Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience

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Dressed in a spotless white coat, Shinya Sakurai looks every inch the doctor as he slowly measures, heats and pours water into an array of receptacles on the worktop. The object of his intense concentration, however, is not a science experiment, nor are his actions unfolding in a laboratory. Sakurai is, in fact, preparing what is likely one of Tokyo’s finest cups of Japanese tea in a contemporary teahouse. There are perhaps few people who know more about the intricacies, nuances and rituals of Japanese tea than 37-year-old Sakurai, who has devoted the past 14 years of his life to all things tea. It was in 2014 that the mixologist-turned-tea guru opened Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience, first in a space in Tokyo’s Nishi-Azabu neighbourhood, before moving two years later to its current fifth-floor home in Aoyama’s Spiral Building. His goal is simple: in a culture saturated with craft coffee, he aims to reconnect generations of younger Japanese with the increasingly neglected world of tea. “I want to offer people a new way of enjoying Japanese tea,” he explains. “Today, there are so many different teas you can buy in plastic bottles and so many young Japanese have never even tasted a properly prepared cup of tea. I want to change that.” The experience begins the moment customers cross the threshold. The small but perfectly formed space, created by Tokyo design firm Simplicity, is a serene and minimal enclave of clean-lined natural materials, from dark woods to warm copper, complemented by a wall of windows framing an urban skyline. On the menu are around 30 teas sourced from across Japan and loosely divided into three categories: straight, blended (with seasonal ingredients ranging from persimmon to yuzu), or roasted on site by Sakurai in the corner of the tearoom. Explaining the unique qualities of Japanese tea, he says: “Most teas are heated by fire when they are being made, but Japanese tea is made using steam. This makes it a very pure type of tea.” Using an impressive 40 litres a day of hot spring water from southern Kagoshima, Sakurai performs his contemporary take on tea ceremony at an eight-seat counter. And he is meticulous in his preparations. “You have to be very precise,” he says. “Even the slightest change in temperature to the water can change the flavour entirely. For sencha green tea, for example, you must use a lower temperature of water—if it’s too hot, it becomes bitter.” Also on the menu are pretty, bite-sized Japanese sweets (from chestnut yokan jelly to flavour-bursting walnuts and dates in fermented butter), segueing smoothly into tea-inspired cocktails after dark (a refreshing fusion of sencha tea and gin is a typical highlight). Sakurai’s tea-themed tools and accessories are no less eye-catching, from handcrafted tin tea caddies and traditional bamboo ladles to delicately minimal ceramics from Simplicity’s product line S[es]. “The whole setting is very important,” explains Sakurai. “In order to enjoy tea, the atmosphere has to be just right.” Best of all? It’s healthy … Read More

Visvim

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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.”

Nezu Museum

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Koichi Nezu looks out over the beautiful garden at the heart of the museum bearing his family name. “Japanese culture can be difficult to understand,” he muses. “But everyone appreciates the beauty of a garden.” The Nezu Museum is home to a priceless collection of art from Japan and its neighbouring Asian countries. It occupies a leafy corner of valuable real estate in Aoyama and houses a collection amassed by family patriarch and railway baron Kaichiro Nezu Snr., who passed away in 1940. In accordance with his father’s will, his son Kaichiro Jnr. established a museum on the site of the family home the following year and a generation later, his grandson Koichi has put his own stamp on the family legacy by overseeing its bold reconstruction under Kengo Kuma, one of Japan’s foremost modern architects. “Rebuilding the museum was the biggest challenge of my life,” says Nezu, who first hired Kuma to design his summer residence in Karuizawa. “But I had a smart architect. A deep thinker. He really understood my ideas.” The impressive approach to the new museum is a long walk bordered by a dry river of black stones and a wall of rustling bamboo. It transports visitors into a world set apart from the boutiques and mansions of the neighbourhood. “Kuma-san told me he’d never worked with such a persistent client,” says Nezu, with a just a hint of pride. The project took almost three years, during which time architect and patron met more than 100 times. The museum’s collection contains over 7,400 objects, including Japanese pottery, lacquer furnishings, ink paintings, and calligraphy. There are also hanging scrolls, textiles, and Buddhist sculptures and sutras, as well as important Chinese bronzes and Korean ceramics. One of the best-known pieces is a painted folding screen called Irises by the 17th century Rimpa artist Ogata Korin. The screen is one of seven works in the collection that has been designated a National Treasure, along with 87 Important Cultural Properties and 94 Important Art Objects. Nezu says his grandfather’s passion for art came from a life-changing three-month trip to the United States in 1909. He was one of 100 businessmen selected to glean knowledge from successful American enterprises, which could then be used to revamp Japan’s economy, flailing as it was during the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War. “Everywhere he went he met philanthropists who proudly supported museums, schools and other institutions,” says Koichi. “He was incredibly impressed by their generous thinking. He even met David Rockefeller and was invited to his home.” Upon returning home, Kaichiro Snr. accelerated his collection, intent on slowing the wave of Japanese works being exported abroad. “He wanted to keep pieces of importance in Japan,” says Koichi. “That’s why the collection is so large and varied. For a private collection it’s very unusual.” Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Koichi is on the international advisory board of the Portland Japanese Garden in Oregon, USA, and is actively involved in plans to create an institute there … Read More

