Almost Perfect

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He’s a romantic, she’s a pragmatist. He’s the creative type, she has a mind for numbers. He’s the self-proclaimed “clown”, she is elegant and soft spoken. In every aspect of their professional and personal lives, Luis Mendo and Yuka Okada Martín Mendo seem to complement each other perfectly. Or to use their own slogan, almost perfectly. While they may be quite different in some regards, Yuka and Luis also have much in common. They share a passion for sustainability, and both left high-profile jobs in order to pursue their passions and a slower, more fulfilling life. Spanish-born Luis worked for over two decades as an art director in Europe before coming to Japan, where he now makes a living as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer. Yuka quit a job in finance to enter the ethical fashion industry, even running her own brand for seven years. Now, the pair have merged their respective strengths to establish one of Tokyo’s most unique artist spaces. Opened in October 2018, Almost Perfect is a creative residency aimed at the many people each year who come to Tokyo in search of inspiration. Illustrators, musicians, creative directors, theatre people, writers, and other types of creatives from around the world not only stay in the renovated, century-old rice shop, but they can also create in the studio and show their work in the gallery. The building that houses Almost Perfect was constructed in 1924, and three generations of the same family lived upstairs and sold rice from the shop until shortly before Yuka and Luis arrived. The renovations were conducted on a shoestring budget over just six weeks, and many of the building’s original features—including the rice mill—remain. “That’s also why the name is good, because if something isn’t quite right we can always say, ‘We’re not perfect, we’re almost perfect. Sorry that we don’t have a Herman Miller chair, but at least we don’t have Ikea,’” Luis says with his characteristic laugh. Yuka and Luis are masters of repurposing. A carpenter friend of theirs used an old shelf from a kimono shop to convert an electric piano in the gallery into a desk when it’s not being played. Upstairs, a cupboard that was formerly used to store futons—and as a child’s bed when the original family lived in the house—is now Luis’s worktable. “We have a policy in buying things. If we can’t upcycle or recycle something, the first thing that we look for is local producers. Whatever we find locally, as long as it is affordable, we go for it,” Yuka says. “And if we can’t find anything in this area or Tokyo or Japan, we go for organic things or something with a sustainable background.” This policy has resulted in an eclectic mix of items throughout the space. Beds from Muji, lamps found at second-hand stores, ceramics bought in the nearby “kitchen town” of Kappabashi, and an outdoor shower on the third-floor balcony (Luis’s favourite feature of the building) all live in harmony … Read More

Nagae+

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With more and more young people leaving behind the countryside and its simpler professions in favour of Tokyo’s skyscrapers and their associated desk jobs, many of Japan’s traditional crafts are on the verge of extinction. Saving them may be a daunting task, but it’s not enough to deter Shoko Tsurumoto from trying. “There are so many cases of there being only one factory remaining that can make a certain product. And if that one factory goes out of business or if one person dies, so will a part of Japanese cultural heritage,” Tsurumoto says. “I think this is our last chance—while these traditional crafts still exist, I want to use my brand to help support people’s livelihoods and our shared culture, rather than letting it die out. I think if we can create a market for the products, young people will become interested in learning these crafts.” Tsurumoto uses her art and design background to dream up products that can help to move traditional Japanese craftsmanship into the future. The parent company of the brand that she helms, Nagae+, has a background producing Buddhist statues and ceremonial objects from tin, which are made at a factory in Toyama prefecture. She has leveraged this know-how to create simple yet beautiful accessories and tableware with a modern aesthetic. At the brand’s bright, welcoming flagship store near Harajuku, tables, shelves and walls alike gleam with metallic articles in contrasting textures. The smooth, shiny surface of massage tools that could easily be mistaken for objets d’art; the pure tin cuff bracelets and earrings embossed to resemble the matte surface of washi paper; the sparkling, crystallised bursts on wall tiles and trays (this particular texture, Tsurumoto says, was created thanks to a happy accident, which was then deliberately reproduced, although no two are alike). Tin may seem an odd choice for jewelry, but its malleability makes it incredibly versatile, both in terms of texture and size. The bangles are basically just strips of metal in various widths, which can then be molded to fit the wearer’s wrist. Tsurumoto says they will eventually break after being bent and unbent roughly 200 times, but when that happens customers can bring them back to the store and exchange them for new ones. The old bangles will be melted down and turned into new tin products. One of the signature items of Nagae+ is an oddly shaped sake cup, developed together with a sake sommelier. Each face of it is inspired by a different type of wine glass, and rotating it and drinking from different places along the rim produces different flavour profiles. “We have different shapes of glasses for different varieties of wine, but for sake we usually use the same cup for every type, which doesn’t always do it justice,” Tsurumoto says, adding that the cup can also be used with wine, tea and coffee. Another series of Nagae+ products is made at a glove factory in Kagawa prefecture, using leather from Himeji. In keeping with the … Read More

