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People who know sushi know Keiji Nakazawa. His name rarely figures on high-profile star-ranking systems, but he is probably the most influential sushi chef working in Japan today – and Sushisho is more than just his restaurant. To his growing band of protégées, it is an academy; to devotees of his cuisine, it is Mecca. Nakazawa’s philosophy falls within the broad church of Edomae sushi, or ‘sushi in the style of Edo’ (the old name for Tokyo), which in its purest form is the combination of sliced raw seafood on top of vinegared rice. For inspiration, Nakazawa reached back in time to the earliest traditions of Edomae sushi, while at the same time evolving the cuisine in directions that are both innovative and stunning to behold. For example, modern sushi norms dictate that the fish must be as fresh as possible, yet before refrigeration technology it was commonly treated to make it last longer. Nakazawa resurrected this tradition by ageing, marinating, simmering or searing his seafood to achieve maximum flavour. He is also fastidious about rice, and uses two different grains depending on the seafood they’re cushioning: simple white rice for simple, delicate fish; and less common red rice for fattier, fuller flavoured species. He varies the seasoning – vinegar, salt or soy – to balance the taste, and famously serves his rice warmer than is customary. The fixed omakase course service at Sushisho can begin with a delicate slice of cooked squid stuffed with rice and dotted in three places with concentrated soy sauce. It may include a pocket of aji (horse mackerel) filled with threads of ginger, shiso and cucumber. It will certainly include slithers of tuna, yellowtail or squid laden with taste from being aged for days or even weeks. And extras such as monkfish liver lying back-to-back with pickled baby watermelon on a bed of red rice would be a crime to miss. Nakazawa set his sights set on becoming a shokunin (artisan) of sushi when he was just 15 years old. His journey began on a delivery bicycle, weaving the crowded streets of Tokyo with boxes of sushi piled high on his shoulder. Later, he travelled the country “like a nomad” honing his skills and learning regional traditions and techniques. The sushi world became his family: he lived with the other apprentices, ate and drank with his teachers, and learned to enjoy interacting with customers. In January 2016, Nakazawa upped sticks and moved to Hawaii for his next adventure, opening a branch of Sushisho in Waikiki. But his spirit lives on at his former restaurant and in the talents of those he schooled in the Sushisho way. “You can’t run a restaurant alone,” Nakazawa says. “More than skill, teamwork and communication are most important.” He is mentor to several of Tokyo’s most highly regarded young sushi chefs. To them, he is always – even in his absence – called oyakata, a term that combines respect with endearment, marking him out as akin to an honorary ... Read More

Tokyo, Yotsuya, Restaurants

Every evening, when most other restaurant owners are waiting anxiously for their first customer, Shinobu Uesugi is already hard at work taking orders, passing out plates, and pouring cold beers. Soon after 6pm, Tanyaki Shinobu, her specialist beef-tongue restaurant, is full. It’s been this way ever since Uesugi opened her restaurant in 1979. “For the first two or three months, we didn’t even have a sign out front. People from the neighbourhood just dropped in,” she recalls. Although grilled beef tongue (tanyaki) features on the menus of many Japanese restaurants, even in Tokyo’s diversified dining scene, few would dare to make it their specialty. The menu at Shinobu includes eight beef tongue dishes – grilled, boiled and stewed. The tongue stew at Shinobu is simmered for 10 many hours, starting the night before it’s served, until the meat is so tender it’s practically falling apart. Uesugi’s husband, Tokujiro Uesugi, opened his first restaurant the young couple were still in their early twenties. They served western food like pizza and steak in Kabukicho, an area of Shinjuku that later developed a notorious reputation. As the neighbourhood went downhill, the Uesugis decided it was time for a change. Moving to the business district of Yotsuya, local ‘salarymen’ became the couple’s core clientele. Many of them come back at least once a week, and Uesugi and a handful of ladies in pinafores serve them with the rough familiarity of favourite aunties. “I added some vegetable dishes to prevent the regulars getting bored of tongue,” Uesugi says. “But people who come here often know they can trust us, and just ask us to serve whatever we recommend.” The home-cooked style of the cuisine fits the rustic interior, for which the wooden posts and beams came from dismantled storehouses that were reassembled using a traditional form of carpentry employing no nails or screws. To accessorise with this structure, the tables and stools are made from logs and slices of tree trunks. On weekends, the suits and ties of the salarymen are gone, replaced by a younger and trendier crowd of smartphone-enabled foodies. Old-fashioned dishes like tanyaki are making a comeback. And Uesugi’s maternal hospitality never goes out of fashion. “These days, people find us online and trek here from all over the place,” she says. “It makes me happy to see all these young faces.” Looking back over almost four decades of restaurant work, Uesugi isn’t shy about explaining her decision to settle on such a specific cuisine: “I had thought about opening a yakitori restaurant. But that means starting work early in the morning to cut all that chicken and skewer it. With this, you just have to season it, cook it, and serve it,” she says. “We provide speedy service, and our patrons enjoy the food. Everybody’s happy!”

Tokyo, Yotsuya

When Masakatsu Oka decided he wanted to become a sushi chef, he knew there was something he needed to fix. Lacking neither passion nor commitment, it was in a sense his body that looked set to let him down. “It’s because, truth be told, I’m left-handed,” confesses Oka, a trait that even today is considered undignified by some Japanese. Not wanting this perceived weakness to ruin his culinary ambitions, Oka could be found nightly practising cutting cabbage into thin strips with his right hand until, in his words, “I no longer feared the knife.” It clearly worked. He moves the blade with swift, deft strokes, lightly scoring a slice of squid with dozens of fine, diagonal cuts. He angles his knife to the right, and repeats the action in the other direction to make a crisscross pattern so that when the flesh touches one’s tongue, it feels like it’s melting. But Oka credits his skills less to his late-night cabbage training and more to his mentor, Keiji Nakazawa of Sushisho (p.XX). “Nakazawa-san is the person I respect most,” Oka says. “If I hadn’t met him, this restaurant wouldn’t exist.” Sushisho Masa, the name of Oka’s restaurant, is testament to that. The practice is known as noren-wake, or ‘dividing the noren’ – the noren being the curtain above the door that bears a restaurant’s name. By permitting him to use the Sushisho name, the mentor gives a public blessing to his acolyte’s new venture, indicating that the young man is equipped to safeguard his legacy. An honour of that level must be earned, and Oka is no stranger to hard work. He says that losing his mother at an early age taught him to be independent. And that the punishing schedule of his early years learning the sushi trade – starting work at 7.30am, and ending around midnight – was a lesson in endurance. “Find out how far you can push yourself and then push even further,” he says, sounding more marathon runner than chef. Indeed, as he works behind Sushisho Masa’s cosy seven-seat counter, Oka controls every movement and every breath. As the cuts of his knife create a staccato rhythm, his words meet the beat, becoming almost meditative as he describes each dish: aji (horse mackerel) is served with a dab of acidic hacchomiso, a deeply flavoured dark miso from Western Japan; rectangles of katsuo (bonito) come sandwiching paper-thin slices of garlic marinated in soy sauce to mellow the taste; and his decadent signature dish of three succulent slices of o-toro lightly layered with wasabi to create what he calls the ‘Masa-feuille’. Oka’s eyes twinkle as he presents rare ingredients such as grilled anago liver, or octopus eggs simmered in dashi – all likely to surprise even the most dedicated lover of sushi. “I always keep my eyes open for new ideas. That’s what I try to teach my guys,” he says, gesturing towards his staff of three young apprentices. “I want them to become the kind of people ... Read More

Nishi Azabu, Tokyo, Restaurants

“I feel like a time machine,” says Hayao Matsumura, meandering around his vintage fashion shop as if to make the point. “I’m constantly travelling to the future and the past.” He’s attempting to explain his love of retro clothing, and he seems – quite appropriately – a little adrift. A more likely explanation, perhaps, is that he was up all night. Matsumura is, after all, Tokyo’s perennial party boy. The owner of Nude Trump and a handful of other businesses, he is rarely seen without his vintage shades and black cap. But he also dons many other proverbial hats: he’s an entrepreneur, a traveller, a trendsetter, and a guardian of youth. As a constant presence at fashion events, members of Tokyo’s creative ‘it crowd’ invariably surround him. All several decades his junior, they politely call him ‘Matsumura-san’, which in such a casual setting is a term of endearment, as well as of respect. Matsumura’s career in fashion started with the ultimate road trip. It was the mid-Eighties, and he was a young man with a head for business and an eye for trends. Witnessing Japan’s then-insatiable appetite for Americana, he drove coast-to-coast across the United States, loading up his car with jeans, boots, jackets, and memorabilia. On his return to Tokyo, he opened a no-name store in his apartment in the bohemian suburb of Koenji. Among the trinkets on sale were decks of playing cards (known as ‘trumps’ in Japanese) featuring images of naked women, which were illegal at the time. Fascinated customers duly nicknamed the business ‘Nude Trump’. Now located in the Jinnan area of Shibuya, the iconic store remains in business, selling a curious jumble of retro fashions, from glam to punk to downright bizarre. “Things my mother wore, items from my grandmother’s closet – these things will all come back into fashion one day,” Matsumura explains. “Nothing is ever completely over.” In 2006, Matsumura heard a rumour that a discount vintage store was planning to open in same building as Nude Trump. He quickly rented the space instead – later taking over the entire building – and turned it into Trump Room, a club-like venue for Tokyo’s bright, cool, creative young things. Elsewhere in Shibuya he owns the tiny back-alley Piano Bar, and another club space, Trump House. Matsumura has decked each out in a style that might be called ‘timeless decadence’: luxurious couches, mirrored tables, antique portraits and animal heads, all meticulously arranged beneath a sea of chandeliers. It appears fantastical, but this is Matsumura’s world. Fast fashion chains have commoditised much of the local area, but thanks to him, there are still pockets of Shibuya where individuality is celebrated. Matsumura understands for most normal Japanese youth, happiness feels impermanent. The hot summer of adolescence must give way to the chill of social obligation: a desk job, a suit, a mortgage. The party will surely end. Unless, that is, you have the guts to shun conformity. “The people who come here, they’re the stylists, designers, beauticians, ... Read More

Shibuya, Tokyo, Bars

[Please make a reservation before visiting Miyako Andon.] A wooden model of an old Japanese house – complete with tiny sliding screens – sits in the corner of Masanori Kizaki’s office. With the flick of a switch, the house illuminates. “My ancestors built models like this as souvenirs for the foreigners who came to Japan after the war,” says Kizaki, the fourth generation of his family to lead their handcrafted lamp business, Miyako Andon. These days, Kizaki’s contemporary lamps – made using similarly detailed Japanese woodwork and joinery techniques, but updated with the his own modern sensibilities – also find their way into homes around the world. “These ones are going to New York City,” he says, pointing at two minimalist cubes destined to hang in a Manhattan kitchen. “A very particular customer.” The business dates from the late 19th Century when Kizaki’s great grandfather was a ‘shokunin’ (artisan) making delicately latticed, painstakingly assembled wooden screens known as ‘kumiko’. His son – Kizaki’s grandfather – began manufacturing lamps before World War Two, and continued selling them afterwards to Americans in the Allied occupation force. An ‘andon’ is a traditional, wood-framed, paper-sided lamp that originally would have contained a small vessel of burning oil as a source of light. Some ‘andon’ were portable and could be carried from room to room, or out into the streets at night. With electrification, however, their utility faded. “In postwar Japan, most people lived in cluttered apartments with pre-installed ceiling lights,” observes Kizaki. “But the younger generation is starting to think more about design.” Kizaki has always thought that way. When he was a student, he would spend his weekends in Tokyo’s fashionable west side – in Aoyama, Omotesando and Daikanyama – soaking up the new fashions and modern architecture. The clean lines and pure geometry of his products reflect his passion for structures and spaces. The Tsukika lamp, a globe of interlocking, paper-covered triangles is his most recognizable design. “Every component comes from another artisan: the wood from northern Japan, the ‘washi’ paper from Shikoku,” he says, referring to a large island in western Japan. “In other lamps, instead of paper we use patterned cloths hand-dyed by a craftsman here in Tokyo.” At his office, a short taxi ride from Nippori railway station, the old and the new stand side by side. The showroom (viewable by appointment) is a simple concrete box – with a void filled by natural light at its core – built to Kizaki’s own plan. The classic Mini Cooper parked outside? That’s his too. Next-door is the old workshop, with sawing machines, wood presses and lamp skeletons, stacked high and waiting to be papered. The company’s seven workers includes five members of the Kizaki family – among them the craftsman’s wife, Toshiko, who speaks fluent English and handles international sales. “To be a successful ‘shokunin’ these days, it’s not enough just to make beautiful and enduring things,” says Kizaki, the last traditional ‘andon’ maker in Tokyo. “You need to adapt ... Read More

Nippori, Tokyo, Shops

A few steps from one of Shibuya’s main thoroughfares is not exactly where one might expect to find a farmhouse-style restaurant, and yet that’s exactly what Mamma Luisa’s Table is. Opened by chef Pietro Androsoni in 2014, the restaurant was inspired by his childhood growing up on his grandparents’ farm in Florence. “My grandmother made all the food for all the family. Every weekend there were like 15 to 20 people in my house,” Androsoni says. “So I grew up in this environment, with the ingredients from the farm, the animals, the poultry. And I think this is why I am fascinated by this work.” Androsoni started his career at a Michelin-starred restaurant in his native city, before he did a stint at an Italian restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. Disillusioned by what he says was not the America of his dreams and yet still harbouring a travel bug, when he got a call from his former boss asking him to help open a new location in Tokyo, he decided to take a chance. “I said, I’ll come to Japan, but I don’t want to stay longer than six months. And I came here and fell in love with the city,” he says. “Food-wise, I think it’s the best city in the world. You can experience all the cuisines, the styles—there is so much culture about food in this city.” Mamma Luisa’s Table is named after Androsoni’s own mother, and the restaurant has a relaxed, home-style feeling. Black and white photos of the chef’s family hang on the walls, and at the centre of the dining room is a large, eight-seat table. Warm lighting, distressed wood furniture, mismatched rugs and an open kitchen complete the inviting atmosphere. “The thing I love the most about having my own restaurant is the relationships I can cultivate with customers,” Androsoni says. “I feel I am at home, and the guests are also a part of my home.” Androsoni’s food is creative yet comforting, incorporating ingredients from Japan and around the Mediterranean. The menu changes slightly from day to day depending on the vegetables he finds at the markets. “I use really seasonal ingredients, because that’s one thing we’re losing these days,” he says. “People have gotten used to using asparagus 365 days a year. But for me, we have seasons and I want to respect them. Also because I grew up in a farmhouse, and I think this background is something I bring with me. I used to love to go into the backyard and get the zucchini, and then go inside, wash it and cook the pasta. In 30 minutes you go from the ground to the plate.” Cooking according to the seasons also results in more variety, which keeps Androsoni stimulated. Even first-time visitors to Mamma Luisa’s Table will quickly recognise his passion for his work. “Food is so versatile. Once you understand the ingredients, you can create anything. Food for me is life,” he says. “Food is also my way of ... Read More

Shibuya, Tokyo, Featured, Featured Grid, Home Page Slider, Restaurants

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

Nakameguro, Tokyo, Featured, Featured Grid, Home Page Slider, Shops

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

Gakugei Daigaku, Tokyo, Featured, Featured Grid, Home Page Slider, Shops

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.

Gaienmae, Harajuku, Tokyo, Cafes, Featured, Featured Grid, Home Page Slider

Completed in 1933, the property that is now home to the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum was originally the private residence of Prince Asaka and his wife, who became fascinated by Art Deco while living in Paris in the early 1920s. The couple commissioned Henri Rapin to design many of the home’s interiors, and Rapin enlisted the help of other prominent artists of the time, including René Lalique. “At the time, Japanese people greatly admired and dreamt of Western Europe,” says Toyojiro Hida. “And this building is a realisation of those dreams, of true French Art Deco style. I want visitors to feel how that dream was realised when they visit the museum.” Hida has over four decades of experience in the art world, but only since taking over as director of the Teien Museum in 2016 has he come to realise the significance of decoration as a field of art. “There’s a paradigm that starts with fine art, then decorative arts, then architecture and design,” he says. “But that paradigm has no relation to this museum. This place is more free, more open than that, which is its biggest appeal.” The inspiration for dedicating the Teien Museum to decoration—not decorative arts—came from the building itself, which is one of Japan’s best examples of Art Deco design. Walking through the front entrance hall with its striking Lalique glass-relief doors and mosaic floor and into the walnut-panelled great hall, it’s hard not to imagine scenes of Gatsby-esque splendour. Hida says his favourite piece in the museum is what is known as the ‘Perfume Tower,’ a Rapin creation named for its original purpose as a fountain that also filled the space with the princess’s preferred scents. Other significant elements of the building’s design include chandeliers by Lalique, wall paintings by Rapin, reliefs by Ivan-Léon Alexandre Blanchot, etched glass doors by Max Ingrand, and iron decorations by Raymond Subes above some doors. The majority of the building’s design elements and furniture are original, commissioned specifically to fit the architecture designed by Yokichi Gondo. “The building is the result of cooperation between Japanese and French craftspeople and designers, who worked together to complete it,” Hida says. “And the impressive thing is that the French artists never came here and saw the house in person. Everything was done by sending ideas back and forth via post.” The Teien’s remarkable design forms a stunning backdrop for displaying a wide variety of pieces spanning various disciplines, eras and continents. Previous exhibits have ranged from French picture books to Brazilian indigenous benches. “Art Deco was created by the French bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie were very democratic. They took in everything, from Brazilian ebony trees to decorations from the Nile region in Africa, in order to create the culture of Art Deco in Paris. So since the original concept of Art Deco was kind of that anything goes, anything can look at home in this space. As long as the decoration is clearly expressed, it works.” Hida says. “Decoration ... Read More

Meguro, Tokyo, Featured Grid, Galleries & Museums

As a child, Takahiro Yoshihara was enthralled by the candy artists he saw at summer festivals, deftly turning thick liquid sugar into hardened, elaborate shapes of animals and creatures of fantasy. At the time he dreamt of one day joining their ranks. And while he did eventually become a candy artist, it was not his first career. Yoshihara trained as a chef, and travelled to Italy to learn more about food and cooking. While there, he found himself feeling embarrassed that he was unable to answer questions put to him about Japanese culture. This sparked in him a renewed interest in doing something that was more closely related to his roots. “When I started thinking that I wanted to have a career doing something that celebrated Japanese culture, of course I could have taken the path of cooking Japanese food, but I remembered my childhood self wanting to do amezaiku and chose to follow that path instead,” he says. The word “amezaiku” loosely translates as “candy craft,” an art that has its origins in China, but which took a different form upon gaining popularity in Japan during the Edo period. It is mainly and traditionally a mobile craft, peddled by artisans who travel from city to city, creating candies from a cart at outdoor festivals and other events. But after learning from an experienced amezaiku artist in this way for four years, Yoshihara had a different idea. When Amezaiku Yoshihara opened in 2008, it was the first permanent store in Japan dedicated to the traditional candy craft. Creating a place where customers could come to buy the whimsical candies anytime was Yoshihara’s way of helping to keep the craft alive. While he has trained other young artists in amezaiku and his business has expanded to include a second store where workshops are held, he says there are still only some 30 to 40 amezaiku artisans remaining in Japan. What makes amezaiku unique, according to Yoshihara, is the performance element to it. “You don’t have to twist and pull candy into different shapes in order for it to taste good, but that’s what’s wonderful about amezaiku,” he says. “It’s not only something you can eat—it also has some fun and beauty to it. The fact that you can watch it being made just for you and then take it home—this is something that doesn’t exist in other businesses, and it makes amezaiku really special.” Yoshihara and his team make a variety of shapes of candy every day, ranging from the simple to the elaborate. Each piece must be created in under three minutes, before the candy hardens and can no longer be worked. The only way to get to this level, Yoshihara says, is through lots of practice. While there are many shapes that are staples of amezaiku, there are slight variations depending on the artisan’s personal style. “I want to make the kinds of things that I enjoyed seeing made as a child, so I tend to make brightly coloured, ... Read More

Sendagi, Tokyo, Featured Grid, Home Page Slider, Shops

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.”

Nakameguro, Tokyo, Cafes, Featured, Featured Grid, Home Page Slider

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.”

Shirokane, Tokyo, Cafes

Koumei Motoji learned the hard way that first impressions count. During a visit to Paris many years ago, he entered a bistro for lunch. He was as fashionably dressed as any typical Parisian. “But I’m Japanese,” he says. “So I was ushered to the back like I was an embarrassment.” The next day he returned to the same restaurant wearing a kimono, “and they treated me like a rock star.” Motoji grew up on the island of Amami Oshima in southern Japan, a place famous for its high-quality silk. He recalls the day his mother gave him a kimono that had belonged to his late father. “As soon as I put it on my back, it felt right,” he says. “I knew then and there that I wanted to share these treasures – that I would open a shop, and my shop would be in Ginza.” In the early 1960s, this was the most fashionable area of Tokyo, a promenade for Japan’s newly affluent consumers. But this was a time before the spread of passenger jets and bullet trains, and Ginza was a world away from the semi-tropical shores of Motoji’s island home. “It took me 13 hours on a ferry, followed by 28 hours on a train,” he recalls, “But I made it eventually.” Ginza Motoji consists of three shops: one for women, one for men, and another that specialises in oshima tsumugi, or kimono from Amami Oshima. Each feels more like an art gallery than a clothing store, exhibiting carefully curated fabrics awaiting purchase and tailoring. A complete kimono, meanwhile, is splayed dramatically, like a soaring bird. The proprietor pulls meticulously boxed rolls of fabric out of storage cupboards and unfurls them on a huge table formed from a single slice of wood cut from a 360-year-old tree. They include works by artisans who have achieved the rank of Living National Treasures: Yuko Tamanaha, who makes ryukyu bingata, an Okinawan style of intricate patterns made using dye-resistant rice paste; Kiju Fukuda, celebrated for his embroidery; and Hyouji Kitagawa, the 18th generation of the family heading the storied Tawaraya workshop in Kyoto’s Nishijin neighbourhood of textile craftspeople – with no male heir, he is probably the last. Almost as if to illustrate the tragedy of a workshop’s demise, Motoji slips on white gloves before touching his most treasured cloth, a simple design of indigo and ivory. The fabric is only 10 years old, but it is already priceless. “Nobody has the skill to make it anymore,” Motoji sighs. “The tradition has been lost.” Every year Motoji invites a selection of his artisans to come to the capital and experience the daily lives of busy, sophisticated Tokyoites. They need to understand their consumers if there is any hope of these endangered skills being preserved for future generations. For this to happen it is imperative that what they make is practical for the modern world. For Motoji, wearing kimono every day means that he now feels uncomfortable in Western clothing. But ... Read More

Ginza, Tokyo, Shops

Gen Yamamoto is a classically trained bartender, though you might not guess it. He has dispensed with many of the rudiments of his profession: he never shakes a cocktail; never stirs with ice in a mixing glass; never makes martinis, negronis or anything else you’ve heard of. And his drinks are usually tiny. At his bar, Yamamoto specialises in omakase courses of original cocktails. Guests choose four or six drinks, discuss their aversions or allergies, and leave the details to him. What he serves will depend on the season, the weather, and the time of day. The cocktails are presented on a lacquer tray, beside a freshly misted seasonal flower. The first soupçon is always refreshing, employing an ingredient such as cucumber juice or ginger. The second has more bite, often using Japanese citrus. And then there’s something more powerful again – perhaps with a fruit tomato, and a gin or shochu. The courses build and build in texture and density, to their dessert-like conclusion. There are many bartenders that show the season in their drinks. They’ll use watermelons in the summer or persimmons in the autumn. Yamamoto takes the idea so much further: having forged ties with farmers, he consults with them about what’s being harvested. He says he’s interested in anything delicious, but is more inspired when the ingredient is a little unusual. He buys lesser-known Japanese citruses, such as hebesu, sumikan or hassaku, and has been known to use fava beans, wasabi, celery root, and fennel. He prepares them more in the manner of a chef than a bartender, simmering reductions, creating compotes, and using copper pans and digital thermometers. Yamamoto devised his first cocktail tasting menu in New York while working as bar manager at Brushstroke, a kaiseki-inspired collaboration between chef David Bouley and Japan’s Tsuji Culinary Institute. “When I moved to America, the ingredients tasted different, the ambience was different, and the environment was different. I started to focus on natural ingredients, at first just mixing them with vodka — a vodka apple martini or something like that. It didn’t work. Each ingredient tasted out of balance. So little by little I changed them.” The mixologist questioned everything he had learned. Why does a cocktail have to be chilled? Why must the elements be integrated? Who says a serving should be 70 millilitres or more? And does the alcohol have to kick so hard? He found Japanese-originated alcohol such as sake or shochu often paired better with his produce than 80 proof spirits. He realised that too much chilling could mute the flavours. And he discovered you can have too much of a good thing. “I make a drink with kumquats, for example,” he says. “If it is a large drink, it’s too thick, too heavy.” His style was taking shape, but Yamamoto couldn’t execute it properly in the U.S. “People there worried more about the speed of service than the quality of the result,” he says. So he moved back home to Tokyo and ... Read More

Azabu Juban, Tokyo, Bars

Kazuo Nozaki is proud that chefs from New York to Stockholm flock to his unassuming shop at the former Tsukiji fish market to purchase high-quality Japanese knives for their kitchens. But famous customers aren’t the reason he starts work at 4am each day. Aritsugu knife shop has been supplying blades to Tokyo fishmongers for more than 90 years. Its main customers are the wholesalers who prepare the early morning tuna, octopus, scallops, and other seafood for Tokyo’s sushi counters and izakaya tables. Starting work long before sunrise, they rely on the shop to sharpen and repair the tools of their trade. Only when this job is done will Nozaki open his shop to walk-in customers, no matter how famous they might be. Tokyo Aritsugu began life in 1919 when, struggling to keep their brood of sons employed, the owners of the famous Kyoto store (est. 1560) dispatched two of their number to Tokyo. They set up shop in the Nihonbashi fish market, later moving to Tsukiji after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Although today both the business and its owner are unrelated to the Kyoto shop, Nozaki’s history with the Tokyo store is long. He came to work at Artisugu to support himself while studying at a Tokyo college. But he put aside his plans for a career in machinery, instead ‘graduating’ to become a master of knives. The child of a fishing family from Kyushu’s Saga Prefecture, Nozaki recalls how, as a boy, he cut soft lead to make sinkers for fishing lines. The only blade he could find to do this was his mother’s kitchen knife. “It was impossible,” he recalls, laughing. “These days, I appreciate the value of having the right tool for the right job.” And so do his customers. The range of knives on display at Aritsugu is staggering. There are knives fashioned specifically for meat, vegetables, noodles and fish; different knives for different fish; and even sets of three or four to prepare just one single species. No self-respecting chef would use the same knife designed to cut off a fish’s head to slice its belly in to sashimi. Nozaki explains that long, narrow ‘willow’ blades for sashimi are popular, as are pointed gyutou – literally ‘beef knives’ – although they can be used for almost anything. Meanwhile the multi-purpose santoku knives, which are rounder at the top and a little wider, always sell out fast. Hand-forged but non-specific in duty, they’re high in both quality and maintenance. Sakai, the traditional sword-making district in Osaka where the knives are made, is a place Nozaki must travel to frequently. There, each blade starts as a dark, dull rod of steel. Heated, hammered and cooled repeatedly for days, it eventually becomes a sharp, shiny instrument of strength and precision. It’s the same technique swordsmiths once used to arm samurai warriors. For casual cooks, alloy and stainless steel knives are more affordable and easier to maintain, although they lack the artisanal commitment of owning a forged ... Read More

Tokyo, Shops

Don’t go thinking that 21_21 is a museum. It can’t be, because it is without permanent collection. But then, neither is it a gallery – its expansive mission is bigger than that. How, then, to explain it? “Most museum and art gallery directors come from the curatorial side,” explains Associate Director Noriko Kawakami. “What’s so special about 21_21 Design Sight is that the directors are all working designers.” They are, in fact, more than that – they are three of the biggest names in the Japanese creative industry: graphic designer Taku Satoh, industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa, and fashion designer Issey Miyake, who has been the project’s driving force from the start. “Another reason we’re different from an art gallery is that we exhibit familiar things from everyday life,” says Kawakami. “But we want to show their beauty and emotion.” During the first half of 2014, Satoh and anthropologist Shinichi Takemura co-directed an exhibition titled ‘Kome: The Art of Rice’, which explored how the humble grain has enriched Japan’s design traditions as well as its diet. A previous exhibition curated by Satoh investigated water, while another by Fukusawa was named ‘Chocolate’. One of Miyake’s motivations has been that, despite its cultural affinity for beautiful and functional things, Japan has no official museum of design – although he never intended for 21_21 Design Sight to become that institution. His is a more modest goal, formulated with the help of late sculptor Isamu Nogichi, architect Tadao Ando, and several others: to create a space where people can experience good design and understand its transformative possibilities. Ando and Miyake collaborated on the structure of the building using the latter’s concept for making garments from a single piece of unbroken thread. Approaching the building through the surrounding gardens, visitors catch sight of two massive triangular roofs at ground level, each made from giant sheets of folded steel. Beyond the entrance, the exhibition rooms are subterranean and surround a sunken courtyard framed by large windows. On sunny days dramatic shadows move slowly across the cavernous space. Kawakami and the three directors meet monthly to brainstorm ideas and choose a curator for each show. For everyone involved, an open mind is imperative: while assisting Satoh in the preparations for ‘Water’, Kawakami says she worked with a scuba diver, an astronomer, a biologist, and other unlikely professionals. “What keeps every exhibition interesting is that each has its own methodology,” she says. “There are never any prepared answers. There are never any rules.”

