Tickled by Tokyo

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

In May, I went to Tokyo for work. (If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen a number of photos with the tag #joyinjapan.) For some, this might mean sitting in a conference center most of the time, getting to eat some sushi between lectures and walk around Shibuya a bit. But lucky me (and I mean that — lucky, lucky me), my job involves being completely out there, talking to people, experiencing the city’s smells, sounds, and colors, drinking a place in until I’m drunk.

Where do I begin with it all? I felt so joyful in Japan I could hardly stand it. Like when someone is tickling you and you’re laughing and you get to a point where feel like you’re going to explode and you beg them to stop — “Please, please, no more!” — and as the feeling subsides and you’re able to breathe again a quiet little voice pipes up inside you, whispering…

“More. Please, just a little more.”

There isn’t one thing to point to, but a thousand small gestures that accumulate to leave you almost woozy with delight. Tokyo is a relentless layering of vibrant color palettes, cute icons, sweet miniatures, subtle textures, and delicate objects arranged just so. (And also some things that are so crazy they make your head spin around in full revolutions.) It’s a testament to a people that has a true material culture, a people that feels kinship with the objects in their lives and understands that beautiful things are valuable not as status symbols but because they suffuse beauty into the spaces around them.

Alain de Botton writes: “What we seek, at the deepest level, is inwardly to resemble, rather than physically to possess, the objects and places that touch us through their beauty.” This is the crux of what I felt in Tokyo. I sensed the beauty that emanated from the perfectly balanced, crafted way of things, and wanted to strive for more of this in myself. A beautifully crafted plate of food or a carefully lettered sign showed care, and it made me want to slow down and appreciate the care my hosts put into these small gestures. My travel companions and I all changed our behavior over the course of the week. We were more polite, we noticed more, we ate more slowly. We let the place change us in a good way.

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Every day we walked the city until our feet hurt. At night, I would wake up at about 4am from the jet lag, my feet still pulsing, hoping a few more hours of sleep would ease them. We took thousands of photos. There was a surprise around nearly every corner — we were afraid to put our cameras away. My travel companions, fellow IDEOers Anthony and Erika, and I (all above) were lucky to have some amazing hosts. In some of my photos you’ll see Mike, a good friend of mine since my first day at IDEO, who is now in our Tokyo office. He wins the “host of the year” award, making sure we saw his favorite places (such as the tiny coffee shop pictured top right and lower left, below), ordered for us in places with no English menus, and even pointed us towards very specific observations, like that that gorgeous reflection of the copper sink in Higashiyama’s bathrooms (below).

I was also excited to spend some time with Azusa, a friend of mine from Pratt (you may remember her joyful work from this post a few years back). Azusa took us one night to get yuzu ramen (noodles flavored with yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit) and after, we discovered a tiny little bar with only about ten seats. There, a bartender proceeded to make the most thoughtful screwdriver I’ve ever seen. The screwdriver must be the most thoughtless of cocktails, sloshed together in questionable proportions, often in a Solo cup. But this bartender showed me the screwdriver-as-art-form: squeezing the juice by hand, shaking the drink as if he were in slow motion. I don’t think I will ever see a cocktail performed in that way again, totally simple, yet with honor for its simplicity.


We stayed our last few nights at the Claska, technically the only boutique hotel in Tokyo. The Claska is a wonderful, odd place for many reasons. It is a bit out of the way, but it has a gorgeous sixties modern lobby and the most beautiful gift shop, full of perfect, quirky artifacts. But by far my favorite feature of the Claska is the retro dog grooming salon just off the lobby (pictured above). A long window, positioned at eye level just by the lobby bar, peeks into the space, where you can watch dogs get fluffed to the max by a passel of groomers using humorously space-age dryers. I never saw a dog walk out of there that didn’t look like it couldn’t blow away on a light wind.


A highlight was a visit to Midori Sushi in Shibuya, where you order from an iPad and the sushi is delivered to your table by toy trains. Toy! Trains! You might think that with such an emphasis on precision and self-control, the Japanese would not show much evidence of their “inner child.” But in fact, the inner child is alive and well in Japan, breaking through in an unabashed embrace of cuteness and play, even in serious situations. The toy train idea is something that seems to have been thought up by an eight year-old. Here in the states it would be discarded as ridiculous, but fortunately the Japanese don’t censor themselves in this way.


On our very last day in Tokyo, Erika and I were wandering around the area near Gakugei-Daigaku station and spotted these beautiful books. Stripped of their jackets, they were selling for pennies apiece, and we spent the better part of an hour looking for ones with interesting illustrations to bring back with us. Inside one were these very simple, beautiful erotic line drawings. (Japan has a long tradition of exuberant erotic art, mostly woodblock prints known as shunga.) Azusa was embarrassed but obliging in translating the chapter headers for us. (Nothing too exciting, or I promise I would’ve written them down to share.)

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Hidari Pocket in Naka Meguro is the tiniest, cutest café I have ever seen. The garlands, the little drawings on the side of the van, the tiny weathered stools, the drawings of flowers in the foam on the mocha — it was just too much. In moments like this, we often found ourselves overcome, aesthetically, with the experiences we were having. It was almost as if the circuits in our brains couldn’t handle all the beauty, harmony, cuteness, and cleverness. By a few days in, we actually coined a name for this: design convulsions. Suffice it to say, when three out of four designers at a table have their cameras pointed at a very ordinary object, you can be pretty sure it’s a collective design convulsion.

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There is a palimpsestic quality to Tokyo that you start to discover, as you adjust to it and it starts to unfold for you. There are layers that smack you in the face with their daring or their sweetness. But underpinning these are tiers of sensation: patterns, textures, and reflections that are seductive in their simplicity. I came back so filled with inspiration, I was nearly vibrating. I’ll share more in the coming days, about some specific things that just took my breath away. In the meantime, have you been to Tokyo? What joys did you see there?

Images: a mix of mine and Erika Lee’s; most of the better ones are Erika’s!

July 18th, 2012


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    Discussion (2 Comments)

  1. Mary Lou Landry on July 24, 2012

    I was in Japan 17 years ago and your descriptions brought me directly back to my memories. I felt exactly the same way and can remember forcing myself to stop to soak up the magnificence of a small window display near a crowded grocery store doorway. There, behind a barrier of shopping carts, was a small lacquered black tray upon which someone had crafted a simple illustration of fuji from a sweep salt or sand. Each grain perfectly placed against the shiny surface. There were a thousand moments like that on my short trip. The japanese balance of simplicity and humanity still affects my aesthetics and I often think of things I saw there. Thank you for this post and your blog in general. I love the things you post here.

    1. Ingrid on July 29, 2012

      Thanks for sharing, Mary Lou! It’s heartening to know that little has changed in 17 years. Gives me hope that Tokyo will always be a place to find this kind of “simplicity and humanity,” as you put it.


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