What I Learned in Tokyo



A visit to a Breguet-sponsored exhibition dedicated to Marie Antoinette’s life was a very cool way to experience Japan’s dynamic capital city

In a perfect world, everyone would, at some point in his or her life, experience Tokyo. I had my chance last week and was blown away by the city’s killer style, inventive cuisine, and unparalleled service.

It was well worth the 12-hour haul from Los Angeles to join the Swiss watch brand Breguet at the opening of “Marie Antoinette, A Queen in Versailles,” an exhibition running through Feb. 26 at Tokyo’s Mori Arts Center Gallery. 

Over the course of four days in Japan’s ancient yet wildly contemporary capital city, I was reminded of how interesting it is to see the world through the lens of watchmaking. Here are a few of the things I learned.

1. The Japanese have a long-standing fascination with French culture.

The Japanese have long idolized French culture and Marie Antoinette, in particular. That helps explain why the Château de Versailles, the organization that oversees the French royal palace, chose to stage the Breguet-sponsored exhibition, the first retrospective of the queen’s life to be shown in Japan, at Tokyo’s premier arts institution. Located at the top of a tower in the Roppongi Hills shopping complex, the Mori Arts Center Gallery and the neighboring Mori Art Museum are magnets for both tourists and well-heeled locals.

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A portrait of Marie Antoinette (photo courtesy of Château de Versailles)

The exhibition documents Marie Antoinette’s life, from her youth in Vienna until her execution in 1793 at the hands of French revolutionaries, through paintings, drawings, furnishings, and objets d’art. The sumptuous decor that surrounded the queen during her reign has been painstakingly re-created in the gallery space and forms a cool contrast with the stark views of the Blade Runner–esque metropolis below.

For watch lovers, however, the main attraction is pocket watch No. 1160, aka the Marie Antoinette, a reproduction of the complicated timepiece that the queen commissioned Abraham Louis Breguet to make for her in 1783. Completed in 1827, 34 years after her death and four years after Breguet’s own passing, the original pocket watch, No. 160, remained the world’s most complicated timepiece for nearly a century.

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Breguet No. 1160 (photo courtesy of Breguet)

The replica, which is not for sale, will be on display at the Mori Arts Center Gallery Nov. 2–3 before it moves to the Breguet boutique in Tokyo’s luxe Ginza district, where it will be showcased Nov. 4–6. It will then return to the Breguet manufacture in Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux.

I got to spend a few quality minutes with the piece on Saturday, my final night in Tokyo, when I attended a gala dinner at the French embassy. The ambassador hosted 120 (mostly Japanese) guests who’d come to pay their respects to the queen’s legacy and the timepiece that embodies it. The evening concluded with a ballet performance by two dancers dressed in 18th-century wigs and courtly fashions. No wonder the Japanese are such fans of the queen and the period in which she reigned—can you think of a better inspiration for a country obsessed with cosplay?

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The guests at the French embassy’s Marie Antoinette–themed gala dinner were enthralled by an elegant ballet performance by dancers bedecked in period costumes.

2. The Breguet boutique in Ginza is luxury done right.

To glimpse luxury retail at its finest, skip Paris and New York and instead head to Tokyo’s Ginza district. The high-end shopping area is the city’s answer to Rodeo Drive, Bond Street, and Fifth Avenue.

Watch lovers will want to visit the Nicolas G. Hayek Center, a collection of seven Swatch Group brand boutiques—including Breguet, Blancpain, Glashütte Original, Jaquet Droz, Longines, Omega, and Swatch—located on various floors of a 14-story building designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. The space brims with greenery, interesting art, and the coolest elevator banks you’ve ever seen.

Each boutique has its own hydraulically operated lift that whisks visitors from the ground-floor entrance and delivers them to the brand’s plush environment. The Breguet elevator is egg-shaped, in honor of the brand’s iconic Reine de Naples timepiece, which features a distinctive oblong silhouette. The boutique itself is thoughtfully decorated and includes a back room adorned in the style of Marie Antoinette’s bedroom at Petit Trianon, the small château on the grounds of Versailles that she used as a haven from courtly society (Breguet sponsored its restoration in 2008).

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The Breguet boutique in the Nicolas G. Hayek Center in Tokyo’s Ginza district (photo courtesy of Breguet)

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The boutique’s back room, decorated to resemble Marie Antoinette’s bedroom in the Petit Trianon (photo courtesy of Breguet)

3. If you want to up your service game, book a trip to Japan to study the masters.

Not for nothing do people return from Japan raving about the service. It’s phenomenal. Someone once told me that in 2002, when Korea and Japan jointly hosted the World Cup, the Koreans had to swallow their pride and send a delegation to longtime rival Japan, to study its culture of service—for fear that people who attended events in both countries would come home raving about the Japanese and complaining about the Koreans.

Now I understand why. The moment you enter a shop or restaurant in Japan, you are greeted with a soft-spoken konnichiwa. At no point will you have to chase down a shop assistant or waiter—help is always at the ready. The politeness and genuine warmth of the Japanese people cannot be overstated. I’ve been back in the United States for less than 12 hours and already, I’m nostalgic for the culture’s serene vibe.

Interestingly, the Japanese do not, as a rule, accept tips. Which makes their exceptional politeness and masterful service all the more rewarding—there’s nothing in it for them, apart from a deeply entrenched belief that providing great service is a reward all its own.

4. People will pay upward of $150 for a single mushroom.

And by people, I mean us. On our second night in Tokyo, we stumbled upon Keyakizaka, a super-sophisticated teppanyaki restaurant in the Grand Hyatt Roppongi Hills, where the chef assigned to our group of four—including myself, Breguet U.S. PR manager Liliana Chen; watch blogger Elizabeth Doerr, cofounder of the website Quill & Pad; and freelance stylist and editor Laurie Brookins—regaled us with a culinary performance the likes of which I’d never experienced.

Standing at the flat grill directly in front of our bar seats, he sliced, diced, flipped, and grilled our food with the grace of a surgeon. I was mesmerized by every swipe of his sharp Japanese blade. He devoted extra time to the rare matsutake mushroom we had ordered without realizing how pricey it was (15,000 yen, or slightly less than $150!). Once we got over the shock of the cost, and the ensuing laughs about “fungus among us,” we savored every last meaty bite of it.

A couple days later, on a morning visit to Tsukiji, the busiest fish market in the world, we spied a vendor selling a mushroom for 20,000 yen (roughly $200), which inspired howls of laughter and confirmed what I already knew: Japan has the world’s most insane food culture (I mean that in a good way!).

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A box of $200 mushrooms at Tsukiji Fish Market

5. It’s a difficult time for the Swiss watch industry, but Japan remains a bright spot.

Swiss watch exports to Hong Kong for the first nine months of this year have dropped 29.1 percent compared with 2015, and exports to the U.S. have slipped 8.7 percent. But Japan, Switzerland’s no. 3 market globally, remains steady, with only a 1.3 percent decline. Experts are attributing the country’s relatively strong performance to the masses of Chinese tourists flocking there. But it certainly helps that Japan is a mature market and that shopping is a national pastime. There’s always room for another watch boutique (which may explain why Citizen announced last week that it will open its first flagship store next April, in Ginza). 

P.S. Special thanks to our fearless leader, Liliana. In the five years that we’ve worked together, she has consistently impressed me with her take-charge personality. Funny, knowledgeable, and proactive, Liliana is a journalist’s dream. And in Tokyo, she put all that experience to great use, curating one of the most delightful press trips I have taken in my 16 years of writing about jewelry and watches. Arigato!