Akasaka, Roppongi, Tokyo, Galleries & Museums

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

Aoyama, Tokyo, Cafes, Featured, Featured Grid

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

Harajuku, Tokyo, Cafes

Taka Ishii had his heart set on becoming a painter while studying for a fine arts degree in Los Angeles. Until, that is, the day he saw photographer Larry Clark’s “Tulsa” prints in Los Angeles. “I was shocked to see his work,” says Ishii. “There was lots of violence and drugs. I liked it. It was like watching a documentary.” When he returned to Tokyo from LA in the early 1990s, Ishii discovered Japan had its own photographers working in a similar vein, people such as Daido Moriyama and his iconic 1979 image of a stray dog, “Misawa”. “That was the start,” Ishii says of his then-nascent career path. When he opened his first gallery in 1994, it was with a solo show of the same Clark that had originally inspired him. A year later, he showed Moriyama’s works for the first time. “To exhibit those two photographers was a dream come true,” Ishii says. The reality of operating a gallery, however, was harder than he had expected. “I had worked as a private dealer, but never in a gallery before,” he says. “I didn’t know the system. I had to learn everything from scratch.” Tokyo had few international contemporary art galleries at the time, and Ishii did not know any collectors. He reached out to magazines and newspapers to attract media coverage. Slowly, collectors followed. Fortunately, his original gallery was located in the first floor of his family home, and was therefore rent-free. Low-key, soft-spoken and with an air of disheveled cool, Ishii is now one of Japan’s most successful contemporary art dealers, with two galleries in Tokyo and one in New York City. His stable of established artists includes Moriyama, Nobuyoshi Araki, Naoya Hatakeyama, Thomas Demand, Sterling Ruby, Dan Graham, and Cerith Wyn Evans. He also actively promotes up-and-coming Japanese photographers and mixed media artists. These days, Ishii’s collectors mostly come from abroad. The domestic market remains a challenge. A difficult venture in Kyoto proved that point. He and a fellow Tokyo-based gallerist opened a collaborative space in the ancient capital in 2008. But collectors there, wary of outsiders, wouldn’t buy from them. “You need a strong connection with the local people, especially in Kyoto,” he says. “We didn’t have that. I really was too bad.” The space closed in 2013. Ishii remains optimistic – the trends are moving in his favour. Japan is becoming an international destination, and the number of young Japanese collectors is steadily growing. “Interest in post-war Japanese photography is growing abroad. Even foreign museums are buying now,” he says. “We have so many great photographers. Helping them reach a global audience is my ultimate reward.”

Roppongi, Tokyo, Galleries & Museums

Tomio Koyama’s passion for contemporary art began, like many great love affairs, in Venice. It was the 1990s, and the future gallery owner was attending his first Venice Biennale. Lost in the narrow, twisting lanes, he was hunting down a space showing works by the late conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim. Two deer sculptures with flaming antlers were the clue he needed. Deep inside the building, Koyama discovered a world he had never imagined. “It was filled with famous collectors and artists of all kinds, all mingling and drinking together,” he says. “I could feel the power of art. I really wanted to make something like this. I knew the variety and creativity suited my personality.” Koyama was 33 when he opened his first Tokyo gallery in 1996 in the same place as the Sagacho Exhibit Space in Tokyo’s Koto district. The 1927 red brick warehouse was once a rice market, and the first exhibition space for what became some of Japan’s most influential contemporary galleries. At the time, Koyama was among a new generation of gallerists looking for alternative spaces and collectors beyond Ginza, once the heart of Japan’s art scene. “My gallery and my generation are very different from older Japanese art gallery owners,” he says. “They were from inside Japanese society representing Japanese collections and bringing in historically big name foreign artists.” In contrast, Koyama says, he had to focus on international art fairs when he started because at that time there were no buyers in Japan who were interested in works by the young artists he was representing. His big break came when he began showing two up-and-coming artists, now world famous, Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara. The former he represented in Japan from the mid-1990s to early 2000s; the latter remained with him for a remarkable 19 years. Buyers still ask him for ‘the next Murakami’ – someone Koyama has yet to find. “Murakami’s style was so unique in the ‘90s art scene – a genre all of its own. These days, we have a new generation of artists in Japan, all highly trained, and all with their own styles,” says Koyama, who represents about 50 emerging and established contemporary painters and sculptors out of his two gallery spaces in Roppongi and Shibuya. Through another project, TKG Ceramics, Koyama wants to develop a new ceramic market combining the skills and aesthetics of older generations with those of younger, contemporary potters, and introducing their works outside of Japan. “We have a huge variety of artists, artworks, and accumulated technical skill in Japan,” he says. “These artists are ambassadors for our cultural spirit.”

Roppongi, Tokyo, Galleries & Museums

Hajime Suzuki knows the difference between a good Japanese restaurant and a great one. “You must engage the senses,” explains the owner of Fuku, a beloved west-Tokyo yakitori place, “the view of the chefs at work, the aroma of the chicken fizzling on the grill, and of course the taste of the food.” Yakitori, meaning literally grilled (‘yaki’) chicken (‘tori’), are skewers of chicken cooked over white-hot charcoal. From neck to tail, Fuku’s menu lists various parts of the bird, including the familiar (breast, wings, mincemeat) and the ambitious (heart, giblets, cartilage). Around the turn of the millennium, Suzuki, who was then working in the fashion business, began dreaming of opening a restaurant. “The image in my mind was of a warm place with a diverse, international clientele all enjoying themselves, as relaxed as if they were at home,” he says. In Yoyogi Uehara, a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood still lacking good dining options, he found a promising location – “just far enough away from the station” – and the ideal landlord, who offered to knock down his existing building and build a new one to Suzuki’s specifications. He designed a space with high ceilings – rare for Tokyo – a counter with 16 seats, and several tables around the edge. The simple white uniforms of the chefs, the plain teahouse-colour walls, and the earthy ceramics were also part of his plan. “Everything we do should be understated so as not to disturb the customers,” he says. “Their enjoyment creates the atmosphere.” At the heart of the restaurant is the charcoal grill, manned by a chef who – battling through waves of heat and smoke – staggers the various orders and ingredients with the tempo of an orchestra conductor. The cleanliness and cut of the meat are critical to achieving an even cook. The charcoal – always from Wakayama, a prefecture in western Japan famous for it – is just as important. Regulars know to order plenty of the vegetable skewers and other non-chicken dishes that make up about half the menu, including succulent shiitake mushrooms, cuts of aubergine, and the ‘danshaku’ potato topped with a slice of melting butter. The green peppers wrapped in bacon and stuffed with cheese should be requested early, before they sell out. When he’s not at the grill himself, Suzuki can often be seen standing quietly at the back, discreetly paying attention to every detail. “If I listen carefully,” he says, “I can hear when the grill needs new charcoal, or when a chicken skewer is fizzling and ready to be served.”

Tokyo, Yoyogi Uehara, Restaurants

A tray of oven-crisp croissants emerges from the tiny kitchen at Shinji Tanaka’s bakery, Tolo Pan Tokyo. The chef holds them high above his head as he inches behind his coworkers, who stand shoulder-to-shoulder slicing loaves, packaging buns, and ringing up the till. He weaves through the half-dozen customers who have squeezed into the shop – greeting them and apologising as he goes – and sets the croissants out for sale. Within minutes they are purchased, packaged, and out the door. Tolo Pan – ‘pan’ is Japanese for bread – occupies narrow premises on the main shopping street in the Higashiyama neighbourhood close to Ikejiri-ohashi train station, one stop west of Shibuya. “When all five bakers are in the kitchen, we have to work precisely and without thinking,” says Tanaka, a lithe man with an earnest smile. “We’re like parts of a machine, all operating as one.” Tanaka arrives on his bicycle when only the fishmonger and the tofu maker have their shutters raised. Comrades of the dawn, they say good morning to one another without fail. Gradually his team arrives until the kitchen is at full capacity, producing loaves and pastries, bagels and baguettes, and ‘curry bread’ – a modern classic of Japanese baking that cocoons a dollop of curry inside a ball of savory breaded pastry. During a typical day, Tanaka will handle up to 13 different types of flour and produce about one hundred different breads and pastries. The subtle complexities of a job in which every ounce and every minute makes a difference are what he loves. “Take the weather, for example,” he explains. “Because the seasons in Japan are so different – cold and crisp in winter, but hot and muggy in summer – we need to adjust the balance of ingredients constantly to maintain the quality.” Tolo’s signature white bread, Higashiyama Pan, uses soymilk and tofu, creating a texture he describes with the onomatopoeic word ‘mochi-mochi’, meaning soft and moist. The wholegrain Complet loaf is injected with clarified butter to nurture a lingering richness when it rises. Two doors further along the same street, cooks at a Tolo-branded café use the bakery’s bread to make chunky BLTs, croque monsieurs and roast beef sandwiches. The signature ‘katsu-sando’ inserts a succulent chunk of breaded, fried pork between two slices of whole wheat bread with onion and fig relish and sliced cabbage. Flour-smattered denim jumpsuits and colourful wooly hats are the baking team’s eye-catching uniforms, chosen by Tanaka’s business partner, an entrepreneur from the fashion industry who takes care of marketing, accounting, and other back-office chores of which the chef, in single-minded pursuit of his craft, is glad to be free. “When I’m not at work baking, I’m at home reading books about baking,” says Tanaka, who closes his shop most Tuesdays to give his coworkers a well-earned break. “If was only me, I’d be happy working seven days a week.”

Ikejiri Ohashi, Tokyo, Cafes

Looking for the best rice to serve at his new restaurant, Hideki Ohnishi knew exactly who to talk to: Mr. Okazaki, a farmer in his hometown whose rice is so good he keeps it only for friends and family. Persuaded by the chef’s sincere attitude, he agreed to make him his only outside customer. “Later we found out his son and I were at school together,” says Ohnishi. “People around there need to know you to trust you.” Ohnishi’s restaurant in Tokyo, Kisaiya Hide, specializes in the cuisine of his hometown, Uwajima, a fishing port on the island of Shikoku in western Japan. The city belongs to a region known for its exacting farmers, and the chef spent years diligently researching from whom to buy his produce. Moving to Tokyo was Ohnishi’s childhood dream – although the boy intended to be a rock star, not a cook. Needing money for the journey, he took a job in the kitchen of the best restaurant in town famous for its ‘tai meshi’, a dish of snapper sashimi mixed with rice, broth, seaweed and scallions that is Uwajima’s signature food. The business closed many years ago and its chef passed away. But Ohnishi continues to serve a faithful version of the famous ‘tai meishi’ at his own restaurant. “It’s my way of giving back to the man who first believed in me,” he says. Another person who believed in him was his wife. She encouraged him to go solo after 15 years working in other chefs’ kitchens. After a long search for the perfect location, they settled on Kagurazaka, a wealthy neighborhood north of the Imperial Palace once famous for its geisha culture. “People around here love food and love talking about food,” says Ohnishi, recalling how his early customers discovered Kisaiya Hide. “The locals would come and eat, and then go to a bar and tell everyone about it.” Onishi recommends the ‘shika’ (venison), marinated for one day and hung for a second before being grilled and served with wasabi and soy sauce; the seasonal fish tempura – normally ‘kasago’ (scorpion fish) – every part of which can be eaten, including the bones; and ‘mizunasu’, a variety of eggplant that can be eaten raw, which comes served in salad-like arrangement with other greens, ginger and garlic, plus a smattering of broth and a dash of hot sesame oil. Considering Uwajima’s reputation for seafood, Ohnishi knew he would be judged on the quality of his sashimi. For that reason he bypasses Tokyo’s renowned fish market and instead buys from Mr. Yamada, a local fishmonger in Uwajima who sends him text messages every morning with photos of the different species being iced, boxed, and sent by overnight courier to the capital. A delivery of octopus is always welcome. “Octopus from the ocean there is unlike any other – sweeter, more fragrant,” he says. Every summer, when Ohnishi, his wife and their two young children go back to Ehime, he visits Mr. Yamada in person ... Read More

Kagurazaka, Tokyo, Restaurants

Daisuke Shimazaki cradles in his hands two giant shrimps, just boiled and ready to serve. “Yesterday they were swimming in the ocean,” he says, his voice hushed, poised to reveal a secret. “Fresh from northern Japan. The best in the world… maybe.” That phrase is heard frequently at Sushi Yuu, Shimazaki’s family-run restaurant. His sea urchin and his fatty tuna are also “the best in the world… maybe” – although his confident tone of voice infers that there is, in fact, no ‘maybe’ about it. Shimazaki’s late father, Shojiro, opened Sushi Yuu in 1972 in a distant suburb, later moving his shop to central Tokyo. His wife – Shimazaki’s mother – still helps from behind the scenes, bottling her annual batch of plum wine, or helping to pickle the ‘gari’ ginger so adored by regulars. The son was initially reluctant to follow in his father’s footsteps. The family’s restaurant was close to the bars and nightclubs of Roppongi – a neon-lit playground for high-rolling businessmen. Young Daisuke wanted a life on the other side of the counter. “But it turned out I was a terrible businessman,” he says. Within a year, he was in the kitchen, watching his father work. “He rarely spoke – it was a case of look and learn. That was the way back then.” Shimazaki knows that a chef is only as good as his ingredients. To get his hands on the best fish, he depends on a network of traders, each of them a specialist – in tuna, squid, or sea urchin. He visits them at the fish market every morning. “If there’s something special coming in, they’ll call to give me a head’s up,” he says. “But I still need to see things with my own eyes.” Shimazaki’s sushi reflects his personality: it is uncomplicated and generous. His preparations are simple, his cuts are large, and his rice has bite. A giant Hokkaido oyster is his recommended starter when they are in season. Always on the menu is his father’s signature ‘himono’ –mackerel, rigorously salted, dried in the open air, and grilled until its buttery juices begin to ooze. In place of dessert, expect a slice of ‘tamagoyaki’ omelette – sweet, and with a hint of citrus. Shimazaki balances his dedication to his craft with other passions outside the kitchen – fast cars, fine whiskeys, and the occasional round of golf. A confident English speaker, he converses with his customers from all over the world as dexterously as he creates their meals. “If people want to stay here talking and drinking until the small hours, they’re very welcome,” he says. And with only one sitting per evening, at Sushi Yuu there is no need to watch the clock.

Nishi Azabu, Tokyo, Restaurants

Silence is rare at Sakana Bar Ippo, a casual fish and sake bar along a quiet side street in Ebisu. On most nights it’s packed by 8pm, the air crowded with a cacophony of chatter, clinking glasses, and bursts of laughter. Before the guests begin trickling in at 6pm, owner Masato Takano starts making a playlist for the evening – a little vintage Rolling Stones, some Beatles tunes, maybe something by the Smiths, then the Stone Roses. Takano, who writes songs and plays the piano and guitar, wanted to be a musician when he was growing up. But he made a calculated decision to pursue a safer career, and spent eight years working as a stock analyst. Now in his forties, he still peppers his conversation with references to risk and probability. “Succeeding as a musician is a narrow possibility, so I went to university and studied economics,” he explains, modestly adding that his specialist subject was investment theory. But childhood dreams die hard, and after spending much of his twenties managing assets, Takano knew he wanted to do more than just make money. By age 30, he’d saved enough to start a small business. To this day, he relishes the moment he told his boss he was quitting finance to open an izakaya. It was the many evenings he spent in the Tsukiji district, unwinding with friends over sake and freshly caught fish, that gave him the idea for Ippo. “I really appreciated those moments after work,” he says. “I started watching the guys working in the restaurants, looking at what they were doing. Sometimes I’d buy fish at the market to take home and experiment with.” Ippo’s menu changes depending on what’s on offer fresh at the market. It can include sashimi, grilled fish, even oysters when they’re in season. There is also a selection of specialties, such as Satsuma-age, a variety of fishcake from Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost main island. In Takano’s recipe this is uniquely light and fluffy, a texture onomatopoeically described on the menu in Japanese as ‘fuwa-fuwa’. Regulars at Ippo order the ‘aji no namero’, a fine mince of raw horse mackerel, ginger, miso, and herbs that pairs brilliantly with sake. The name namero, which literally means ‘to lick’, implies the delicacy is so tasty that customers end up cleaning the plate themselves. Although his Ippo version uses mackerel, Takano based the dish on his grandmother’s recipe for a meal of raw squid. To chop everything together, he uses two cleavers in a rapid, steady tapping motion that adds a staccato rhythm to the aural mayhem. “Music is still very important to me,” Takano says, selecting a Tom Waits track on his computer as another customer shouts an order across the bar. “But this… This is my soundtrack.”

Ebisu, Tokyo, Restaurants

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.”

Gaienmae, Harajuku, Tokyo, Cafes

When Koichi Kobari abruptly closed his much-loved New York soba restaurant Honmura-an, food bloggers broke the news like they were announcing a death. But the Big Apple’s loss was Tokyo’s gain: Kobari now runs an equally successful restaurant in the heart of Roppongi. Honmura-an New York was the first top-class soba restaurant outside Japan. Opened in 1991 and closed in 2007, it won the favour of SoHo locals, New York foodies, and a smattering of celebrities. It wasn’t the first time the Kobari family changed the history of soba cuisine. In the 1960s, Koichi’s father, Nobuo, was one of the first to turn a common fast food into refined cuisine, milling top-quality buckwheat on the premises and paying keen attention to design and décor. Tokyo’s middle class couldn’t get enough of it. Koichi, at the time a headstrong, independent young man, had no intention of being part the family’s noodle business. He moved to California to study, and later took a job as a management consultant. He was living the American dream. “But all the time, I had this nagging feeling,” he recalls. “Then one day, my father came to visit.” Nobuo had an idea. It was the heady era of the bubble economy. Mitsubishi had just bought the Rockefeller Center. Anything seemed possible. Nobuo wanted to open a restaurant for the planeloads of Japanese businessmen doing deals in New York. And he wanted Koichi to run it. “He was smart,” says his son. “He always wanted me to be part of the family business, but he knew I had to do it my own way.” Kobari ran Honmura-an New York for 16 years, using buckwheat flour from the Japanese countryside and chefs sent on rotation from Tokyo. The decision to close was an emotional one. Koichi’s father had passed away and it was time to return home. In Tokyo, he left his sister to run the main restaurant in Ogikubo, while he took charge of the less-famous Roppongi branch. The same designer he had used in New York soon replaced its traditional fixtures and fittings with a modern interior. His Japanese chef from SoHo came too. Today the soba noodles are still made to the Kobari family recipe, while contemporary side dishes and seasonal specials – grilled pork and apples with spring onion miso sauce, for example, or tender Hokkaido squid with ginger – add a sense of culinary adventure still rare on most soba menus. “It has been six years, but we still have a few parties from New York every night,” says Kobari, visibly moved by his customers’ loyalty. “It’s flattering, it’s overwhelming, it makes me remind myself every day to be thankful. And I think my father would be proud.”

Roppongi, Tokyo, Restaurants

The literal translation of the Japanese word ‘mangekyou, ’10,000 blossom mirror’ is such a perfect description of kaleidoscopes that, according to the owner of Japan’s first specialty shop selling them, “Japanese people commonly believe they invented them.” Indeed, if the country feels like a natural home for mementos like these then, rich with nostalgia, refinement and quiet romance, Miti Araki’s store suggests it is so. Located in Azabu-Juban, a village-like corner of central Tokyo, Kaleidoscope Musashikan has been in business for more than two decades. Back when she opened it, Araki was a recently divorced mother taking care of her daughter, Kiki. “I started to see the world through my little girl’s eyes,” Araki says, recalling moments they spent looking through a magnifying glass or playing with a mirror. “That act of becoming absorbed in something was vital. I had no idea how or what, but I knew I wanted to open a shop based on looking at things.” Kaleidoscopes were actually invented in the early 1800s by Scottish scholar Sir David Brewster, and soon enchanted the European upper classes. But before Araki opened her shop, all that was available in Japan were cardboard tubes of coloured plastic beads found at souvenir stands. She asked a friend in New York to visit a kaleidoscope specialist retailer there and send as many of them back to Japan as her savings would allow. Before long she had refashioned the café where she worked to become Kaleidoscope Mukashi-kan. The made up word mukashi-kan means ‘hall of the past’, and Araki’s shop feels like it could be the setting for a children’s fantasy, with storybook furnishings, a wall painted like the sky, and a shop assistant wearing a natty pink jacket. A sculpture outside shows the legs of a man appearing to fall into the unknown, and inside, every shelf and table is crowded with kaleidoscopes. The simplest model is the open-ended teleidoscope that multiplies whatever it’s pointed at, while others create infinite patterns using spinning wheels, sliding vials of liquid and glitter, or myriad tiny objects, such as microscopic seashells. Those with sleek brushed stainless steel exteriors are made in Japan; the detail of what is in the eye of the beholder is dazzling, thanks to viewing chambers filled with abstract flakes of exposed colour film. Araki won’t make recommendations, saying choosing one is intensely personal. “It depends as much on what’s inside the person holding the kaleidoscope as what’s inside the instrument,” she says. Indeed her own experience of kaleidoscopes has changed. Where once they stimulated her, in the worrying days after the 2011 earthquake, they became cathartic. “I believe every time you peer into a kaleidoscope, you see something different,” she says. “But then, shouldn’t that be true of almost everything in life?”

Azabu Juban, Tokyo, Shops

Most people lucky enough to have a single-minded passion are born that way. They make a natural decision to dedicate their lives to food, fashion or design. However, for Kenshin Sato, owner of a beautiful Japanese ceramics shop so bijou it must be the world’s smallest, the tale of becoming an expert curator in his field is one of serendipity. “When I graduated from school I had no idea what I wanted to do,” says Sato. “I was flicking through the job ads and found one that sounded promising. It was walking distance from home and I didn’t need to wear a suit. I applied, and got the job.” The then-22-year-old began working for a company that designed table settings for photo shoots. Over the next decade, he came into contact with ceramicists from all over Japan, and his vocation found him. After several years working at a ceramics shop, Sato had the knowledge and the network to set up on his own. All he needed was an affordable space in a good location. Again, fate stepped in. “There was a ceramics shop here before me and I knew the owner. I was visiting one day, and I told him: ‘I want to open my own shop.’ He replied, ‘Well, I want to move mine.’ So I took over the space, just like that.” From the beginning, Sato knew he wanted to focus on emerging talent. And with a size of just 3.5 tsubo in Japanese terms (less than 12 square metres, or 130 square feet), he only has space for the very best. Most of the artists he works with are in their twenties or thirties, producing pieces that combine timeless wabisabi (elegant simplicity) with hints of youthful rebellion. They include the playful-yet-melancholy works of Kazuhiro Katase, whose bold shapes and colours are softened with an unnerving sense of decay; Chie Kobayashi, whose ethereal white bowls look as if they might blow away in the wind; and the rugged aquamarine cups of Asato Ikeda, reminiscent of a calm ocean dangerously awakened. “I could never be a ceramics artist myself. I don’t have that sort of patience!” says Sato, in a confession of sorts from a man who at first appears serene yet self-confident. “But this is the next best thing.” Private buyers are Sato’s main customers, although he recently found himself on the radar of some of Tokyo’s most remarkable restaurants, including Den, whose chef shares Sato’s taste for classy irreverence. Sato works alone – and likes it that way – so because space is limited he often holds special exhibitions at other locations, during which he usually closes the little shop. His ambitious side wants to take the next step and move to a larger showroom. But something is holding him back. “I go back and forth,” he says. “It would be nice to show bigger pieces and more artists, but things would also be a lot more complicated.” So for now, Utsuwa Kenshin stays small. Until fate ... Read More

Shibuya, Tokyo, Shops

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.”

Aoyama, Harajuku, Tokyo, Shops

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.”

Nakameguro, Tokyo, Shops

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

Harajuku, Tokyo, Shops

As a young man in Japan, Shinobu Namae always knew he was living in a bubble. “It was very convenient here, very efficient,” says the youthful executive chef of L’Effervescence with characteristic self-awareness. “I appreciated that. But I also knew Japan was a bit sterile.” Namae was determined to travel, and foraged for a career that would satisfy his inquisitive instincts. He intended to become a journalist. Then he was obsessed with Italy – “I wanted to be Italian.” But it was on holiday near San Francisco, while dining at Chez Panisse, that he encountered his true calling. “A simple arugula salad, garlic soup, beef sirloin with basil paste… Even now, I can remember every flavour,” he recalls of the meal at Alice Waters’ iconic Californian restaurant. “I never imagined I could get such satisfaction from a salad.” More than a decade later, on the other side of the Pacific, Namae set out to offer every guest at his own restaurant a distinct memory of time and place. For his ebullient project, he chose a tantalising name: L’Effervescence. The location he secured is refreshingly roomy for Japan’s cramped capital, where space itself is a luxury. During each sitting, the chef makes sure to visit every table and personally greet and thank his patrons for coming. “I’m grateful for every moment,” he says. “For me, work is life, and life is work, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” On a plate called ‘Beautiful Scene of Summer’, two small local freshwater fish known as ayu (sweetfish) appear to be jumping along a stream of sunshine – a picture painted with mango, radish and a mountain of sansho pepper, and with a powerful spot of ‘guts-flavoured gastric sauce.’ On ‘Transparency,’ airy foie gras, garnished with grapes, celery and walnuts, seems ephemeral enough to almost vanish before the first bite. Nominally French, Namae’s food also reflects his youthful Italian fetish; the influence of his two celebrated tutors, Michel Bras and Heston Blumenthal; and, from his home country, strong seasonal rhythms. His microscopic attention to detail comes from his father, a stern, introverted man who designed microchips sitting behind a blueprint-covered desk. It was his mother who taught him to take pleasure in food. “Honestly she isn’t a great cook,” he says. “But she loves to explore new restaurants. She appreciates every mouthful and every moment.” Softly spoken yet candid, Namae confesses to having a rebellious streak. After graduating from university with a degree in politics and social psychology, his decision to cook for a living went against the wishes of his father. Now in his early forties, he is one of several rising-star chefs unafraid to challenge the boundaries of his native culture. “I grew up just as Japan’s bubble economy was bursting. Since then things haven’t always gone well for us Japanese,” he says. “So we needed to learn to do things differently, and to enjoy ourselves along the way. We needed this culinary revolution.” In late 2013, Chef Namae attended ... Read More

Nishi Azabu, Tokyo, Restaurants

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?”

