We all know what a department store is; they’ve been around since the dinosaurs and make great one-stop pantyhose shops. But Isetan Department Store in Shinjuku is a different ballgame. It has managed to become one of the most fashion-forward and colorful shopping destinations in the world, with a clothing, food and decor mix that comes off as the fanciest shopping theme park that only the Japanese could pull off.
Thanks to my father reading me Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” incessantly as a child, I’ve been instilled with a sense of adventure...and perhaps this is why I’ve ended up based in this wonderful and weird place called Shinjuku in Tokyo. But unlike the Neapolitan sherbert dunes in the book, Shinjuku is carpeted in rolling hills of neon signs and paper shopping bags. It’s the neighborhood I find myself treading through the most, because with its vast convenience and visceral excitement you could hardly ask for anything more. It’s a garden of delights, with the wacky Kabukicho-district to the North (now mostly a hot bed of theme restaurants and karaoke boxes) and shopping mega malls tucked in closer to Shinjuku, the world’s busiest train station by far.
But when it comes to fashion, Shinjuku lags behind Shibuya and Harajuku in that it doesn’t have style tribes of its own. These days it’s teeming with big chain stores that can already be found scattered throughout the city. But once upon a time, Shinjuku was the place where the kids came to roam the streets in their coolest outfits. But since 1933, Isetan Department Store has stood the test of time, being a magic retail box for fashion freaks and geeks and wanderers and lovers the world over. You come for the window displays which I liken to those of Bergdorf Goodman, and stay for the awesome shopping.
This department store really filled out the limelight when it renovated it’s 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors recently, and that is where it has drawn in gawkers both local and abroad. It’s the reason I’m writing this today, and it’s gotta be seen to be believed. I’m talking straight-up fantasy-land decor that snakes and twists and transforms throughout the floors. It’s fancy for sure, in glossy brass, steel and brick but it’s an exciting clash of futuristic and retro-comic fantasia. There’s interior which looks like a traditional Japanese matsuri (festival) but in spacey geometrics and a ceiling made of thousands of jutting steel pipes.
The most interesting part of the “new” Isetan is a space in the middle of the 2nd floor near the elevators called “Tokyo Kaiho-ku” (“the freedom ward”). This is where every two weeks or so, a new themed pop-up shop takes place, and it can run the gamut from lolita or dolly style to otaku (geek) brands. Yes, you may run into sales staff in full-body costume or gender-bending boys in skirts selling the latest underground Tokyo trend. The store is dedicated to incubating young brands and finding them space on the sales floor to be themselves.
The products and other brands are also hugely diverse, with as much space dedicated to local labels like Enfold, Limi Feu and Sacai as global labels like Alexander Wang and Valentino. I was once on a hunt for a particular piece from Comme des Garcon’s youngest label “NOIR by Kei Ninomiya” and despite passing through the CDG flagships, I ended up finding it at Isetan. There’s even a “Rose Bakery” on the 3rd Floor, which is found in Rei Kawakubo’s stores as well. I dare say that with the product mix, decor and cafes, it’s a Dover Street Market itself, but in Shinjuku.
The food floor in the basement is what has always gotten Isetan in the guidebooks, and for good reason. It has all of Japan’s top gourmet food and the world’s best patisseries concentrated into one happy heaven. It’s worth it to go to buy some wagashi, or Japanese traditional sweets. They are so particular about the freshness of the ingredients, you’d be scoffed for wanting to haul them back home abroad. No, these are meant for you to savor right away! It can take some time to walk through the myriad food choices, especially during busy dinner hours. And if you ask the right people, they might be able to tell you that there are as many visitors to Isetan as there are to Tokyo’s Disneyland parks in a year!※ Luckily the waiting lines here are far more...digestible.
And finally, I draw your attention to the green plaid bag that shoppers are clutching. Plaid is the signature of the store, and it has gone through different color variations as it has evolved. These bags are status symbols and are held in such high regard in Japan that the print was turned into a popular full-blown fashion line for a limited time. Burberry, eat your heart out!
I always say that Tokyo is made up of two extremes; there’s the wabi-sabi side with immaculate cleanliness and politeness, and then there’s the off-the-charts “huh?” quirky side. I find both of these at Isetan Department Store, and it’s why it’s one of the best places in the world to shop at. And for you men out there, you’ve got your own Isetan Men’s building to play in. Oh, the places you’ll go and oh, the things you’ll see!