On a small street in Nakameguro populated by trendy shops and cafes, one store stands out: under a neon “S” logo are a set of imposing, floor-to-ceiling glass double doors that open at an angle. “The doors were order made and are easily the most expensive thing about the shop,” says Shun Okubo, who sells his eponymous line of jewellery here. They also allude to the designer’s undeniable creative sense, which extends not only to his products, but to the raw concrete walls, custom black wood display cases with clean geometric lines, and eclectic mix of art portraying things like French cafe scenes or a quote by Louise Bourgeois. It is art, in fact, that inspired many of Okubo’s early designs. Originally following the path toward a career as a fashion designer, Okubo lived in Paris for some years, where he would often visit Constantin Brancusi’s studio at the Centre Pompidou. “My initial approach to jewellery design was to make things like these abstract cultures, but on a scale that fit the body,” he says. After returning to his native Tokyo and realising that his timing was off if he wanted to produce a fashion collection for the upcoming season, Okubo stumbled into jewellery. “I didn’t want to just do nothing, and an acquaintance of mine was a jewellery maker, so I told him that I wanted to do something with my hands, and I asked him if he would make jewellery for me that I designed,” Okubo says. This was the birth of the brand, which has now been operating for over a decade. In the early years, Okubo always thought he would eventually get back into fashion, but now those ambitions have waned, at least when it comes to launching a full-fledged fashion brand. And while he studied accessory design at fashion school, he acknowledges that his entry into the field was an unconventional one. “I wasn’t that familiar with accessories. It’s complex work, and even though I was selling jewellery, I still felt that I didn’t have very much experience with jewellery design, and I wanted to deepen that,” the designer says. “My philosophy is to take things like artworks or everyday items and interpret them into jewellery. I have no interest in just doing jewellery as a business.” But Okubo’s initial inexperience also worked to his advantage, as his mind was more open to try unusual production methods or material combinations. Many of his pieces use mixed mediums, like yellow gold with black rhodium, platinum with rose gold, or pearls with wood. “The world changes through different colour combinations,” he says. “When I was a child I really hated the colour brown, but then once I saw a fashion brand combine brown with blue, and it was really beautiful. I had never used brown, but after that I started to incorporate it. With materials as well, you can take a material that looks old or worn out and by combining it with something else you can … Read More
With its clean white facade, large cut-out windows, and welcoming little coffee stand facing outward to the street, Book and Sons is the kind of place that would easily draw in the curious passerby for a look around. But the thing is, it’s not a place most people are likely to simply pass by. Located on an obscure residential street in the neighbourhood of Gakugei Daigaku, this modern, minimalist bookshop relies almost entirely on word of mouth to attract customers. “This place isn’t easy to find, so most people who come here do so because they have a reason to,” says the shop’s owner, Osamu Kawata. “They’re usually looking for something specific or hard to find.” Friendly, easygoing and quick to flash a smile, Kawata immediately makes customers feel at home in the serene, peaceful space. He can answer questions about all of the roughly 1,000 titles he carries, but he won’t be found in the shop most days (not to worry, his staff are equally welcoming and knowledgeable). In addition to Book and Sons, he also runs a prominent graphic and web design office. It was, in fact, Kawata’s design career that served as the impetus for the store’s opening. “I didn’t go to an art or design school, but after graduating from university I got a job working for a design firm. Since I didn’t have any experience with graphic design, I had to start from zero,” he says. “I didn’t have time to go to school while I was working, so I taught myself the basics from books.” Some years later when his first child was on the way, Kawata’s wife said he needed to clear out some of his books to make room for the baby. Book and Sons was his solution. When it first opened in April 2015, the store was stocked with Kawata’s own private collection, which was comprised almost exclusively of books on typography. Slowly, as the books sold, he had to find a way to replace them, and so began contacting publishers directly about carrying their titles. “I’ve always loved typography. For me, it’s the most important element of design,” Kawata says. “Ten years ago, there were a lot of technical restraints as a web designer and only two or three fonts we could use. Now, there are probably more than 1,000 to choose from. But there aren’t many bookstores that focus on typography, so this is something I wanted people to see.” The store has now morphed to include books on graphic design and photography, but there are still plenty of typography tomes as well. Some of the more unique volumes include design guides from organisations such as NASA and British Rail. In the back of the store, a small gallery space hosts rotating exhibits. There is also a small selection of products such as t-shirts, bags, mugs and stationery items made in collaboration with brands run by Kawata’s friends and sold exclusively at Book and Sons. Everything is so precisely … 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.
