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

Onibus Coffee

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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.”

Traveler’s Factory

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Not so long ago, Japanese people loved to travel. So much so, that tourists from Japan became parodied the world over for their snap-happy camerawork and breathless travel schedules. But hard economic times have more recently curtailed many consumers’ taste for adventure. Instead, they make their own travel fantasies closer to home, with the help of entrepreneurs like Atsuhiko Iijima and his Traveler’s Factory. In 2005, Iijima was overseeing production for a line of stickers at a stationery company. It was a job, but not a vocation. “Work was work, and the things I enjoy – books, motorcycle touring, coffee, rock music – these were separate,” he says. “I wondered if there was a way I could blend the things I loved with the work I was doing.” He teamed up with a colleague to enter a contest to create a concept for a tall, slim notebook. The result had a leather cover and a variety of smooth filler paper that is equally at home in a Harley driver’s leather satchel as in a fashionista’s It Bag. Iijima wanted his notebook to convey a passion for discovery to those who bought it, and he needed his shop to do the same. After a year of searching for the right location, he found a former box factory only a few hundred metres – albeit with plenty of twists and turns – from Nakameguro Station. “The idea is that the trip to the store should be a journey in itself. And then the space I found, I guess that represents the ethos of customising something original, while letting its flavour become richer with time,” Iijima says, referring to the building’s original patterned window glass and preserved vertiginous staircase, which juxtapose its modern light fixtures. Traveler’s Factory, as he called his shop, is a place as much for dreaming of destinations. Curated international stationery finds – vintage postcards from Russia and rolls of old British bus tickets – sit beside collaborations with storied travel icons like Braniff Airlines and Hong Kong’s Star Ferry. On the upper floor, Iijima has turned the storage loft of the original factory into a sunny, intimate space to read, drink a cup of the store’s coffee custom-roasted, and customise their Traveler’s Notebooks. “One woman decorated hers with stickers of the Eiffel Tower and glued lace to the front, a guy stitched a rawhide pen strap into his cover, and another painted a skull on his,” says Iijima. So why exactly does this notebook strike such a chord? Iijima thinks it’s about the act of making it one’s own. “To decorate it, you have to really think about what appeals to you,” he says. “You end up wanting to explore the things you like more deeply.”

John Lawrence Sullivan

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John Lawrence Sullivan was a legendary Irish-American boxer and one of the last champions of bare-knuckle fighting during the late 19th century. How he would feel about his name being used for a men’s fashion label over 120 years later – and half a world away – one can only guess. Japanese pro-boxer-turned-fashion-designer Arashi Yanagawa certainly hopes the so-called ‘Boston Strong Boy’ would approve: he named his distinctive menswear brand John Lawrence Sullivan out of respect for the latter’s infamous power and tenacity. After boxing for 13 years – four at professional level – Yanagawa transferred his attention to the arena of fashion. The self-taught designer started with a collection of just three pieces: one T-shirt, one jacket, and one pair of pants. But within 10 years, he was showing in Paris alongside some of fashion’s biggest names. “There is a sense of pressure and nervousness doing a show there,” he says. “People are free to give their honest opinion in Paris. Good is good and bad is bad.” As a result Yanagawa has learned to welcome straightforward feedback and channel it to reinvigorate his designs. If Paris is the big match, then Tokyo is his training gym. Designers from all over the world visit every year to find inspiration from its obsessive early adopters. Most visitors merely scratch the surface, seeing only what the city chooses to reveal to them. Yanagawa, on the other hand, has lived here since he moved from his hometown of Hiroshima aged 17. Immersed in the city ever since, he absorbs and understands not only its juxtaposition of tradition and modernity, but also the way conservatism and experimentalism harmoniously coexist here. This is Yanagawa’s edge – the spark to the unexpected designs of his label: the lines of classic tailoring, brought to life with confident dashes of colour and eye-catching details. In 2011, he ventured into womenswear, an opportunity, he says, to showcase his boldest ideas. “Some of my extreme silhouettes would be too much for men. But I started thinking they could work for women,” he explains. John Lawrence Sullivan now has three standalone stores in Japan. The Tokyo shop opened in 2008 in the Naka-Meguro neighbourhood and its stark concrete design is a reflection of Yanagawa’s own strength of character. “I don’t think there are many people who have moved from boxing to fashion,” he says, although he’s quick to add that the two vocations are not as dissimilar as they may appear. The long months he once spent training for a big match were good preparation for the dedication required to cope with the lead-up to a fashion show. “You spend half a year getting ready for something that only lasts a few minutes, and then you start all over again from the beginning,” says Yanagawa. “I think in a sense my two worlds have a similar rhythm.”

