This article is part of a guide to tokyo by FT Globetrotter
I am a second generation Japanese American; I grew up in California but never visited Japan when I was growing up. A Rotary Foundation scholarship brought me to Japan for the first time after college, and that’s where I learned Japanese well and met my family here. Fascinated by my ancestry, I wanted to learn more, so after completing my master’s degree in the United States, I returned to Tokyo, which has been my home for over 30 years.
The demographic headwinds in Japan are formidable. In 1999 I published my first report on “womenomics”, and my thesis was that if Japan could increase its low female labor force participation rate to reduce the gender employment gap, it could help boost GDP. To my surprise, the Japanese government adopted womenomics as part of its growth strategy in 2013, and in 2019, Japan’s female labor force participation rate of 71% actually exceeded those of the United States and Japan. Europe. So I thought I’d highlight some female leaders, chefs, and entrepreneurs who are connected to the museums, restaurants, and shops I love, along with some of my other top Tokyo tips.
One of my favorite museums is the Mori Art Museum, which specializes in international contemporary art in a variety of genres, including design, architecture, fashion and photography, under the direction of Mami Kataoka. As in many Japanese industries, art is no different: there is a shortage of female leaders. At this iconic museum in central Tokyo, Kataoka is a rare example of a leading woman who has risen to the top.
I used to work at Goldman Sachs, which is in the same Roppongi Hills complex where the museum is, so during lunch breaks I would occasionally check out their exhibits. A memorable sight was that of Chiharu Shiota, a Japanese artist based in Berlin. She created an installation in which an entire room was strung from floor to ceiling in red threads – it was very powerful.
Thanks to the influence of Kataoka, the Mori has put a major spotlight on diversity with its recent exhibition Another energy: the power to keep challenging, featuring a rare collection of works by 16 female artists from around the world aged 70 or over, most of whom are still active. The powerful sculptures, paintings and videos have focused on issues ranging from feminism to migrant history seen through the lenses of these artists, who began their careers during the turbulent period of the 1950s-70s.
Another wonderful cultural experience comes via Japanese digital art collective teamLab. They exhibit in huge warehouse-style buildings, using projected images and other techniques to create mesmerizing immersive works of art. One of my favorite places is TeamLab Planets, where you enter barefoot, and one of the facilities is a dark, water-filled room where colorful digital koi fish swim around your feet. Another of their exhibits is floating flower garden, filled with 13,000 hanging orchid plants that float up and down as you approach them, and as the boundary between you and the art dissipates, you suddenly become one with the flowers. It’s experiential, interactive and a very fun experience.
Another artist I admire is Reiko Sudo, Japan’s most influential textile designer, who founded Nuno Company (“nuno” means fabric in Japanese), and her work is part of the permanent collections of the Met Museum and MoMA in New York and the V&A Museum in London. Nuno’s Principal store is in Roppongi and you can order anything to make, like jackets, dresses and pants. Everything she does is a work of art, and I admire her mission to preserve the craftsmanship of textile manufacturing. Sudo combines traditional weaving practices with modern technology, and she uses unconventional materials such as washi (Japanese rice paper), for example, to create fabrics. Nuno is my favorite place to buy gifts for friends overseas because each item is so unique, beautiful and functional.
As for my favorite subject, food, there are two restaurants run by female chefs that I particularly like. Summer, a small one-table, six-person restaurant in Shibuya, is run by Natsuko Shoji, a young chef who, in 2020, was the first Japanese woman to win the title of Asia’s Best Pastry Chef. She’s also very good with savory dishes, but her star dishes are of course her desserts, where she takes the intersection between fine dining and art to the next level. During a recent visit, she covered the table with rose petals, then decorated a long block of ice with delicately shaped mango roses with strawberries – it was not only a stunning work of art, but also incredibly delicious.
Shoji is also a fashion icon and has developed into stardom (David Beckham and Noma chef René Redzepi are fans of his work). She’s adorable, hungry, and aiming for the top in a male-dominated industry.
A more low-key restaurant that I love is called Trip, run by owner-chef Yuri Nomura, which is also in the Shibuya area. Nomura is synonymous with organic food, from farm to table; his dishes are both appetizing and healthy. Her menu changes daily based on what’s available (she sources locally from a network of sustainable producers, including her parents’ farm). Its cuisine is a mixture of Western and Japanese cuisine. Every dish at Eatrip is delicious, but Nomura makes the most amazing lemon pie. It’s very thin – but once you take a bite of it, your mouth will explode with the combination of fresh citrus flavors and a delicate cookie crust. She also makes a delicious appetizer platter made up of grilled vegetables, pâté, tapenades and fresh toasted bread, which is one of the must-haves on her menu.
In Japan, there is a category of restaurants called B-kyu, which stands for “Rated B” and refers to cheap but delicious “soul food.” The most popular B-kyu foods include gyoza Dumplings, onigiri (rice balls) and Yakitori, among others – and there are so many great options to choose from. But the best gyoza can be found at Gyozaro Harajuku in the Omotesando district of Shibuya. Here you can have six large steamed or fried dishes gyoza and a bowl of rice and chicken stock for around £3. You can order them with or without garlic – get them with the latter. It’s the most satisfying meal, especially on a winter’s day, and everything is cooked to order. You can buy frozen gyoza also, what we did during lockdown for a quick dinner at home. It’s a simple and basic meal, but it’s the most delicious dumplings.
To browse all the culinary treasures of Tokyo, we regularly walk in Yoyogi Park, an oasis of nature in the middle of this giant metropolis. Our children are grown now, but when they were little, Yoyogi was where they learned to ride bikes and where we had many birthday parties. Since we became empty nests, my husband, Jesper Koll, and I take our dogs to Yoyogi and he jogs there almost every day. From cherry blossoms in spring to fall foliage, it’s a lovely spot year-round. As many Japanese people tend to live in small houses, the park is also a training ground for musicians, athletes and actors. You see talented people playing their musical instruments, skipping or acrobatic teams showing off tricks, or troupes of actors rehearsing. This is everyone’s stage.
Finally, one thing I love to do that I don’t do often enough is ride a yakatabune. They are historic boats dating from the Heian period (794 to 1185) that were used by members of the imperial court to recite poetry, share secrets or sympathize with friends in private. Today they are used for entertainment. I have rented them with friends and colleagues – we have many fond memories of riding the yakatabune. They can be Reserve for a few hours in the evening to cruise Tokyo Bay, and come with a Japanese meal, drinks and, of course, a karaoke machine, making for a very fun and lively evening. Living in Tokyo, you often forget you’re near the water because of all the skyscrapers, but these boat rides remind you that you’re living on an island, and the city’s nightscape is especially spectacular from the bay.
Kathy Matsui is a general partner of Japan’s first ESG-focused global venture capital fund, MPower Partners, and former Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs Japan
Share your Tokyo tips in the comments
Cities with the FT
FT Globetrotter, our insider guides to some of the world’s greatest cities, offer expert advice on food and drink, exercise, art and culture – and much more
Find us in Tokyo, New York, London, Paris, Rome, Frankfurt, Singapore, Hong Kong and Miami