Harajuku, Tokyo, Galleries & Museums

Just like wine makers, Japanese chefs value terroir – the sense of place communicated through the ingredients they use and the dishes they make. For Kimio Nonaga of Nihonbashi Yukari, the place he wants to share is the heart of old Tokyo – the place he calls home. Nihonbashi is a mercantile district named after the bridge of the same name. The proverbial centre point of the capital, the bridge and those who travel over it are guarded by statues of dragon-like creatures – winged giraffes, according to folklore – and Nonaga’s restaurant is located just a short walk away. “They have a special meaning to us,” he says. “They tell us to protect our heritage while also flying forwards. In Nihonbashi, we must always be a bridge between the present and the past.” Nonaga is a member of a rare tribe known as edokko, or ‘child of Edo,’ a term reserved only for the most authentic citizens – people whose parents and grandparents were all born and raised in the city now known as Tokyo. His grandfather founded the restaurant in 1935, naming it after his favourite kabuki play, and the young Kimio took the reins from his father at just 24. In the private rooms, waitresses in kimono serve formal kaiseki – fixed menus containing many small, artfully prepared dishes. At the counter, patrons can chat with the chef as he prepares their meals. Like most traditions, kaiseki is governed by strict rules, and like most great chefs, Nonaga knows when to break them. There’s cured prosciutto ham and made-in-Tokyo mozzarella cheese in his kitchen – hardly traditional Japanese ingredients. “The scent, texture and taste of the cheese are just a little bit different from Italian mozzarella, because it comes from our own climate,” he says. “But I guess that’s why it goes so well with my cooking.” The most important rule, however, can never be broken: kaiseki must follow the rhythms of nature – not merely the obvious four seasons, but its 24 micro seasons, fleeting moments during which some ingredients are available for just a few short weeks each year. Baby bamboo shoots take centre stage in early March, but just two weeks later edible cherry leaves are in bloom and appear, salted, on the plate. The valuable matsutake mushrooms prized in early autumn are quickly replaced by glorious orange persimmons – hollowed out and re-stuffed with a mixture of their own fruit and seasoned tofu. Given Nonaga’s breeding, his preference for local produce is no surprise: the seafood comes from nearby waters, the pork from farms on the edge of the city. Some of the vegetables are even grown on the restaurant’s roof, right there in Nihonbashi. “Kaiseki has a clear understanding of ingredient, place and time,” Nonaga explains. “But more than that it’s about hospitality, and it’s about healing. After eating it, you feel well.”

Nihonbashi, Tokyo, Restaurants

The windows of the smart shopping complex near Futakotamagawa station show off posters of pouty European models putting their faces to international names. The ritzy suburb appears to be all glittering high-end retail. But nestled on a pedestrian side street only a few steps away is a shop with a certain serenity. Beyond the open sliding door, noise and neon are absorbed by wood, iron, linen, and bamboo. Lettered discreetly on the window is ‘Kohoro’, a word that harkens back to a past time as it describes the sound of a horse’s saddle settling into its packing box. But if Kohoro offers not a wholesale return to a simpler way of living, it at least provides a way of adopting some wisdoms of generations of Japanese. Shopkeeper Hiromi Onda took over eight years ago, and has grown to love using its old-fashioned tools in her daily life. “Visiting friends always ask me to make white rice,” she says. “Apparently it’s special.” She’s young enough that even her mother’s generation used electronic rice cookers. But she says what makes her rice special is her clay gohan nabe, a crock pot that cooks directly on a gas burner. The thick pottery heats slowly and evenly, its heavy lid forcing the steam back into the grains. If there is any left over, Onda puts the rice in an ohitsu, a lidded container specifically for cooked rice. The ones at Kohoro are made from Akita Prefecture cedar, which maintains the fluffiness and moisture content of the rice, while its antibacterial properties keep it fresh for several days without refrigeration. She also likes using bamboo chopsticks with an extremely fine point. “They make it easy to eat anything, even something challenging like grilled fish,” she says. To make tea, Onda uses an iron kettle known as a tetsubin. Showing off one from an historic iron-working region of Yamagata Prefecture, she explains that when water is boiled in it, it picks up minerals from the iron that give the tea an extra smooth taste. Hers has a tiny Japanese eggplant moulded into its handle – a symbol of good luck. And for miso soup, she uses a bowl made of urushi, Japanese traditional lacquer. Unwrapping one of black, with subtle shimmers of a red under layer peeking through, she explains that with enough use, the black will start to wear away. Though this erosion lends its own wabisabi beauty to the lacquerware, the bowls do come with a lifetime guarantee: if the lacquer ever wears through, they can be returned to Kohoro for a fresh coat. So where to begin in infusing one’s modern life with a touch of ancient Japan? If Onda were to recommend one piece, it would be a ceramic rice bowl. It’s just the right size and shape to pick up and hold in one hand while eating, a mannerism that’s very Japanese. There are many patterns to choose from, reflecting the work and personalities of different artisans. And then, as Onda ... Read More

Futako Tamagawa, Tokyo, Shops

In the mid-1970s, around his 40th birthday, Toshio Hara left his business career and dove headlong into the world of art. It was a moment in which he suddenly ‘woke up’ – and he unhesitatingly calls this moment, which lead to him building a museum bearing his name, the most fortunate of his life. “My sensibility – my sense of aesthetics – had started to move, to grow,” he says. “Everyone, I believe, has this ability. But we don’t use it. It’s sleeping.” Indeed, Hara’s aesthetic sensibility awoke with a bell – the doorbell of his former family home, a beautiful modernist building in Tokyo’s Shinagawa district that Hara turned into one of Japan’s first private museums for contemporary art. For the first six years, visitors had to ring it to be let in. “That bell…it never stopped,” Hara recalls. “We only had about five staff at the start, and everyone would take turns serving visitors tea and coffee at the café – I think I even served a few cups myself.” Coming from a wealthy family, Hara had opportunities to study and travel overseas, and his museum was inspired by the private art collections he visited in Europe, which felt so personal compared with the corporate-sponsored museums of Tokyo. Hara’s great-grandfather, Rokuro Hara, was a powerful industrialist in the late 19th century. He was a builder of banks and railways, and a collector of poetry and calligraphy. Rokuro’s son, Kunizo, built the family – and museum’s – intriguing Le Corbusier-inspired home in 1938. The building survived spells as a U.S. occupation facility, an embassy, and a government residence. Then, for 23 years, it sat uninhabited. With the opening of the Hara Museum, the house was occupied once more – this time by names including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Roy Lichtenstein, all of which were among the patron’s early finds. Hara travelled with Andy Warhol for several months and owns one of the artist’s three ‘Campbell’s Tomato Soup Can’ sculptures. Over nearly 40 years, Hara’s collection has grown so large the founder says he’s stopped counting how many pieces there are. He’s even built an ‘annex’ museum in the mountains northwest of Tokyo to store and display more pieces, including the collection of his great-grandfather. Private museums in Japan often hire well-known critics or scholars to build their collections because owners don’t feel confident about selecting the works themselves. Even though Hara is quick to credit all the people who supported him, the success of his museum is the story of just one man – a man whose eyes were opened. “I didn’t know much at the start – I certainly wasn’t an expert,” Hara recalls. “But I was lucky to have people who believed in me. They encouraged me to make the final decision on which artworks and artists I liked. And I’m grateful to them. Because otherwise this would’ve been someone else’s museum.”

Shinagawa, Tokyo, Galleries & Museums

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

Aoyama, Tokyo, Galleries & Museums

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.”

Nakameguro, Tokyo, Shops

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

Nakameguro, Tokyo, Restaurants

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

Aoyama, Tokyo, Restaurants

Honma Saketen is not for everyone. In truth, it’s for rather few people. Proprietor Fujio Honma doesn’t sell any of the delicate, fragrant stuff that most people think is sake – superficial he calls it – and he refuses to stock anything by Japan’s best-known breweries. “Those big guys are motivated by profit,” he says. “But I search for people with this…” he says, and he pounds his fist against his heart. Honma buys from just 20 artisan makers, and his inventory is a poke in the eye of sake orthodoxy. Take the conventional wisdom on polishing rice: it’s said that the more you mill, the better the resulting sake. When a brewer strips away 40 per cent of the grain, he can call the drink ginjo (literally: ‘brewed with care’). If he removes at least 50 per cent, he’s making daiginjo (‘brewed with the utmost care’). So what should be made of Okuharima Yamahai from Hyogo Prefecture? It’s fabulously earthy, with hints of stewed apples and melon – and it’s made with rice whose grain is reduced by just 20 per cent. Honma says good rice doesn’t need to be polished as much, that the minerals in the outer layers add complexity when you’re ageing a bottle. He’s a fan of aged sake, all dark and pungent with caramel notes, although he concedes it’s still a niche interest in Japan. More heretically, he likes to mature unpasteurised sake. Textbooks and retailers will tell you the untreated stuff should be refrigerated and drunk within weeks, but Honma disagrees. “Open a bottle, drink a bit to make space for some air, then leave it at room temperature so the yeasts come alive,” he says. “Don’t put it in the fridge or it’ll never develop. You’ll notice a difference after two or three days, but you can leave it for years if you have the discipline not to drink it.” He says if the sake is well made, with lightly milled rice and lots of acidity, it will develop deeper, wilder flavours. “It goes against all common sense, and I don’t know how it works, but the sake just opens up.” Honma inherited the shop from his father. At the time it was a general liquor store, but discount retailers were crushing him in the beer market, and he’s never had a taste for wine, so he focused instead on sake. It was a purely commercial decision, until he visited the Shinkame Brewery near Tokyo, tried a 12-year-old brew, and realised there was a world beyond the big, clean, commercial stuff. He set out to find people who, like him, care more about flavour than finance, sniffing out bold, full-bodied drinks packed with umami. As a result, Honma has an unusually tight relationship with his brewers. It’s a relationship that he describes as being like a lovers’ bond. They shower him with gifts, like the first option on full tanks of sake, or exclusive rights to very special releases. In return, he ... Read More

Sasazuka, Tokyo, Yoyogi Uehara, Shops

Haritts is not a place that’s stumbled across. It’s not even for a GPS-enabled device. No, this is a place that’s about a personal recommendation and a map. But then, even with both, the doughnut shop can seem elusive, hidden as it is inside a converted house on a suburban footpath lined with private homes, potted plants and a barbershop. Owner-baker Haruna Toyoda opens her shop at 8am – early by Tokyo standards – and it’s not uncommon to find a few enthusiastic customers already waiting outside. Yet she never advertises and has no hoarding. The only way to hear about Haritts is by word of mouth. Several years ago, Tokyo was consumed by a doughnut craze. On-trend customers queued patiently for hours outside American-brand stores, eager to taste the synthetically sweet glazed variety on offer. But eventually people recognised these shops for what they were – profit-powered chains pedalling fast food. The sugar-high fizzled out. By contrast, doughnuts are still special at – and the specialty of – Haritts. The dough Toyoda bakes is soft, fluffy and bread-like. She makes three or four hundred doughnuts daily, all of them by hand. One popular variety contains a dollop of cream cheese folded into the dough; another includes cinnamon and currants. Toyoda offers her own unique varieties such as green tea or pumpkin, and occasionally drops new recipes in to match the season. But otherwise she remains impervious to baking trends – no blueberries or sprinkles here. “It’s a family-size kitchen, so we have to make the doughnuts in small batches,” she explains, sliding open the door of the shop. It still feels like a private home on entry, and includes a genkan – the space inside where the family who would otherwise live here would remove their shoes. A step up, and the cosy living area has been converted into a miniature café. At one table, students from a nearby high school finish their homework, while at another, local housewives gossip. From the kitchen there emerges the unmistakable smell of freshly raised doughnuts. Toyoda first learned the technique from her older sister, who at the time worked at a bakery. Together, they developed their own recipes and bought a food truck. They named the business Haritts, a combination of their first names – Haruna and Itsuki. The Toyoda sisters drove the Haritts truck around Tokyo for two years, stopping outside office buildings and on shopping streets to sell their wares and build a reputation. When ready for a permanent home, they settled on the current space in Yoyogi-Uehara, a residential neighbourhood characterised by affordable rents and a quaint atmosphere. Despite their plans to keep things small, the business has been growing. Itsuki has moved to Taiwan, where she has opened a new branch of Haritts. Meanwhile Haruna continues to run the shop in Tokyo, rising early each day to start baking at 5am. It’s how she’s ready for those first customers at eight. The success of the business means she ... Read More

Tokyo, Yoyogi Uehara, Cafes

It’s 6pm, and Hisayo Suga has just hung the ‘Open’ sign outside her okonomiyaki restaurant, Gokirakutei. The sliding door rattles open, and three jovial young women arrive. Ducking under the noren curtain, one carries a bottle of expensive champagne. “Mama,” she says to Suga, “could I put this in the fridge?” “Of course,” Suga replies. “But first come and look at my new nails.” As she splays her fingers, a fake pea-sized gem twinkles in the centre of each brightly coloured nail. “What do you think?” she asks. “Beautiful, right?” Suga’s many regular customers at Gokirakutei, which appropriately translates as ‘The Easy-going Home,’ call her ‘Mama’ – or ‘Mama-san’ to be polite. “The girls talk to me about fashion, beauty, their love lives,” she says. “So do some of the boys.” Those girls and boys include more than a few celebrities, many introduced by her close friend Kiyoshirou Imawano, an Eighties rock star who passed away in 2009. Posters of his eternally youthful face adorn every wall of Gokirakutei’s unpretentious interior. There’s a friendly drill to eating here. On arrival, customers – famous or otherwise – remove their shoes, have their jackets and valuables wrapped in plastic bags to protect them from oil, and shuffle over to low horigotatsu tables, the alcoves beneath which will accommodate their legs. Everyone orders at least one dish of okonomiyaki, a thick savoury pancake filled with chopped cabbage and combinations of shrimp, meat, vegetables and cheese; or Japanese foods such as natto (fermented soy beans) and mochi (white rice pounded into sticky chunks). Suga supplies the bowlful of ingredients that patrons cook themselves on a teppan hotplate installed in each tabletop, and each pancake is finished with a generous layer of Worcester sauce and sprinklings of bonito and seaweed flakes. If it feels like Suga was born for hospitality then it’s because she was: her father was a sushi chef and the family lived above the shop. Her mother, like her, was a fastidious cook, for whom only the best ingredients would do – and the same is so for Suga and her restaurant. Using pancake mix instead of flour to make her batter more airy, she adds a rich homemade dashi broth in place of water. To add texture and flavour she throws in fragments of excess tempura batter known as agedama, which she collects from a ritzy downtown restaurant because “they only use the very best oil.” Okonomiyaki is a dish from Western Japan. Tokyo’s version is called monjayaki, and is also on Gokirakutei’s menu, despite being trickier to cook. Its process involves arranging the solid ingredients in a circle to make a doughnut-shaped dam, pouring the broth slowly into the central hole, and using mini spatulas to quickly patch up any breaks in the wall. When mixed and cooked it forms a gooey pancake-style mush. “Admittedly it isn’t very appealing to look at,” Suga says, smiling. “But it’s delicious, especially with a mug of cold beer, and it’s so much fun ... Read More

Tokyo, Yoyogi Uehara, Restaurants

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.

Aoyama, Tokyo, Restaurants

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

Aoyama, Tokyo, Shops

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.”

Nakameguro, Tokyo, Restaurants

In Shintoism, Japan’s indigenous spiritual code, there is a concept called ‘nakami’. It means the content, the energy – the life, perhaps – contained even in inanimate objects. Nakami is the spirit that makes something authentic; it cannot be faked. Masaru Sakai and his trove of men’s vintage clothing and accessories have it in spades. A discreet white sign saying simply ‘6’ is all that marks out the stairs that lead to his shop, whose name is pronounced ‘roku’ in Japanese. This is not a place designed to lure the passer-by inside. You need a sharp eye, a stroke of luck, or the recommendation of a friend to even know it exists. Sakai – nicknamed Moose – prefers it that way. He believes fate will guide those who are meant to discover 6. “I like to surprise people in a good way,” Sakai says. “It’s simple: if you and I both find ourselves here, we need to connect, we need to converse.” Just as life lacks lustre when it’s predictable, and fashion lacks fun when everyone dresses the same, discovering a unique store creates a spark of excitement. And in a culture so organised by conformity and routine, there is a special pleasure in the unexpected. Living in New York 15 years ago, passers-by would see Sakai wearing his crazy old kimono, ‘70s Levi’s bellbottoms, and cowboy boots, and they let him know how they felt. Whether a look or a comment, good or bad, there was communication. Sakai vowed to bring that New York character to Tokyo when he opened his shop 10 years ago in the location it exists in today. He chose a digit for the name of his shop, because numbers are “the same in every language.” A Japanese customer can call his shop ‘Roku’, an American can call it ‘Six’, and a Spaniard can call it ‘Seis’. None of them is wrong. Inside 6, each carefully chosen vintage piece has not only a story, but also an energy – the nakami that Sakai felt when he saw and knew it belonged in 6: Just as every tree has substance and life, so each item has been on its own unique journey to 6 – the beautifully aged kimonos, the beaded Korean monk vests, the obscure antique Danish boots, and the well-travelled suitcases. Because of nakami, vintage cannot be replicated. No amount of money spent copying the fabric or the stitch, the shape or the style, can recreate a vintage garment. Each comes from a place and time with different air, soil, and water; and has been imparted over years with the character, the movement and even the scent of the people who have come into contact with it: maker, handler, seller, wearer, user, and Tokyo-vintage-shop owner. Sakai has been on a 20-year global treasure hunt to bring apparel, accessories, and their accumulated tales to 6. Those who seek out this discreet corner of Naka-Meguro have a chance to meet Sakai and hear those stories. And ... Read More

Nakameguro, Tokyo, Shops

When Kuniatsu Kondo decided to open his own restaurant, he spent months looking for the perfect name. But he had it, he discovered, in his own hands. “The moment you pick up your owan – that’s the sense I wanted to replicate,” he explains, gently handling, as if to guess its weight, a lacquered wood bowl of the sort most commonly used for miso soup. “Because I want a meal here to be the most comforting part of the day.” Serving eclectic Japanese tapas-style food, Owan is most accurately classed as an izakaya – although most restaurants in the category lack its finesse. “The food is designed to showcase the nihonshu,” explains Kondo, referring to the alcohol better known outside Japan as sake. “Fresh-flavoured unpasteurised namazake to go with simple vegetables in the warmer months, and deeper, richer types when it gets colder to pair with dishes like hotpot.” Kondo has worked in restaurants ever since he moved to Tokyo as a fresh-faced 19-year-old. He opened the first Owan in Ikejiri, a youthful suburb west of Shibuya a decade later. A second, near Yoyogi Park, came a decade after that. “Ten-year cycles seem to be my rhythm,” he says. From the chopsticks held by his patrons to the uniforms worn by the staff, good design is integral to Kondo’s vision. Customers sit along a clean wooden counter surrounding an open kitchen. It’s all simple, elegant and functional. The menus, hand-written each month by a renowned calligrapher, are artworks in themselves – customers occasionally ask to keep them as souvenirs, and Kondo is happy to oblige when he can. “I think the writing even looks delicious,” he says. “It makes you feel hungry and it deserves to be appreciated.” Heading the kitchen in Ikejiri, Kondo has given his most trusted apprentice free reign in Yoyogi, allowing their two menus to diverge within the same plain. The former location is known for sashimi that includes basashi (horsemeat), while the latter specialises in small home-style dishes known as obanzai. At both the meal will begin with a little bowl of homemade tofu and end with green tea and a bite-sized dessert – chocolate, perhaps – served with the compliments of the chef. “Chocolate isn’t a Japanese thing, so I taught myself how to make it,” says Kondo. A self-confessed perfectionist, he also studied flower arranging to make sure the restaurant’s ikebana were up to scratch. “I was always redoing the florist’s work, so I figured I should just do it myself.” Kondo enjoys experimenting. His menu often includes non-traditional dishes such as Chinese dumplings or even cheese fondue with dipping vegetables. His staples, however, are local and simple: grilled ayu river fish, onigiri rice balls flecked with seaweed and sesame seeds, and quail eggs smoked in wood from a cherry blossom tree. There is also a monthly broth-based dish – a crescendo of taste and fragrance as the meal draws towards a close – served in the eponymous owan. Cradling the bowl with ... Read More

Tokyo, Yoyogi Uehara, Restaurants

To explain the Japanese folk art movement known as mingei to the uninitiated visitor, Kyoko Mimura borrows a phrase from Abraham Lincoln. “Mingei is craft for the people, by the people,” explains Mimura, a mingei expert and the former Director of International Programmes at the Japan Folk Crafts Museum – known locally as the ‘Mingeikan’. Completed in 1936, the structure was designed by Soetsu Yanagi, the pioneer of the folk art movement, in the style of a large farmhouse. It still stands in its original location, wonderfully incongruous among the modern mansions of one of Tokyo’s most exclusive neighbourhoods. Yanagi, a philosopher and scholar who had a way with words, coined the term mingei to refer to his vision of elevating everyday utilitarian objects into artworks worthy of study and appreciation. Today the museum’s collection includes the 17,000 or so pieces he personally amassed during his lifetime, including woodwork, textiles, folk paintings, and a vast selection of simple yet strikingly beautiful pottery. Sliding open the museum’s heavy door reveals an inviting entrance hall with a Y-shaped wooden staircase of divided flights. The white stucco walls and ceiling are embedded with planks and beams, and the floor is formed of valuable oya stone – produced with lava and ash from one of Japan’s many volcanoes. “The first time I visited the museum during my childhood I was astounded,” says Mimura, who is now an advisor to the museum. She remembers being surprised that there were few labels to explain the work. “Mr. Yanagi’s idea was to ‘see first, think later.’ Rather than reading a description, he felt that an intuitive response to beauty was very important.” In the creation of his museum, Yanagi received support from a clique of celebrated artists, including textile designer Keisuke Serizawa and potters Shoji Hamada, Kawai Kanjiro, Shiko Munakata, and Bernard Leach. The vast majority of the 30,000 pieces in the Mingeikan’s collection, however, are by unknown artists. Anonymity was one of several controversial founding principles of the mingei movement, and assertions that pieces should be neither sophisticated nor unique led many at the start to consider Yanagi little more than a quirky collector of mundane housewares. “It’s difficult to evaluate him in history,” says Mimura. “The museum is still working to define itself even now.” Mimura inherited her interest in mingei from her mother, Teiko Utsumi, who was the museum’s long-time Administrative Director and Initiator of International Programmes before her. Together they facilitated a travelling exhibition to the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany in the early 1990s – the first introduction of Japanese folk art to foreign audiences abroad – with the younger woman acting as interpreter. “The museum’s history is also one of friends and family working for one cause: to expand the idea of mingei,” says Mimura. “I think it says something quite special that the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the mingei movement’s founders have an inherited feeling of responsibility to preserve and revive the arts and crafts of Japan.”

Komaba, Tokyo, Galleries & Museums

“Eating anago makes you smarter,” says chef Yuji Sato, tapping his temple with one finger. “It’s also chock-full of vitamins and minerals. And it even improves your eyesight.” Sato’s admiration for anago – or conger eel – makes sense considering that his restaurant Tamai is, he says, the only remaining specialist in it in Tokyo. The saltwater creatures once thrived in the waters of Tokyo Bay, making them commonly found in the capital’s cuisine, and Sato still sources his eels locally during the summer. By wintertime, however, the water is too cold and they come from southern Japan. “We only use wild eels – never farmed,” says Sato, a frank-talking golf fanatic who spends most weekends playing rounds with his customers. “Supply is our number one concern.” The filleting process for anago is similar to that for the freshwater eel unagi, beginning with a nail through the eel’s head to keep it still. After that, however, anago is simpler to cook, thanks to its thinner skin and leaner flesh. By far the most commonly ordered dish is the hako meshi – a lacquer box filled with a bed of rice that nestles two slithers of anago, one grilled and one boiled, along with a selection of condiments. But Sato encourages adventurous patrons to try other items from the menu too, because in his words: “the sea eel has many different faces.” In winter he recommends tempura, which highlights its sweet, light flesh. August to October, when local anago are in season, is the time for pure, simple sashimi. Sato, who trained as a sushi chef, was born to the east of the city. After taking over Tamai, he fell in love with his new neighbourhood in the heart of old Tokyo. Despite its location behind the famous Takashimaya department store in Nihonbashi, Tamai feels it has managed to slither free of the tightening grip of modernisation. Most other old buildings in this historic quarter have long since been squeezed out by giant steel and concrete offices. But Tamai’s shop – a former liquor store – is all charm, and in a comforting display of neighbourly values, still shares its kitchen with a sake bar around the corner. “Technically this is a business district, but it’s a place without hierarchy,” says Sato. “People still help each other out and ask how you are or where you’ve been.” In a nod to the provenance of the building, the perfect way to end a meal at Tamai is with a cup of warm anagozake, alcohol that (of course) contains a salted, dried and roasted surprise. It pairs perfectly with hone-sembei, the bones of the eel extracted during filleting and then deep fried to make a crunchy calcium-rich snack. “And there you have it,” says Sato, “anago is even good for your body – it strengthens your bones.”

Nihonbashi, Tokyo, Restaurants

Oyakodon, Japan’s favourite comfort dish, may also be its most appropriately named. ‘Mother and child rice bowl’, as the name literally translates, combines bite-sized chunks of chicken, with eggs cooked lightly in sweet soy sauce until they just begin to set. This is served over a generous bowl of steaming white rice. Tamahide is the storied home of oyakodon. But Kounosuke Yamada, its bespectacled eighth-generation chef, says his family’s restaurant is about more than just one dish. Tamahide is the only restaurant in Tokyo – and one of only a handful in the country – to specialise in Japanese chicken cuisine. The most important ingredient is Shamo, a dark-feathered breed of bird praised for its lean, gamey meat. According to Yamada, Shamo ranks alongside the best breeds of chicken in the world, on a par with French Poulet de Bresse. The restaurant began trading in 1760, processing chicken for noble families in the city then known as Edo. A dish called Shamo nabe (hotpot) was its original specialty: a version of stew-like sukiyaki made with chicken instead of beef, along with noodles, leeks and tofu, all seasoned with soy sauce and honmirin, a syrup made from sweet rice rich with umami. Oyakodon got its start by happenstance during Tamahide’s fifth generation. A thrifty customer was reluctant to waste some leftover chicken. The quick-thinking wife of the chef suggested he throw it into the seasoned sukiyaki pot with a couple of raw eggs. The result was an instant hit. At the time, Japan’s rice-eating culture deemed it unseemly to soil rice by covering it with other food; only the lower classes would do that. For its first 90 years, the dish as we know it today was served only for delivery to merchants in the local Ningyocho area, never on the premises – Tamahide had an image to maintain after all. Over time, however, donburi dishes (bowls of rice with toppings) became popular among other classes, and Tamahide could sell its oyako donburi with pride. Tamahide has already been in business for more than 250 years. Now the ninth-generation chef, Kunio, is preparing to take over from his father in serving the poultry pilgrims who travel here from all over Japan. People eating alone have no choice but to line up and wait for the donburi. But Chef Yamada suggests parties of two or more try the set menu, for which reservations are accepted. This starts with Shamo chicken prepared in two different ways, and ends with the signature oyakodon, presented in a golden lacquered bowl. Eating oyakodon from a bowl resembling a golden egg seems appropriate at Tamahide. And not only because of the restaurant’s shining success. The bowl is also symbolic of the precious bonds this accidental dish has helped to nurture. Parent to child, from generation to generation.

