It is strawberry time in Japan, and they seem to have more varieties than anywhere else in the world. See this fabulous display on the coffee table in corner room 3601 of the luxury hotel Mandarin Oriental Tokyo. They looked so good they could not possibly taste so good, thought the gal – and anyway, could one of these large things be eaten with the delicate little fork that was provided? The answer, of course, was to ask for a full-size fork and, of course, being this efficient hotel, a full-size knife, fork, linen napkin and china plate arrived immediately.
Interestingly, this hotel is in the extension to what is known as the Mitsui Main Building, a colonnaded affair built in 1929 on Nihonbashi. The extension designed by César Pelli in 2005, is a 41-floor glass tower, with the hotel on floors 30 up to 38th. The hotel has its own entrance, but you can also walk through the main atrium to Nihonbashi Street, and there, in the atrium, you find two delights. One is a branch of the unique Sembikiya store, first opened by a Samurai in 1843. Look at this mango, individually wrapped and labelled. It is a Kanjuku Mango (Miyazaki) Mangifera indica and it costs, just this one, ¥22,575 – £133.87.
The whole of Sembikiya store is like that. I look at displays of strawberries. These are Queen Strawberries, Fragaria x Ananassa, and they cost, per box, ¥4,725 – £28 (later, when I eat my strawberries back in my room, I savour every tiny swallow and, to my surprise, the white ones have the most flavour). But the other delight in the Mitsui atrium? Well, it opened only last month, February 14th, 2014 to be exact. What was an empty space has been turned, at Mitsui’s expense, into Gourmet Shop, the Japanese version of a French deli, spilling out on to Nihonbashi. You can, when the weather allows, sit outside, or, year round, there are seats in an all-glass conservatory. You can also choose what you want, to go.
And that is what the thousands of Japanese who work in this immediate high-commerce area will do. They are going to buy for lunch and, judging by the first day, to take home for dinner. The first day, Gourmet Shop, run entirely by Mandarin Oriental Tokyo, sold no fewer than 240 strawberry tarts, and the amount of money it made overall is absolutely staggering. People bought baguette sandwiches designed by the hotel’s top chefs in each of its four-cuisine restaurants, and matching salads – later, I tried the brown rice flour Italian baguette, filled with Parma ham and parmesan and artichoke. It was so good that if I worked here I would have to ration myself. Not tonight – again – Josephine.
The hotel’s pastry chef, Shuji Muto, was beaming. No-one realised Gourmet Shop was going to be such an immediate success, but they – the hotel boss, Tony Costa, and his deputy, Maximilian von Reden – toured all the delis in town to find out what the competition would be. They hired a cult designer, Shinchiro Ogata, who put in big round, ceiling-high, black columns painted in white as if graffiti on a blackboard. Outside the entrance there are display boxes where signs can be changed regularly. This place is fun, I thought immediately, and at that Tony Costa took me walking the neighbourhood.
Nihonbashi (‘Japan Bridge’), two blocks away, is literally the centre of Tokyo. It was built 1911, as a Renaissance-style stone-arch shape, designed by architect Yorinaka Tsumaki. Still, today, all distances are marked from here. This is Kilometre Zero, the equivalent of Hyde Park Corner in London… we did some more walking, into a local version of Boots or Walgreens, and marvelled at the varieties, smooth through to not-so-smooth, of tissues, and of the evidently-needed finger-rolling gadgets, different sizes for men and women. What have I been missing? Time to get back to the luxury hotel, gal, for some food.