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
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
When Cafe Casa’s popular hotcakes were featured on a well-known Japanese television program, the lines of customers waiting to try one stretched down the block for several weeks. But while the cafe’s fluffy, thick version of a classic pancake may be what draws many people there initially, regulars know that it has much more than that to offer. Tucked behind a welcoming facade of colourful plants and twinkling string lights, Cafe Casa is in many ways a quintessentially Tokyo establishment, representing both the old and the new. It has occupied its homey space for over three decades, and its die-hard customers have fond memories of the days when its original proprietress would serve them cakes and coffee while engaging them in a conversation on whatever topic took their fancy. Today, the faces have changed, but the friendly atmosphere still remains. The cafe is now run by the original owner’s daughter, Ai, and her American husband, Jonathan Hebert. The mother still drops in from time to time to mingle with the diners, and the family dog, Mame-chan, also holds court in the hall. For Hebert, it’s not a life that he could have imagined for himself when he was working as a decorative painter in Boston, but it’s one he has embraced wholeheartedly. “I started off by washing the dishes when everyone else was busy making hotcakes, and I have gradually learned the ropes since then,” he says. Hebert and his family live above the cafe, and on a typical day he is the first one in the kitchen, preparing the hotcake batter and making the nel drip coffee, a time-consuming process that he describes as a kind of meditation. Next come the part-time staff, who prep for the lunch rush before Ai comes down and begins the cooking. While some of the menu items, including the famous hotcakes, have been passed down from her mother, Ai developed many of the current recipes herself. Having studied cooking in Florence, she enjoys experimenting with different methods and combinations that are well suited to Casa’s tiny kitchen. One of her best-selling inventions is the baked keema curry, which consists of a layer of rice in a skillet, topped with spicy curry, shredded cheese, and a whole egg before being cooked in the oven. “Unless we continue to innovate, people get bored with it,” Hebert says. “We’re trying to turn the cruise ship. We don’t want to change too much too quickly, but we do want to take it in a new direction.” That new direction also includes the cafe’s look. While it retains its classic Showa-era charm, Hebert has used his artistic skills to put his own personal touch on it. He added colourful stained glass windows to the front wall, and his illustrations grace the menu and signboards. “We just want this to be the place where people are comfortable coming. Casa in Spanish is house, so I want this to feel like a home, for Japanese and foreigners alike,” Hebert says.
In the backstreets of Harajuku there used to be a little wooden house with a coffee kiosk on its ground floor. It was there that Eiichi Kunitomo served what some argued were Tokyo’s best cappuccinos. When that house was razed in early 2016, taking Omotesando Koffee with it, even international media outlets wrote articles lamenting its demise. But as the fans were mourning, Kunitomo was planning. He travelled the world and all over Japan, meeting roasters and fine tuning the concept for his next step. In January 2017 he opened Koffee Mameya where his old shop once stood. Kunitomo and fellow barista Miki Takamasa still wear their pale blue lab coats, but they take the metaphor much further now. Their minimalist interior is divided into service counter and waiting room. When it’s your turn to approach the counter, you discuss your preferences and they’ll suggest something suitable from over a dozen roasts. And like the serious medicine in a pharmacy, the drugs are behind the counter. Kunitomo believes the consultation phase is essential, so he takes the time to explain the flavour camp and finish of the various options, as well as the roasters who provide them. He works with a handful of his favourite roasters and assembles a spectrum of flavours from elegant light roasts to rich dark ones. There is a menu that lists varietal, roaster and provenance, and plots the beans by roast and mouthfeel, but in a departure from the specialist coffee norm, it offers no tasting notes. “It’s not easy to understand ‘hint of lemon’ and that kind of thing,” says Kunitomo. When you’ve chosen your bean, you can have it poured over a Kalita Wave dripper or served as espresso from the Synesso machine, but it must be black. There is no place here for anything that would adulterate the work of the grower or roaster. It can be a long process, and for those waiting in line… they can wait, says Kunitomo. He’s not playing a volume game. Kunitomo began his career two decades ago pulling espressos in Osaka. He refined his technique in a Neapolitan coffee shop, and when he returned from Italy, the specialty coffee scene was starting to bubble. Omotesando Koffee opened at the right time, in the perfect place, to play a key role. It proved such a success that it spawned spinoffs in Tokyo’s Toranomon district and Hong Kong, but when Kunitomo was invited to reopen in the new building, he took the space but left the format behind. “I wanted to have a slower pace,” he says. “And there are plenty of places you can drink coffee out now, so I wanted to introduce coffee you can drink at home.” To underscore the point, Kunitomo and Takamasa devote the final hour of each weekday to workshops, teaching customers how to get the best out of their beans. For casual visitors, Mameya is a coffee shop with painstakingly particular baristas. For regulars, it’s more of a bean shop … Read More