Nihonbashi, Tokyo, Restaurants

Long before their lives became intertwined as partners and co-creators, the international couple behind Tokyo-based fashion brand Volga Volga were already enjoying parallel adventures. Shiori Kurushima, from Japan, was in Paris making haute couture for the Japanese designer Hanae Mori; and Mikhail Panteleev, from Russia, was doing similar work in Tokyo for Yohji Yamamoto. If it were destiny that they would meet, however, the appointment would have to wait. “My French friend knew Mikhail and wanted to set us up,” Kurushima says. “But he couldn’t speak my language, and I couldn’t speak his, so it took time for us to come together.” Kurushima and Panteleev were establishing themselves as talented, dedicated fashion designers. In their respective ateliers on opposite sides of the world, they were the ones who would volunteer for extra tasks, often working alone late into the night, cutting patterns or stitching garments. “I wanted to learn everything,” Kurushima recalls of her time working as a ‘premiere main’, a coveted position in charge of hand-sewing entire couture pieces. “The other girls probably thought I was the stereotypical Japanese workaholic.” The brand the couple launched together in 2000 is a union of his designs and her technical skills. In their construction, the garments feel effortless, while in their style they are expressive. From afar, the clean lines and muted colours appear minimalist. But up close, the details and textures evoke a deeper emotion rippling below the surface, like a shout underwater. In Moscow in the 1990s, Panteleev held one of the first-ever fashion shows inside the Kremlin. The spectacle was an impressive way to launch his career, but these days he avoids such productions. “When you’re putting on a show you don’t have time to finish anything properly,” he says. “At this point in our careers, we prefer to give every piece of clothing the attention it deserves.” In Volga Volga’s studio – up a narrow staircase inside an old converted office building in the Bakurocho neighbourhood – sewing tables line one wall, rolls of fabric are stacked at the back, and a show space in the middle is where buyers and walk-in customers can view the collection. In Bakurocho – an area of old Tokyo known colloquially as shitamachi, or the ‘low city’ – they have discovered a sense of kinship with the people, reputed to be unpretentious, hardworking, and loyal. Volga Volga’s shoes often incorporate buttons, ribbons, or buckles made by local artisans with a shared commitment to timeless craftsmanship. “Some of our customers are still using the same garments we made for them 15 years ago,” she says. “When it needs mending, they know they can bring it here, and we’ll give it a another lifespan.” Living together in ‘shitamachi’, Kurushima and Panteleev can follow their own rhythm, commuting to work by bicycle, enjoying a slow lunch at the café next door, and – as has always been their way – working late into the night making beautiful clothes. Only now, the atelier is theirs.

Nihonbashi, Tokyo, Shops

It takes Yoshiaki Takazawa 10 hours to make his signature ratatouille, which he asks his diners to consume in a single bite. “Ratatouille is something usually made by throwing everything together into a pot,” the chef says. “But in my version, each of the 15 ingredients is prepared separately, and then assembled at the end.” The dish, a multi-coloured checkerboard terrine balanced on the end of a platinum spoon that’s twisted like a serpent, is the only one the chef guarantees will be served each evening. It has been a constant on his menu since he and his wife Akiko opened their restaurant, then known as Aronia de Takazawa, in 2005. “The aronia is a small berry that is not well known but is really powerful, with stronger antioxidant properties than blueberries,” Takazawa explains. “That’s how I thought of myself when I was getting started: a hidden power with a connection to nature.” Takazawa’s style of cooking blends intense seasonality – the bedrock of all Japanese cuisine – with imaginative presentations more familiar to European molecular gastronomy. Some have called it Japanese-French cuisine, but the chef begs to differ. “There were French and Spanish influences at first,” he says. “But what I really want to do is express Japanese culture. That’s why I use Japanese ingredients and pair dishes with Japanese wines. But having said that, this isn’t strictly Japanese cuisine. It’s just mine.” Despite years of training at a famous Tokyo hotel, the chef has never courted publicity, choosing a discreet backstreet location in Akasaka for his business. An obscure door opens on to a narrow staircase that leads up to the intimate dining room. There is space for just three tables and 10 chairs, which take just one sitting per evening. No patron is ever more than a few metres from the chef as he works behind his smooth metal show counter, and none is denied the delightful Akiko’s attentive service. Takazawa says he designed the experience to be like the Japanese tea ceremony because “it’s my way of presenting our hospitality.” More than that though, Takazawa is a showcase for Japanese culture – its farmers and artisans, its seasons and sensibilities. But it also highlights the chef’s particular sense of humour, through dishes such as Sweet & Sour Prawn, a riff on ebi chilli (spicy stir-fry shrimp) that’s a staple of cheap-and-cheerful Chinese restaurants in Japan. In Takazawa’s version, an elegant kuruma prawn coated in delicate tomato jus comes surrounded by the deconstructed flavours of ebi chilli, all for patrons to assemble in their mouths. And his Dinosaur’s Egg from Miyazaki on the south eastern coast of Kyushu, is in fact a dessert: the shell made using white chocolate, turmeric and chilli; the egg using meringue and mango from Miyazaki; and the footprints formed of wasabi, giving Takazawa’s Japanese accent to a flavour combination that was inspired by a trip to Mexico. Indeed, the chef travels constantly to food events and private functions around the globe. When ... Read More

Akasaka, Tokyo, Restaurants

The line outside Taimeiken forms early on weekends – dozens of patrons waiting patiently for an hour, perhaps two. Ask any one of them what they’re waiting for and their reply will be the same: omuraisu. To the uninitiated, this does not sound like a dish worth waiting for: an omelette (omuretsu) filled with rice (raisu) that’s been fried or seasoned with wine and ketchup, and served with a demi-glace sauce. But slice into it, and a history rich in the idiosyncrasies of modern Japan spills out. Taimeiken specialises in yoshoku, a curious cousin to Japan’s admittedly varied stable of fare. Literally translated, yoshoku means ‘Western food’ – although few Westerners would recognise its dishes as their own. Its lexicon includes kareraisu, or curry rice, which uses a natively-produced curry that Indians and Brits find extremely mild; hambaagu, akin to a hamburger without the bun; and Napolitan – spaghetti cooked with vegetables and dollops of ketchup. The restaurant was founded in 1931 by the late Shingo Modegi, a lover of food and kites (his museum of Japanese kites is on the fifth floor of the same building). Today his grandson Hiroshi is in charge of the family business. Hiroshi’s hobbies – surfing and tanning – reflect a different era. But his commitment to the family business is clear. “When I was a young boy,” he recalls, “I found a letter from my grandfather addressed to ‘The Third Generation of Taimeiken’. I was the eldest son, I knew right then that it was my honour and responsibility to take over the family business.” The restaurant feels intentionally nostalgic, a throwback to a tumultuous era. In the late 1800s, after centuries of self-imposed isolation, Japan reluctantly opened up to the world. The arrival of the American ‘Black Ships’ had demonstrated the military and economic superiority of the West. Japan’s leaders felt small, both figuratively and – as the Americans towered above them – physically. They were desperate to catch up. Members of the elite were dispatched to Europe and North America. They returned with lessons to bolster Japan’s military and economy – and it’s cuisine. They believed that if they ate Western food they would quite literally grow bigger. The dishes they brought home were localised, becoming collectively known as yoshoku. They are eaten not with chopsticks, but with knives, forks and spoons, and served in dining rooms by waiters and waitresses wearing quaint uniforms long since discarded by most Western restaurants. Taimeiken’s menu is a comprehensive collection of yoshoku dishes, including everything from macaroni gratin to beef stew. But its most famous product is its omuraisu, which was featured in the classic Eighties film Tampopo. Other varieties of the dish commonly have the rice contained inside the omelette, but Taimeiken’s ‘Tampopo Omuraisu’ places the egg on top. Eating it involves its own ritual: it is sliced lengthways down the middle of the fat, yellow mound to expose the runny insides, before the demi-glace sauce is poured into its core. “Our sauce ... Read More

Nihonbashi, Tokyo, Restaurants

“Think about smartphones,” says Hisashi Kishi. “They’re very simple on the surface, but there’s a lot of technology underneath that the consumer doesn’t need to know about. The same is true of cocktails.” Or rather, it’s true of his cocktails. Kishi, a former world – and five-time national – cocktail champion, has little interest in newfangled recipes and avant-garde ingredients. You won’t find homemade bitters or chunks of dry ice at his Star Bar. He probably won’t even tell you about the original cocktails that won him his silverware. He’s likely to suggest something classic – martinis, manhattans, moscow mules and the like. But it’s his execution of those classics that sets him apart. “The recipes are the same from bar to bar, but the results are not,” he says. “Think about red wine. The basic process is the same, yet there’s so much variation in flavour. You can produce sensational wines like Château Lafite and Romanée-Conti. And it’s like that with gimlets. I’m trying to make the Romanée-Conti of gimlets.” Probably, you won’t notice how he does it; that he juices his lemons and limes lengthways, massaging each segment over coarse ceramic to avoid squeezing bitter oils from the skin. Or that his shake pattern changes from drink to drink, adjusting the level of chilling, dilution and size of the bubbles. The figure-of-eight motion of his ‘infinity shake’ is designed to create what he calls ‘micro bubbles’. “Nobody thinks about bubbles when they shake, but they greatly affect the flavour,” he says. In truth, Kishi doesn’t care if you notice his techniques. He says showboating won’t make his drinks any better; that his tricks are behind the scenes and below the surface. And that the proof is in the drinking. Kishi first picked up a cocktail shaker as a 20-year-old student. He quickly found his passion, quit college and enrolled in a bartending school. But it wasn’t until he began training in an elite Ginza bar that he became obsessed. “The first time I ate sushi in Ginza I could tell it was far superior to anything I’d tried before. Then I went to drink whisky and realised I didn’t know how to gauge its quality,” he says. So he studied. Within nine years he was a world champion, and four years after that he turned a Ginza basement into Star Bar. His ‘Romanée-Conti of gimlets’ is more aromatic and less astringent than others. Likewise his sidecar, which has become something of a signature drink. He uses an electric creamer to froth the cognac and triple sec, before shaking with juice and ice. To an untrained eye it looks like cheating; for Kishi, it’s the only way to do it. “You can shake bubbles into a drink, but they disappear fast,” he says. “I wanted to make them last and found the creamer adds air that stays in when you shake, while reducing the alcohol’s piercing bite. It’s like the sushi chef’s nikiri process of bringing his vinegar recipe ... Read More

Ginza, Tokyo, Bars

One of Tokyo’s foremost galleries for contemporary Japanese artists, SCAI The Bathhouse has, as its name suggests, remarkable premises. “It turns out a disused bathhouse makes an ideal art gallery,” says director Masami Shiraishi. “It has natural light, high ceilings, and plenty of the ‘air’ that showing contemporary art requires.” Until the nation’s economic modernisation following World War II, every district shared a bathhouse where neighbours would wash, in the Japanese manner, first scrubbing themselves clean before jumping into a communal tub to soak and share news and gossip. But though in recent decades, Tokyo’s bathhouses have become largely demolished, and in 1993 the charming one found in Yanaka, a quiet corner of old Tokyo, was saved and repurposed as a gallery. “Since the younger generation of Japanese contemporary artists such as Takashi Murakami came to the fore, Japan is on the world art map,” says Shiraishi, a former deputy director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, and founder of what’s now known as Art Fair Tokyo. “It has been a big change.” Murakami is one of a number of big names on Shiraishi’s roster, alongside Anish Kapoor and Julian Opie. But one of the biggest challenges for contemporary art gallerists like Shiraishi is how small the domestic art market has become. “People now are very interested in Japan and are looking for good Japanese art. But so many of our most talented artists leave our shores. They become accepted by the international art world, and don’t come back.” Fortunate, then, that the gallery is located near the prestigious Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, and is a short walk from the museums of Ueno Park. With it the founder hoped to create more than just an exhibition space – he envisioned the sort of place that is common overseas but rare in Japan: a platform for supporting the top contemporary artists. And so today SCAI The Bathhouse represents internationally recognised talent, including the Japan-based Korean painter and sculptor Lee Ufan, glass bead installation artist Kohei Nawa, and the young multimedia artist Daisuke Ohba. Shiraishi says Nawa is one of his most successful discoveries. “He’s very contemporary because his work reflects social and technological trends of our time,” he explains. “For a long time, Japanese artists wanted to express or explain Japan through their work – to ask questions about our identity. Nawa’s thinking is very international, but is still unique.” While the gallerist chides the Japanese government for not providing adequate support to Japanese contemporary artists, he hopes SCAI The Bathhouse can help in its own way. “This neighbourhood bathhouse was a place where people in the community could not only take a bath but also gather, talk and find out what was happening around them,” says Shiraishi. “Its history is appropriate to its new identity. I think SCAI has the same purpose today.”

Nippori, Tokyo, Galleries & Museums

“Connecting people,” says Noriko Konuma, smiling as she sips tea from a white porcelain cup at a naturally-hewn wooden table inside Kumu Tokyo, the intimate design gallery and shop she curates. “It’s all about bringing people together and creating special moments in their daily lives.” In the years since Konuma opened her gallery on a quiet lane in the eastern Bakurocho district in 2015, Kumu (“to connect” in Japanese) has showcased the works of dozens of Japanese creatives, from paper artists and contemporary incense makers to potters and floral designers. She calls them “family”, which makes Kumu their collective home. The small, two-storey structure, renovated by Atelier Etsuko Architects, has a minimal industrial feel, with swathes of original concrete, high ceilings, a warehouse-like window façade and green plants. For Konuma, it’s a very personal space: her family’s businesses previously occupied the building, and she grew up across the street in the same house where her father was born. “The Bakurocho neighbourhood feels different from the rest of Tokyo,” she explains. “There are few big businesses, it’s still very local, and people form friendships naturally.” That openness is attracting a burgeoning creative community, including art galleries and garment makers, ceramics stores and independent cafés. Kumu’s ground floor is home to a shop with a permanent collection of design products – mostly contemporary takes on traditional craftsmanship – and a gallery space hosting up to 15 exhibitions a year. A clean, white upper floor and plant-populated roof terrace host workshops and events. Centre stage in the shop are works by designer Masanori Oji (who also created Kumu’s circular, interwoven logo), from the angular warmth of his metal household fixtures to the clean petal-like lines of his white ceramics. Thick canvas bags by Kurashiki Hanpu and incense handcrafted by Chikako Perez of Tokyo Kodo come encased in ‘washi’ paper by Chiaki Morita – one of several collaborations made possible through Kumu. “It’s not so important that we sell things,” says Konuma, warm, softly spoken and ever-elegant in minimal monochromes. “Of course, sales keep creative techniques alive. But the essential thing is creating new connections, because together these people form the DNA of a Japanese spirit that links the traditional with the future.”

Nihonbashi, Tokyo, Shops

The highest quality fillets of wagyu beef that arrive at Shima come with a certificate of authenticity. The document details the ancestry of the slaughtered cow, with a family tree going back three generations and most importantly, the name of the prized bull that fathered it. Finally, it’s stamped with an inky impression of the animal’s nose – the bovine equivalent of a fingerprint. The particular fillet Manabu Oshima is preparing for tonight’s customers comes from a cow called Hiromi, daughter of Doi. She was raised, like the chef, near Kyoto. Oshima works with an agent who scours the country seeking calves with good lineage and potential for rearing. Invariably, the animals are from the prized Tajima breed, which originated in the area around Kobe, but is now raised all over Japan and overseas. The beef served at Shima comes mostly from Kyoto, Miyazaki, or Iwate prefectures. “Kobe beef is famous overseas, but it’s just one type of wagyu,” explains the chef. “Only beef that comes from specific slaughterhouses around Kobe has the right to use that name.” Oshima slices to release long strings of tendon, peels them off the three-foot-long fillet, and then trims away the fat. When he’s done, about a third of the volume has gone. The tapered end, the filet mignon, will be used to make steak sandwiches for patrons to take home. The majority is tenderloin, enough for about eight 150g cuts sold for ¥13,000 each. The thick end is the more affordable rump steak, served at lunchtime. Handling meat every day for almost 40 years, Oshima has learned to judge through his fingers. “I can feel if the beef is going to be good or not without tasting it. I can feel if the farmer has raised the animal thoughtfully. Japanese farmers raise cows with the same care as they do their children. You can sense that humanity in the product.” Wearing a crisp white uniform and classic tall chef’s hat, Oshima operates behind the counter in the open kitchen alongside his son, while his friendly wife takes charge front of house. The old, hand-written menu reflects the chef’s early career working in Great Britain, France and Germany, with traditional favourites such as steamed asparagus, foie gras, and onion gratin soup. But the menu isn’t the best guide. “It’s a bit meaningless, to be honest,” Oshima says, laughing. “Just ask me and I’ll tell you what’s good. For example, tonight we have this,” he says, reaching behind him to bring out a boiled cow’s tongue. “And we also have oxtail soup.” He makes the oxtail soup especially for one of his customers, a 94-year-old regular from Hong Kong. Alongside the occasional sumo wrestler, patrons from overseas make up a sizeable chunk of the clientele at Shima. Many of them come to see Oshima – and to eat his steak – every time they come to Tokyo. The chef appears humbled by his patrons’ strong loyalty to his restaurant. Especially given that, typically, they’re self-confident ... Read More

Nihonbashi, Tokyo, Restaurants

Fumihiko Kimura was on track to become an engineer. When he graduated from university, he found a job at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. But he lasted just two years. His mother had other plans for him: she wanted him to become a bartender. It was the early 1970s and she was running Kohaku, one of the first western-style bars in Yushima, a former geisha district near Ueno. A discerning crowd patronised the place, including author Yukio Mishima, who liked to sit at the only table and drink gin and tonics. Mrs. Kimura had plans for her son to take over. “I hated the idea,” he says. “I thought working for a company would be more fun, but I didn’t have a choice.” His mother dispatched Kimura to Tokyo’s Palace Hotel to train under one of the era’s great bartenders, a man nicknamed ‘Mr Martini’. Kimura enjoyed the training, the atmosphere, and the camaraderie, but again it ended after two years when he was yanked back to Yushima. Fast-forward four decades and much has changed. The reluctant son has become an obsessive bartender, lauded for his cocktails and vast liquor selection. He says he has around 1,600 bottles – 3,000 counting duplicates – and he knows only roughly where most of them are. Some predate his career, like the tin-capped Haig whisky from 60 years back, or the bottle with a label so faded, it’s near impossible to read that it contains orange bitters. Kimura has contemporary spirits too, but his heart lies wistfully with the golden olden days. “The gins they make now, Scotch, bourbons, rums too, they just don’t have the body they used to,” he says. “My older customers know that, but the vintage bottles are rare and expensive, so I try to find other ways to introduce depth into a cocktail.” He might add brandy where the recipe doesn’t call for it, or a dash of something from Islay. The bitterness of an orange peel helps some drinks, he says. And then there’s his calvados jug, a little brown crock fashioned in France in the 19th century. The intervening century or so has effected some changes. The ornaments have either worn or fallen off. The original cork disintegrated long ago. But inside, something magical is happening. About 20 years ago Kimura filled the jug with a litre of young apple brandy. “Nothing much changed at first,” he says, “and then suddenly it just transformed, both in flavour and in colour.” He hasn’t emptied the jug since. When he serves calvados, he replaces it with spirit from a new bottle. It goes in crisp and alcoholic, swirls around with spirits of years and decades past, teases some 19th-century secrets from the clay, and comes out tasting like something squeezed from an apple pie. Kimura has been wondering whether he could magnify the effect by burying the jug in the ground. If pomegranates are in season the calvados contributes to his Jack Rose, a cocktail more commonly made with grenadine ... Read More

Tokyo, Ueno, Bars

Ask Atsuko Koyanagi what she likes most about being an art dealer and gallery owner and she doesn’t bat an eyelid: “The artists,” she says. “I don’t want to work for the market. I want to work for the artists and establish a close, lasting relationship with them. That has always been my passion and motivation.” Indeed it has. She now counts over 20 years of friendship and representation with the likes of Marlene Dumas and Olafur Eliasson – not to mention the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, who is also her partner in life. “I learned so much about the depth and spirit of art from them,” says Koyanagi, before recalling how she met Dumas at Art Basel in 1992. “Marlene had a daughter and had drawn many girls’ faces, but she became very interested in the faces of beautiful Japanese boys – girlish boys,” recalls Koyanagi. “She sent me 52 drawings of Asian faces in the late 1990s, and that was our first show together.” Koyanagi’s gallery occupies the eighth floor of an office building in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district, once the heart of Tokyo’s art scene. Skyrocketing rents pushed many of her cohorts out, but she stayed because this was her family’s land. Her father was the fifth-generation owner of a ceramics shop, and she grew up in a house that stood here until it was razed during the property boom of the mid-1980s. Koyanagi’s first gallery, too, was a space for ceramics located on the ninth floor of the same office building. She moved down a floor when she switched to contemporary art in 1995 – an exhibition of photography by Sugimoto, at the time better known in the United States than in his native Japan, was her inaugural show. “The timing seemed right to find him an art gallery in Tokyo, but no one was interested,” she says with a laugh. “Japan is often behind the times. So I decided to do it myself.” Minimalist in design, with exposed concrete columns and beams, the gallery is deliberately functional. But the unassuming walls have hosted an astonishing roster of artists, not least among them Eliasson, whose work once filled the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern. Scrolls made by Christian Marclay have hung here; the sound installations of Ryoji Ikeda have filled the air. Unsurprisingly, considering who her partner is, Koyanagi is especially interested in photographers: Hellen van Meene, Thomas Ruff, and her close friend Sophie Calle, to name just a few. Koyanagi and Calle travelled together around Japan while the latter was getting over the end of a relationship and the photographs Calle took on that journey contributed to one of her most celebrated works, Exquisite Pain. With 70 per cent of sales coming from abroad, Koyanagi has faced pressure to look for new markets overseas. But her heart says otherwise. “I’m happy to remain this size, with my existing team – loving the artists and loving their art,” she says. “Anything else would be a distraction.”

Ginza, Tokyo, Galleries & Museums

In hypermodern Tokyo, it might seem there is little time or space for the quiet rituals of the Japanese tea ceremony; its ethos of ichigo ichie – or ‘one encounter, one moment’ – sounds like a quaint echo from the past. Thankfully, at Chatei Hatou, the spirit of ichigo ichie lives on, albeit updated for our contemporary world. Today, coffee is our common fuel, and a rich cup of Hatou slow-drip is that fuel at its best. The coffee shop is located near the heart of Shibuya, Tokyo’s most chaotic and cacophonous neighbourhood. A walk through its teeming streets can leave you feeling sensually assaulted and physically exhausted. For this, a coffee at Hatou is the perfect antidote – and pick-me-up. “Hustle and bustle is what this area is known for,” says barista-manager Kazuya Terashima. “We intentionally made this a calm place – a world within a world.” The sensory experience inside Hatou is the antithesis of its external surroundings: natural wood textures, soothing classical music, beautiful ikebana flower arrangements, and the deep, wafting aroma of coffee. Many regular customers prefer to come to Hatou not with friends, but alone. They sit at the counter and watch the barista at work. Each drink is made by hand with great care – the focus is on perfection, not speed. “It takes 10 minutes, often longer, to make one cup,” Terashima explains. “But people are willing to wait.” The ritual unfolds, step by step: he picks a worn metal container containing coffee beans that have been aged for up to three years. After passing them through a grinder, he measures out precisely 25 milligrams of fine coffee powder in a cloth filter. He heats water in a copper pot, keeping the temperature a consistent 87 degrees centigrade. Then, with unerring concentration and accuracy, he drizzles the water into the filter, saturating the dry coffee until it hits critical mass and begins to trickle into a small glass pot beneath. After that he patiently adds more water – one drop at a time – until the thick black brew is ready. “This method produces a coffee that is stronger than normal, but it also brings out the sweetness of the beans,” Terashima explains. “Many people have not experienced coffee like this before.” Once ready, the drink is transferred into one of hundreds of unique porcelain cups the shop has collected over its 24 years in business, ranging from Japanese Arita to British Wedgewood to German Meissen. Terashima says he makes a mental note of which cup each customer uses, so he can give them an alternative next time, explaining: “Even if they order the same thing, I like to think each Hatou experience should be a little bit different.”

Shibuya, Tokyo, Cafes

Hitoshi Shirata’s plant and bonsai store Neo Green is neither large nor ostentatious. Yet it frequently stops passing pedestrians in their tracks. Along an unremarkable grey stretch of Tokyo tarmac, his carefully pruned and beautifully potted selection of nature’s own designs is powerfully incongruous. “People in this city need more green in their lives,” says Shirata. Only three per cent of Tokyo is given over to public parks and other green spaces, compared with 38 per cent of London. The decision to open Neo Green in 2007 came when Shirata was forced to stop and reflect on his direction in life. He was a fashion entrepreneur whose businesses were turning over hundreds of millions of yen each year. He had reached a position that most would call success. But Shirata was less certain about what he had really achieved. Life, he felt, was slipping out of his control. “The little company I had started in 1993 with my father’s help had become too big,” he says. “When my father died, I had this yearning to do something new.” Not for the first time, family tragedy had impressed on Shirata the importance of regeneration. He remembered the moment when, as a 12-year-old boy, his grandfather passed away, leaving him the responsibility of caring for his beloved rooftop garden. “I think that was the first time I fell in love with plants,” he says. “Cut flowers are wonderful, but they are normally bought for an occasion and then thrown away. Plants live on.” Shirata is a skilled, self-taught bonsai artist whose lack of formal training allows him to take a fresh view on this tradition-bound art. On the shelves of Neo Green, a 30-year-old miniature zelkova sits alongside palm-sized pines fashioned to look like Christmas trees. Traditionalists would balk at this, but to Shirata such innovations are the bridges that can connect bonsai with younger generations. Ever the tech-savvy entrepreneur, Shirata maintains a database of every customer and what they have purchased. If a plant, separated from his masterful touch, starts to show signs of fading, he can instantly pull up exactly what was purchased and when, in order to give the customer the best possible care instructions. More recently, people have started taking smartphone pictures of their plants and sending them to the shop for a visual check-up. Shirata doesn’t mind – working hand-in-hand with his customers to care for their plants is crucial to his mission. “If we care for them, they give back to us,” he says. “It’s all about partnership – between myself and my customers, and between human beings and plants.”

