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

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

Shun Okubo

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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

Book and Sons

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Book and Sons, rare book store in Meguro

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

Maruichi Bagel

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The moment Miho Inagi decided she would open an authentic New York-style bagel shop in Tokyo, she burst into tears – tears of excitement. But as she collected herself a few minutes later, she realised there was a major problem with her plan: she had no idea how to bake. “Ideas were rushing through my head. I just had this very clear vision of what I was going to do,” she recalls. “But I knew I had a hard road ahead of me. Because I’d never even baked a loaf of bread.” Inagi’s epiphany came in 1999, when she was celebrating her graduation with a holiday in New York. At Manhattan institution Ess-a-Bagel, she ordered a pumpernickel bagel with a filling of Spanish eggplant salad. “I just thought ‘what’s that weird brown one?’” Inagi recalls. ‘As soon as I tasted it I fell in love. It was so different from what I’d had in Tokyo, I began to wonder whether bagel makers in Japan had ever eaten the real deal.” Inagi befriended Ess-a-Bagel’s owners, the late Eugene and Florence Wilpon. They promised that if she came back the following year, they’d put her to work in the store. “I don’t think they really believed I would do it,” she says. Twelve months later, having quit her Tokyo desk job, she was back and ready to learn the art of making a bagel. First she manned the takeout counter, where she mastered how to sling a bagel – and speak like a New Yorker. Later she worked in the kitchen, learning how to roll, boil and bake like a pro. The name Maruichi Bagel loosely translates as ‘Number One Bagel’, with maru meaning ‘circle’, after the shape of the shop’s main event. The business came to life in 2004 in tiny premises in a smart western suburb, later moving to its current location in a converted garage in Shirokane. At lunchtimes and on weekends, customers wait patiently in a line down the street. “Eugene and Florence always told me that I shouldn’t expect to replicate their bagels exactly, and that I should take advantage of local ingredients and flavours to create my own style,” says Inagi. So Maruichi sells both New York-style classics such as ‘Sesame’ or ‘Everything’ bagels, and newer recipes like ‘Caraway Raisin’ or ‘7-Grain Honey Fig’. The kitchen also makes ‘bagelwiches’ to order, loading them with fillings like pumpkin, sweet potato and bean salad, vegetables and olives, all alongside smoked salmon, prosciutto and – of course – varieties of cream cheese. Hand-rolling the dough creates its signature dense-yet-tender texture, and boiling it gives the crust its distinctive crunch – these things, as well as the baking, are done by a core team of kitchen staff. But to this day it’s Inagi who crafts the dough. “It’s the key to every good bagel,” she says. “Making it consistent, day in and day out? That’s my job.”