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World Travel

By Nicole Fall

Letter from Tokyo


As leaves turn from green to red like organic traffic lights, Tokyoites reflect back on the summer. Shimoda Beach was the most talked about destination this year among those in the know. Stretched along the Izu Peninsula, south of Tokyo, Shimoda is famous for beautiful white beaches and clear blue sea that makes it possible to scuba dive and surf - and all within easy reach of central Tokyo by dangan ressha or bullet train. Newcomer White Beach Hotel launched in the summer and immediately shook up the whole scene, offering twenty individually decorated rooms, which attempt to match the decor of your room to your mood with a range of unique wall treatments and flooring from bamboo and rose print to brick and leather.

Back in the city, one of the world's largest fashion fairs - Tokyo Girls Collection - attracted around 22,000 young Japanese women to a day of runway shows. Famous local models took part in the shows, and entertainment was provided by local boy bands such as V2. The popularity of the bi-annual event is a reflection of the vibrancy and importance of fashion in contemporary Japanese culture. Japanese high-street lynchpin Uniqlo designing a hooded dress for the occasion. In a departure from the usual exclusivity of fashion events, the day was open to anyone that could afford the ticket (around 15 pounds). And what really sets Tokyo Girls Collection apart is that the clothes can be bought almost as soon as the models have left the runway by selecting looks displayed on their mobile phones sold by the TGC’s organizer – a digital shopping specialist. Think Net-a-Porter meets runway show meets mobile commerce -you get the idea.

In Japan, a whole subculture (kaitei culture) has grown up around mobile phones, with users taking the design of their phone seriously. Softbank, the leading phone retailer in Japan is selling handsets with textured panels with materials including white leather and pink crocodile. Wilcom's Kuma phone however, is more cute than serious. It’s a cuddly bear, but the Kuma is still a fully functioning mobile phone. Users can press one of the bears’ paws to speed dial their friends.

A more innovative idea comes from the AU Design Project in which a team of young designers have created a range of mobile phones that double up as musical instruments. For example, 'Sticks in the Air' are drumsticks with sensors that create a beat but snap together to form a phone. 'Box to Play' integrates a synthesizer and scratch pad, and 'Strings for Fingers' and 'Band in My Pocket' are for those opting for the more classical route as they bring the orchestra into the mix.

Proving there really are no limits for mobile phones capabilities in Japan, we have recently heard about gravestones being imprinted with special barcodes. These codes can be scanned into the users mobile, which takes them through to a portal where they can learn more about who lies beneath.

Morbid fascination aside, the Tokyo Design Festa is an international arts event held at Tokyo Big Sight. This free-style design fair is Asia's biggest art event. Featuring a diverse range of original work including painting, fashion, multi-media and performance art, Design Festa is a great place to take in the local arts scene at a grassroots level. The gallery is visited by art lovers from all over the world, and with both professional and fledgling talent exhibiting their work there is always the chance of picking up a piece for your own collection.

Harajuku is a hotbed of new design talent right now, demonstrated with the opening of new concept lab BB FlatFlat. Offering shoppers the opportunity to try out new products before they hit the market, the bizarrely named BB FlatFlat is particularly appealing to game fanatics who are desperate to experience new online games before anyone else. For consumers the concept is cost free - all they have to do is leave feedback on products they have tested. And of course the benefit to the company behind this new concept is that they get to collect free consumer insight pre-launch.

And finally - Japan's interpretation of the global trend for all things green has gone as far as chopsticks. Around 250 billion disposable wooden chopsticks are used in Japanese restaurants every year, equating to 2.5 million trees. In response to this, environmentally aware Tokyoites have started to adopt 'moshi-hashi' (portable chopsticks) which they use when they are eating out. Sets of these re-usable chopsticks can be bought in various department stores and shops around the city.

Nicole Fall owns Bespoke Tokyo (www.bespoketokyo.jp) which creates custom designed safaris in Japan, and www.fivebyfifty.com, a market and trends research agency.