Mister Hollywood

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Daisuke Obana never expected he would end up founding and helming one of Japan’s most influential and successful menswear brands. In fact, he never even pictured himself as a fashion designer. “Ever since I was young my dream had been to become a buyer for a vintage fashion store,” he says. “I love vintage clothes and I thought that if I was going to work in that field the ultimate goal would be to become a buyer.” Obana started working in vintage as a student, rising to the rank of buyer and store manager just a few years later. Through numerous trips to the U.S. to scour flea markets and thrift stores, he developed a sharp eye and a gift for curating an eclectic yet design-conscious selection. “I lived the life of a buyer for about six or seven years, but every time I went on a buying trip I found fewer and fewer good items. And when that happened I realised that even though I liked it, there may not be a future for me as a vintage buyer,” Obana says. “But at that time there were a lot of things that were in terrible condition but had a good aura, or things that didn’t hold any value to most people but were still cool. So I started to select and edit those, and to pick up and rework the things that were in bad shape. I thought it would be good if I could take things that already existed, do different things to them, and make them look stylish. And that was how the brand I have now started.” Obana began selling his first reworked vintage items, as well as a few original pieces, from a corner of the vintage shop where he worked in 1999. With no formal design training, he struck out on his own a year later with a shop in Harajuku called Mister Hollywood, and his brand N. Hoolywood—named after the neighbourhood where he once rented a house when he was making frequent trips to the U.S., but with an unconventional spelling—was officially launched in 2001. The Harajuku store moved to its current location in 2004, taking over a house in the backstreets near Omotesando. Decorated with everything from an old wooden kitchen bench and refrigerator to carnival-style capsule toy vending machines and clown portraits, the store reflects Obana’s own unique tastes. The designer’s background can often be gleaned from his collections, which may include everything from military influences to tailored suits to distressed sweatshirts in oversized silhouettes, always beautifully constructed with a keen attention to detail. There are also numerous collaborations with other brands, including Pendleton, Vans, Mountain Hardwear, Jerzees, and New Balance. But Obana says he mostly draws inspiration from within, interpreting his reactions to a particular place, experience, or cultural aspect. “You can get any kind of information you want via social media, so I think it’s more interesting to make clothes that are a mix of all the things I … Read More

Locale

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Walking into Locale, a small restaurant near the river in Meguro, customers feel as though they’re entering someone’s home. The chef, Katy Cole, welcomes them with a smile from behind the counter, where other guests—who may have been strangers only moments before—share stories and discuss wine preferences. “It feels like a dinner party every night,” Cole says. The story of how Cole came to open Locale is an unlikely one, full of chance encounters and serendipitous twists of fate. The Los Angeles native spent the first decade of her career cooking in San Francisco. When she first visited Japan on a whim, it was only for a ten-day holiday. Still, she “felt like there was something more,” and six months later she was back again, this time for a longer stay. During that second trip, she began making the connections that would soon lead to her leaving California behind to live in Japan full time. After spending several months doing pop-up cooking events whenever and wherever she could, Cole was hired as the savoury chef to open what would quickly become a popular bakery and cafe in Daikanyama. It was during this time that she learnt that the restaurant that previously occupied Locale’s space would be closing. She immediately put up her hand to take over the lease. “On the second or third day of my first trip to Japan, I came here and sat at this counter and thought, I would love to have a restaurant like this one day,” she says. Over time she became friends with the owner of that restaurant, and even though he questioned whether she would be able to make the space work for her, she knew she was going to try. And not only did she try, she succeeded. “I opened the restaurant four years to the day from when I came here the first time,” Cole says. At Locale, vegetables take centre stage. Every week, the restaurant gets deliveries from small farms across Japan, the contents of which are unknown until they are opened. It is only at this time that the chef begins planning the menu, which changes slightly each day. “We use such special ingredients and the farmers put a lot of care and energy into what they’re growing, and for me to peel it all away or make it into some other shape seems like a little bit of a waste to me,” Cole says. “The quality of the vegetables is so nice, I don’t need to do too much to them. So I guess my philosophy is just that simple is best.” A night at Locale might see a menu that includes colourful roasted vegetables with cashew cream, lentils and avocado with a bright pink sauce made of yogurt and shibazuke pickles, Spanish mackerel with quinoa and roasted root vegetables, and pork shoulder with whipped taro root and greens. “I feel that everything sort of comes together, from the honesty of the people growing the vegetables, to serving … Read More