Completed in 1933, the property that is now home to the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum was originally the private residence of Prince Asaka and his wife, who became fascinated by Art Deco while living in Paris in the early 1920s. The couple commissioned Henri Rapin to design many of the home’s interiors, and Rapin enlisted the help of other prominent artists of the time, including René Lalique. “At the time, Japanese people greatly admired and dreamt of Western Europe,” says Toyojiro Hida. “And this building is a realisation of those dreams, of true French Art Deco style. I want visitors to feel how that dream was realised when they visit the museum.” Hida has over four decades of experience in the art world, but only since taking over as director of the Teien Museum in 2016 has he come to realise the significance of decoration as a field of art. “There’s a paradigm that starts with fine art, then decorative arts, then architecture and design,” he says. “But that paradigm has no relation to this museum. This place is more free, more open than that, which is its biggest appeal.” The inspiration for dedicating the Teien Museum to decoration—not decorative arts—came from the building itself, which is one of Japan’s best examples of Art Deco design. Walking through the front entrance hall with its striking Lalique glass-relief doors and mosaic floor and into the walnut-panelled great hall, it’s hard not to imagine scenes of Gatsby-esque splendour. Hida says his favourite piece in the museum is what is known as the ‘Perfume Tower,’ a Rapin creation named for its original purpose as a fountain that also filled the space with the princess’s preferred scents. Other significant elements of the building’s design include chandeliers by Lalique, wall paintings by Rapin, reliefs by Ivan-Léon Alexandre Blanchot, etched glass doors by Max Ingrand, and iron decorations by Raymond Subes above some doors. The majority of the building’s design elements and furniture are original, commissioned specifically to fit the architecture designed by Yokichi Gondo. “The building is the result of cooperation between Japanese and French craftspeople and designers, who worked together to complete it,” Hida says. “And the impressive thing is that the French artists never came here and saw the house in person. Everything was done by sending ideas back and forth via post.” The Teien’s remarkable design forms a stunning backdrop for displaying a wide variety of pieces spanning various disciplines, eras and continents. Previous exhibits have ranged from French picture books to Brazilian indigenous benches. “Art Deco was created by the French bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie were very democratic. They took in everything, from Brazilian ebony trees to decorations from the Nile region in Africa, in order to create the culture of Art Deco in Paris. So since the original concept of Art Deco was kind of that anything goes, anything can look at home in this space. As long as the decoration is clearly expressed, it works.” Hida says. “Decoration … Read More
As a child, Takahiro Yoshihara was enthralled by the candy artists he saw at summer festivals, deftly turning thick liquid sugar into hardened, elaborate shapes of animals and creatures of fantasy. At the time he dreamt of one day joining their ranks. And while he did eventually become a candy artist, it was not his first career. Yoshihara trained as a chef, and travelled to Italy to learn more about food and cooking. While there, he found himself feeling embarrassed that he was unable to answer questions put to him about Japanese culture. This sparked in him a renewed interest in doing something that was more closely related to his roots. “When I started thinking that I wanted to have a career doing something that celebrated Japanese culture, of course I could have taken the path of cooking Japanese food, but I remembered my childhood self wanting to do amezaiku and chose to follow that path instead,” he says. The word “amezaiku” loosely translates as “candy craft,” an art that has its origins in China, but which took a different form upon gaining popularity in Japan during the Edo period. It is mainly and traditionally a mobile craft, peddled by artisans who travel from city to city, creating candies from a cart at outdoor festivals and other events. But after learning from an experienced amezaiku artist in this way for four years, Yoshihara had a different idea. When Amezaiku Yoshihara opened in 2008, it was the first permanent store in Japan dedicated to the traditional candy craft. Creating a place where customers could come to buy the whimsical candies anytime was Yoshihara’s way of helping to keep the craft alive. While he has trained other young artists in amezaiku and his business has expanded to include a second store where workshops are held, he says there are still only some 30 to 40 amezaiku artisans remaining in Japan. What makes amezaiku unique, according to Yoshihara, is the performance element to it. “You don’t have to twist and pull candy into different shapes in order for it to taste good, but that’s what’s wonderful about amezaiku,” he says. “It’s not only something you can eat—it also has some fun and beauty to it. The fact that you can watch it being made just for you and then take it home—this is something that doesn’t exist in other businesses, and it makes amezaiku really special.” Yoshihara and his team make a variety of shapes of candy every day, ranging from the simple to the elaborate. Each piece must be created in under three minutes, before the candy hardens and can no longer be worked. The only way to get to this level, Yoshihara says, is through lots of practice. While there are many shapes that are staples of amezaiku, there are slight variations depending on the artisan’s personal style. “I want to make the kinds of things that I enjoyed seeing made as a child, so I tend to make brightly coloured, … Read More
Atsushi Sakao began his life, he admits, with blinkered view of the world. Growing up in rural Chiba prefecture, southeast of Tokyo, he never met a non-Japanese person until high school. A fleeting encounter with some Australian hitchhikers left a deep impression, inspiring him to embark, some years later, on his first overseas adventure, backpacking across Asia and Australia. “Wherever I went, I saw people going to the same cafe every morning, drinking coffee while chatting with the staff, receiving energy from that and then starting work. It was a great thing in my eyes,” Sakao says. “That kind of cafe culture hadn’t come to Japan yet, so after returning, I moved to Tokyo and began working in a coffee shop.” In March 2011, a massive earthquake devastated Japan’s Tohoku region. Sakao dropped everything and headed north to help with the recovery with a group of volunteers. “As we worked, we heard the people’s stories of death and loss. They said we only get one life, so make it count,” he recalls. It was the push he needed. Sakao opened his first Onibus Coffee a year later in a small wooden house he and his father, a carpenter, built together in Okusawa, a residential suburb in west Tokyo. The name is the Portuguese word for a public bus, and conveys his desire to foster a sense of community. “Cafes are like a starting point where you can meet people and exchange information,” Sakao says. “I wanted to make a place where people can meet and it can be the start of something.” The Okusawa site still exists, but his main Onibus shop is now located in Nakameguro, nestled between a park and a railway line. On a typical morning, trains rumble past and children squeal with laughter in the playground as Sakao’s baristas brew up black drips and lattes for workers heading into the city, early-rising coffee tourists, and runners back from exercising along the nearby river. The smell of beans roasting onsite fills the space and wafts out into the surrounding area. “As coffee makers, naturally we make our beverages with as much care and attention as we can,” he says. “We also want to make sure as many aspects of our business as possible share our values of traceability and sustainability.” By January 2018, Sakao was operating four sites: the two Onibus shops, a coffee stand in Shibuya called About Life, and another, Ratio &C, inside a smart bicycle store in Gaienmae. Each location shares the culture of warm hospitality and respect that Sakao has cultivated and applies to all his relationships, from the producers who grow his beans to the artisans who make his cups and spoons. “Our team, our customers, and our producers – there are three groups that make up the Onibus family,” says Sakao. “If I can improve the lives of all three, I’ll be happy.”