Tempura Motoyoshi

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Timing is everything for a good tempura chef. And when Kazuhito Motoyoshi opened his eponymous restaurant, he picked just the right moment. “Nobody else wanted to cook tempura,” he says. “I’m one of the youngest people doing it.” Tempura feels quintessentially Japanese, but it probably derives from the cuisine cooked by the Portuguese traders and missionaries that arrived in Japan in the late 16th century. Food historians believe that these settlers made something akin to tempura during times in the Catholic calendar when eating meat would have been forbidden. And these same historians speculate that the name ‘tempura’ derives from the Latin word tempus, meaning ‘time’. The time in their lives that most adult Japanese associate with tempura is their childhood. The sound of floured pieces of vegetable and seafood crackling as they’re dropped into bubbling oil evokes mother’s home cooking. But as health-conscious grown-ups, many have turned their backs on this staple. It is, after all, deep-fried and it feels a little sinful. “There is a perception that tempura is unhealthy because of the oil. But it depends on the kind of oil,” says the chef, who is on a personal crusade to restore the popularity of this once-loved strand of Japanese cuisine. “I use a my light sesame seed oil, which is much better for the body and digestion.” Famous tempura restaurants are normally found in old-fashioned areas such as deeply traditionally cultural Asakusa or tightly politically connected Akasaka. But to lure a new generation of patrons to his shop, Motoyoshi instead chose fashionable Aoyama, keeping his design simple, the lighting subtle, and his opening hours flexible. Taking orders until late in the evening is, after all, more in tune with the rhythm of the lives of the young. Inside, a glass-fronted box takes centre stage behind the restaurant’s eight-seat counter. It houses a trove of the fresh vegetables to be served each evening. Every ingredient will be expertly prepared, lightly dipped in batter, and dropped into the vat of boiling oil. Every second counts: too few and an asparagus stalk will remain slightly raw; too many and the white flesh of the kisu fish will dry out and break apart. Three years at culinary school learning the full lexicon of Japanese cuisine gifted Motoyoshi’s tempura is both delicate and visionary. One of Motoyoshi’s most enchanting dishes is his generous assembly of sea urchins, cradled in a finely battered shiso leaf. Every morsel of tempura arrives on a beautiful piece of pottery and a sheet of white paper, folded asymmetrically. Throughout the meal, the paper remains almost entirely unblemished by surplus oil – proof, if it were needed, of the skill of the chef. Creating this level of perfection requires not only practice and concentration, but also a deep understanding of each ingredient’s texture and composition. Of course, experience counts. But so, Motoyoshi suggests, does his youth: “I have better concentration now than I will do when I’m older,” he says. “For what I do, I think I’m … Read More

