When it comes to high-end sushi in Tokyo, the widely accepted wisdom is to always get the omakase, meaning to let the chef serve you a selection of the day’s best and freshest cuts of fish and seafood. But while Hiroshi Komatsu prepares just as mouth-watering an omakase as any other top sushi chef, he also wants his customers to eat and drink what they like, forgetting about rules and convention. “Today’s style of serving sushi doesn’t allow customers to eat in a way that suits them. A lot of places only offer courses, and it’s common for sushi chefs to just watch customers as they eat the course at their own pace,” Komatsu says. “I think this is good, but for me, since customers are all different ages and come from different backgrounds, I try to make sure their meal suits them.” An example of this is when an older customer comes in, who Komatsu notices is struggling to finish the course partway through. In this case he’ll make adjustments like reducing the amount of rice he uses, so that the customer still gets a chance to taste each topping. “Customers are not all the same, and the fact that we’re always right in front of them—we’re not bringing food out from the back—means we’re able to meet the needs of each individual customer,” he says. “And I think that’s the most important thing for a sushi restaurant.” Komatsu learned the art of sushi under his grandfather, who runs a popular restaurant in Tokyo’s Azabu district. He worked there for 10 years, then spent an additional 13 heading a second branch. But from the beginning, his intention was always to strike out on his own once he was ready. “I wanted to do things in my own way,” he says. “There are certain rules and customs that I didn’t want to follow.” Among these customs is the one that dictates that only men can be sushi chefs. While Komatsu has yet to hire a woman, he doesn’t see any reason not to. He’s more interested in applicants’ personalities than he is in their gender or nationality. When he finally decided to open Sushidokoro Hiroshi in 2017, Komatsu enlisted his older brother, an interior designer, to help with the construction of the restaurant. What resulted is one of Tokyo’s most beautiful sushi bars, with lots of tasteful blonde wood and intricate sliding doors concealing the cabinets where ceramic dishes—some made by customers from around the world—are kept. If the design of the restaurant isn’t enough to make customers feel immediately welcome, Komatsu’s warm and friendly demeanor will surely put them at ease. He’s quick with a grin, and happy to explain his ingredients or even engage in small talk, if that is what the customer wants. “Some people just want to eat their meal quietly, while others want to ask questions about everything they eat,” he says. “You have to read the customer. The art and technique of conversation is … Read More
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
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
Of all the things to be passionate about, mold that grows on rice may seem a strange one. But without koji, the specific type of mold that is used in the fermentation of miso, soy sauce, sake and shochu, Japanese cooking would be unimaginable. And because of this, Hiroshi Terasaka is absolutely smitten with this humble fungus, and his passion is infectious. While bringing out samples of koji, Terasaka explains the seemingly endless culinary possibilities of this under-celebrated ingredient. It is what gives miso and soy sauce their distinct umami flavour, and yet its powers are not limited to savoury foods. “Most Japanese people have a vague idea of what it is, but I wanted to make a place where you can really experience and taste the wonders of koji. And since Kamakura didn’t have a koji shop or cafe before we opened, this seemed like the perfect place to start,” Terasaka says. Born in Fukui prefecture, Terasaka and his siblings are the fourth generation of a family of koji makers. They are perhaps the only koji manufacturer left in Japan that grows their own rice used for the production of the koji, which lives off the starch in steamed rice. After a stint living in Canada, Terasaka spent two years learning the ins and outs of the family business. Once confident in his knowledge of koji and its production, he decided that he wanted to spread appreciation for koji in another region of Japan. “I was involved in opening a casual Japanese restaurant in Toronto and I really enjoyed it, so I wanted to try my hand at opening my own business,” he says. Sitting at the very end of a narrow footpath in an area that is removed from the crowds around Kamakura station and its famous temples, Sawvih is surrounded on two sides by a bamboo grove, giving it a natural serenity. Terasaka commissioned an architect to design a structure that would accommodate a shop and cafe on the ground floor, and living space for him and his family upstairs. The result is a modern, minimalist home and retail space with clean lines and lots of natural wood and light. Entering through the front door of Sawvih, customers find themselves in a small shop space, where Terasaka sells canvas clothing, selvage denim jeans, and work boots, many of which are his own original creations made by top producers across Japan. “Farmers and koji makers need to wear durable work clothes,” he says. “But I wanted to make work clothes that still look stylish.” Just a few steps through the small garden and outdoor seating area is the door to the cafe space at the back: a simple but welcoming room with a single wooden table surrounded by hexagonal stools. Here, Terasaka serves koji ginger ale and lattes, as well as koji sweets made by his brother in Fukui. These might include soy tiramisu, brownies or frozen yogurt. Terasaka also conducts koji workshops in the space on an … Read More
With a dignified and somewhat restrained demeanour, Keiko Goto can at first appear a little aloof. But get her talking about the fine Kamakurabori lacquerware in her shop and she quickly warms up. Goto is the proprietress of Hakkodo, a more than 700-year-old family business that sits at the corner of the entrance to Kamakura’s magnificent Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. She is 29th in line from the founder and has been acting as the CEO and creative director of the company for over a decade. “I grew up playing in the workshop, and as I was the oldest child in the family, it was natural that I take over after my father,” she says. After graduating from Tokyo University of the Arts with a speciality in lacquer, Goto worked for the nearby Kamakurabori Museum before taking the helm of the family business. The history of Kamakurabori dates back to 1192, when the Kamakura Shogunate was established in the city and craftsmen moved in to supply Buddhist sculptures and other carvings for the many temples and shrines being constructed around the then-capital of Japan. When the market for sculptures was saturated, the artisans began making more mundane items such as bowls, plates and trays. Today, more than 50 workshops continue the tradition of making the beautiful lacquerware. The actual production process hasn’t changed much over the centuries. Hard, rough-cut katsura wood is shaped into bowls, plates and trays, then carved by hand with razor-sharp chisels to create different patterns. Up to ten layers of lacquer from the urushi tree are then applied over a period of several weeks, allowing for each layer to properly dry in between. The result is a deep, beautiful sheen that is one of the characteristics of the craft. At Hakkodo, this work is done by a small team of artisans in a workshop attached to the back of the shop. As one of the oldest Kamakurabori workshops in the city, Goto is aware of the importance of tradition, but also feels that the craft must evolve to be relevant for a more contemporary audience. “About half of our products are traditional patterns and items passed down through the generations, but the other half are new products that I have designed to fit better with a more modern lifestyle,” she says. The shop itself is housed in a 200-year-old building with a beautifully renovated interior that tastefully marries the old and the new. Goto has even launched a line of simple tableware she calls Hakko. The carvings on the plates, cups and bowls are far less ornamental than the more traditional pieces, and the lacquering process has also been simplified to about half that of the traditional Kamakurabori ware. The simple but beautifully crafted items make the perfect accent to any interior. “I wanted to make tableware that I myself wanted to use at home,” Goto explains.
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