Tokyo, Yoyogi Koen, Yoyogi Uehara, Shops

“Wherever you go in the world, there are always coffee shops near parks. Parks and coffee shops – they compliment each other. They’re places where people congregate,” observes Daisuke Hamada. “But that wasn’t so true of Tokyo, which is why I chose this place.” Hamada is referring to Little Nap Coffee Stand, his diminutive shop beside Yoyogi Park. One of the largest open spaces in Tokyo, the park is the city’s unofficial playground, used for early morning jogs, dog walks and outdoor yoga. During cherry blossom season, the grass becomes a patchwork of parties celebrating the arrival of spring. In the evening, sounds fill the air – a violin here, a saxophone there – as musicians use it as a place to practice. Little Nap is housed in a slither of a building squeezed between an offshoot of the park and a railway line. Every time a train passes by, the shop rattles a little. It’s a sensation Hamada says he has learned to love because, “it’s just the rhythm of the city.” The location is more auspicious than it sounds. Across the tracks is one of Tokyo’s most boho suburbs, home to young families with money and taste, and with – one might guess – more dogs per square mile than anywhere else in the city. Little Nap is en route to the park. “The shop is supposed to be a place where you can drop by for a break in your day,” says Hamada. “It’s like a siesta – but with coffee.” Hamada’s love of the bean was planted by his father, but nurtured during a trip to Italy while working for a company that imported espresso machines. His first café was a disused shop in rural Toyama, his home prefecture northeast of Tokyo, and he decorated it simply with the help of some friends. Years later, and having long-since relocated to Tokyo, Hamada opened Little Nap. The distinctive logo, inspired by his love of vintage typography, is what most will notice first, and yet it’s the more no-nonsense type saying ‘Coffee Stand’ that he deems most important to its look and feel. “In America, you see signs on the side of the highway that just say ‘Restaurant’ or ‘Coffee’,” he says. “You don’t even know the name of the place, but that doesn’t matter. You’re just being told what it does, but the sign somehow has the ability to make you feel something.” With his scruffy beard and Salvador Dalí-esque moustache, Hamada is clearly at home in his self-made surroundings. Consciously fashionable, he has a nonchalant air that masks a keen mind for both the business and the science of coffee. “I customised my espresso machine,” he says proudly. “I changed the pumps, water lines, and temperature settings – it was like pimping up a car.” The changes, Hamada maintains, make the machine easier to use when he’s busy, and allow him to tweak the flavour of what he serves – finessing this begins when he arrives ... Read More

Tokyo, Yoyogi Koen, Yoyogi Uehara, Cafes
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People who know sushi know Keiji Nakazawa. His name rarely figures on high-profile star-ranking systems, but he is probably the most influential sushi chef working in Japan today – and Sushisho is more than just his restaurant. To his growing band of protégées, it is an academy; to devotees of his cuisine, it is Mecca. Nakazawa’s philosophy falls within the broad church of Edomae sushi, or ‘sushi in the style of Edo’ (the old name for Tokyo), which in its purest form is the combination of sliced raw seafood on top of vinegared rice. For inspiration, Nakazawa reached back in time to the earliest traditions of Edomae sushi, while at the same time evolving the cuisine in directions that are both innovative and stunning to behold. For example, modern sushi norms dictate that the fish must be as fresh as possible, yet before refrigeration technology it was commonly treated to make it last longer. Nakazawa resurrected this tradition by ageing, marinating, simmering or searing his seafood to achieve maximum flavour. He is also fastidious about rice, and uses two different grains depending on the seafood they’re cushioning: simple white rice for simple, delicate fish; and less common red rice for fattier, fuller flavoured species. He varies the seasoning – vinegar, salt or soy – to balance the taste, and famously serves his rice warmer than is customary. The fixed omakase course service at Sushisho can begin with a delicate slice of cooked squid stuffed with rice and dotted in three places with concentrated soy sauce. It may include a pocket of aji (horse mackerel) filled with threads of ginger, shiso and cucumber. It will certainly include slithers of tuna, yellowtail or squid laden with taste from being aged for days or even weeks. And extras such as monkfish liver lying back-to-back with pickled baby watermelon on a bed of red rice would be a crime to miss. Nakazawa set his sights set on becoming a shokunin (artisan) of sushi when he was just 15 years old. His journey began on a delivery bicycle, weaving the crowded streets of Tokyo with boxes of sushi piled high on his shoulder. Later, he travelled the country “like a nomad” honing his skills and learning regional traditions and techniques. The sushi world became his family: he lived with the other apprentices, ate and drank with his teachers, and learned to enjoy interacting with customers. In January 2016, Nakazawa upped sticks and moved to Hawaii for his next adventure, opening a branch of Sushisho in Waikiki. But his spirit lives on at his former restaurant and in the talents of those he schooled in the Sushisho way. “You can’t run a restaurant alone,” Nakazawa says. “More than skill, teamwork and communication are most important.” He is mentor to several of Tokyo’s most highly regarded young sushi chefs. To them, he is always – even in his absence – called oyakata, a term that combines respect with endearment, marking him out as akin to an honorary ... Read More

Tokyo, Yotsuya, Restaurants

Every evening, when most other restaurant owners are waiting anxiously for their first customer, Shinobu Uesugi is already hard at work taking orders, passing out plates, and pouring cold beers. Soon after 6pm, Tanyaki Shinobu, her specialist beef-tongue restaurant, is full. It’s been this way ever since Uesugi opened her restaurant in 1979. “For the first two or three months, we didn’t even have a sign out front. People from the neighbourhood just dropped in,” she recalls. Although grilled beef tongue (tanyaki) features on the menus of many Japanese restaurants, even in Tokyo’s diversified dining scene, few would dare to make it their specialty. The menu at Shinobu includes eight beef tongue dishes – grilled, boiled and stewed. The tongue stew at Shinobu is simmered for 10 many hours, starting the night before it’s served, until the meat is so tender it’s practically falling apart. Uesugi’s husband, Tokujiro Uesugi, opened his first restaurant the young couple were still in their early twenties. They served western food like pizza and steak in Kabukicho, an area of Shinjuku that later developed a notorious reputation. As the neighbourhood went downhill, the Uesugis decided it was time for a change. Moving to the business district of Yotsuya, local ‘salarymen’ became the couple’s core clientele. Many of them come back at least once a week, and Uesugi and a handful of ladies in pinafores serve them with the rough familiarity of favourite aunties. “I added some vegetable dishes to prevent the regulars getting bored of tongue,” Uesugi says. “But people who come here often know they can trust us, and just ask us to serve whatever we recommend.” The home-cooked style of the cuisine fits the rustic interior, for which the wooden posts and beams came from dismantled storehouses that were reassembled using a traditional form of carpentry employing no nails or screws. To accessorise with this structure, the tables and stools are made from logs and slices of tree trunks. On weekends, the suits and ties of the salarymen are gone, replaced by a younger and trendier crowd of smartphone-enabled foodies. Old-fashioned dishes like tanyaki are making a comeback. And Uesugi’s maternal hospitality never goes out of fashion. “These days, people find us online and trek here from all over the place,” she says. “It makes me happy to see all these young faces.” Looking back over almost four decades of restaurant work, Uesugi isn’t shy about explaining her decision to settle on such a specific cuisine: “I had thought about opening a yakitori restaurant. But that means starting work early in the morning to cut all that chicken and skewer it. With this, you just have to season it, cook it, and serve it,” she says. “We provide speedy service, and our patrons enjoy the food. Everybody’s happy!”

Tokyo, Yotsuya

When Masakatsu Oka decided he wanted to become a sushi chef, he knew there was something he needed to fix. Lacking neither passion nor commitment, it was in a sense his body that looked set to let him down. “It’s because, truth be told, I’m left-handed,” confesses Oka, a trait that even today is considered undignified by some Japanese. Not wanting this perceived weakness to ruin his culinary ambitions, Oka could be found nightly practising cutting cabbage into thin strips with his right hand until, in his words, “I no longer feared the knife.” It clearly worked. He moves the blade with swift, deft strokes, lightly scoring a slice of squid with dozens of fine, diagonal cuts. He angles his knife to the right, and repeats the action in the other direction to make a crisscross pattern so that when the flesh touches one’s tongue, it feels like it’s melting. But Oka credits his skills less to his late-night cabbage training and more to his mentor, Keiji Nakazawa of Sushisho (p.XX). “Nakazawa-san is the person I respect most,” Oka says. “If I hadn’t met him, this restaurant wouldn’t exist.” Sushisho Masa, the name of Oka’s restaurant, is testament to that. The practice is known as noren-wake, or ‘dividing the noren’ – the noren being the curtain above the door that bears a restaurant’s name. By permitting him to use the Sushisho name, the mentor gives a public blessing to his acolyte’s new venture, indicating that the young man is equipped to safeguard his legacy. An honour of that level must be earned, and Oka is no stranger to hard work. He says that losing his mother at an early age taught him to be independent. And that the punishing schedule of his early years learning the sushi trade – starting work at 7.30am, and ending around midnight – was a lesson in endurance. “Find out how far you can push yourself and then push even further,” he says, sounding more marathon runner than chef. Indeed, as he works behind Sushisho Masa’s cosy seven-seat counter, Oka controls every movement and every breath. As the cuts of his knife create a staccato rhythm, his words meet the beat, becoming almost meditative as he describes each dish: aji (horse mackerel) is served with a dab of acidic hacchomiso, a deeply flavoured dark miso from Western Japan; rectangles of katsuo (bonito) come sandwiching paper-thin slices of garlic marinated in soy sauce to mellow the taste; and his decadent signature dish of three succulent slices of o-toro lightly layered with wasabi to create what he calls the ‘Masa-feuille’. Oka’s eyes twinkle as he presents rare ingredients such as grilled anago liver, or octopus eggs simmered in dashi – all likely to surprise even the most dedicated lover of sushi. “I always keep my eyes open for new ideas. That’s what I try to teach my guys,” he says, gesturing towards his staff of three young apprentices. “I want them to become the kind of people ... Read More

Nishi Azabu, Tokyo, Restaurants

“I feel like a time machine,” says Hayao Matsumura, meandering around his vintage fashion shop as if to make the point. “I’m constantly travelling to the future and the past.” He’s attempting to explain his love of retro clothing, and he seems – quite appropriately – a little adrift. A more likely explanation, perhaps, is that he was up all night. Matsumura is, after all, Tokyo’s perennial party boy. The owner of Nude Trump and a handful of other businesses, he is rarely seen without his vintage shades and black cap. But he also dons many other proverbial hats: he’s an entrepreneur, a traveller, a trendsetter, and a guardian of youth. As a constant presence at fashion events, members of Tokyo’s creative ‘it crowd’ invariably surround him. All several decades his junior, they politely call him ‘Matsumura-san’, which in such a casual setting is a term of endearment, as well as of respect. Matsumura’s career in fashion started with the ultimate road trip. It was the mid-Eighties, and he was a young man with a head for business and an eye for trends. Witnessing Japan’s then-insatiable appetite for Americana, he drove coast-to-coast across the United States, loading up his car with jeans, boots, jackets, and memorabilia. On his return to Tokyo, he opened a no-name store in his apartment in the bohemian suburb of Koenji. Among the trinkets on sale were decks of playing cards (known as ‘trumps’ in Japanese) featuring images of naked women, which were illegal at the time. Fascinated customers duly nicknamed the business ‘Nude Trump’. Now located in the Jinnan area of Shibuya, the iconic store remains in business, selling a curious jumble of retro fashions, from glam to punk to downright bizarre. “Things my mother wore, items from my grandmother’s closet – these things will all come back into fashion one day,” Matsumura explains. “Nothing is ever completely over.” In 2006, Matsumura heard a rumour that a discount vintage store was planning to open in same building as Nude Trump. He quickly rented the space instead – later taking over the entire building – and turned it into Trump Room, a club-like venue for Tokyo’s bright, cool, creative young things. Elsewhere in Shibuya he owns the tiny back-alley Piano Bar, and another club space, Trump House. Matsumura has decked each out in a style that might be called ‘timeless decadence’: luxurious couches, mirrored tables, antique portraits and animal heads, all meticulously arranged beneath a sea of chandeliers. It appears fantastical, but this is Matsumura’s world. Fast fashion chains have commoditised much of the local area, but thanks to him, there are still pockets of Shibuya where individuality is celebrated. Matsumura understands for most normal Japanese youth, happiness feels impermanent. The hot summer of adolescence must give way to the chill of social obligation: a desk job, a suit, a mortgage. The party will surely end. Unless, that is, you have the guts to shun conformity. “The people who come here, they’re the stylists, designers, beauticians, ... Read More

Shibuya, Tokyo, Bars

[Please make a reservation before visiting Miyako Andon.] A wooden model of an old Japanese house – complete with tiny sliding screens – sits in the corner of Masanori Kizaki’s office. With the flick of a switch, the house illuminates. “My ancestors built models like this as souvenirs for the foreigners who came to Japan after the war,” says Kizaki, the fourth generation of his family to lead their handcrafted lamp business, Miyako Andon. These days, Kizaki’s contemporary lamps – made using similarly detailed Japanese woodwork and joinery techniques, but updated with the his own modern sensibilities – also find their way into homes around the world. “These ones are going to New York City,” he says, pointing at two minimalist cubes destined to hang in a Manhattan kitchen. “A very particular customer.” The business dates from the late 19th Century when Kizaki’s great grandfather was a ‘shokunin’ (artisan) making delicately latticed, painstakingly assembled wooden screens known as ‘kumiko’. His son – Kizaki’s grandfather – began manufacturing lamps before World War Two, and continued selling them afterwards to Americans in the Allied occupation force. An ‘andon’ is a traditional, wood-framed, paper-sided lamp that originally would have contained a small vessel of burning oil as a source of light. Some ‘andon’ were portable and could be carried from room to room, or out into the streets at night. With electrification, however, their utility faded. “In postwar Japan, most people lived in cluttered apartments with pre-installed ceiling lights,” observes Kizaki. “But the younger generation is starting to think more about design.” Kizaki has always thought that way. When he was a student, he would spend his weekends in Tokyo’s fashionable west side – in Aoyama, Omotesando and Daikanyama – soaking up the new fashions and modern architecture. The clean lines and pure geometry of his products reflect his passion for structures and spaces. The Tsukika lamp, a globe of interlocking, paper-covered triangles is his most recognizable design. “Every component comes from another artisan: the wood from northern Japan, the ‘washi’ paper from Shikoku,” he says, referring to a large island in western Japan. “In other lamps, instead of paper we use patterned cloths hand-dyed by a craftsman here in Tokyo.” At his office, a short taxi ride from Nippori railway station, the old and the new stand side by side. The showroom (viewable by appointment) is a simple concrete box – with a void filled by natural light at its core – built to Kizaki’s own plan. The classic Mini Cooper parked outside? That’s his too. Next-door is the old workshop, with sawing machines, wood presses and lamp skeletons, stacked high and waiting to be papered. The company’s seven workers includes five members of the Kizaki family – among them the craftsman’s wife, Toshiko, who speaks fluent English and handles international sales. “To be a successful ‘shokunin’ these days, it’s not enough just to make beautiful and enduring things,” says Kizaki, the last traditional ‘andon’ maker in Tokyo. “You need to adapt ... Read More

Nippori, Tokyo, Shops

A few steps from one of Shibuya’s main thoroughfares is not exactly where one might expect to find a farmhouse-style restaurant, and yet that’s exactly what Mamma Luisa’s Table is. Opened by chef Pietro Androsoni in 2014, the restaurant was inspired by his childhood growing up on his grandparents’ farm in Florence. “My grandmother made all the food for all the family. Every weekend there were like 15 to 20 people in my house,” Androsoni says. “So I grew up in this environment, with the ingredients from the farm, the animals, the poultry. And I think this is why I am fascinated by this work.” Androsoni started his career at a Michelin-starred restaurant in his native city, before he did a stint at an Italian restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. Disillusioned by what he says was not the America of his dreams and yet still harbouring a travel bug, when he got a call from his former boss asking him to help open a new location in Tokyo, he decided to take a chance. “I said, I’ll come to Japan, but I don’t want to stay longer than six months. And I came here and fell in love with the city,” he says. “Food-wise, I think it’s the best city in the world. You can experience all the cuisines, the styles—there is so much culture about food in this city.” Mamma Luisa’s Table is named after Androsoni’s own mother, and the restaurant has a relaxed, home-style feeling. Black and white photos of the chef’s family hang on the walls, and at the centre of the dining room is a large, eight-seat table. Warm lighting, distressed wood furniture, mismatched rugs and an open kitchen complete the inviting atmosphere. “The thing I love the most about having my own restaurant is the relationships I can cultivate with customers,” Androsoni says. “I feel I am at home, and the guests are also a part of my home.” Androsoni’s food is creative yet comforting, incorporating ingredients from Japan and around the Mediterranean. The menu changes slightly from day to day depending on the vegetables he finds at the markets. “I use really seasonal ingredients, because that’s one thing we’re losing these days,” he says. “People have gotten used to using asparagus 365 days a year. But for me, we have seasons and I want to respect them. Also because I grew up in a farmhouse, and I think this background is something I bring with me. I used to love to go into the backyard and get the zucchini, and then go inside, wash it and cook the pasta. In 30 minutes you go from the ground to the plate.” Cooking according to the seasons also results in more variety, which keeps Androsoni stimulated. Even first-time visitors to Mamma Luisa’s Table will quickly recognise his passion for his work. “Food is so versatile. Once you understand the ingredients, you can create anything. Food for me is life,” he says. “Food is also my way of ... Read More

Shibuya, Tokyo, Featured, Featured Grid, Home Page Slider, Restaurants

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

Nakameguro, Tokyo, Featured, Featured Grid, Home Page Slider, Shops

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

Gakugei Daigaku, Tokyo, Featured, Featured Grid, Home Page Slider, Shops

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.

Gaienmae, Harajuku, Tokyo, Cafes, Featured, Featured Grid, Home Page Slider

Completed in 1933, the property that is now home to the Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum was originally the private residence of Prince Asaka and his wife, who became fascinated by Art Deco while living in Paris in the early 1920s. The couple commissioned Henri Rapin to design many of the home’s interiors, and Rapin enlisted the help of other prominent artists of the time, including René Lalique. “At the time, Japanese people greatly admired and dreamt of Western Europe,” says Toyojiro Hida. “And this building is a realisation of those dreams, of true French Art Deco style. I want visitors to feel how that dream was realised when they visit the museum.” Hida has over four decades of experience in the art world, but only since taking over as director of the Teien Museum in 2016 has he come to realise the significance of decoration as a field of art. “There’s a paradigm that starts with fine art, then decorative arts, then architecture and design,” he says. “But that paradigm has no relation to this museum. This place is more free, more open than that, which is its biggest appeal.” The inspiration for dedicating the Teien Museum to decoration—not decorative arts—came from the building itself, which is one of Japan’s best examples of Art Deco design. Walking through the front entrance hall with its striking Lalique glass-relief doors and mosaic floor and into the walnut-panelled great hall, it’s hard not to imagine scenes of Gatsby-esque splendour. Hida says his favourite piece in the museum is what is known as the ‘Perfume Tower,’ a Rapin creation named for its original purpose as a fountain that also filled the space with the princess’s preferred scents. Other significant elements of the building’s design include chandeliers by Lalique, wall paintings by Rapin, reliefs by Ivan-Léon Alexandre Blanchot, etched glass doors by Max Ingrand, and iron decorations by Raymond Subes above some doors. The majority of the building’s design elements and furniture are original, commissioned specifically to fit the architecture designed by Yokichi Gondo. “The building is the result of cooperation between Japanese and French craftspeople and designers, who worked together to complete it,” Hida says. “And the impressive thing is that the French artists never came here and saw the house in person. Everything was done by sending ideas back and forth via post.” The Teien’s remarkable design forms a stunning backdrop for displaying a wide variety of pieces spanning various disciplines, eras and continents. Previous exhibits have ranged from French picture books to Brazilian indigenous benches. “Art Deco was created by the French bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie were very democratic. They took in everything, from Brazilian ebony trees to decorations from the Nile region in Africa, in order to create the culture of Art Deco in Paris. So since the original concept of Art Deco was kind of that anything goes, anything can look at home in this space. As long as the decoration is clearly expressed, it works.” Hida says. “Decoration ... Read More

Meguro, Tokyo, Featured Grid, Galleries & Museums

As a child, Takahiro Yoshihara was enthralled by the candy artists he saw at summer festivals, deftly turning thick liquid sugar into hardened, elaborate shapes of animals and creatures of fantasy. At the time he dreamt of one day joining their ranks. And while he did eventually become a candy artist, it was not his first career. Yoshihara trained as a chef, and travelled to Italy to learn more about food and cooking. While there, he found himself feeling embarrassed that he was unable to answer questions put to him about Japanese culture. This sparked in him a renewed interest in doing something that was more closely related to his roots. “When I started thinking that I wanted to have a career doing something that celebrated Japanese culture, of course I could have taken the path of cooking Japanese food, but I remembered my childhood self wanting to do amezaiku and chose to follow that path instead,” he says. The word “amezaiku” loosely translates as “candy craft,” an art that has its origins in China, but which took a different form upon gaining popularity in Japan during the Edo period. It is mainly and traditionally a mobile craft, peddled by artisans who travel from city to city, creating candies from a cart at outdoor festivals and other events. But after learning from an experienced amezaiku artist in this way for four years, Yoshihara had a different idea. When Amezaiku Yoshihara opened in 2008, it was the first permanent store in Japan dedicated to the traditional candy craft. Creating a place where customers could come to buy the whimsical candies anytime was Yoshihara’s way of helping to keep the craft alive. While he has trained other young artists in amezaiku and his business has expanded to include a second store where workshops are held, he says there are still only some 30 to 40 amezaiku artisans remaining in Japan. What makes amezaiku unique, according to Yoshihara, is the performance element to it. “You don’t have to twist and pull candy into different shapes in order for it to taste good, but that’s what’s wonderful about amezaiku,” he says. “It’s not only something you can eat—it also has some fun and beauty to it. The fact that you can watch it being made just for you and then take it home—this is something that doesn’t exist in other businesses, and it makes amezaiku really special.” Yoshihara and his team make a variety of shapes of candy every day, ranging from the simple to the elaborate. Each piece must be created in under three minutes, before the candy hardens and can no longer be worked. The only way to get to this level, Yoshihara says, is through lots of practice. While there are many shapes that are staples of amezaiku, there are slight variations depending on the artisan’s personal style. “I want to make the kinds of things that I enjoyed seeing made as a child, so I tend to make brightly coloured, ... Read More

Sendagi, Tokyo, Featured Grid, Home Page Slider, Shops

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.”

Nakameguro, Tokyo, Cafes, Featured, Featured Grid, Home Page Slider

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.”

Shirokane, Tokyo, Cafes

Koumei Motoji learned the hard way that first impressions count. During a visit to Paris many years ago, he entered a bistro for lunch. He was as fashionably dressed as any typical Parisian. “But I’m Japanese,” he says. “So I was ushered to the back like I was an embarrassment.” The next day he returned to the same restaurant wearing a kimono, “and they treated me like a rock star.” Motoji grew up on the island of Amami Oshima in southern Japan, a place famous for its high-quality silk. He recalls the day his mother gave him a kimono that had belonged to his late father. “As soon as I put it on my back, it felt right,” he says. “I knew then and there that I wanted to share these treasures – that I would open a shop, and my shop would be in Ginza.” In the early 1960s, this was the most fashionable area of Tokyo, a promenade for Japan’s newly affluent consumers. But this was a time before the spread of passenger jets and bullet trains, and Ginza was a world away from the semi-tropical shores of Motoji’s island home. “It took me 13 hours on a ferry, followed by 28 hours on a train,” he recalls, “But I made it eventually.” Ginza Motoji consists of three shops: one for women, one for men, and another that specialises in oshima tsumugi, or kimono from Amami Oshima. Each feels more like an art gallery than a clothing store, exhibiting carefully curated fabrics awaiting purchase and tailoring. A complete kimono, meanwhile, is splayed dramatically, like a soaring bird. The proprietor pulls meticulously boxed rolls of fabric out of storage cupboards and unfurls them on a huge table formed from a single slice of wood cut from a 360-year-old tree. They include works by artisans who have achieved the rank of Living National Treasures: Yuko Tamanaha, who makes ryukyu bingata, an Okinawan style of intricate patterns made using dye-resistant rice paste; Kiju Fukuda, celebrated for his embroidery; and Hyouji Kitagawa, the 18th generation of the family heading the storied Tawaraya workshop in Kyoto’s Nishijin neighbourhood of textile craftspeople – with no male heir, he is probably the last. Almost as if to illustrate the tragedy of a workshop’s demise, Motoji slips on white gloves before touching his most treasured cloth, a simple design of indigo and ivory. The fabric is only 10 years old, but it is already priceless. “Nobody has the skill to make it anymore,” Motoji sighs. “The tradition has been lost.” Every year Motoji invites a selection of his artisans to come to the capital and experience the daily lives of busy, sophisticated Tokyoites. They need to understand their consumers if there is any hope of these endangered skills being preserved for future generations. For this to happen it is imperative that what they make is practical for the modern world. For Motoji, wearing kimono every day means that he now feels uncomfortable in Western clothing. But ... Read More

Ginza, Tokyo, Shops

Gen Yamamoto is a classically trained bartender, though you might not guess it. He has dispensed with many of the rudiments of his profession: he never shakes a cocktail; never stirs with ice in a mixing glass; never makes martinis, negronis or anything else you’ve heard of. And his drinks are usually tiny. At his bar, Yamamoto specialises in omakase courses of original cocktails. Guests choose four or six drinks, discuss their aversions or allergies, and leave the details to him. What he serves will depend on the season, the weather, and the time of day. The cocktails are presented on a lacquer tray, beside a freshly misted seasonal flower. The first soupçon is always refreshing, employing an ingredient such as cucumber juice or ginger. The second has more bite, often using Japanese citrus. And then there’s something more powerful again – perhaps with a fruit tomato, and a gin or shochu. The courses build and build in texture and density, to their dessert-like conclusion. There are many bartenders that show the season in their drinks. They’ll use watermelons in the summer or persimmons in the autumn. Yamamoto takes the idea so much further: having forged ties with farmers, he consults with them about what’s being harvested. He says he’s interested in anything delicious, but is more inspired when the ingredient is a little unusual. He buys lesser-known Japanese citruses, such as hebesu, sumikan or hassaku, and has been known to use fava beans, wasabi, celery root, and fennel. He prepares them more in the manner of a chef than a bartender, simmering reductions, creating compotes, and using copper pans and digital thermometers. Yamamoto devised his first cocktail tasting menu in New York while working as bar manager at Brushstroke, a kaiseki-inspired collaboration between chef David Bouley and Japan’s Tsuji Culinary Institute. “When I moved to America, the ingredients tasted different, the ambience was different, and the environment was different. I started to focus on natural ingredients, at first just mixing them with vodka — a vodka apple martini or something like that. It didn’t work. Each ingredient tasted out of balance. So little by little I changed them.” The mixologist questioned everything he had learned. Why does a cocktail have to be chilled? Why must the elements be integrated? Who says a serving should be 70 millilitres or more? And does the alcohol have to kick so hard? He found Japanese-originated alcohol such as sake or shochu often paired better with his produce than 80 proof spirits. He realised that too much chilling could mute the flavours. And he discovered you can have too much of a good thing. “I make a drink with kumquats, for example,” he says. “If it is a large drink, it’s too thick, too heavy.” His style was taking shape, but Yamamoto couldn’t execute it properly in the U.S. “People there worried more about the speed of service than the quality of the result,” he says. So he moved back home to Tokyo and ... Read More

Azabu Juban, Tokyo, Bars

Kazuo Nozaki is proud that chefs from New York to Stockholm flock to his unassuming shop at the former Tsukiji fish market to purchase high-quality Japanese knives for their kitchens. But famous customers aren’t the reason he starts work at 4am each day. Aritsugu knife shop has been supplying blades to Tokyo fishmongers for more than 90 years. Its main customers are the wholesalers who prepare the early morning tuna, octopus, scallops, and other seafood for Tokyo’s sushi counters and izakaya tables. Starting work long before sunrise, they rely on the shop to sharpen and repair the tools of their trade. Only when this job is done will Nozaki open his shop to walk-in customers, no matter how famous they might be. Tokyo Aritsugu began life in 1919 when, struggling to keep their brood of sons employed, the owners of the famous Kyoto store (est. 1560) dispatched two of their number to Tokyo. They set up shop in the Nihonbashi fish market, later moving to Tsukiji after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Although today both the business and its owner are unrelated to the Kyoto shop, Nozaki’s history with the Tokyo store is long. He came to work at Artisugu to support himself while studying at a Tokyo college. But he put aside his plans for a career in machinery, instead ‘graduating’ to become a master of knives. The child of a fishing family from Kyushu’s Saga Prefecture, Nozaki recalls how, as a boy, he cut soft lead to make sinkers for fishing lines. The only blade he could find to do this was his mother’s kitchen knife. “It was impossible,” he recalls, laughing. “These days, I appreciate the value of having the right tool for the right job.” And so do his customers. The range of knives on display at Aritsugu is staggering. There are knives fashioned specifically for meat, vegetables, noodles and fish; different knives for different fish; and even sets of three or four to prepare just one single species. No self-respecting chef would use the same knife designed to cut off a fish’s head to slice its belly in to sashimi. Nozaki explains that long, narrow ‘willow’ blades for sashimi are popular, as are pointed gyutou – literally ‘beef knives’ – although they can be used for almost anything. Meanwhile the multi-purpose santoku knives, which are rounder at the top and a little wider, always sell out fast. Hand-forged but non-specific in duty, they’re high in both quality and maintenance. Sakai, the traditional sword-making district in Osaka where the knives are made, is a place Nozaki must travel to frequently. There, each blade starts as a dark, dull rod of steel. Heated, hammered and cooled repeatedly for days, it eventually becomes a sharp, shiny instrument of strength and precision. It’s the same technique swordsmiths once used to arm samurai warriors. For casual cooks, alloy and stainless steel knives are more affordable and easier to maintain, although they lack the artisanal commitment of owning a forged ... Read More

Tokyo, Shops

Don’t go thinking that 21_21 is a museum. It can’t be, because it is without permanent collection. But then, neither is it a gallery – its expansive mission is bigger than that. How, then, to explain it? “Most museum and art gallery directors come from the curatorial side,” explains Associate Director Noriko Kawakami. “What’s so special about 21_21 Design Sight is that the directors are all working designers.” They are, in fact, more than that – they are three of the biggest names in the Japanese creative industry: graphic designer Taku Satoh, industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa, and fashion designer Issey Miyake, who has been the project’s driving force from the start. “Another reason we’re different from an art gallery is that we exhibit familiar things from everyday life,” says Kawakami. “But we want to show their beauty and emotion.” During the first half of 2014, Satoh and anthropologist Shinichi Takemura co-directed an exhibition titled ‘Kome: The Art of Rice’, which explored how the humble grain has enriched Japan’s design traditions as well as its diet. A previous exhibition curated by Satoh investigated water, while another by Fukusawa was named ‘Chocolate’. One of Miyake’s motivations has been that, despite its cultural affinity for beautiful and functional things, Japan has no official museum of design – although he never intended for 21_21 Design Sight to become that institution. His is a more modest goal, formulated with the help of late sculptor Isamu Nogichi, architect Tadao Ando, and several others: to create a space where people can experience good design and understand its transformative possibilities. Ando and Miyake collaborated on the structure of the building using the latter’s concept for making garments from a single piece of unbroken thread. Approaching the building through the surrounding gardens, visitors catch sight of two massive triangular roofs at ground level, each made from giant sheets of folded steel. Beyond the entrance, the exhibition rooms are subterranean and surround a sunken courtyard framed by large windows. On sunny days dramatic shadows move slowly across the cavernous space. Kawakami and the three directors meet monthly to brainstorm ideas and choose a curator for each show. For everyone involved, an open mind is imperative: while assisting Satoh in the preparations for ‘Water’, Kawakami says she worked with a scuba diver, an astronomer, a biologist, and other unlikely professionals. “What keeps every exhibition interesting is that each has its own methodology,” she says. “There are never any prepared answers. There are never any rules.”

