, a modern design museum, a Ritz-Carlton, and a cluster of other features, it is something of a lifestyle Swiss Army knife: Just pull on the right lever to find the tool you need to complete your day.

Marronnier Gate dropped into Ginza at the end of the summer. An impressive grab bag of brands, this tall, slim, glass-clad skyscraping mall brings some edge to a part of town that needed it. And Omotesando Hills—another Mori project, this one by Japanese modernist architect Tadao Ando—opened in February 2006 on the famous boulevard for which it’s named, just south of the Meiji Jingu shrine. A bit of glass-and-concrete poetry on the outside, the building reveals a tightly wound, ramped circle of shops within, one that can only be called a Gucci Guggenheim; a slowly unfolding spiral walkway leads past one luxury brand after another, each placed with the cold care of a De Kooning on the walls of the New York museum.

The problem with all this high-concept convenience is that it’s choking off the real breathing life of Tokyo shopping, suffocating it behind design ideas that were original in 2004 but now feel clichéd: water running over glass panels, uneven granite blocks on the walls, and room after room of unimaginative luxury goods.

Fortunately, even as Roppongi set the tone for one sort of shopping, a guerilla design-and-style campaign has been remaking some of the most interesting corners of the city.

The streets of Naka Meguro, for instance, by the Meguro River and a few bland blocks from the chic Daikanyama district, have been transformed in the past 18 months into a long, pleasant alley of bespoke clothing boutiques, art-packed cafés, and trip-hop music stores. It’s possible to spend hours promenading here, stopping in to see friends running small stores. (The area’s hipster cred was probably sealed when the Tokyo DJ–Zen master Cornelius called his 2002 tour “From Naka Meguro to Everywhere.”)

The same gentrifying effect has been quietly reinventing the deepest backstreets of Shibuya, the mid-Tokyo neighborhood known for its neon-clad structures and reputation as ground zero for the most significant detonations of Japanese youth culture. Here, hippie tie-dye shops and places where you can buy $500 hand-cut corduroy pants offer both the wardrobe and pace of the Asian flâneur. And far back into Daikanyama, just east of the main street, Komazawa-dori, small fashion stores and restaurants pop out of the basements of otherwise dull-looking apartment buildings.

As you wander down the hill from Daikanyama back to Naka Meguro, the cherry trees lining the river there remind you that for all their marble ambition, Tokyo’s new malls are just exquisitely faked versions of exactly this sort of urban shopping legacy, a time when commerce wove like a master thread through the tapestry of everyday life. There is no such subtlety now in a day at Roppongi Hills or Tokyo Midtown, either of which is likely to exhaust you. But you’ll come out of Naka Meguro and these other spots feeling more relaxed than when you went in. You may have spent money, but you will feel richer, the sort of inversion that marks the difference between the mere commerce of turn-of-the-century Tokyo and something more profound now emerging.