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.”
Long before she became a high-profile name in the fashion industry, Yasuko Furuta was a stylist in a far more private arena: her own bedroom. For her primary school graduation ceremony, the budding talent chose to wear a tweed three-piece suit. It was a bold choice for a child, but one that garnered many compliments. “I was commended for having exceptional taste,” she recalls. “I felt proud that I might have talent.” Now an established designer, Furuta tries to give all her customers a similar opportunity to find their own style. Her brand Toga, named for the garment of ancient Rome, does not limit itself to promoting and peddling its current collection. Instead, to give her customers maximum choice, Furuta invites them to browse an edited closet of Toga designs from previous seasons under the moniker ‘Toga Archives’. “We hoped our customers would enjoy putting things from different seasons together, that they’d get creative and establish their individual style,” Furuta says. “I’m lucky because they naturally took a liking to this new way of shopping and dressing.” After graduating in 1994 from the prestigious ESMOD-ISEM fashion school in Paris, Furuta returned to Japan to design eye-catching costumes for celebrities on television. Her work needed to be bold and original. It was the perfect testing ground. “The more I did that kind of work, the more I knew I wanted to become a contemporary designer, making complex designs that would be available to everyone,” she says. She launched Toga in 1997, and with its bold prints and silhouettes, the brand continues to have a glamorous, almost televisual appeal. Her looks are unashamedly edgy – moody, modern, sometimes slightly masculine – and with a confidence that makes them stand out among other Japanese womenswear designers. Located on a quiet street in an often-forgotten corner of Harajuku (albeit less than a minute’s walk from the main crossing), Toga’s capacious store gives Furuta and her team space to have fun with and create different enclaves for each of the brand’s sub-collections. “It’s a kind of Toga souvenir shop,” she says. As well as the most recent collection and Toga Archives, there is also Toga Pulla, for day-to-day basics and shoes; Toga Virilus for menswear; and Toga Picta, Furuta’s own line of one-off vintage remakes. A tent semi-permanently standing outside the store contains more vintage items handpicked by the designer. “I adore vintage. Each piece is a discovery that can transport you somewhere new and exciting,” says Furuta. “I only want to own things that I’ll cherish.” She describes her creative process as something akin to a treasure hunt, “picking up clues,” as she puts it, from the things she reads, touches, hears and smells. “I try to tie all those things together by thinking hard about why each thing excites me. Then I try to communicate that to other people.” As a Japanese woman who has also lived and found success overseas, a message that Furuta clearly communicates is that she wants her customers … Read More
With its pop boutiques and streets packed with fashion-crazed teens, Harajuku may feel like an odd place to go to look at woodblock prints. But Michi Akagi, curator of the Ota Memorial Museum of Art, doesn’t entirely agree. “Young women 200 years ago looked at these pictures for fashion and make-up tips,” she explains. “So they were not that different from the Harajuku girls of today.” It’s true, ukiyo-e (the name means as ‘pictures of the floating world’) were the gossip magazines of their era, purveyors of fashion and scandal. Produced cheaply for mass consumption until the 19th century, they idolised kabuki stars, lionised sumo wrestlers and made pin-ups of fashionable courtesans. Some functioned like travel magazines, promoting scenic spots around the country, while others raised eyebrows with their graphic erotica. The late insurance magnate Seizo Ota, who died in 1977, recognised the value of the prints at a time when other establishment grandees dismissed them as lowbrow fodder. He used his personal fortune to fight the tide of foreign demand. Sold by the pound, the pretty pictures were often used as linings for the souvenir boxes of early international visitors. When they reached Europe, artists including Vincent van Gogh admired their exotic imagery and unusual lack of perspective. The museum Ota built to house his collection occupies a low-rise modernist building in one of Harajuku’s many hidden corners. Works in the main gallery are arranged around a rock garden complete with a bench for contemplation. The collection has grown to about 14,000 prints and scrolls, including works by Hokusai Katsushika, Hiroshige Utagawa and Utamaro Kitagawa, the discipline’s most famous artists. Ukiyo-e artists were the political satirists of their time, delighting the masses with their cheeky antics. Utamaro in particular was famous for his portraits of beautiful women, especially geisha from the infamous pleasure quarters. “These courtesans were banned from appearing in ukiyo-e prints at that time,” explains Akagi, referring to shogunate laws to stamp out decadence. “But Utamaro pictured them anyway, and in his prints he left small hints as to their famous names. The public loved these illicit riddles. His work was the people’s art.” The people’s art of modern Japan is the comic book, or manga – also dismissed my many in the elite as lowbrow fodder. The word manga was used by Hokusai to describe the ‘playful sketches’ he made for his students to copy. Even today, manga artists reference books of the artist’s sketches like church-goers consulting their bibles. “These pictures helped set trends that influence us even today,” says Akagi. “So what better place to show them than in one of the coolest neighbourhoods on the planet?”