Hatos Bar

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The road to becoming a successful restaurant owner is long and hard. Aspiring chefs spend years working the line in hot, hectic kitchens, earning their chops before finally branching out on their own. But Sou Ieki took a different approach. He went camping. “Really we just didn’t want to have to work for someone, man. We wanted to run our own place, to be our own bosses,” he says of the decision he took with his friend Yoji ‘Dub’ Morita to open a restaurant together. The buddies had a lot in common: a passion for music (“We’re DJs at heart,” Ieki says), a free-spirited approach to life and work, and their childhood years spent partly in the United States. Memories of summer barbecues began to sizzle in their imaginations, and the concept for Hatos Bar was cooked. “We asked ourselves: ‘What’s missing in Tokyo that only we can do?’”Ieki says. Their answer was: barbecue. For the next two years, Ieki spent almost every weekend at a campsite outside Tokyo trying out different methods and recipes, and slowly developing his technique. He distilled the cooking process down to two basic steps: massaging a spice mixture known as a ‘dry rub’ into the meat, and a long, slow smoke. The duo’s custom-made smoking machine, once shiny-new but now covered in a thick black patina, was modelled on a famous Texas-style smoker and miniaturised by a local metalworker to fit into a Tokyo-style kitchen. “This guy could make anything,” Ieki enthuses. “He’d never even built an oven before.” The badge of honour for any proud grill master is the smoke ring: the pinkish meat just beneath the surface that indicates a perfect smoke. The smoke rings at Hatos are the real deal, and Ieki achieves them with the nonchalance of a true professional. He has a similar attitude to his killer barbecue sauce: “I started out with a basic recipe,” he says. “You know, something you could find in a cookbook or whatever.” But the regime didn’t last, subverted by spontaneity and whatever is within arm’s reach: tequila, bourbon, rum, or even sake. Hatos started life as more of a bar (indeed, craft beers and cocktails are an important part of the experience), and then morphed into a restaurant-slash-bar, albeit on a cosy Tokyo scale. The menu expanded from just three items – baby back ribs, mac and cheese, and coleslaw – to include pork belly, a pulled pork sandwich and, occasionally, brisket. There is also a hearty, spicy chili made with the burnt ends and trimmings from the meat smoker. With a menu and a mindset that are both decidedly international, Ieki and his team at Hatos attract customers from many different countries and backgrounds, squeezing them into the narrow premises, or having them spill out on to the terrace. Now they’re proven entrepreneurs, they also attract new business opportunities – which are duly rejected, of course. Because it’s not unfeasible to imagine that the day Ieki becomes a slave to his … Read More

Tokyo Dosanjin

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Sliding open the door to Dosanjin might reveal, with a turn of the head to the right and a peek through a narrow window, Hiroshi Nagahama at work making soba noodles. It’s a painstaking process that he goes through every day, and he makes it look deceptively simple. “Everyone goes the extra mile these days. Average just isn’t good enough,” says Nagahama, who also manages the restaurant. “A lot of businessmen have quit their jobs and opened soba noodle restaurants. Those semi-pros really raise the bar for all of us, because finally they are doing something they’re passionate about.” Dosanjin, a beautiful shop by the river in Naka-Meguro, is the first Tokyo outpost of a small chain of restaurants based in the Kansai region surrounding Osaka. The restaurants’ founder, Eiji Watanabe, started making soba for a living in his forties after becoming tired of his job in fashion. Where most soba restaurants are designed for speed – some even forgoing seats – Dosanjin is crafted for pleasure. There are comfy chairs placed for a view of the serene garden, and subtle decorative ceramics by the master potter Yukio Kinoshita, who also helped design the restaurant. Kinoshita, who passed away in 2013, used ‘Dosanjin’ as his artist name. The restaurant offers a choice of regular noodles or the chunkier inakasoba, and long before his patrons kick back, Nagahama is working hard to make them. In both, the key ingredient is buckwheat (soba), whose flour many restaurants buy in bulk. But not so Dosanjin, which contracts a farm near the Japan Sea coast to provide whole seeds that are smaller and greener than most. Right there in the shop, the seeds are ground into buckwheat flour for up to nine hours overnight, before being mixed with water and just five per cent of regular wheat flour. Once kneaded, the dough is rolled into a large rectangle a couple of millimetres thick. This is folded, neat as a kimono, and then sliced into strips at military speed with a huge square-blade knife. The perfectly formed noodles take just 30 seconds to cook. Soba noodles are traditionally eaten hot in a bowl of steaming broth or cold in the summer months, dipped in a simple sauce with wasabi and chopped spring onions. In one of its popular dishes, Dosanjin again gently defies convention, placing them in broth topped with slices of sudachi, a sour Japanese citrus fruit. In return for – and to manage – all the ways he exquisitely flouts the rules, Nagahama makes just one simple request of his customers: patience, please. “It can take some getting used to, the pace of things here. People are used to soba being fast food,” he says. “But I only cook two portions at a time. To make more than that, I’d have to stir them with chopsticks, and there’s a chance the noodles could break. And we couldn’t have that.”