Lunco

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Ranko Nagata always knew she would end up in a creative line of work, but until one fateful first visit to a flea market some four decades ago, she had never imagined her life would be exactly what it is today. At the time working as a glass blower, Nagata visited the market to get inspiration and ideas for her art. “I found a box full of old fabric, and a very surprising thing happened. It was as if it was talking to me, as if it had life. My mother wore a kimono so I was used to and interested in kimono fabric, but this was a whole new experience,” she recalls. “The fabrics at the market were old, dating back to the Edo period, and they were naturally dyed in very basic, neutral colours of indigo and beige. But for me, they were alive and fresh. I immediately bought the entire box and started making things with them.” Ever since that day, vintage fabrics have been Nagata’s passion. She continued making glass art for some time, but she was also making frequent visits to markets to satisfy her insatiable thirst for old textiles, which she used to make small crafts and patchwork bed covers. Eventually she was asked to help out at a vintage fabric store, which ended up being the final nail in the coffin of her glass blowing career. “I gradually became more obsessed with fabrics than I was with glass work,” she says. “Fabric became so much more interesting to me.” Nagata opened her own shop about 20 years after that first flea market encounter. Called Lunco—a creative, alternative spelling of her first name—it has been in its present location for about a decade. She sells vintage kimono and vintage fabric cuttings, the majority of which are at least 100 years old. She finds them at auctions and then often hangs onto them for months or years before putting them in the shop. “When we sell things, we set a theme. Rather than selling them right away when we find them at auctions or markets, we keep them until the collection for the theme is complete, however long it takes. We want customers to feel the theme and the things we have collected,” she says. Nagata likens creating these themes—or “worlds,” as she calls them—to making works of art. It’s her creative outlet, she says. Past themes at Lunco have included crimson and purple, autumn plants, and distant turquoise. And she still prepares all the kimono and fabrics herself, carefully steaming the wrinkles out, while she murmurs a thank you to the backside of the fabric (expressing her gratitude to past wearers) and a request to take care of future wearers to the front side. While some might call Nagata a workaholic—she proudly boasts of only taking New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day off each year—she is clearly driven by passion and a genuine love for what she does. She has a childlike fascination … Read More

Sushisho

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People who know sushi know Keiji Nakazawa. His name rarely figures on high-profile star-ranking systems, but he is probably the most influential sushi chef working in Japan today – and Sushisho is more than just his restaurant. To his growing band of protégées, it is an academy; to devotees of his cuisine, it is Mecca. Nakazawa’s philosophy falls within the broad church of Edomae sushi, or ‘sushi in the style of Edo’ (the old name for Tokyo), which in its purest form is the combination of sliced raw seafood on top of vinegared rice. For inspiration, Nakazawa reached back in time to the earliest traditions of Edomae sushi, while at the same time evolving the cuisine in directions that are both innovative and stunning to behold. For example, modern sushi norms dictate that the fish must be as fresh as possible, yet before refrigeration technology it was commonly treated to make it last longer. Nakazawa resurrected this tradition by ageing, marinating, simmering or searing his seafood to achieve maximum flavour. He is also fastidious about rice, and uses two different grains depending on the seafood they’re cushioning: simple white rice for simple, delicate fish; and less common red rice for fattier, fuller flavoured species. He varies the seasoning – vinegar, salt or soy – to balance the taste, and famously serves his rice warmer than is customary. The fixed omakase course service at Sushisho can begin with a delicate slice of cooked squid stuffed with rice and dotted in three places with concentrated soy sauce. It may include a pocket of aji (horse mackerel) filled with threads of ginger, shiso and cucumber. It will certainly include slithers of tuna, yellowtail or squid laden with taste from being aged for days or even weeks. And extras such as monkfish liver lying back-to-back with pickled baby watermelon on a bed of red rice would be a crime to miss. Nakazawa set his sights set on becoming a shokunin (artisan) of sushi when he was just 15 years old. His journey began on a delivery bicycle, weaving the crowded streets of Tokyo with boxes of sushi piled high on his shoulder. Later, he travelled the country “like a nomad” honing his skills and learning regional traditions and techniques. The sushi world became his family: he lived with the other apprentices, ate and drank with his teachers, and learned to enjoy interacting with customers. In January 2016, Nakazawa upped sticks and moved to Hawaii for his next adventure, opening a branch of Sushisho in Waikiki. But his spirit lives on at his former restaurant and in the talents of those he schooled in the Sushisho way. “You can’t run a restaurant alone,” Nakazawa says. “More than skill, teamwork and communication are most important.” He is mentor to several of Tokyo’s most highly regarded young sushi chefs. To them, he is always – even in his absence – called oyakata, a term that combines respect with endearment, marking him out as akin to an honorary … Read More