In Tokyo, a city filled with exceptional shops, none inspires more enthusiasm or more superlatives than one in Shibuya. From the outside it’s nothing special - an unprepossessing block on a sloping corner. It’s an awkward site that necessitates the store’s famously labyrinthine interior. To anyone who lives in Tokyo though, the green portals signify a shop like no other: Tokyu Hands. Or, as many call it, just plain Hands.
Tokyu Hands is difficult to describe to anyone who’s never been there. How do you do justice to a shop that sells everything from pots and pans to planks of wood? Vegetable juicers, earthquake kits, power drills and bed linen are all here. So too are rucksacks, mattresses, sewing machines, pet supplies and yoga mats. It would be quicker to list what it doesn’t sell.
“It defies description,” says shop manager Kazuhiro Fukumoto, who has been working for Tokyu Hands for 30 years. “It’s not a department store, it’s not a home centre and it’s not a hardware store.” It has elements of all of these but isn’t any one of them. Even the company struggles to define it. It has tried, calling it a “Creative Life Store”, a “Hint Market”, an “Idea Superstore”, even “the place where when you visit, you find what you want”, although that doesn’t quite do it either, since, as any visitor will tell you, you also regularly find what you didn’t know you wanted.
Some facts and figures about Hands: it had 5.2 million visitors last year; it has roughly 150,000 items on sale including 14,000 pens, 18,000 kitchen items and 45,000 diy items. The shop opened in 1978, two years after the company was founded. Tokyu Hands is owned by Tokyu Land Corporation, a property company that was offered the Shibuya land – the site of an old church – and didn’t quite know what to do with it. Figuring that in an age of hurtling economic growth and mass production there might be a move back to a more creative, handmade way of doing things, it decided to open a shop that could give people all the tools they needed to fashion their own life. Hence the store’s name and logo, two hands.
Today, the Tokyu Hands company, which is headquartered in Shibuya, has 2,900 employees and 27 shops, including one in Shanghai, but the Shibuya store is the pulsating heart and historic soul of the business, brimming with creativity and packed to the rafters with products.
The day starts at 10.00 sharp, seven days a week, 364 days a year (only closing for New Year’s Day). Staff dressed in green aprons and white shirts bow as they greet the first customers. In an area so determinedly youthful that J-pop is pumped through the public address system, Tokyu Hands is a beacon of equality. All-comers are welcome – young and old, men and women. Schoolchildren, local builders, pensioners, art students and tourists all pile in, all looking for something different. Pity the hapless visitor who strolls in for a browse. They emerge hours later looking stunned and laden with bags.
Before the doors even open the staff have whipped around with feather dusters and run through the previous day’s figures. Fukumoto’s lieutenant, the effervescent Hiroshi Mizoguchi, who has also notched up 30 years of service, leads the morning meeting, encouraging staff to be (even more) helpful. An iRobot vacuum cleaner tootles around in the background.
On the shop floor, Mizoguchi is gamely wearing a fabric mushroom on his head while earnestly answering customer queries. “You could never start a shop like this now,” he says, referring to Hands’ legendarily extensive inventory. Look at toothbrushes: there are over 200 different types and that’s before you even start on the racks of electric brushes. “Everyone knows this is where you come when you can’t find something anywhere else,” says Mizoguchi. The nearly obsolete light bulbs and obscure bits of kitchen equipment are what many people come for. “We can’t disappoint them,” says Fukumoto.
Down on B1B, the wood workshop is in full swing. There are seven workers led by Noboru Yamashita, a furniture maker who’s been here for 18 years, cutting anything from bookshelves to shop counters. Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest days and the team is usually working flat out. “There’s nothing else like this in the neighbourhood,” he says. “And there aren’t many places anywhere that will do small one-off pieces like we can.”
The customers make for a fascinating cross-section. Anna Kondo, a 23-year-old fashion worker, is eyeing wood for a bookshelf. Upstairs in Jewellery & Pets, Tamiko Kubohara is after a chain to go with a pendant she’s been given. One middle-aged early bird in Miniature Models & Hobbies looks thrilled to have scored the latest replica of a Kyushu bullet train. Jarrett Reynolds, design director at Nike’s Tokyo design studio, is loading up his basket in Craft & Design. “This is the best place in the world,” he says. “I’m in here at least once a week and I’ve probably bought something in every department.” Most new visitors go through the same process, initially drawn to the more wacky offerings (the paper undies in Travel Accessories or the ninja outfits in Party & Variety Goods) before settling into the genius of the everyday stock.