Akasaka, Roppongi, Tokyo, Galleries & Museums

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

Aoyama, Tokyo, Cafes, Featured, Featured Grid

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

Harajuku, Tokyo, Cafes

Taka Ishii had his heart set on becoming a painter while studying for a fine arts degree in Los Angeles. Until, that is, the day he saw photographer Larry Clark’s “Tulsa” prints in Los Angeles. “I was shocked to see his work,” says Ishii. “There was lots of violence and drugs. I liked it. It was like watching a documentary.” When he returned to Tokyo from LA in the early 1990s, Ishii discovered Japan had its own photographers working in a similar vein, people such as Daido Moriyama and his iconic 1979 image of a stray dog, “Misawa”. “That was the start,” Ishii says of his then-nascent career path. When he opened his first gallery in 1994, it was with a solo show of the same Clark that had originally inspired him. A year later, he showed Moriyama’s works for the first time. “To exhibit those two photographers was a dream come true,” Ishii says. The reality of operating a gallery, however, was harder than he had expected. “I had worked as a private dealer, but never in a gallery before,” he says. “I didn’t know the system. I had to learn everything from scratch.” Tokyo had few international contemporary art galleries at the time, and Ishii did not know any collectors. He reached out to magazines and newspapers to attract media coverage. Slowly, collectors followed. Fortunately, his original gallery was located in the first floor of his family home, and was therefore rent-free. Low-key, soft-spoken and with an air of disheveled cool, Ishii is now one of Japan’s most successful contemporary art dealers, with two galleries in Tokyo and one in New York City. His stable of established artists includes Moriyama, Nobuyoshi Araki, Naoya Hatakeyama, Thomas Demand, Sterling Ruby, Dan Graham, and Cerith Wyn Evans. He also actively promotes up-and-coming Japanese photographers and mixed media artists. These days, Ishii’s collectors mostly come from abroad. The domestic market remains a challenge. A difficult venture in Kyoto proved that point. He and a fellow Tokyo-based gallerist opened a collaborative space in the ancient capital in 2008. But collectors there, wary of outsiders, wouldn’t buy from them. “You need a strong connection with the local people, especially in Kyoto,” he says. “We didn’t have that. I really was too bad.” The space closed in 2013. Ishii remains optimistic – the trends are moving in his favour. Japan is becoming an international destination, and the number of young Japanese collectors is steadily growing. “Interest in post-war Japanese photography is growing abroad. Even foreign museums are buying now,” he says. “We have so many great photographers. Helping them reach a global audience is my ultimate reward.”

Roppongi, Tokyo, Galleries & Museums

Tomio Koyama’s passion for contemporary art began, like many great love affairs, in Venice. It was the 1990s, and the future gallery owner was attending his first Venice Biennale. Lost in the narrow, twisting lanes, he was hunting down a space showing works by the late conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim. Two deer sculptures with flaming antlers were the clue he needed. Deep inside the building, Koyama discovered a world he had never imagined. “It was filled with famous collectors and artists of all kinds, all mingling and drinking together,” he says. “I could feel the power of art. I really wanted to make something like this. I knew the variety and creativity suited my personality.” Koyama was 33 when he opened his first Tokyo gallery in 1996 in the same place as the Sagacho Exhibit Space in Tokyo’s Koto district. The 1927 red brick warehouse was once a rice market, and the first exhibition space for what became some of Japan’s most influential contemporary galleries. At the time, Koyama was among a new generation of gallerists looking for alternative spaces and collectors beyond Ginza, once the heart of Japan’s art scene. “My gallery and my generation are very different from older Japanese art gallery owners,” he says. “They were from inside Japanese society representing Japanese collections and bringing in historically big name foreign artists.” In contrast, Koyama says, he had to focus on international art fairs when he started because at that time there were no buyers in Japan who were interested in works by the young artists he was representing. His big break came when he began showing two up-and-coming artists, now world famous, Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara. The former he represented in Japan from the mid-1990s to early 2000s; the latter remained with him for a remarkable 19 years. Buyers still ask him for ‘the next Murakami’ – someone Koyama has yet to find. “Murakami’s style was so unique in the ‘90s art scene – a genre all of its own. These days, we have a new generation of artists in Japan, all highly trained, and all with their own styles,” says Koyama, who represents about 50 emerging and established contemporary painters and sculptors out of his two gallery spaces in Roppongi and Shibuya. Through another project, TKG Ceramics, Koyama wants to develop a new ceramic market combining the skills and aesthetics of older generations with those of younger, contemporary potters, and introducing their works outside of Japan. “We have a huge variety of artists, artworks, and accumulated technical skill in Japan,” he says. “These artists are ambassadors for our cultural spirit.”

Roppongi, Tokyo, Galleries & Museums

Hajime Suzuki knows the difference between a good Japanese restaurant and a great one. “You must engage the senses,” explains the owner of Fuku, a beloved west-Tokyo yakitori place, “the view of the chefs at work, the aroma of the chicken fizzling on the grill, and of course the taste of the food.” Yakitori, meaning literally grilled (‘yaki’) chicken (‘tori’), are skewers of chicken cooked over white-hot charcoal. From neck to tail, Fuku’s menu lists various parts of the bird, including the familiar (breast, wings, mincemeat) and the ambitious (heart, giblets, cartilage). Around the turn of the millennium, Suzuki, who was then working in the fashion business, began dreaming of opening a restaurant. “The image in my mind was of a warm place with a diverse, international clientele all enjoying themselves, as relaxed as if they were at home,” he says. In Yoyogi Uehara, a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood still lacking good dining options, he found a promising location – “just far enough away from the station” – and the ideal landlord, who offered to knock down his existing building and build a new one to Suzuki’s specifications. He designed a space with high ceilings – rare for Tokyo – a counter with 16 seats, and several tables around the edge. The simple white uniforms of the chefs, the plain teahouse-colour walls, and the earthy ceramics were also part of his plan. “Everything we do should be understated so as not to disturb the customers,” he says. “Their enjoyment creates the atmosphere.” At the heart of the restaurant is the charcoal grill, manned by a chef who – battling through waves of heat and smoke – staggers the various orders and ingredients with the tempo of an orchestra conductor. The cleanliness and cut of the meat are critical to achieving an even cook. The charcoal – always from Wakayama, a prefecture in western Japan famous for it – is just as important. Regulars know to order plenty of the vegetable skewers and other non-chicken dishes that make up about half the menu, including succulent shiitake mushrooms, cuts of aubergine, and the ‘danshaku’ potato topped with a slice of melting butter. The green peppers wrapped in bacon and stuffed with cheese should be requested early, before they sell out. When he’s not at the grill himself, Suzuki can often be seen standing quietly at the back, discreetly paying attention to every detail. “If I listen carefully,” he says, “I can hear when the grill needs new charcoal, or when a chicken skewer is fizzling and ready to be served.”

Tokyo, Yoyogi Uehara, Restaurants

A tray of oven-crisp croissants emerges from the tiny kitchen at Shinji Tanaka’s bakery, Tolo Pan Tokyo. The chef holds them high above his head as he inches behind his coworkers, who stand shoulder-to-shoulder slicing loaves, packaging buns, and ringing up the till. He weaves through the half-dozen customers who have squeezed into the shop – greeting them and apologising as he goes – and sets the croissants out for sale. Within minutes they are purchased, packaged, and out the door. Tolo Pan – ‘pan’ is Japanese for bread – occupies narrow premises on the main shopping street in the Higashiyama neighbourhood close to Ikejiri-ohashi train station, one stop west of Shibuya. “When all five bakers are in the kitchen, we have to work precisely and without thinking,” says Tanaka, a lithe man with an earnest smile. “We’re like parts of a machine, all operating as one.” Tanaka arrives on his bicycle when only the fishmonger and the tofu maker have their shutters raised. Comrades of the dawn, they say good morning to one another without fail. Gradually his team arrives until the kitchen is at full capacity, producing loaves and pastries, bagels and baguettes, and ‘curry bread’ – a modern classic of Japanese baking that cocoons a dollop of curry inside a ball of savory breaded pastry. During a typical day, Tanaka will handle up to 13 different types of flour and produce about one hundred different breads and pastries. The subtle complexities of a job in which every ounce and every minute makes a difference are what he loves. “Take the weather, for example,” he explains. “Because the seasons in Japan are so different – cold and crisp in winter, but hot and muggy in summer – we need to adjust the balance of ingredients constantly to maintain the quality.” Tolo’s signature white bread, Higashiyama Pan, uses soymilk and tofu, creating a texture he describes with the onomatopoeic word ‘mochi-mochi’, meaning soft and moist. The wholegrain Complet loaf is injected with clarified butter to nurture a lingering richness when it rises. Two doors further along the same street, cooks at a Tolo-branded café use the bakery’s bread to make chunky BLTs, croque monsieurs and roast beef sandwiches. The signature ‘katsu-sando’ inserts a succulent chunk of breaded, fried pork between two slices of whole wheat bread with onion and fig relish and sliced cabbage. Flour-smattered denim jumpsuits and colourful wooly hats are the baking team’s eye-catching uniforms, chosen by Tanaka’s business partner, an entrepreneur from the fashion industry who takes care of marketing, accounting, and other back-office chores of which the chef, in single-minded pursuit of his craft, is glad to be free. “When I’m not at work baking, I’m at home reading books about baking,” says Tanaka, who closes his shop most Tuesdays to give his coworkers a well-earned break. “If was only me, I’d be happy working seven days a week.”

Ikejiri Ohashi, Tokyo, Cafes

Looking for the best rice to serve at his new restaurant, Hideki Ohnishi knew exactly who to talk to: Mr. Okazaki, a farmer in his hometown whose rice is so good he keeps it only for friends and family. Persuaded by the chef’s sincere attitude, he agreed to make him his only outside customer. “Later we found out his son and I were at school together,” says Ohnishi. “People around there need to know you to trust you.” Ohnishi’s restaurant in Tokyo, Kisaiya Hide, specializes in the cuisine of his hometown, Uwajima, a fishing port on the island of Shikoku in western Japan. The city belongs to a region known for its exacting farmers, and the chef spent years diligently researching from whom to buy his produce. Moving to Tokyo was Ohnishi’s childhood dream – although the boy intended to be a rock star, not a cook. Needing money for the journey, he took a job in the kitchen of the best restaurant in town famous for its ‘tai meshi’, a dish of snapper sashimi mixed with rice, broth, seaweed and scallions that is Uwajima’s signature food. The business closed many years ago and its chef passed away. But Ohnishi continues to serve a faithful version of the famous ‘tai meishi’ at his own restaurant. “It’s my way of giving back to the man who first believed in me,” he says. Another person who believed in him was his wife. She encouraged him to go solo after 15 years working in other chefs’ kitchens. After a long search for the perfect location, they settled on Kagurazaka, a wealthy neighborhood north of the Imperial Palace once famous for its geisha culture. “People around here love food and love talking about food,” says Ohnishi, recalling how his early customers discovered Kisaiya Hide. “The locals would come and eat, and then go to a bar and tell everyone about it.” Onishi recommends the ‘shika’ (venison), marinated for one day and hung for a second before being grilled and served with wasabi and soy sauce; the seasonal fish tempura – normally ‘kasago’ (scorpion fish) – every part of which can be eaten, including the bones; and ‘mizunasu’, a variety of eggplant that can be eaten raw, which comes served in salad-like arrangement with other greens, ginger and garlic, plus a smattering of broth and a dash of hot sesame oil. Considering Uwajima’s reputation for seafood, Ohnishi knew he would be judged on the quality of his sashimi. For that reason he bypasses Tokyo’s renowned fish market and instead buys from Mr. Yamada, a local fishmonger in Uwajima who sends him text messages every morning with photos of the different species being iced, boxed, and sent by overnight courier to the capital. A delivery of octopus is always welcome. “Octopus from the ocean there is unlike any other – sweeter, more fragrant,” he says. Every summer, when Ohnishi, his wife and their two young children go back to Ehime, he visits Mr. Yamada in person ... Read More

Kagurazaka, Tokyo, Restaurants

Daisuke Shimazaki cradles in his hands two giant shrimps, just boiled and ready to serve. “Yesterday they were swimming in the ocean,” he says, his voice hushed, poised to reveal a secret. “Fresh from northern Japan. The best in the world… maybe.” That phrase is heard frequently at Sushi Yuu, Shimazaki’s family-run restaurant. His sea urchin and his fatty tuna are also “the best in the world… maybe” – although his confident tone of voice infers that there is, in fact, no ‘maybe’ about it. Shimazaki’s late father, Shojiro, opened Sushi Yuu in 1972 in a distant suburb, later moving his shop to central Tokyo. His wife – Shimazaki’s mother – still helps from behind the scenes, bottling her annual batch of plum wine, or helping to pickle the ‘gari’ ginger so adored by regulars. The son was initially reluctant to follow in his father’s footsteps. The family’s restaurant was close to the bars and nightclubs of Roppongi – a neon-lit playground for high-rolling businessmen. Young Daisuke wanted a life on the other side of the counter. “But it turned out I was a terrible businessman,” he says. Within a year, he was in the kitchen, watching his father work. “He rarely spoke – it was a case of look and learn. That was the way back then.” Shimazaki knows that a chef is only as good as his ingredients. To get his hands on the best fish, he depends on a network of traders, each of them a specialist – in tuna, squid, or sea urchin. He visits them at the fish market every morning. “If there’s something special coming in, they’ll call to give me a head’s up,” he says. “But I still need to see things with my own eyes.” Shimazaki’s sushi reflects his personality: it is uncomplicated and generous. His preparations are simple, his cuts are large, and his rice has bite. A giant Hokkaido oyster is his recommended starter when they are in season. Always on the menu is his father’s signature ‘himono’ –mackerel, rigorously salted, dried in the open air, and grilled until its buttery juices begin to ooze. In place of dessert, expect a slice of ‘tamagoyaki’ omelette – sweet, and with a hint of citrus. Shimazaki balances his dedication to his craft with other passions outside the kitchen – fast cars, fine whiskeys, and the occasional round of golf. A confident English speaker, he converses with his customers from all over the world as dexterously as he creates their meals. “If people want to stay here talking and drinking until the small hours, they’re very welcome,” he says. And with only one sitting per evening, at Sushi Yuu there is no need to watch the clock.

Nishi Azabu, Tokyo, Restaurants

Silence is rare at Sakana Bar Ippo, a casual fish and sake bar along a quiet side street in Ebisu. On most nights it’s packed by 8pm, the air crowded with a cacophony of chatter, clinking glasses, and bursts of laughter. Before the guests begin trickling in at 6pm, owner Masato Takano starts making a playlist for the evening – a little vintage Rolling Stones, some Beatles tunes, maybe something by the Smiths, then the Stone Roses. Takano, who writes songs and plays the piano and guitar, wanted to be a musician when he was growing up. But he made a calculated decision to pursue a safer career, and spent eight years working as a stock analyst. Now in his forties, he still peppers his conversation with references to risk and probability. “Succeeding as a musician is a narrow possibility, so I went to university and studied economics,” he explains, modestly adding that his specialist subject was investment theory. But childhood dreams die hard, and after spending much of his twenties managing assets, Takano knew he wanted to do more than just make money. By age 30, he’d saved enough to start a small business. To this day, he relishes the moment he told his boss he was quitting finance to open an izakaya. It was the many evenings he spent in the Tsukiji district, unwinding with friends over sake and freshly caught fish, that gave him the idea for Ippo. “I really appreciated those moments after work,” he says. “I started watching the guys working in the restaurants, looking at what they were doing. Sometimes I’d buy fish at the market to take home and experiment with.” Ippo’s menu changes depending on what’s on offer fresh at the market. It can include sashimi, grilled fish, even oysters when they’re in season. There is also a selection of specialties, such as Satsuma-age, a variety of fishcake from Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost main island. In Takano’s recipe this is uniquely light and fluffy, a texture onomatopoeically described on the menu in Japanese as ‘fuwa-fuwa’. Regulars at Ippo order the ‘aji no namero’, a fine mince of raw horse mackerel, ginger, miso, and herbs that pairs brilliantly with sake. The name namero, which literally means ‘to lick’, implies the delicacy is so tasty that customers end up cleaning the plate themselves. Although his Ippo version uses mackerel, Takano based the dish on his grandmother’s recipe for a meal of raw squid. To chop everything together, he uses two cleavers in a rapid, steady tapping motion that adds a staccato rhythm to the aural mayhem. “Music is still very important to me,” Takano says, selecting a Tom Waits track on his computer as another customer shouts an order across the bar. “But this… This is my soundtrack.”

Ebisu, Tokyo, Restaurants

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.”

Gaienmae, Harajuku, Tokyo, Cafes

When Koichi Kobari abruptly closed his much-loved New York soba restaurant Honmura-an, food bloggers broke the news like they were announcing a death. But the Big Apple’s loss was Tokyo’s gain: Kobari now runs an equally successful restaurant in the heart of Roppongi. Honmura-an New York was the first top-class soba restaurant outside Japan. Opened in 1991 and closed in 2007, it won the favour of SoHo locals, New York foodies, and a smattering of celebrities. It wasn’t the first time the Kobari family changed the history of soba cuisine. In the 1960s, Koichi’s father, Nobuo, was one of the first to turn a common fast food into refined cuisine, milling top-quality buckwheat on the premises and paying keen attention to design and décor. Tokyo’s middle class couldn’t get enough of it. Koichi, at the time a headstrong, independent young man, had no intention of being part the family’s noodle business. He moved to California to study, and later took a job as a management consultant. He was living the American dream. “But all the time, I had this nagging feeling,” he recalls. “Then one day, my father came to visit.” Nobuo had an idea. It was the heady era of the bubble economy. Mitsubishi had just bought the Rockefeller Center. Anything seemed possible. Nobuo wanted to open a restaurant for the planeloads of Japanese businessmen doing deals in New York. And he wanted Koichi to run it. “He was smart,” says his son. “He always wanted me to be part of the family business, but he knew I had to do it my own way.” Kobari ran Honmura-an New York for 16 years, using buckwheat flour from the Japanese countryside and chefs sent on rotation from Tokyo. The decision to close was an emotional one. Koichi’s father had passed away and it was time to return home. In Tokyo, he left his sister to run the main restaurant in Ogikubo, while he took charge of the less-famous Roppongi branch. The same designer he had used in New York soon replaced its traditional fixtures and fittings with a modern interior. His Japanese chef from SoHo came too. Today the soba noodles are still made to the Kobari family recipe, while contemporary side dishes and seasonal specials – grilled pork and apples with spring onion miso sauce, for example, or tender Hokkaido squid with ginger – add a sense of culinary adventure still rare on most soba menus. “It has been six years, but we still have a few parties from New York every night,” says Kobari, visibly moved by his customers’ loyalty. “It’s flattering, it’s overwhelming, it makes me remind myself every day to be thankful. And I think my father would be proud.”

Roppongi, Tokyo, Restaurants

The literal translation of the Japanese word ‘mangekyou, ’10,000 blossom mirror’ is such a perfect description of kaleidoscopes that, according to the owner of Japan’s first specialty shop selling them, “Japanese people commonly believe they invented them.” Indeed, if the country feels like a natural home for mementos like these then, rich with nostalgia, refinement and quiet romance, Miti Araki’s store suggests it is so. Located in Azabu-Juban, a village-like corner of central Tokyo, Kaleidoscope Musashikan has been in business for more than two decades. Back when she opened it, Araki was a recently divorced mother taking care of her daughter, Kiki. “I started to see the world through my little girl’s eyes,” Araki says, recalling moments they spent looking through a magnifying glass or playing with a mirror. “That act of becoming absorbed in something was vital. I had no idea how or what, but I knew I wanted to open a shop based on looking at things.” Kaleidoscopes were actually invented in the early 1800s by Scottish scholar Sir David Brewster, and soon enchanted the European upper classes. But before Araki opened her shop, all that was available in Japan were cardboard tubes of coloured plastic beads found at souvenir stands. She asked a friend in New York to visit a kaleidoscope specialist retailer there and send as many of them back to Japan as her savings would allow. Before long she had refashioned the café where she worked to become Kaleidoscope Mukashi-kan. The made up word mukashi-kan means ‘hall of the past’, and Araki’s shop feels like it could be the setting for a children’s fantasy, with storybook furnishings, a wall painted like the sky, and a shop assistant wearing a natty pink jacket. A sculpture outside shows the legs of a man appearing to fall into the unknown, and inside, every shelf and table is crowded with kaleidoscopes. The simplest model is the open-ended teleidoscope that multiplies whatever it’s pointed at, while others create infinite patterns using spinning wheels, sliding vials of liquid and glitter, or myriad tiny objects, such as microscopic seashells. Those with sleek brushed stainless steel exteriors are made in Japan; the detail of what is in the eye of the beholder is dazzling, thanks to viewing chambers filled with abstract flakes of exposed colour film. Araki won’t make recommendations, saying choosing one is intensely personal. “It depends as much on what’s inside the person holding the kaleidoscope as what’s inside the instrument,” she says. Indeed her own experience of kaleidoscopes has changed. Where once they stimulated her, in the worrying days after the 2011 earthquake, they became cathartic. “I believe every time you peer into a kaleidoscope, you see something different,” she says. “But then, shouldn’t that be true of almost everything in life?”

Azabu Juban, Tokyo, Shops

Most people lucky enough to have a single-minded passion are born that way. They make a natural decision to dedicate their lives to food, fashion or design. However, for Kenshin Sato, owner of a beautiful Japanese ceramics shop so bijou it must be the world’s smallest, the tale of becoming an expert curator in his field is one of serendipity. “When I graduated from school I had no idea what I wanted to do,” says Sato. “I was flicking through the job ads and found one that sounded promising. It was walking distance from home and I didn’t need to wear a suit. I applied, and got the job.” The then-22-year-old began working for a company that designed table settings for photo shoots. Over the next decade, he came into contact with ceramicists from all over Japan, and his vocation found him. After several years working at a ceramics shop, Sato had the knowledge and the network to set up on his own. All he needed was an affordable space in a good location. Again, fate stepped in. “There was a ceramics shop here before me and I knew the owner. I was visiting one day, and I told him: ‘I want to open my own shop.’ He replied, ‘Well, I want to move mine.’ So I took over the space, just like that.” From the beginning, Sato knew he wanted to focus on emerging talent. And with a size of just 3.5 tsubo in Japanese terms (less than 12 square metres, or 130 square feet), he only has space for the very best. Most of the artists he works with are in their twenties or thirties, producing pieces that combine timeless wabisabi (elegant simplicity) with hints of youthful rebellion. They include the playful-yet-melancholy works of Kazuhiro Katase, whose bold shapes and colours are softened with an unnerving sense of decay; Chie Kobayashi, whose ethereal white bowls look as if they might blow away in the wind; and the rugged aquamarine cups of Asato Ikeda, reminiscent of a calm ocean dangerously awakened. “I could never be a ceramics artist myself. I don’t have that sort of patience!” says Sato, in a confession of sorts from a man who at first appears serene yet self-confident. “But this is the next best thing.” Private buyers are Sato’s main customers, although he recently found himself on the radar of some of Tokyo’s most remarkable restaurants, including Den, whose chef shares Sato’s taste for classy irreverence. Sato works alone – and likes it that way – so because space is limited he often holds special exhibitions at other locations, during which he usually closes the little shop. His ambitious side wants to take the next step and move to a larger showroom. But something is holding him back. “I go back and forth,” he says. “It would be nice to show bigger pieces and more artists, but things would also be a lot more complicated.” So for now, Utsuwa Kenshin stays small. Until fate ... Read More

Shibuya, Tokyo, Shops

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.”

Aoyama, Harajuku, Tokyo, Shops

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.”

