(Cover Photo by Ashley Szukalski)

Inspiring Design:

5 Must-Experience Places in Japan

Local Recommendations from Design and Innovation Firm IDEO Tokyo

byMichael Peng

This month marks my four-year anniversary in Tokyo, and I’ve never felt more inspired. In 2011, I moved here to help start the Tokyo studio of global design and innovation firm, IDEO, and ever since that moment, I’ve been deeply inspired by the people, experiences, and cultures that make up Japan.

As designers, we thrive on inspiration, and this country is overflowing with ways to stoke the creative fires, from carefully curated hospitality experiences, to beautiful, delicious food, and the incredible assortment of eclectic subcultures. Surrounded with so many creative sparks, I feel that it’s not just our job, but our responsibility to highlight some of the experiences that make Japan a mecca for design inspiration.

What follows is a list of 5 places in Japan that “wow” us as designers, innovators, and human beings. They push us to think of the everyday in new ways. As with almost everything in Japan, each experience inspires a look beneath the surface to truly grasp its meaning and intention.

1. Pass the Baton — Where Stories are Currency

(Photo by Michael Peng)

At secondhand store Pass-the-Baton, secondhand goods take on a far greater value than they might in a more traditional resale store. Nestled in the rows of carefully curated, beautifully arranged things for purchase are stories — one for every item. Pick something up and turn the price tag around. You’ll find a photo of the previous owner, along with a short anecdote. The first time I went into the store, I remember picking up a silver bracelet, and reading the description on the back: “I bought this when I went shopping with my mom 5 years ago. It was a special day.” Those two sentences gave me an instant connection to the bracelet, making it more valuable than if it were displayed as a new item in an on-trend collection.

My experience at Pass-the-Baton reminded me that the currency of stories can sometimes be more valuable than the currency of yen. Reading the stories, I was surrounded by not just the things for sale, but the people who once owned them: their relationships, their hopes, their memories. It was a powerful experience and a good reminder to look beyond monetary value in evaluating the worth of things.

I left Pass-the-Baton with a full heart and a head full of ideas for how to increase the value of products and experiences through storytelling. I wanted to find ways to experiment with the notion of inherent value by applying new layers of storytelling to everyday experiences and systems. The question I’m inspired to explore is, how might we engage people’s emotions, as well as their sense of value and style?

2. Ichiran Ramen — Where Senses are Heightened

(Photo by Michael Peng)

Which restaurant has the best-tasting ramen in Tokyo? It’s a constant topic of conversation in this city, and it’s impossible to determine a winner. For me, however, there’s one standout in the best-designed ramen-experience category: Ichiran. Out of the thousands of ramen restaurants in Japan, this one has choreographed the perfect environment to fully savor the flavors, tastes, and textures of ramen.

Ichiran is a solitary destination: Each booth is designed for one person, and it’s filled with everything needed to completely savor the experience, including an individual water dispenser, chopsticks, and cups. Diners are served when a pair of hands emerges with the perfect bowl of ramen. The curtain closes, and then it’s just you, the ramen, and full-on sensory enjoyment.

Ichiran is tuned to help you fully appreciate what you’re eating — the ramen and the ramen only. And what a bowl of ramen it is. It leaves us wondering, how might we apply this ultra-focused approach to other signature products and services by choreographing the experiences that surround them? How can we heighten the senses to bring individual flavors, smells, and textures to life?

3. ranKing ranQueen — Where Wisdom Comes from Crowds

(Photo by Michael Peng)

On the surface, ranKing ranQueen seems like an interesting concept: Take the most popular or top-selling products in each category — including peach-flavored candy, beauty facial wipes, and gift envelopes–and put them all in one store. It’s easy to breeze by the brightly lit, clearly ranked items and come away with the most highly recommended toothpaste or the most popular J-pop album, and be on your way. It’s a simple, easy-to-understand system, that provides a way to make sense of the myriad categories of Japanese consumer goods.

But after picking up a new thumb drive at the store one day, I saw there was more to the store than a simple sorting and ranking system. I began to realize that in Japan, people don’t just want to know they’re making a good purchasing decision, they need to know. And they do that by validating their choice against others’ opinions. ranKing ranQueen is brilliant because it taps into this innate cultural behavior.

Just as ranKing ranQueen have figured out a value proposition that’s both informative and meaningful, I wonder how else the wisdom of the crowds might be tapped to build on people’s existing behaviors and needs.

4. D47 — Where Provenance is Celebrated

(Photo by Michael Peng)

For most first-time travelers to Japan, cities like Tokyo and Kyoto top the list of cities to visit. Many people don’t realize that these are just two places in a country that’s woven together with a collection of prefectures, each with their own special tools, crafts, and food. As a restaurant, museum, and design travel store, the D47 concept aims to change this by showcasing the beauty that resides in each prefecture.

At the restaurant, patrons are asked to choose where their food comes from, instead of selecting the things they’d like to eat. The museum offers rotating exhibits, giving people a peek into how each prefecture reflects on the theme (one of my favorite exhibits asked each prefecture put together the “perfect giftbox”). The D47 design travel store curates local food items and crafts from each of the prefectures and houses them all together in one store, allowing customers to experience the “best of” from each region.

For visitors (and locals, in fact), D47 brings to life a more complete picture of Japan’s cultural, culinary, and craft-based traditions. Visiting the space in Shibuya’s Hikarie department store always encourages me to think of ways to better celebrate the history and origin of the things we create.

5. Kurage ga kumoni naru hi — Where Loyalty is Earned

(Photo by Michael Peng)

Every year, our IDEO Tokyo studio goes on an offsite somewhere outside the city to immerse ourselves in a new part of Japan and talk about our goals for the upcoming year. Kanazawa was our 2013 destination, and dinner at a restaurant called Kurage ga kumoni naru hi was our last meal.

We settled in and started reading the menu, which was comprised of just five items, all handwritten on a sheet. We ended up ordering multiples of everything, confused by the lack of choice, but ultimately incredibly satisfied with the beautiful food we enjoyed. Just before the bill came, our server surprised us by presenting a tray with 10 blank wooden tokens, which she passed out to each of us, one by one. She said, “The next time you come here, bring this token, and you will unlock a new set of dishes on the menu.” We felt as if we’d uncovered a secret new level in a video game, or found a hidden track on an album.

Even though Kanazawa is hours from Tokyo, we’re still trying to find a way to return so we see what the extended menu holds. Kurage ga kumoni naru hi has stayed in my mind long after I could reminisce about the specific flavors I tasted. It made me wonder how we might help our clients design loyalty programs that provide the same visceral desire to experience more of something.


Michael Peng is co-founder and co-Managing Director of IDEO Tokyo. He is passionate about IDEO being a creative catalyst for change in Japan. He is a visiting lecturer at Tokyo Institute of Technology and Kyushu University, and holds a degree in cognitive neuroscience from the University of California, Berkeley.


Originally published at ignition.co


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