One of the things that people most love about Hands is the staff (and there are 274 here), who offer ideas and advice along with the products. You couldn’t hope to meet a more dedicated, knowledgeable bunch. You only need to look at their aprons, bursting with tools, notebooks and useful bits and pieces to know they mean business. Kyoko Ono is three decades into her career at Hands. She’s the queen of the lightbulb department and what she doesn’t know about batteries isn’t worth knowing.
She reads about this stuff in her spare time, “which is funny because I was a literature graduate,” she laughs. When anyone comes into a Hands store with a tricky bulb query or battery conundrum the staff get straight on the phone to Ono. A battery for an Israeli night-scope? No problem. A bulb for a lamp bought on holiday in Italy? Ono has just the thing.
Shinji Omori, who rules the tools department, is a walking encyclopaedia with the well-worn hands of an artisan and an invaluable contact book built up over 25 years. This is a key department for Hands, loved both by diy novices and professional builders who otherwise wouldn’t have a hope of finding a hammer or nail in the surrounding sea of hairdressers and boutiques.
The store was spruced up in 2009 and a café added in 2012 but otherwise it’s all much as it was in 1978. The odd department has been lost along the way – audio and car accessories for example – but customers don’t want it to change. They like it just the way it is, including the arrangement of dividing each floor into three levels, A, B and C, which means that in a seven-storey shop you have 25 separate departments.
It’s easy to become obsessed with Hands. Spend time here and you realise that this shop documents the preoccupations of Japanese life. The bathing rituals, the love of a massage chair, the need for suitcases with four wheels; in fact, the need for the right piece of equipment to deal with any given situation. Every season, every festival, every event from New Year to the start of the school year puts in an appearance in product form. An anthropologist would have a field day.
Hands’ bestselling products would make an interesting history of Japanese fads, from Tamagotchi to the cooling gel neckerchiefs that exploded onto the market two summers ago. As the rainy season approaches in June, in come the umbrellas; humidifiers are lined up for the dry winter months. For pollen season – a huge deal in Japan where cedars produce vast quantities of pollen, bringing suffering to millions every spring – there are dozens of masks, drops, nose shields and protective glasses.
Throughout, there is a gloss of novelty that overlays the foundation of core products. Tokyu Hands has to react quickly to trends and, hopefully, lead them. The staff are always looking for ways to attract customers with tables of new goods and “Hint Pits” where shoppers can try out products. All this to an upbeat bossa, reggae, easy-listening soundtrack that is carefully chosen by a Japanese DJ who goes by the name of Lava.
As the day wears on the afternoon crowd thickens. Down in diy Creative Materials design students are filling the aisles, sizing up polystyrene cones and rolls of plastic sheeting. Hidetaka Onaka, who has spent 15 years in different diy and craft departments, is on hand to answer even the most outlandish queries. “I like to think that most well-known designers probably passed through this department as students,” he says.
In Kitchen Supplies, Ikuno Hayashida is patiently handling requests for Japanese knives and the latest time-saving gadgets. A spoon for fluffing rice is flying off the shelves. “Japanese shoppers are very particular,” she says. “They really know their kitchen equipment.” Tourists stand agog, wondering if they’ll ever use a dedicated banana masher back at home.
Every day one member of staff in each department is designated the “smile leader”, responsible for leading the cheery service. Everyone wears a name tag. “It’s customary in Japan,” says Fukumoto. “Shoppers like to know who they’re buying from.” Trainees wear special badges for three months, like learner drivers.
Staff listen to feedback, particularly from longstanding customers who object to products disappearing from the shelves, and do their best to fulfil requests. “Our policy is never to say ‘we don’t stock that’”, says Fukumoto. “We always try to source a product if it exists.” They pass on ideas to the 70-strong team of buyers who call in products from all over the world.
As the evening draws in the seventh-floor café is full and a craft workshop is taking place. Even after closing time at 20.30 Fukumoto is still patrolling, chatting to staff about how the day has gone.
You have to warm to a shop where an elderly gentleman can enjoy a toasted sandwich and latte to the jazzed-up strains of “You are the Sunshine of My Life” and look quite at home. They say you should never meet your heroes. In this case, delving behind the scenes at Tokyu Hands only makes you love the place even more. It’s the commitment and good humour, the overwhelming range of products and the sheer quirkiness of the place. Let’s leave the final word to a satisfied customer. “I’ve lived all over the place and shopped everywhere,” says Jarrett Reynolds. “And this store is unparalleled.”