- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2003

Visitors unfamiliar with bustling Tokyo find getting from one area to another daunting — unless they speak Japanese or have a taxi waiting to take them around. Subways and signage can be very confusing. Traffic is as heavy as it gets, and sidewalks are congested, too.

Many skyscrapers lurch from the heart of the city, and some contain shopping areas, but none offers the amenities that residents, commuters and visitors find in the new Roppongi Hills project.

Roppongi Hills is about a mile south of the Imperial Palace, and it well may be a glimpse of the Tokyo of tomorrow. It is a sleek new town, actually a new $4 billion city within a city that makes working, shopping, eating and sleeping in this area of Tokyo very easy and very exciting.

While the novelty of seeing such a major urban project attracts many visitors, Roppongi Hills merits revisiting, for so much is offered. It simply is a nice place to be, whether for dining, shopping, working or just looking around.

The 30-acre site is dominated by the 54-story glass-and-steel Mori Tower, named for the man behind it all, Minoru Mori, Japan’s leading landlord and head of the Mori Building Co., begun by his father, an educator.

Now, with Roppongi Hills, add to the Mori holdings more than 4 million square feet of commercial space in the Mori Tower alone, the largest office building in Japan. Then include the residences, the offices, a nine-screen cinema complex, the stores, the restaurants, the TV Asahi headquarters and the 289-room Grand Hyatt Tokyo, which surrendered one of its rooms recently to expand the hotel’s popular Japanese restaurant.

Visitors and tenants from Tokyo and beyond have made Roppongi Hills a great draw since its opening April 25. In a statement released this week, a Roppongi Hills official said, “We have had 26 million visitors to RH in six months.” He also said 1.2 million visitors have taken the five direct 22-passenger elevators — at 1,378 feet per second — to the Tokyo city view on the 52nd floor. Riders pay from about $4.50 to $14 for the privilege of taking in the stunning views of the great city.

Sales in the retail area of more than 200 stores reached 20 billion yen (about $180 million) in five months instead of the six months it was predicted would be necessary to reach that number.

Occupancy of the office space, shops and residences already has reached about 95 percent, and not all of the residences have been available for six months.

The exterior and much of the interior wall space of the Grand Hyatt Tokyo and the shopping and dining areas are covered with warm, honey-colored stone. The masons deserve praise for their craftsmanship in building the stone walls. Two large sculptures — in black and white and appropriately named “Untitled Heads” by their creator, Jun Kaneko — dominate the lobby, standing about 10 feet from the floor.

There is much more art, for Mr. Mori and his wife, Yoshiko, are noted art collectors. The Mori Art Museum and the Mori Art Center are on the two top floors of the tower. Mrs. Mori is chairwoman of the museum, whose first exhibition is “Happiness: A Survival Guide for Art and Life,” which drew 50,000 visitors in its first week last month.

The next exhibition, to run Feb. 7 through May 5, will be “Roppongi Crossing: New Visions of Japanese Art 2004,” said to be the first-ever comprehensive overview of Japanese contemporary art.

“I envisioned sending information through art to faraway places from Roppongi Hills as if it were a cultural lighthouse,” Mr. Mori says. “The reason I choose modern art is that this area of art will be always growing and has endless possibilities. Modern art is ever-changing, as I hope Roppongi Hills will be.”

The Mori Tower also is home to a private club with restaurants. An art academy and a membership library were created to offer educational opportunities, and there is an auditorium.

Mr. Mori dreamed of a city that would enrich the lives of the people residing and working there and also give them more time to enjoy each day without grueling three-hour commutes. He calls it his “Urban New Deal.”

“As I studied [Franklin D.] Roosevelt’s policy, I came to realize that an important place was given to cultural renewal as well as economic revitalization,” he says. “I believe my concepts are more than just business; they are about our culture.”

Mr. Mori says, “If you rebuild 3 percent of Tokyo a year, this urban dreamscape could become a reality within the next 30 years or even sooner — as the government is now placing high priority on urban regeneration as one of the areas for economic stimulus.”

For centuries, Japanese real estate has been divided into small, privately owned plots. To assemble the site for the Roppongi Hills project, the developer had to deal with about 500 landowners — for 30 acres. More than 400 of the landowners traded their property for the right to occupy an apartment in one of the four residential buildings. The Mori Building Co. negotiated with the property owners for 18 years.

Roppongi Hills’ 793 luxury residences are in two 43-story towers, another with 18 floors and a fourth building with six floors and a garden on its roof. Some of the penthouse apartments are two stories with balconies.

