Well-edited shopping for discerning travelers

Yoshitaka Haba curates shops as if they were magazines or newspapers

by Edan Corkill

While Japan might not have invented the idea of the “select shop,” it has certainly refined the idea to an art form. The original models for Japanese shops such as Ships and Beams, which opened in the 1970s, were Barneys in the United States and Brown’s in the U.K. — outlets that offered a special selection of merchandise from a wide range of manufacturers.

Now Tokyo-based shop producer Yoshitaka Haba says he has developed the successor to the select shop. The emphasis in what he calls the “editorial shop” is placed not on the selection of goods, but on their combination.

“The idea is to inspire people through interesting juxtapositions,” the 32-year-old retailer says. The move stems partly from the arrival of online shopping. In the past, consumers turned to select shops to offer them the best shaving cream or manicure set the world had to offer. Nowadays, consumers cannot only search for themselves online, but order almost anything from anywhere.

“The Internet has changed the role of ‘real-world’ outlets,” says Haba.

In the past Haba was a book-buyer — he worked on the popular Roppongi Hills outlet of Tsutaya, for example — before moving on to developing concepts for whole retail outlets. In 2007, he opened Souvenir from Tokyo, the art- and-design oriented gift shop at the National Art Center, Tokyo, in Roppongi. His latest creation is Tokyo’s Tokyo, a new gift shop at Haneda Airport’s Terminal Two, and it is there he has most fully realized his vision for an “editorial shop.”

The establishment is broadly divided into two sections: one for people visiting Tokyo and the other for those traveling from the capital to other destinations.

Visitors to Tokyo are presented with several groups of products. The Kids section is full of fun trinkets and games, or so it seems, until you realize they are interspersed with many more intellectual treats. “Look at this,” says Haba, as he begins his tour around the shop. “You have a robot toy, which is kind of retro but might appeal to kids. Next to that is a copy of Karel Capek’s ‘R.U.R.’ (the 1921 sci-fi play in which the term ‘robot’ was first used).”

Haba jumps to another island. “Over here is a build-your-own plastic jewelry kit. Next to that is a book about Tamiya model kits — you know, the plastic model cars — and then next to that is a book about ‘Gundam.’ “

He also points out a pair of flip-flops he’d found printed with Tokyo street signs. “They’re shoes, but they’ve got a graphic element, so I’ve put them next to this vintage book, ‘Katachi,’ ” he says, grabbing a large coffee-table book from the 1960s that explores the shapes found in traditional Japanese arts and crafts.

Haba says his “editorial” approach is particularly suited to Tokyo, where mixing and matching has long been part of the cultural aesthetic.

“In this city, you see school kids holding a Louis Vuitton bag in one hand and a McDonald’s hamburger in the other,” he reasons.

In another corner of the shop are items from local fashion label Comme de Garcons next to oden cans — “You know, the cans of soup that are famous in Akihabara,” Haba says. “They’re usually sold in vending machines.”

Meanwhile, for Tokyoites heading off on domestic voyages, the store’s bookshelves offer treats related to each of Japan’s nine regions.

“When you travel, your body is transported by the plane. I want to help transport your mind,” Haba says with a laugh. So, travelers to Shikoku, for example, are advised to read turn-of-the-20th-century novelist Natsume Soseki’s classic “Botchan,” the tale of a teacher from Tokyo sent to the Shikoku town of Matsuyama to teach at a local school.

Magazine-lovers will be pleased to know that Haba has tracked down back issues of “special editions” related to each region. So now the troves of information found in, for example, Pen’s August 2008 issue on driving in Hokkaido will not be lost in the passage of time.

Not all the suggestions are for reading. The Shikoku section is stocked with portable chopsticks for sampling the island’s famous sanuki udon noodles, and travelers to Kyushu are presented with a special selection of soaps to use in the island’s famous hot-spring baths.

Haba was contracted by the Japan Airport Terminal corporation to make Tokyo’s Tokyo, and he appreciated the chance to cater for a general audience.

“Everyone likes airports,” he says. “There’s something romantic in the idea of those giant chunks of metal delivering people and taking them away. There is so much meeting and exchange at airports.”

This suggests that Haneda may be the perfect site to experiment with a shop that is eclectic by nature. But, as Haba is only too aware, the real test is not the clarity of a shop’s concept but its volume of sales.

“The aim of the store is not just to be creative or arty. We need to sell things, and we’ve brought together merchandise in a way that we think will do that.”