Nakameguro, Tokyo, Shops

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

Harajuku, Tokyo, Shops

As a young man in Japan, Shinobu Namae always knew he was living in a bubble. “It was very convenient here, very efficient,” says the youthful executive chef of L’Effervescence with characteristic self-awareness. “I appreciated that. But I also knew Japan was a bit sterile.” Namae was determined to travel, and foraged for a career that would satisfy his inquisitive instincts. He intended to become a journalist. Then he was obsessed with Italy – “I wanted to be Italian.” But it was on holiday near San Francisco, while dining at Chez Panisse, that he encountered his true calling. “A simple arugula salad, garlic soup, beef sirloin with basil paste… Even now, I can remember every flavour,” he recalls of the meal at Alice Waters’ iconic Californian restaurant. “I never imagined I could get such satisfaction from a salad.” More than a decade later, on the other side of the Pacific, Namae set out to offer every guest at his own restaurant a distinct memory of time and place. For his ebullient project, he chose a tantalising name: L’Effervescence. The location he secured is refreshingly roomy for Japan’s cramped capital, where space itself is a luxury. During each sitting, the chef makes sure to visit every table and personally greet and thank his patrons for coming. “I’m grateful for every moment,” he says. “For me, work is life, and life is work, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” On a plate called ‘Beautiful Scene of Summer’, two small local freshwater fish known as ayu (sweetfish) appear to be jumping along a stream of sunshine – a picture painted with mango, radish and a mountain of sansho pepper, and with a powerful spot of ‘guts-flavoured gastric sauce.’ On ‘Transparency,’ airy foie gras, garnished with grapes, celery and walnuts, seems ephemeral enough to almost vanish before the first bite. Nominally French, Namae’s food also reflects his youthful Italian fetish; the influence of his two celebrated tutors, Michel Bras and Heston Blumenthal; and, from his home country, strong seasonal rhythms. His microscopic attention to detail comes from his father, a stern, introverted man who designed microchips sitting behind a blueprint-covered desk. It was his mother who taught him to take pleasure in food. “Honestly she isn’t a great cook,” he says. “But she loves to explore new restaurants. She appreciates every mouthful and every moment.” Softly spoken yet candid, Namae confesses to having a rebellious streak. After graduating from university with a degree in politics and social psychology, his decision to cook for a living went against the wishes of his father. Now in his early forties, he is one of several rising-star chefs unafraid to challenge the boundaries of his native culture. “I grew up just as Japan’s bubble economy was bursting. Since then things haven’t always gone well for us Japanese,” he says. “So we needed to learn to do things differently, and to enjoy ourselves along the way. We needed this culinary revolution.” In late 2013, Chef Namae attended ... Read More

Nishi Azabu, Tokyo, Restaurants

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?”

Harajuku, Tokyo, Galleries & Museums

Just like wine makers, Japanese chefs value terroir – the sense of place communicated through the ingredients they use and the dishes they make. For Kimio Nonaga of Nihonbashi Yukari, the place he wants to share is the heart of old Tokyo – the place he calls home. Nihonbashi is a mercantile district named after the bridge of the same name. The proverbial centre point of the capital, the bridge and those who travel over it are guarded by statues of dragon-like creatures – winged giraffes, according to folklore – and Nonaga’s restaurant is located just a short walk away. “They have a special meaning to us,” he says. “They tell us to protect our heritage while also flying forwards. In Nihonbashi, we must always be a bridge between the present and the past.” Nonaga is a member of a rare tribe known as edokko, or ‘child of Edo,’ a term reserved only for the most authentic citizens – people whose parents and grandparents were all born and raised in the city now known as Tokyo. His grandfather founded the restaurant in 1935, naming it after his favourite kabuki play, and the young Kimio took the reins from his father at just 24. In the private rooms, waitresses in kimono serve formal kaiseki – fixed menus containing many small, artfully prepared dishes. At the counter, patrons can chat with the chef as he prepares their meals. Like most traditions, kaiseki is governed by strict rules, and like most great chefs, Nonaga knows when to break them. There’s cured prosciutto ham and made-in-Tokyo mozzarella cheese in his kitchen – hardly traditional Japanese ingredients. “The scent, texture and taste of the cheese are just a little bit different from Italian mozzarella, because it comes from our own climate,” he says. “But I guess that’s why it goes so well with my cooking.” The most important rule, however, can never be broken: kaiseki must follow the rhythms of nature – not merely the obvious four seasons, but its 24 micro seasons, fleeting moments during which some ingredients are available for just a few short weeks each year. Baby bamboo shoots take centre stage in early March, but just two weeks later edible cherry leaves are in bloom and appear, salted, on the plate. The valuable matsutake mushrooms prized in early autumn are quickly replaced by glorious orange persimmons – hollowed out and re-stuffed with a mixture of their own fruit and seasoned tofu. Given Nonaga’s breeding, his preference for local produce is no surprise: the seafood comes from nearby waters, the pork from farms on the edge of the city. Some of the vegetables are even grown on the restaurant’s roof, right there in Nihonbashi. “Kaiseki has a clear understanding of ingredient, place and time,” Nonaga explains. “But more than that it’s about hospitality, and it’s about healing. After eating it, you feel well.”

Nihonbashi, Tokyo, Restaurants

The windows of the smart shopping complex near Futakotamagawa station show off posters of pouty European models putting their faces to international names. The ritzy suburb appears to be all glittering high-end retail. But nestled on a pedestrian side street only a few steps away is a shop with a certain serenity. Beyond the open sliding door, noise and neon are absorbed by wood, iron, linen, and bamboo. Lettered discreetly on the window is ‘Kohoro’, a word that harkens back to a past time as it describes the sound of a horse’s saddle settling into its packing box. But if Kohoro offers not a wholesale return to a simpler way of living, it at least provides a way of adopting some wisdoms of generations of Japanese. Shopkeeper Hiromi Onda took over eight years ago, and has grown to love using its old-fashioned tools in her daily life. “Visiting friends always ask me to make white rice,” she says. “Apparently it’s special.” She’s young enough that even her mother’s generation used electronic rice cookers. But she says what makes her rice special is her clay gohan nabe, a crock pot that cooks directly on a gas burner. The thick pottery heats slowly and evenly, its heavy lid forcing the steam back into the grains. If there is any left over, Onda puts the rice in an ohitsu, a lidded container specifically for cooked rice. The ones at Kohoro are made from Akita Prefecture cedar, which maintains the fluffiness and moisture content of the rice, while its antibacterial properties keep it fresh for several days without refrigeration. She also likes using bamboo chopsticks with an extremely fine point. “They make it easy to eat anything, even something challenging like grilled fish,” she says. To make tea, Onda uses an iron kettle known as a tetsubin. Showing off one from an historic iron-working region of Yamagata Prefecture, she explains that when water is boiled in it, it picks up minerals from the iron that give the tea an extra smooth taste. Hers has a tiny Japanese eggplant moulded into its handle – a symbol of good luck. And for miso soup, she uses a bowl made of urushi, Japanese traditional lacquer. Unwrapping one of black, with subtle shimmers of a red under layer peeking through, she explains that with enough use, the black will start to wear away. Though this erosion lends its own wabisabi beauty to the lacquerware, the bowls do come with a lifetime guarantee: if the lacquer ever wears through, they can be returned to Kohoro for a fresh coat. So where to begin in infusing one’s modern life with a touch of ancient Japan? If Onda were to recommend one piece, it would be a ceramic rice bowl. It’s just the right size and shape to pick up and hold in one hand while eating, a mannerism that’s very Japanese. There are many patterns to choose from, reflecting the work and personalities of different artisans. And then, as Onda ... Read More

Futako Tamagawa, Tokyo, Shops

In the mid-1970s, around his 40th birthday, Toshio Hara left his business career and dove headlong into the world of art. It was a moment in which he suddenly ‘woke up’ – and he unhesitatingly calls this moment, which lead to him building a museum bearing his name, the most fortunate of his life. “My sensibility – my sense of aesthetics – had started to move, to grow,” he says. “Everyone, I believe, has this ability. But we don’t use it. It’s sleeping.” Indeed, Hara’s aesthetic sensibility awoke with a bell – the doorbell of his former family home, a beautiful modernist building in Tokyo’s Shinagawa district that Hara turned into one of Japan’s first private museums for contemporary art. For the first six years, visitors had to ring it to be let in. “That bell…it never stopped,” Hara recalls. “We only had about five staff at the start, and everyone would take turns serving visitors tea and coffee at the café – I think I even served a few cups myself.” Coming from a wealthy family, Hara had opportunities to study and travel overseas, and his museum was inspired by the private art collections he visited in Europe, which felt so personal compared with the corporate-sponsored museums of Tokyo. Hara’s great-grandfather, Rokuro Hara, was a powerful industrialist in the late 19th century. He was a builder of banks and railways, and a collector of poetry and calligraphy. Rokuro’s son, Kunizo, built the family – and museum’s – intriguing Le Corbusier-inspired home in 1938. The building survived spells as a U.S. occupation facility, an embassy, and a government residence. Then, for 23 years, it sat uninhabited. With the opening of the Hara Museum, the house was occupied once more – this time by names including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Roy Lichtenstein, all of which were among the patron’s early finds. Hara travelled with Andy Warhol for several months and owns one of the artist’s three ‘Campbell’s Tomato Soup Can’ sculptures. Over nearly 40 years, Hara’s collection has grown so large the founder says he’s stopped counting how many pieces there are. He’s even built an ‘annex’ museum in the mountains northwest of Tokyo to store and display more pieces, including the collection of his great-grandfather. Private museums in Japan often hire well-known critics or scholars to build their collections because owners don’t feel confident about selecting the works themselves. Even though Hara is quick to credit all the people who supported him, the success of his museum is the story of just one man – a man whose eyes were opened. “I didn’t know much at the start – I certainly wasn’t an expert,” Hara recalls. “But I was lucky to have people who believed in me. They encouraged me to make the final decision on which artworks and artists I liked. And I’m grateful to them. Because otherwise this would’ve been someone else’s museum.”

Shinagawa, Tokyo, Galleries & Museums

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

Aoyama, Tokyo, Galleries & Museums

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.”

Nakameguro, Tokyo, Shops

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

Nakameguro, Tokyo, Restaurants

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

Aoyama, Tokyo, Restaurants

Honma Saketen is not for everyone. In truth, it’s for rather few people. Proprietor Fujio Honma doesn’t sell any of the delicate, fragrant stuff that most people think is sake – superficial he calls it – and he refuses to stock anything by Japan’s best-known breweries. “Those big guys are motivated by profit,” he says. “But I search for people with this…” he says, and he pounds his fist against his heart. Honma buys from just 20 artisan makers, and his inventory is a poke in the eye of sake orthodoxy. Take the conventional wisdom on polishing rice: it’s said that the more you mill, the better the resulting sake. When a brewer strips away 40 per cent of the grain, he can call the drink ginjo (literally: ‘brewed with care’). If he removes at least 50 per cent, he’s making daiginjo (‘brewed with the utmost care’). So what should be made of Okuharima Yamahai from Hyogo Prefecture? It’s fabulously earthy, with hints of stewed apples and melon – and it’s made with rice whose grain is reduced by just 20 per cent. Honma says good rice doesn’t need to be polished as much, that the minerals in the outer layers add complexity when you’re ageing a bottle. He’s a fan of aged sake, all dark and pungent with caramel notes, although he concedes it’s still a niche interest in Japan. More heretically, he likes to mature unpasteurised sake. Textbooks and retailers will tell you the untreated stuff should be refrigerated and drunk within weeks, but Honma disagrees. “Open a bottle, drink a bit to make space for some air, then leave it at room temperature so the yeasts come alive,” he says. “Don’t put it in the fridge or it’ll never develop. You’ll notice a difference after two or three days, but you can leave it for years if you have the discipline not to drink it.” He says if the sake is well made, with lightly milled rice and lots of acidity, it will develop deeper, wilder flavours. “It goes against all common sense, and I don’t know how it works, but the sake just opens up.” Honma inherited the shop from his father. At the time it was a general liquor store, but discount retailers were crushing him in the beer market, and he’s never had a taste for wine, so he focused instead on sake. It was a purely commercial decision, until he visited the Shinkame Brewery near Tokyo, tried a 12-year-old brew, and realised there was a world beyond the big, clean, commercial stuff. He set out to find people who, like him, care more about flavour than finance, sniffing out bold, full-bodied drinks packed with umami. As a result, Honma has an unusually tight relationship with his brewers. It’s a relationship that he describes as being like a lovers’ bond. They shower him with gifts, like the first option on full tanks of sake, or exclusive rights to very special releases. In return, he ... Read More

Sasazuka, Tokyo, Yoyogi Uehara, Shops

Haritts is not a place that’s stumbled across. It’s not even for a GPS-enabled device. No, this is a place that’s about a personal recommendation and a map. But then, even with both, the doughnut shop can seem elusive, hidden as it is inside a converted house on a suburban footpath lined with private homes, potted plants and a barbershop. Owner-baker Haruna Toyoda opens her shop at 8am – early by Tokyo standards – and it’s not uncommon to find a few enthusiastic customers already waiting outside. Yet she never advertises and has no hoarding. The only way to hear about Haritts is by word of mouth. Several years ago, Tokyo was consumed by a doughnut craze. On-trend customers queued patiently for hours outside American-brand stores, eager to taste the synthetically sweet glazed variety on offer. But eventually people recognised these shops for what they were – profit-powered chains pedalling fast food. The sugar-high fizzled out. By contrast, doughnuts are still special at – and the specialty of – Haritts. The dough Toyoda bakes is soft, fluffy and bread-like. She makes three or four hundred doughnuts daily, all of them by hand. One popular variety contains a dollop of cream cheese folded into the dough; another includes cinnamon and currants. Toyoda offers her own unique varieties such as green tea or pumpkin, and occasionally drops new recipes in to match the season. But otherwise she remains impervious to baking trends – no blueberries or sprinkles here. “It’s a family-size kitchen, so we have to make the doughnuts in small batches,” she explains, sliding open the door of the shop. It still feels like a private home on entry, and includes a genkan – the space inside where the family who would otherwise live here would remove their shoes. A step up, and the cosy living area has been converted into a miniature café. At one table, students from a nearby high school finish their homework, while at another, local housewives gossip. From the kitchen there emerges the unmistakable smell of freshly raised doughnuts. Toyoda first learned the technique from her older sister, who at the time worked at a bakery. Together, they developed their own recipes and bought a food truck. They named the business Haritts, a combination of their first names – Haruna and Itsuki. The Toyoda sisters drove the Haritts truck around Tokyo for two years, stopping outside office buildings and on shopping streets to sell their wares and build a reputation. When ready for a permanent home, they settled on the current space in Yoyogi-Uehara, a residential neighbourhood characterised by affordable rents and a quaint atmosphere. Despite their plans to keep things small, the business has been growing. Itsuki has moved to Taiwan, where she has opened a new branch of Haritts. Meanwhile Haruna continues to run the shop in Tokyo, rising early each day to start baking at 5am. It’s how she’s ready for those first customers at eight. The success of the business means she ... Read More

Tokyo, Yoyogi Uehara, Cafes

It’s 6pm, and Hisayo Suga has just hung the ‘Open’ sign outside her okonomiyaki restaurant, Gokirakutei. The sliding door rattles open, and three jovial young women arrive. Ducking under the noren curtain, one carries a bottle of expensive champagne. “Mama,” she says to Suga, “could I put this in the fridge?” “Of course,” Suga replies. “But first come and look at my new nails.” As she splays her fingers, a fake pea-sized gem twinkles in the centre of each brightly coloured nail. “What do you think?” she asks. “Beautiful, right?” Suga’s many regular customers at Gokirakutei, which appropriately translates as ‘The Easy-going Home,’ call her ‘Mama’ – or ‘Mama-san’ to be polite. “The girls talk to me about fashion, beauty, their love lives,” she says. “So do some of the boys.” Those girls and boys include more than a few celebrities, many introduced by her close friend Kiyoshirou Imawano, an Eighties rock star who passed away in 2009. Posters of his eternally youthful face adorn every wall of Gokirakutei’s unpretentious interior. There’s a friendly drill to eating here. On arrival, customers – famous or otherwise – remove their shoes, have their jackets and valuables wrapped in plastic bags to protect them from oil, and shuffle over to low horigotatsu tables, the alcoves beneath which will accommodate their legs. Everyone orders at least one dish of okonomiyaki, a thick savoury pancake filled with chopped cabbage and combinations of shrimp, meat, vegetables and cheese; or Japanese foods such as natto (fermented soy beans) and mochi (white rice pounded into sticky chunks). Suga supplies the bowlful of ingredients that patrons cook themselves on a teppan hotplate installed in each tabletop, and each pancake is finished with a generous layer of Worcester sauce and sprinklings of bonito and seaweed flakes. If it feels like Suga was born for hospitality then it’s because she was: her father was a sushi chef and the family lived above the shop. Her mother, like her, was a fastidious cook, for whom only the best ingredients would do – and the same is so for Suga and her restaurant. Using pancake mix instead of flour to make her batter more airy, she adds a rich homemade dashi broth in place of water. To add texture and flavour she throws in fragments of excess tempura batter known as agedama, which she collects from a ritzy downtown restaurant because “they only use the very best oil.” Okonomiyaki is a dish from Western Japan. Tokyo’s version is called monjayaki, and is also on Gokirakutei’s menu, despite being trickier to cook. Its process involves arranging the solid ingredients in a circle to make a doughnut-shaped dam, pouring the broth slowly into the central hole, and using mini spatulas to quickly patch up any breaks in the wall. When mixed and cooked it forms a gooey pancake-style mush. “Admittedly it isn’t very appealing to look at,” Suga says, smiling. “But it’s delicious, especially with a mug of cold beer, and it’s so much fun ... Read More

Tokyo, Yoyogi Uehara, Restaurants

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.

Aoyama, Tokyo, Restaurants

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

Aoyama, Tokyo, Shops

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.”

Nakameguro, Tokyo, Restaurants

In Shintoism, Japan’s indigenous spiritual code, there is a concept called ‘nakami’. It means the content, the energy – the life, perhaps – contained even in inanimate objects. Nakami is the spirit that makes something authentic; it cannot be faked. Masaru Sakai and his trove of men’s vintage clothing and accessories have it in spades. A discreet white sign saying simply ‘6’ is all that marks out the stairs that lead to his shop, whose name is pronounced ‘roku’ in Japanese. This is not a place designed to lure the passer-by inside. You need a sharp eye, a stroke of luck, or the recommendation of a friend to even know it exists. Sakai – nicknamed Moose – prefers it that way. He believes fate will guide those who are meant to discover 6. “I like to surprise people in a good way,” Sakai says. “It’s simple: if you and I both find ourselves here, we need to connect, we need to converse.” Just as life lacks lustre when it’s predictable, and fashion lacks fun when everyone dresses the same, discovering a unique store creates a spark of excitement. And in a culture so organised by conformity and routine, there is a special pleasure in the unexpected. Living in New York 15 years ago, passers-by would see Sakai wearing his crazy old kimono, ‘70s Levi’s bellbottoms, and cowboy boots, and they let him know how they felt. Whether a look or a comment, good or bad, there was communication. Sakai vowed to bring that New York character to Tokyo when he opened his shop 10 years ago in the location it exists in today. He chose a digit for the name of his shop, because numbers are “the same in every language.” A Japanese customer can call his shop ‘Roku’, an American can call it ‘Six’, and a Spaniard can call it ‘Seis’. None of them is wrong. Inside 6, each carefully chosen vintage piece has not only a story, but also an energy – the nakami that Sakai felt when he saw and knew it belonged in 6: Just as every tree has substance and life, so each item has been on its own unique journey to 6 – the beautifully aged kimonos, the beaded Korean monk vests, the obscure antique Danish boots, and the well-travelled suitcases. Because of nakami, vintage cannot be replicated. No amount of money spent copying the fabric or the stitch, the shape or the style, can recreate a vintage garment. Each comes from a place and time with different air, soil, and water; and has been imparted over years with the character, the movement and even the scent of the people who have come into contact with it: maker, handler, seller, wearer, user, and Tokyo-vintage-shop owner. Sakai has been on a 20-year global treasure hunt to bring apparel, accessories, and their accumulated tales to 6. Those who seek out this discreet corner of Naka-Meguro have a chance to meet Sakai and hear those stories. And ... Read More

Nakameguro, Tokyo, Shops

When Kuniatsu Kondo decided to open his own restaurant, he spent months looking for the perfect name. But he had it, he discovered, in his own hands. “The moment you pick up your owan – that’s the sense I wanted to replicate,” he explains, gently handling, as if to guess its weight, a lacquered wood bowl of the sort most commonly used for miso soup. “Because I want a meal here to be the most comforting part of the day.” Serving eclectic Japanese tapas-style food, Owan is most accurately classed as an izakaya – although most restaurants in the category lack its finesse. “The food is designed to showcase the nihonshu,” explains Kondo, referring to the alcohol better known outside Japan as sake. “Fresh-flavoured unpasteurised namazake to go with simple vegetables in the warmer months, and deeper, richer types when it gets colder to pair with dishes like hotpot.” Kondo has worked in restaurants ever since he moved to Tokyo as a fresh-faced 19-year-old. He opened the first Owan in Ikejiri, a youthful suburb west of Shibuya a decade later. A second, near Yoyogi Park, came a decade after that. “Ten-year cycles seem to be my rhythm,” he says. From the chopsticks held by his patrons to the uniforms worn by the staff, good design is integral to Kondo’s vision. Customers sit along a clean wooden counter surrounding an open kitchen. It’s all simple, elegant and functional. The menus, hand-written each month by a renowned calligrapher, are artworks in themselves – customers occasionally ask to keep them as souvenirs, and Kondo is happy to oblige when he can. “I think the writing even looks delicious,” he says. “It makes you feel hungry and it deserves to be appreciated.” Heading the kitchen in Ikejiri, Kondo has given his most trusted apprentice free reign in Yoyogi, allowing their two menus to diverge within the same plain. The former location is known for sashimi that includes basashi (horsemeat), while the latter specialises in small home-style dishes known as obanzai. At both the meal will begin with a little bowl of homemade tofu and end with green tea and a bite-sized dessert – chocolate, perhaps – served with the compliments of the chef. “Chocolate isn’t a Japanese thing, so I taught myself how to make it,” says Kondo. A self-confessed perfectionist, he also studied flower arranging to make sure the restaurant’s ikebana were up to scratch. “I was always redoing the florist’s work, so I figured I should just do it myself.” Kondo enjoys experimenting. His menu often includes non-traditional dishes such as Chinese dumplings or even cheese fondue with dipping vegetables. His staples, however, are local and simple: grilled ayu river fish, onigiri rice balls flecked with seaweed and sesame seeds, and quail eggs smoked in wood from a cherry blossom tree. There is also a monthly broth-based dish – a crescendo of taste and fragrance as the meal draws towards a close – served in the eponymous owan. Cradling the bowl with ... Read More

Tokyo, Yoyogi Uehara, Restaurants

To explain the Japanese folk art movement known as mingei to the uninitiated visitor, Kyoko Mimura borrows a phrase from Abraham Lincoln. “Mingei is craft for the people, by the people,” explains Mimura, a mingei expert and the former Director of International Programmes at the Japan Folk Crafts Museum – known locally as the ‘Mingeikan’. Completed in 1936, the structure was designed by Soetsu Yanagi, the pioneer of the folk art movement, in the style of a large farmhouse. It still stands in its original location, wonderfully incongruous among the modern mansions of one of Tokyo’s most exclusive neighbourhoods. Yanagi, a philosopher and scholar who had a way with words, coined the term mingei to refer to his vision of elevating everyday utilitarian objects into artworks worthy of study and appreciation. Today the museum’s collection includes the 17,000 or so pieces he personally amassed during his lifetime, including woodwork, textiles, folk paintings, and a vast selection of simple yet strikingly beautiful pottery. Sliding open the museum’s heavy door reveals an inviting entrance hall with a Y-shaped wooden staircase of divided flights. The white stucco walls and ceiling are embedded with planks and beams, and the floor is formed of valuable oya stone – produced with lava and ash from one of Japan’s many volcanoes. “The first time I visited the museum during my childhood I was astounded,” says Mimura, who is now an advisor to the museum. She remembers being surprised that there were few labels to explain the work. “Mr. Yanagi’s idea was to ‘see first, think later.’ Rather than reading a description, he felt that an intuitive response to beauty was very important.” In the creation of his museum, Yanagi received support from a clique of celebrated artists, including textile designer Keisuke Serizawa and potters Shoji Hamada, Kawai Kanjiro, Shiko Munakata, and Bernard Leach. The vast majority of the 30,000 pieces in the Mingeikan’s collection, however, are by unknown artists. Anonymity was one of several controversial founding principles of the mingei movement, and assertions that pieces should be neither sophisticated nor unique led many at the start to consider Yanagi little more than a quirky collector of mundane housewares. “It’s difficult to evaluate him in history,” says Mimura. “The museum is still working to define itself even now.” Mimura inherited her interest in mingei from her mother, Teiko Utsumi, who was the museum’s long-time Administrative Director and Initiator of International Programmes before her. Together they facilitated a travelling exhibition to the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany in the early 1990s – the first introduction of Japanese folk art to foreign audiences abroad – with the younger woman acting as interpreter. “The museum’s history is also one of friends and family working for one cause: to expand the idea of mingei,” says Mimura. “I think it says something quite special that the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the mingei movement’s founders have an inherited feeling of responsibility to preserve and revive the arts and crafts of Japan.”

Komaba, Tokyo, Galleries & Museums

“Eating anago makes you smarter,” says chef Yuji Sato, tapping his temple with one finger. “It’s also chock-full of vitamins and minerals. And it even improves your eyesight.” Sato’s admiration for anago – or conger eel – makes sense considering that his restaurant Tamai is, he says, the only remaining specialist in it in Tokyo. The saltwater creatures once thrived in the waters of Tokyo Bay, making them commonly found in the capital’s cuisine, and Sato still sources his eels locally during the summer. By wintertime, however, the water is too cold and they come from southern Japan. “We only use wild eels – never farmed,” says Sato, a frank-talking golf fanatic who spends most weekends playing rounds with his customers. “Supply is our number one concern.” The filleting process for anago is similar to that for the freshwater eel unagi, beginning with a nail through the eel’s head to keep it still. After that, however, anago is simpler to cook, thanks to its thinner skin and leaner flesh. By far the most commonly ordered dish is the hako meshi – a lacquer box filled with a bed of rice that nestles two slithers of anago, one grilled and one boiled, along with a selection of condiments. But Sato encourages adventurous patrons to try other items from the menu too, because in his words: “the sea eel has many different faces.” In winter he recommends tempura, which highlights its sweet, light flesh. August to October, when local anago are in season, is the time for pure, simple sashimi. Sato, who trained as a sushi chef, was born to the east of the city. After taking over Tamai, he fell in love with his new neighbourhood in the heart of old Tokyo. Despite its location behind the famous Takashimaya department store in Nihonbashi, Tamai feels it has managed to slither free of the tightening grip of modernisation. Most other old buildings in this historic quarter have long since been squeezed out by giant steel and concrete offices. But Tamai’s shop – a former liquor store – is all charm, and in a comforting display of neighbourly values, still shares its kitchen with a sake bar around the corner. “Technically this is a business district, but it’s a place without hierarchy,” says Sato. “People still help each other out and ask how you are or where you’ve been.” In a nod to the provenance of the building, the perfect way to end a meal at Tamai is with a cup of warm anagozake, alcohol that (of course) contains a salted, dried and roasted surprise. It pairs perfectly with hone-sembei, the bones of the eel extracted during filleting and then deep fried to make a crunchy calcium-rich snack. “And there you have it,” says Sato, “anago is even good for your body – it strengthens your bones.”