Several buildings in the complex have gardens on top, in addition to the many trees and shrubs planted throughout Roppongi Hills, but the vertical development allows many other green and open spaces.

Mr. Mori believed that the many land parcels, which were developed horizontally with small buildings, homes and shops varying from one to three stories, could be put to better use with vertical development that would turn much of the area into green space.

Developers say Roppongi Hills is the largest private redevelopment ever undertaken in Tokyo and one of the largest in the world. Credit Mr. Mori’s optimism and business acumen for proceeding with the project during a downturn in Japan’s — and the world’s — economy.

On the subway, which can be entered from Roppongi Hills, riders can reach Tokyo’s famous Ginza shopping district in nine minutes. Four subway lines are in or near Roppongi Hills.

Many shoppers, though, will be content to browse Roppongi Hills for items such as shoes, clothing, kitchen gadgets, flowers, linens, household goods, jewelry, art and decorative items, even the novelties in one shop called White Trash.

Across the street from the busy Grand Hyatt Tokyo is a major Louis Vuitton store stocked with luxury goods. Nearby are shops carrying the pricey labels of Issey Miyake, Christian Lacroix, Loro Piana, Escada, Hugo Boss and Kate Spade, all to delight the fashionistas.

Not to be missed is one of the smallest shops, but one that always has a line waiting outside. It is called Le Chocolat de H after its owner, world master chocolatier Hironobu Tsujiguchi. One chocolate truffle may set the buyer back about $4. Well, the chocolate is intense, but there also are wonderful very thin chocolates with fruit fillings, also expensive. After all, this is Tokyo.

About a dozen people are allowed in Le Chocolat de H at one time, and there is a counter with precious few stools at which customers can enjoy a chocolate sundae or hot chocolate.

At the bottom of the hill are a large books-and-music store and one of three Starbucks in Roppongi Hills.

The Grand Hyatt Tokyo, the immediately popular hotel of Roppongi Hills, with a high occupancy rate, has restaurants offering Italian, French, Northern European, Chinese and Japanese cuisines in addition to a handsome restaurant specializing in steaks, another offering sushi, a pastry boutique and Madura, a comfortable nightspot offering jazz and martinis.

Josef Budde, a jovial German-born chef who studied cooking in France, is the impresario of the Grand Hyatt’s kitchens. Mr. Budde also worked in Houston at one time and speaks nostalgically of his years there, with a slightly detectable hint of a longing to return.

The service in the restaurants and bar is excellent. One night, my party of five turned down a table in Juniper because it had stools instead of chairs, and we were about to enter another restaurant when the manager caught up with us and said he had put two tables together in the Juniper courtyard.

The hotel’s major suite has its own pool, but one of the most handsome and peaceful rooms is the Shinto Shrine, a harmonious design in light-colored natural woods.

Beyond the hotel restaurants, Roppongi Hills has many more dining choices, from Japanese and American fare to something called “nouvelle Hong Kong.” A standout, foodwise, is L’Atelier, a new restaurant concept from famous French chef Joel Robuchon.

Another L’Atelier opened in Paris about the same time as in Roppongi Hills, and from comments I have heard, both are stunning in sleek black and red, but equally uncomfortable. The Robuchon food is excellent, of course, and the menu is simple — if one can call small skewers of foie-gras cubes simple.

The concept may work for those who delight in sitting on low stools at a sushi counter and find it comfortable for a longer meal. At one end of the long counter — there are no tables — is a carry-out section.

Virgin Cinemas has nine screens and on weekends shows films until some people in Tokyo are awakening to begin their day. The ticket counter looks more airline than cinema, and consistent with this theme are the machines that dispense e-tickets. Mark Tsuyoshi Yamamoto, president of the firm operating the Virgin complex, predicted that a large percentage of tickets would be ordered electronically. The theaters total about 2,100 comfortable seats, and one theater has a VIP box with a private entrance. Food — more than soft drinks, popcorn and candy — is available.

A tall glass partition with water running down its sides is worth stepping inside to see even if one has no plans to watch a movie. It costs nothing to treat the eyes.

The Roppongi Virgin Cinemas Roppongi Hills has enough clout to be the first to show blockbuster films in Tokyo and became the world’s highest-grossing theater for “The Matrix: Reloaded,” with box-office sales topping $1.1 million in the first 39 days.

Passers-by can pause and even sit on the street furniture — or sidewalk art and watch the crowd of shoppers and the curious. One piece of street furniture has a chair, a bed, tables and a TV. It is in pink. Another is an armchair and table seemingly sculpted from ice, but it does not melt.