The humble rice ball, for centuries a cornerstone of the everyday Japanese diet, is normally known as an onigiri. Mothers make them for their children before they go to school. Office workers grab them from convenience store shelves to eat at their desks. But Chieko Okura’s rice balls are different. And she calls them ‘omusubi’. “The word onigiri sounds so hard,” says Okura, owner of a small restaurant specialising in rice balls. “But omusubi is soft and attractive.” Indeed, the rice balls she creates at Omusubi Marusankaku deserve a name of beauty. In one, tiny ‘sakuraebi’ shrimps appear to be swimming below the surface. Purple chrysanthemum pickles spiral through the rice grains of another, or in springtime edible cherry blossom flowers. Her brown rice and ginger omusubi radiates a soft, golden glow. A thoughtful woman whose life has benefited from both good planning and good fortune, Okura chose the name of her shop, Marusankaku, with characteristic consideration. Combining the two words ‘maru’ (circle) and ‘sankaku’ (triangle), it describes the shapes of the foods she makes. Okura points one-by-one at the three corners of a triangular omusubi. “Rice. Salt. Water,” she says. “They’re the three most important ingredients of any rice ball.” In the native Shinto religion, rice, salt and water are symbols of harmony and the key ingredients of meals offered to the gods. Even the word ‘omusubi’, she goes on to explain, is connected to the name of Shinto deities. Harmony also describes her parallel career as an architect and ‘colourist’ designing medical facilities and buildings for senior citizens that “balance the needs of humans, nature and the city,” she says. She discover healing potential in rice balls while designing colour workshops for school children. “I was looking for something they could make with their hands using many different colours,” she recalls. “Rice balls were perfect.” Out walking in the Jingumae neighbourhood, she happened upon the space that would become Marusankaku, renovating it with clean lines, a soothing palette, and plenty of natural wood. In the kitchen a black ‘donabe’ clay pot sits on the stove, slow-cooking the rice; out front, sliced radishes and mushrooms lie in a circular wicker tray, drying in the sun. Marusankaku is regularly open for breakfast and lunch, and most customers order their rice balls to take away. Those who don’t can sit at stools along the kitchen counter or at two small tables – one a circle, the other a triangle. Keen to show that ‘omusubi’ are more than just snacks, Okura hosts evening wine-pairing events, at which she serves bite-size rice balls with ingredients like dried tomatoes or lemon. She keeps a collection of serving vessels for these special occasions – fine ceramics, perfectly weighted teacups, and cocoons of carefully carved wood. “We need contact with beautiful things in our daily lives,” she says. “They can be healing.”
Hiroki Nakamura flicks through back catalogues of his old collections as if they are personal photo albums: Native American patterns he found on a trip to the United States; colour palettes from the monasteries of Tibet; rare dyes from a remote island in southern Japan. “This business has literally been a journey for me,” says Nakamura, the founder and creative director of Visvim, a brand that has earned a deserved reputation for quality, durability, and authenticity. In its creation, Nakamura has taken inspiration from all over the world – places he’s visited, people he’s met, and fabrics he’s held between his fingers. “To make good things, I have to start at the beginning – at the origin – with the raw materials. I cannot just add a logo to something that already exists.” The beginning for Visvim was 2000, when Nakamura quit his job working for an international snowboarding brand to make things of his own. The turn of the millennium was domestic Japanese fashion’s heyday, with hundreds of independent labels born in just a small swatch of Tokyo between Harajuku and Shibuya. “It was an exciting time,” Nakamura recalls. “Before that, it was always some businessman bringing an existing idea over from Europe or America. But we were part of a strong, home-grown movement that started in Harajuku.” For the first few years, Nakamura focused on shoes, which reflected his love of functional products. Visvim quickly became famous for its long-lasting, hand-sewn sneakers, and the brand grew organically to include denim, bags and womenswear. Nakamura’s Visvim store is called Free International Laboratory – or F.I.L. – a nod to his relentless, nomadic search for authentic inspiration. When he decided to create designs inspired by the boots of indigenous tribes in Lapland, for example, he visited a Sami village three hours by snowmobile from the nearest town in Norway. Another project involved taking handmade yarn that was naturally dyed by artisans in Japan to a Navajo reservation in New Mexico to be woven into cloth. In every collection, there are things that remain limited editions simply because of the way they are produced. One such product was a bag made from grapevine hand-woven by women in Showamura, a remote village in Fukushima Prefecture, northeast Japan. Unlike factory production designed to churn out lines of identical products, each grapevine bag is made by a single person and is totally unique. That is not to say that Nakamura shuns modern manufacturing – on the contrary many Visvim products are mass-produced to meet demand. And besides, Nakamura is passionate about innovation. He describes the waterproof synthetic material Gore-Tex, as “the perfect textile,” (although, of course, the Gore-Tex in a Visvim jacket is first dyed by a Japanese craftsman using traditional indigo techniques). “The real work is actually done by bacteria, so the dye job is never completely perfect,” Nakamura explains. “But it’s incredible. It gives what is the ultimate modern product something of a history.”
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