Fellows

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Walk into Takashi Kurokawa’s hamburger shop and the first person you meet will probably be his mother. She jumped in to help when her son first opened Fellows and has been there ever since. “It’s a nightmare,” says Kurokawa, shaking his head. “I ask her to do something and she just says: ‘Do it yourself!’” He’s joking of course. The familial atmosphere at Fellows is one of its greatest draws – almost as important as the burgers themselves, which are frequently hailed as the best in Tokyo. Kurokawa’s secret is simple: high quality ingredients, patties made fresh, and no gimmicks. He prepares about 200 burgers a day, and when they’re gone, he closes. “My friends tell me I’m a terrible businessman,” he says. “But I’m the sort of person who needs to do everything myself.” His work cycle begins in the evening, when he grinds the next day’s beef for chilling overnight. Arriving at the shop about 9am, he spends two hours shaping patties until his hands are so cold he can no longer feel them. Every burger exits the kitchen charcoal-grilled to order. The big hitter is the bacon cheeseburger, topped with a chunky slab of slow-marinated smoky bacon. But the chef is most proud of his chilli beans cheeseburger. “Chilli isn’t something most Japanese people know how to make,” he says. But after years of practice, he’s confident his recipe rivals any served in the United States, especially when it’s slapped into a burger and covered in a web of melted cheese. Kurokawa was a chubby child with a taste for fast food. As a graduate, he tried working for his family’s construction company, but he never felt comfortable in a suit. He did, it seems, have a head for business. “Gourmet hamburgers had just arrived in Japan and I could see they were about to take off in a big way,” Kurokawa says. “So I had to be quick to stay ahead of the game.” To refine his recipe, he ate hamburgers every day for six months – all in the name of research. “I wouldn’t recommend it. I began to smell nasty,” he says. Fellows’ cult following exploded after it opened in 2005. Burger fans would make regular pilgrimages to its initial location in a west Tokyo suburb. When the building was demolished, Kurokawa moved to the new site in Omotesando – bringing his mother along, too. “Well I had to,” he says with a wink. “The customers seem to like her.” And how does she feel about having her son for a boss? “It’s a nightmare,” she says, rolling her eyes and sighing.

Anrealage

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When first encountered, the collection on display at bleeding edge fashion brand Anrealage appears misnamed. It’s called ‘Colour’, but the room is white: the table, the chair, the flowers, the rug and, most importantly, the clothes. Everything is white. The shop assistant moves. He fades the lights, and switches on a high-intensity, full-spectrum white light in the centre of the room. Slowly, out of the white fabric, swathes and stripes in pink, yellow and turquoise develop on the clothes and furnishings. Minutes later, when normal conditions return, the colours slowly fade away. But this is not just a party trick. “When people look at my work, I want them to think: ‘I didn’t know clothes could do that,’” says designer Kunihiko Morinaga. “I want them to be blown away.” Morinaga is inspired, as were the Impressionist painters, by changing light. And with the Colour collection, he wants to emphasise how colour can be a subjective experience. “Look at the silver case of this laptop in fluorescent light. It looks different from how it does in daylight, and different still from how it does in near darkness.” The Colour collection’s photochromic fabric, which uses the same dye technology as self-adjusting sunglasses, is an extreme representation of this. Anrealage (think ‘a real’ + ‘unreal’ + ‘age’) started in Tokyo in 2003, but burst on to the international fashion scene when Morinaga’s meticulous hand-stitched patchwork won the 2005 grand prize in the avant-garde division of the high-profile Gen Art contest in New York. His standalone shop opened on the outskirts of Harajuku in 2011. Getting there is a journey out of the area’s consumerist madness, to place far less commercial, down a residential backstreet. Just don’t go expecting any particular experience – and certainly not the Colour collection, which will be long gone. Morinaga sees his store as an extension of his clothes, so it gets almost completely redesigned twice a year to match each collection. The design always incorporates a single table and a single chair, but even these change with the season. Re-examining everyday surroundings is one of the main themes running through Morinaga’s work. What invisible structures underpin the things around us? What are we really looking at when we stare into digital screens all day? Morinaga takes these thoughts to extremes to make people take a fresh look at the ordinary. Past collections have focused on rethinking shapes and proportions – with even the mannequins squashed and stretched. The ‘Bone’ collection used laser-cut strips of fabric to expose the clothing’s inner structures. The ‘Low’ collection featured pixelated patterns resembling low-resolution computer images blown up so raw that the floral patterns and scalloped edges looked smooth only from a distance. While some young designers fret over having enough ideas to fill a lifetime of runway shows, Morinaga looks ahead at his future career – 20 years if he’s lucky – and feels quite different. “I think so far I’ve only executed ideas that can be described in words,” he says, … Read More