Sculptor Louise Bourgeois’ “Maman,” a 30-foot-high spider made of bronze, stainless steel and marble stalks, hovers on spindly legs above onlookers on a plaza at the base of the Mori Tower.

Living and working in Roppongi Hills can be a great arrangement, but there is plenty for visitors to savor and enjoy, from art to Zen. Roppongi Hills is alive.

Exploring Tokyo and surroundings

Tokyo’s vast and frantic Tsukiji Fish Market is essential to the city and is visited by chefs, other seafood buyers and curious tourists beginning in pre-dawn hours. However, it probably will be moving closer to the edge of the city, more convenient to trucks and also freeing some valuable real estate for development.

No doubt, the many shops selling kitchen items will be lost — and restaurants such as Yonehana. Maybe, though, with someone like Jiro Yonehana behind the counter, this family restaurant will survive.

Mr. Yonehana greets his customers in Japanese or English, explains the selections and serves the orders. He is fast, sincere and a pleasure to face at 6 a.m. The restaurant, 104-0045 5-2-1 N-8 Building in the Tsukiji Fish Market, is open from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Mr. Yonehana offers customers a scrapbook with the menu with pictures and provides a commentary on a yellow legal pad for them to take home. Give him a call (03/3541-4670) and pay his restaurant a visit.

For visitors to Tokyo, the new Roppongi Hills urban development is most convenient, with shops, restaurants, movies and the Grand Hyatt Tokyo hotel (03/4333-1234 or www.grandhyatttokyo.com). The Maduro night spot offers good drinks in a relaxing atmosphere, and the restaurants are worth a visit; my favorite is the Oak Door. Fiorentina on the ground floor also has a takeout counter offering delicious bakery goods, including fancy pastries, and gourmet items such as Kousmichoff Russian teas.

Tokyo also is home to a Disneyland park, visible from the highway from the airport into the city.

A day trip from Tokyo to Kamakura can be accomplished by rail from Roppongi Hills. Trains of Japan Railways and other private lines leave from the Tokyo Station every 10 to 15 minutes for the 50-minute ride to Kamakura.

The Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine is a 10-minute walk from the Kamakura Station. This shrine ranks with the Daibutsu (Great Buddha) statue (a 15-minute walk from the Hase Station) as Kamakura’s leading tourist attraction. Taxis appeared to be plentiful and made getting between sites quite easy.

Kamakura has plenty of restaurants for a tourist center; we had a fine lunch of soba (buckwheat) noodles in one establishment. Visitors to Kamakura also can find many shops with interesting ethnic items, such as the beautiful — and expensive — fabrics used for kimonos and obis, purses made from silk brocades, everyday dishes and fine porcelain vases and inexpensive tourist miscellanea.

One of my Tokyo favorites is Yoku Moku, a shop known for its preservatives-free butter cookies but also handsome pastries and candies. Thin, flat cookies — tuilles — are rolled cigarlike and are plain or filled with buttercream, then wrapped individually in cellophane. Packaged in tins, they make fine souvenirs and presents for the folks back home. They also can be ordered from Dean & DeLuca (887/826-9246) or Neiman Marcus (www.neimanmarcus.com), but they are not inexpensive in Tokyo or by mail.

I first found them at a counter in a Takishimaya department store on an earlier visit to Tokyo, but this year, I went by taxi from the Grand Hyatt Tokyo to the Yoko Moko shop on Omotesando — ask the concierge to write the destination in Japanese on a hotel card. The founder, Noriichi Fujinawa, named his shop after Jokk Mokk, a village on the Arctic Circle north of Stockholm.

Japan Airlines (800-525-3663) operates daily flights between New York and Tokyo. JAL Flight 005 departs John F. Kennedy International Airport at 12:15 p.m. in November and December. Until Nov. 30, tickets in coach class are available for as low as $620 plus tax; passengers must stay a minimum of six days and return within 30 days on weekday departures only.

JAL’s business class has seats that become flat when fully reclined; there is a slight pitch to the flat seats, but most passengers seemed to have no problem with that. The nonstop flight was quite comfortable, and the food was much better than one expects on most airlines these days.

All Nippon Airways flies between Washington Dulles International Airport and Tokyo.

More information about travel in Japan is available from the Japan National Tourist Office, 1 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 1250, New York, NY 10020; phone, 212/757-5640; e-mail, [email protected]; Web site, www.japantravelinfo.com.

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