Tsutaya’s newest media center suits silver market to a T

by Danielle Demetriou

Special To The Japan Times

To many Japanese, the name “Tsutaya” will bring to mind one very clear image: neon lights, blue-and-yellow signage, bestselling J-pop albums and late-night DVD rentals.

So it may come as a surprise to some to learn that Japan’s biggest music, book and video outlet has undergone a radical makeover in Tokyo’s Daikanyama district.

A new landmark complex called Daikanyama T-Site recently opened its doors bearing little resemblance to the 3,000-plus Tsutaya outlets that currently span the country.

Stubbornly defying conventional labeling, the core of the new Tsutaya is a book shop, but the concept has been shaken up in a happily postmodern fashion: Among the books, music and films, there’s also a Starbucks cafe, the late night bar Anjin, a travel agency, a convenience store and Tokyo’s largest pen collection.

Its three white concrete-and-glass two-story buildings, which are as sleek as they are neon-free, are structured around the shape of a “T” — one of the few clues of the Tsutaya connection and an architectural motif echoed throughout.

Threading through the ground-level floors of each of the three buildings is walkway known as Magazine Street — home to a carefully curated selection of magazines from around the world.

In the dimly lit upstairs bar Anjin, the walls are lined with rare vintage books and magazines, which can be perused at leisure over a cocktail or a cup of tea, with many available to buy.

Tapping into the nation’s emerging silver market, the project is not so interested in the city’s trend-setting youths but instead is targeting older, wealthier customers.

Hence the presence of a team of concierges, all over the age of 50, who each specialize in one of the store’s department subjects, ranging from cars and travel to food and music.

The new-look Tsutaya is the brainchild of Muneaki Masuda, the ever-inventive 60-year-old founder and president of Culture Convenience Club (CCC), the company that operates Tsutaya.

And the key to his concept?

A space where both analog and digital can co-exist in harmony without one taking precedence at the expense of the other — so there are as many iPads scattered around the complex as there are old-school magazines.

Here, architect Mark Dytham of Klein Dytham architecture (KDa), who created the project with partner Astrid Klein, talks books, buildings and the joys of flicking through old mags over a signature Anjin martini in the bar.

What is T-Site? It seems to be a bookshop, a cafe, a travel agency all in one. How would you define it?

I suppose it can be called a media center in a way. But it is so much more than that. We talk about it being a “third space,” too. You have your home, your office — and then this, a third space.

It feels like my front room, basically; that’s how I’d describe it. We’ve almost designed it for ourselves. It’s a comfortable extension of our living rooms. I stop off here every morning for a coffee on the way to work. I pop in for lunch, maybe come back on the way home. It’s really comfortable here.

It’s not a typical Tsutaya store. What is the idea behind this?

This whole project is about moving Tsutaya on, to show what can be next in terms of books and media. It’s a flagship project in many ways. That’s one of the reasons why it’s not yellow and blue and why it is a completely different design from its normal stores (laughs).

How important is the focus on print and analog?

I think, in the West, people think it’s either one or the other — books or digital. But the question we were asking here was how do we deal with analog and digital media in one space?

We’re all about tablets and digital these days. You can pick up your mobile phone and search for a book online. (Jumps up from stool and grabs a magazine randomly off the shelves.)

But look at this. You can’t normally find this sort of thing and just flick through it. This magazine is maybe 40 years old. This says it all for me. It’s to do with the quality of the paper, the smell, how the page is cropped, right down to that edge. You can’t get that on a computer (Pauses and stops on a page). Is that a young Sean Connery? Either way, this kind of quality magazine is never going to go away. And iPads are not going away either. We’ve made room for both.

This is (Muneaki) Masuda’s big experiment in terms of what he can do, not only with the brand but also for Japan, in terms of bringing about a cultural shift.

Who is it targeting?

This is not a project designed to appeal specifically to young people, it’s not pandering to the youth market. It’s focusing on premier age — the 45- to 50-year-old who really has got nowhere to go. If you want to go out in Tokyo at that age, without it being a snack bar or pick-up bar or a restaurant, your options are limited. These are people whose kids have probably left home, they have a nice car, they’re interested in their hobbies.

Having said that, if you look around, you can see people of all ages here. It’s appealing because there’s a sense of community.

Tell us about the concierges.

Every department has a concierge, who is also over the age of 50.

Masuda-san put a full-page ad in all the Japanese papers saying that if you’re over 50, have an interesting character and a hobby you insanely enjoy, then write to me. He spent a month interviewing all these interesting people.

Some people get the (Tsutaya) concierge service for their mobile phones, but here, we have the real thing. They’re all experts. The music concierge is a total jazz guy — if you can’t find something here, he’ll get it for you. The travel concierge traveled the world as a TV producer and knows about all sorts of places. You can even book your holidays here. The idea is for people to communicate, to build a relationship.

What was here before?

No one had been on this site for 30 years. It was owned by Northwest Airlines for many years. It was sold a while back and there have been several attempts to redevelop it. Now there are 11 new buildings — eight of which we designed — and one old building, a former Northwest Airlines dormitory that we renovated.

What about the design concept?

It’s very simple, it’s all about the letter “T.” There are three buildings and three T’s form the three spines. Each T has around 16 spaces coming off it on each level. And the Magazine Street cuts all the way through the three buildings, joining it all together.

People don’t always see the T’s, which is very interesting. People have a “naruhodo” (“Oh I get it”) moment when they suddenly see the T’s come into focus.

Can you highlight a few favorite design features?

A common problem for architects with walls of glass is that the client often puts things up against them. We wanted to avoid that, so we put benches alongside the walls of glass and created listening stations, where people can sit and listen to music or watch a DVD or read a book.

On the ground floor, the central T space is wood, while the outer areas are stone. This is to create the sense of being outside in the outerparts — the glass walls will be opened in the summer and it will be more like outdoors. The wooden flooring throughout is made from B-grade rejected flooring. We didn’t want this place to look like a department store — no polished floors. So the wood has cracks and lines and rough edges and has been sandblasted. We like how it creates a homely feel. It’s like how Masuda always wears ripped jeans.

Why Daikanyama?

There aren’t that many big sites left in Tokyo. And this is on a very prestigious site at the top of a hill, with good clientele nearby. We were very conscious of the location and respectful of its surrounding history — it’s just next door to Hillside Terrace and the historical former Asakura stately residence.

Will more T-Site complexes be rolled out?

We don’t know at the moment, but we hope its success will speak for itself. Already, there are thousands of people visiting every day. It’s always busy, from 7 in the mornings until it closes at 2 a.m.