Nihonbashi, Tokyo, Restaurants

Oyakodon, Japan’s favourite comfort dish, may also be its most appropriately named. ‘Mother and child rice bowl’, as the name literally translates, combines bite-sized chunks of chicken, with eggs cooked lightly in sweet soy sauce until they just begin to set. This is served over a generous bowl of steaming white rice. Tamahide is the storied home of oyakodon. But Kounosuke Yamada, its bespectacled eighth-generation chef, says his family’s restaurant is about more than just one dish. Tamahide is the only restaurant in Tokyo – and one of only a handful in the country – to specialise in Japanese chicken cuisine. The most important ingredient is Shamo, a dark-feathered breed of bird praised for its lean, gamey meat. According to Yamada, Shamo ranks alongside the best breeds of chicken in the world, on a par with French Poulet de Bresse. The restaurant began trading in 1760, processing chicken for noble families in the city then known as Edo. A dish called Shamo nabe (hotpot) was its original specialty: a version of stew-like sukiyaki made with chicken instead of beef, along with noodles, leeks and tofu, all seasoned with soy sauce and honmirin, a syrup made from sweet rice rich with umami. Oyakodon got its start by happenstance during Tamahide’s fifth generation. A thrifty customer was reluctant to waste some leftover chicken. The quick-thinking wife of the chef suggested he throw it into the seasoned sukiyaki pot with a couple of raw eggs. The result was an instant hit. At the time, Japan’s rice-eating culture deemed it unseemly to soil rice by covering it with other food; only the lower classes would do that. For its first 90 years, the dish as we know it today was served only for delivery to merchants in the local Ningyocho area, never on the premises – Tamahide had an image to maintain after all. Over time, however, donburi dishes (bowls of rice with toppings) became popular among other classes, and Tamahide could sell its oyako donburi with pride. Tamahide has already been in business for more than 250 years. Now the ninth-generation chef, Kunio, is preparing to take over from his father in serving the poultry pilgrims who travel here from all over Japan. People eating alone have no choice but to line up and wait for the donburi. But Chef Yamada suggests parties of two or more try the set menu, for which reservations are accepted. This starts with Shamo chicken prepared in two different ways, and ends with the signature oyakodon, presented in a golden lacquered bowl. Eating oyakodon from a bowl resembling a golden egg seems appropriate at Tamahide. And not only because of the restaurant’s shining success. The bowl is also symbolic of the precious bonds this accidental dish has helped to nurture. Parent to child, from generation to generation.

Nihonbashi, Tokyo, Restaurants

Long before their lives became intertwined as partners and co-creators, the international couple behind Tokyo-based fashion brand Volga Volga were already enjoying parallel adventures. Shiori Kurushima, from Japan, was in Paris making haute couture for the Japanese designer Hanae Mori; and Mikhail Panteleev, from Russia, was doing similar work in Tokyo for Yohji Yamamoto. If it were destiny that they would meet, however, the appointment would have to wait. “My French friend knew Mikhail and wanted to set us up,” Kurushima says. “But he couldn’t speak my language, and I couldn’t speak his, so it took time for us to come together.” Kurushima and Panteleev were establishing themselves as talented, dedicated fashion designers. In their respective ateliers on opposite sides of the world, they were the ones who would volunteer for extra tasks, often working alone late into the night, cutting patterns or stitching garments. “I wanted to learn everything,” Kurushima recalls of her time working as a ‘premiere main’, a coveted position in charge of hand-sewing entire couture pieces. “The other girls probably thought I was the stereotypical Japanese workaholic.” The brand the couple launched together in 2000 is a union of his designs and her technical skills. In their construction, the garments feel effortless, while in their style they are expressive. From afar, the clean lines and muted colours appear minimalist. But up close, the details and textures evoke a deeper emotion rippling below the surface, like a shout underwater. In Moscow in the 1990s, Panteleev held one of the first-ever fashion shows inside the Kremlin. The spectacle was an impressive way to launch his career, but these days he avoids such productions. “When you’re putting on a show you don’t have time to finish anything properly,” he says. “At this point in our careers, we prefer to give every piece of clothing the attention it deserves.” In Volga Volga’s studio – up a narrow staircase inside an old converted office building in the Bakurocho neighbourhood – sewing tables line one wall, rolls of fabric are stacked at the back, and a show space in the middle is where buyers and walk-in customers can view the collection. In Bakurocho – an area of old Tokyo known colloquially as shitamachi, or the ‘low city’ – they have discovered a sense of kinship with the people, reputed to be unpretentious, hardworking, and loyal. Volga Volga’s shoes often incorporate buttons, ribbons, or buckles made by local artisans with a shared commitment to timeless craftsmanship. “Some of our customers are still using the same garments we made for them 15 years ago,” she says. “When it needs mending, they know they can bring it here, and we’ll give it a another lifespan.” Living together in ‘shitamachi’, Kurushima and Panteleev can follow their own rhythm, commuting to work by bicycle, enjoying a slow lunch at the café next door, and – as has always been their way – working late into the night making beautiful clothes. Only now, the atelier is theirs.

Nihonbashi, Tokyo, Shops

It takes Yoshiaki Takazawa 10 hours to make his signature ratatouille, which he asks his diners to consume in a single bite. “Ratatouille is something usually made by throwing everything together into a pot,” the chef says. “But in my version, each of the 15 ingredients is prepared separately, and then assembled at the end.” The dish, a multi-coloured checkerboard terrine balanced on the end of a platinum spoon that’s twisted like a serpent, is the only one the chef guarantees will be served each evening. It has been a constant on his menu since he and his wife Akiko opened their restaurant, then known as Aronia de Takazawa, in 2005. “The aronia is a small berry that is not well known but is really powerful, with stronger antioxidant properties than blueberries,” Takazawa explains. “That’s how I thought of myself when I was getting started: a hidden power with a connection to nature.” Takazawa’s style of cooking blends intense seasonality – the bedrock of all Japanese cuisine – with imaginative presentations more familiar to European molecular gastronomy. Some have called it Japanese-French cuisine, but the chef begs to differ. “There were French and Spanish influences at first,” he says. “But what I really want to do is express Japanese culture. That’s why I use Japanese ingredients and pair dishes with Japanese wines. But having said that, this isn’t strictly Japanese cuisine. It’s just mine.” Despite years of training at a famous Tokyo hotel, the chef has never courted publicity, choosing a discreet backstreet location in Akasaka for his business. An obscure door opens on to a narrow staircase that leads up to the intimate dining room. There is space for just three tables and 10 chairs, which take just one sitting per evening. No patron is ever more than a few metres from the chef as he works behind his smooth metal show counter, and none is denied the delightful Akiko’s attentive service. Takazawa says he designed the experience to be like the Japanese tea ceremony because “it’s my way of presenting our hospitality.” More than that though, Takazawa is a showcase for Japanese culture – its farmers and artisans, its seasons and sensibilities. But it also highlights the chef’s particular sense of humour, through dishes such as Sweet & Sour Prawn, a riff on ebi chilli (spicy stir-fry shrimp) that’s a staple of cheap-and-cheerful Chinese restaurants in Japan. In Takazawa’s version, an elegant kuruma prawn coated in delicate tomato jus comes surrounded by the deconstructed flavours of ebi chilli, all for patrons to assemble in their mouths. And his Dinosaur’s Egg from Miyazaki on the south eastern coast of Kyushu, is in fact a dessert: the shell made using white chocolate, turmeric and chilli; the egg using meringue and mango from Miyazaki; and the footprints formed of wasabi, giving Takazawa’s Japanese accent to a flavour combination that was inspired by a trip to Mexico. Indeed, the chef travels constantly to food events and private functions around the globe. When ... Read More

Akasaka, Tokyo, Restaurants

The line outside Taimeiken forms early on weekends – dozens of patrons waiting patiently for an hour, perhaps two. Ask any one of them what they’re waiting for and their reply will be the same: omuraisu. To the uninitiated, this does not sound like a dish worth waiting for: an omelette (omuretsu) filled with rice (raisu) that’s been fried or seasoned with wine and ketchup, and served with a demi-glace sauce. But slice into it, and a history rich in the idiosyncrasies of modern Japan spills out. Taimeiken specialises in yoshoku, a curious cousin to Japan’s admittedly varied stable of fare. Literally translated, yoshoku means ‘Western food’ – although few Westerners would recognise its dishes as their own. Its lexicon includes kareraisu, or curry rice, which uses a natively-produced curry that Indians and Brits find extremely mild; hambaagu, akin to a hamburger without the bun; and Napolitan – spaghetti cooked with vegetables and dollops of ketchup. The restaurant was founded in 1931 by the late Shingo Modegi, a lover of food and kites (his museum of Japanese kites is on the fifth floor of the same building). Today his grandson Hiroshi is in charge of the family business. Hiroshi’s hobbies – surfing and tanning – reflect a different era. But his commitment to the family business is clear. “When I was a young boy,” he recalls, “I found a letter from my grandfather addressed to ‘The Third Generation of Taimeiken’. I was the eldest son, I knew right then that it was my honour and responsibility to take over the family business.” The restaurant feels intentionally nostalgic, a throwback to a tumultuous era. In the late 1800s, after centuries of self-imposed isolation, Japan reluctantly opened up to the world. The arrival of the American ‘Black Ships’ had demonstrated the military and economic superiority of the West. Japan’s leaders felt small, both figuratively and – as the Americans towered above them – physically. They were desperate to catch up. Members of the elite were dispatched to Europe and North America. They returned with lessons to bolster Japan’s military and economy – and it’s cuisine. They believed that if they ate Western food they would quite literally grow bigger. The dishes they brought home were localised, becoming collectively known as yoshoku. They are eaten not with chopsticks, but with knives, forks and spoons, and served in dining rooms by waiters and waitresses wearing quaint uniforms long since discarded by most Western restaurants. Taimeiken’s menu is a comprehensive collection of yoshoku dishes, including everything from macaroni gratin to beef stew. But its most famous product is its omuraisu, which was featured in the classic Eighties film Tampopo. Other varieties of the dish commonly have the rice contained inside the omelette, but Taimeiken’s ‘Tampopo Omuraisu’ places the egg on top. Eating it involves its own ritual: it is sliced lengthways down the middle of the fat, yellow mound to expose the runny insides, before the demi-glace sauce is poured into its core. “Our sauce ... Read More

Nihonbashi, Tokyo, Restaurants

“Think about smartphones,” says Hisashi Kishi. “They’re very simple on the surface, but there’s a lot of technology underneath that the consumer doesn’t need to know about. The same is true of cocktails.” Or rather, it’s true of his cocktails. Kishi, a former world – and five-time national – cocktail champion, has little interest in newfangled recipes and avant-garde ingredients. You won’t find homemade bitters or chunks of dry ice at his Star Bar. He probably won’t even tell you about the original cocktails that won him his silverware. He’s likely to suggest something classic – martinis, manhattans, moscow mules and the like. But it’s his execution of those classics that sets him apart. “The recipes are the same from bar to bar, but the results are not,” he says. “Think about red wine. The basic process is the same, yet there’s so much variation in flavour. You can produce sensational wines like Château Lafite and Romanée-Conti. And it’s like that with gimlets. I’m trying to make the Romanée-Conti of gimlets.” Probably, you won’t notice how he does it; that he juices his lemons and limes lengthways, massaging each segment over coarse ceramic to avoid squeezing bitter oils from the skin. Or that his shake pattern changes from drink to drink, adjusting the level of chilling, dilution and size of the bubbles. The figure-of-eight motion of his ‘infinity shake’ is designed to create what he calls ‘micro bubbles’. “Nobody thinks about bubbles when they shake, but they greatly affect the flavour,” he says. In truth, Kishi doesn’t care if you notice his techniques. He says showboating won’t make his drinks any better; that his tricks are behind the scenes and below the surface. And that the proof is in the drinking. Kishi first picked up a cocktail shaker as a 20-year-old student. He quickly found his passion, quit college and enrolled in a bartending school. But it wasn’t until he began training in an elite Ginza bar that he became obsessed. “The first time I ate sushi in Ginza I could tell it was far superior to anything I’d tried before. Then I went to drink whisky and realised I didn’t know how to gauge its quality,” he says. So he studied. Within nine years he was a world champion, and four years after that he turned a Ginza basement into Star Bar. His ‘Romanée-Conti of gimlets’ is more aromatic and less astringent than others. Likewise his sidecar, which has become something of a signature drink. He uses an electric creamer to froth the cognac and triple sec, before shaking with juice and ice. To an untrained eye it looks like cheating; for Kishi, it’s the only way to do it. “You can shake bubbles into a drink, but they disappear fast,” he says. “I wanted to make them last and found the creamer adds air that stays in when you shake, while reducing the alcohol’s piercing bite. It’s like the sushi chef’s nikiri process of bringing his vinegar recipe ... Read More

Ginza, Tokyo, Bars

One of Tokyo’s foremost galleries for contemporary Japanese artists, SCAI The Bathhouse has, as its name suggests, remarkable premises. “It turns out a disused bathhouse makes an ideal art gallery,” says director Masami Shiraishi. “It has natural light, high ceilings, and plenty of the ‘air’ that showing contemporary art requires.” Until the nation’s economic modernisation following World War II, every district shared a bathhouse where neighbours would wash, in the Japanese manner, first scrubbing themselves clean before jumping into a communal tub to soak and share news and gossip. But though in recent decades, Tokyo’s bathhouses have become largely demolished, and in 1993 the charming one found in Yanaka, a quiet corner of old Tokyo, was saved and repurposed as a gallery. “Since the younger generation of Japanese contemporary artists such as Takashi Murakami came to the fore, Japan is on the world art map,” says Shiraishi, a former deputy director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, and founder of what’s now known as Art Fair Tokyo. “It has been a big change.” Murakami is one of a number of big names on Shiraishi’s roster, alongside Anish Kapoor and Julian Opie. But one of the biggest challenges for contemporary art gallerists like Shiraishi is how small the domestic art market has become. “People now are very interested in Japan and are looking for good Japanese art. But so many of our most talented artists leave our shores. They become accepted by the international art world, and don’t come back.” Fortunate, then, that the gallery is located near the prestigious Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, and is a short walk from the museums of Ueno Park. With it the founder hoped to create more than just an exhibition space – he envisioned the sort of place that is common overseas but rare in Japan: a platform for supporting the top contemporary artists. And so today SCAI The Bathhouse represents internationally recognised talent, including the Japan-based Korean painter and sculptor Lee Ufan, glass bead installation artist Kohei Nawa, and the young multimedia artist Daisuke Ohba. Shiraishi says Nawa is one of his most successful discoveries. “He’s very contemporary because his work reflects social and technological trends of our time,” he explains. “For a long time, Japanese artists wanted to express or explain Japan through their work – to ask questions about our identity. Nawa’s thinking is very international, but is still unique.” While the gallerist chides the Japanese government for not providing adequate support to Japanese contemporary artists, he hopes SCAI The Bathhouse can help in its own way. “This neighbourhood bathhouse was a place where people in the community could not only take a bath but also gather, talk and find out what was happening around them,” says Shiraishi. “Its history is appropriate to its new identity. I think SCAI has the same purpose today.”

Nippori, Tokyo, Galleries & Museums

“Connecting people,” says Noriko Konuma, smiling as she sips tea from a white porcelain cup at a naturally-hewn wooden table inside Kumu Tokyo, the intimate design gallery and shop she curates. “It’s all about bringing people together and creating special moments in their daily lives.” In the years since Konuma opened her gallery on a quiet lane in the eastern Bakurocho district in 2015, Kumu (“to connect” in Japanese) has showcased the works of dozens of Japanese creatives, from paper artists and contemporary incense makers to potters and floral designers. She calls them “family”, which makes Kumu their collective home. The small, two-storey structure, renovated by Atelier Etsuko Architects, has a minimal industrial feel, with swathes of original concrete, high ceilings, a warehouse-like window façade and green plants. For Konuma, it’s a very personal space: her family’s businesses previously occupied the building, and she grew up across the street in the same house where her father was born. “The Bakurocho neighbourhood feels different from the rest of Tokyo,” she explains. “There are few big businesses, it’s still very local, and people form friendships naturally.” That openness is attracting a burgeoning creative community, including art galleries and garment makers, ceramics stores and independent cafés. Kumu’s ground floor is home to a shop with a permanent collection of design products – mostly contemporary takes on traditional craftsmanship – and a gallery space hosting up to 15 exhibitions a year. A clean, white upper floor and plant-populated roof terrace host workshops and events. Centre stage in the shop are works by designer Masanori Oji (who also created Kumu’s circular, interwoven logo), from the angular warmth of his metal household fixtures to the clean petal-like lines of his white ceramics. Thick canvas bags by Kurashiki Hanpu and incense handcrafted by Chikako Perez of Tokyo Kodo come encased in ‘washi’ paper by Chiaki Morita – one of several collaborations made possible through Kumu. “It’s not so important that we sell things,” says Konuma, warm, softly spoken and ever-elegant in minimal monochromes. “Of course, sales keep creative techniques alive. But the essential thing is creating new connections, because together these people form the DNA of a Japanese spirit that links the traditional with the future.”

Nihonbashi, Tokyo, Shops

The highest quality fillets of wagyu beef that arrive at Shima come with a certificate of authenticity. The document details the ancestry of the slaughtered cow, with a family tree going back three generations and most importantly, the name of the prized bull that fathered it. Finally, it’s stamped with an inky impression of the animal’s nose – the bovine equivalent of a fingerprint. The particular fillet Manabu Oshima is preparing for tonight’s customers comes from a cow called Hiromi, daughter of Doi. She was raised, like the chef, near Kyoto. Oshima works with an agent who scours the country seeking calves with good lineage and potential for rearing. Invariably, the animals are from the prized Tajima breed, which originated in the area around Kobe, but is now raised all over Japan and overseas. The beef served at Shima comes mostly from Kyoto, Miyazaki, or Iwate prefectures. “Kobe beef is famous overseas, but it’s just one type of wagyu,” explains the chef. “Only beef that comes from specific slaughterhouses around Kobe has the right to use that name.” Oshima slices to release long strings of tendon, peels them off the three-foot-long fillet, and then trims away the fat. When he’s done, about a third of the volume has gone. The tapered end, the filet mignon, will be used to make steak sandwiches for patrons to take home. The majority is tenderloin, enough for about eight 150g cuts sold for ¥13,000 each. The thick end is the more affordable rump steak, served at lunchtime. Handling meat every day for almost 40 years, Oshima has learned to judge through his fingers. “I can feel if the beef is going to be good or not without tasting it. I can feel if the farmer has raised the animal thoughtfully. Japanese farmers raise cows with the same care as they do their children. You can sense that humanity in the product.” Wearing a crisp white uniform and classic tall chef’s hat, Oshima operates behind the counter in the open kitchen alongside his son, while his friendly wife takes charge front of house. The old, hand-written menu reflects the chef’s early career working in Great Britain, France and Germany, with traditional favourites such as steamed asparagus, foie gras, and onion gratin soup. But the menu isn’t the best guide. “It’s a bit meaningless, to be honest,” Oshima says, laughing. “Just ask me and I’ll tell you what’s good. For example, tonight we have this,” he says, reaching behind him to bring out a boiled cow’s tongue. “And we also have oxtail soup.” He makes the oxtail soup especially for one of his customers, a 94-year-old regular from Hong Kong. Alongside the occasional sumo wrestler, patrons from overseas make up a sizeable chunk of the clientele at Shima. Many of them come to see Oshima – and to eat his steak – every time they come to Tokyo. The chef appears humbled by his patrons’ strong loyalty to his restaurant. Especially given that, typically, they’re self-confident ... Read More

Nihonbashi, Tokyo, Restaurants

Fumihiko Kimura was on track to become an engineer. When he graduated from university, he found a job at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. But he lasted just two years. His mother had other plans for him: she wanted him to become a bartender. It was the early 1970s and she was running Kohaku, one of the first western-style bars in Yushima, a former geisha district near Ueno. A discerning crowd patronised the place, including author Yukio Mishima, who liked to sit at the only table and drink gin and tonics. Mrs. Kimura had plans for her son to take over. “I hated the idea,” he says. “I thought working for a company would be more fun, but I didn’t have a choice.” His mother dispatched Kimura to Tokyo’s Palace Hotel to train under one of the era’s great bartenders, a man nicknamed ‘Mr Martini’. Kimura enjoyed the training, the atmosphere, and the camaraderie, but again it ended after two years when he was yanked back to Yushima. Fast-forward four decades and much has changed. The reluctant son has become an obsessive bartender, lauded for his cocktails and vast liquor selection. He says he has around 1,600 bottles – 3,000 counting duplicates – and he knows only roughly where most of them are. Some predate his career, like the tin-capped Haig whisky from 60 years back, or the bottle with a label so faded, it’s near impossible to read that it contains orange bitters. Kimura has contemporary spirits too, but his heart lies wistfully with the golden olden days. “The gins they make now, Scotch, bourbons, rums too, they just don’t have the body they used to,” he says. “My older customers know that, but the vintage bottles are rare and expensive, so I try to find other ways to introduce depth into a cocktail.” He might add brandy where the recipe doesn’t call for it, or a dash of something from Islay. The bitterness of an orange peel helps some drinks, he says. And then there’s his calvados jug, a little brown crock fashioned in France in the 19th century. The intervening century or so has effected some changes. The ornaments have either worn or fallen off. The original cork disintegrated long ago. But inside, something magical is happening. About 20 years ago Kimura filled the jug with a litre of young apple brandy. “Nothing much changed at first,” he says, “and then suddenly it just transformed, both in flavour and in colour.” He hasn’t emptied the jug since. When he serves calvados, he replaces it with spirit from a new bottle. It goes in crisp and alcoholic, swirls around with spirits of years and decades past, teases some 19th-century secrets from the clay, and comes out tasting like something squeezed from an apple pie. Kimura has been wondering whether he could magnify the effect by burying the jug in the ground. If pomegranates are in season the calvados contributes to his Jack Rose, a cocktail more commonly made with grenadine ... Read More

Tokyo, Ueno, Bars

Ask Atsuko Koyanagi what she likes most about being an art dealer and gallery owner and she doesn’t bat an eyelid: “The artists,” she says. “I don’t want to work for the market. I want to work for the artists and establish a close, lasting relationship with them. That has always been my passion and motivation.” Indeed it has. She now counts over 20 years of friendship and representation with the likes of Marlene Dumas and Olafur Eliasson – not to mention the photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, who is also her partner in life. “I learned so much about the depth and spirit of art from them,” says Koyanagi, before recalling how she met Dumas at Art Basel in 1992. “Marlene had a daughter and had drawn many girls’ faces, but she became very interested in the faces of beautiful Japanese boys – girlish boys,” recalls Koyanagi. “She sent me 52 drawings of Asian faces in the late 1990s, and that was our first show together.” Koyanagi’s gallery occupies the eighth floor of an office building in Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district, once the heart of Tokyo’s art scene. Skyrocketing rents pushed many of her cohorts out, but she stayed because this was her family’s land. Her father was the fifth-generation owner of a ceramics shop, and she grew up in a house that stood here until it was razed during the property boom of the mid-1980s. Koyanagi’s first gallery, too, was a space for ceramics located on the ninth floor of the same office building. She moved down a floor when she switched to contemporary art in 1995 – an exhibition of photography by Sugimoto, at the time better known in the United States than in his native Japan, was her inaugural show. “The timing seemed right to find him an art gallery in Tokyo, but no one was interested,” she says with a laugh. “Japan is often behind the times. So I decided to do it myself.” Minimalist in design, with exposed concrete columns and beams, the gallery is deliberately functional. But the unassuming walls have hosted an astonishing roster of artists, not least among them Eliasson, whose work once filled the Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern. Scrolls made by Christian Marclay have hung here; the sound installations of Ryoji Ikeda have filled the air. Unsurprisingly, considering who her partner is, Koyanagi is especially interested in photographers: Hellen van Meene, Thomas Ruff, and her close friend Sophie Calle, to name just a few. Koyanagi and Calle travelled together around Japan while the latter was getting over the end of a relationship and the photographs Calle took on that journey contributed to one of her most celebrated works, Exquisite Pain. With 70 per cent of sales coming from abroad, Koyanagi has faced pressure to look for new markets overseas. But her heart says otherwise. “I’m happy to remain this size, with my existing team – loving the artists and loving their art,” she says. “Anything else would be a distraction.”

Ginza, Tokyo, Galleries & Museums

In hypermodern Tokyo, it might seem there is little time or space for the quiet rituals of the Japanese tea ceremony; its ethos of ichigo ichie – or ‘one encounter, one moment’ – sounds like a quaint echo from the past. Thankfully, at Chatei Hatou, the spirit of ichigo ichie lives on, albeit updated for our contemporary world. Today, coffee is our common fuel, and a rich cup of Hatou slow-drip is that fuel at its best. The coffee shop is located near the heart of Shibuya, Tokyo’s most chaotic and cacophonous neighbourhood. A walk through its teeming streets can leave you feeling sensually assaulted and physically exhausted. For this, a coffee at Hatou is the perfect antidote – and pick-me-up. “Hustle and bustle is what this area is known for,” says barista-manager Kazuya Terashima. “We intentionally made this a calm place – a world within a world.” The sensory experience inside Hatou is the antithesis of its external surroundings: natural wood textures, soothing classical music, beautiful ikebana flower arrangements, and the deep, wafting aroma of coffee. Many regular customers prefer to come to Hatou not with friends, but alone. They sit at the counter and watch the barista at work. Each drink is made by hand with great care – the focus is on perfection, not speed. “It takes 10 minutes, often longer, to make one cup,” Terashima explains. “But people are willing to wait.” The ritual unfolds, step by step: he picks a worn metal container containing coffee beans that have been aged for up to three years. After passing them through a grinder, he measures out precisely 25 milligrams of fine coffee powder in a cloth filter. He heats water in a copper pot, keeping the temperature a consistent 87 degrees centigrade. Then, with unerring concentration and accuracy, he drizzles the water into the filter, saturating the dry coffee until it hits critical mass and begins to trickle into a small glass pot beneath. After that he patiently adds more water – one drop at a time – until the thick black brew is ready. “This method produces a coffee that is stronger than normal, but it also brings out the sweetness of the beans,” Terashima explains. “Many people have not experienced coffee like this before.” Once ready, the drink is transferred into one of hundreds of unique porcelain cups the shop has collected over its 24 years in business, ranging from Japanese Arita to British Wedgewood to German Meissen. Terashima says he makes a mental note of which cup each customer uses, so he can give them an alternative next time, explaining: “Even if they order the same thing, I like to think each Hatou experience should be a little bit different.”

Shibuya, Tokyo, Cafes

Hitoshi Shirata’s plant and bonsai store Neo Green is neither large nor ostentatious. Yet it frequently stops passing pedestrians in their tracks. Along an unremarkable grey stretch of Tokyo tarmac, his carefully pruned and beautifully potted selection of nature’s own designs is powerfully incongruous. “People in this city need more green in their lives,” says Shirata. Only three per cent of Tokyo is given over to public parks and other green spaces, compared with 38 per cent of London. The decision to open Neo Green in 2007 came when Shirata was forced to stop and reflect on his direction in life. He was a fashion entrepreneur whose businesses were turning over hundreds of millions of yen each year. He had reached a position that most would call success. But Shirata was less certain about what he had really achieved. Life, he felt, was slipping out of his control. “The little company I had started in 1993 with my father’s help had become too big,” he says. “When my father died, I had this yearning to do something new.” Not for the first time, family tragedy had impressed on Shirata the importance of regeneration. He remembered the moment when, as a 12-year-old boy, his grandfather passed away, leaving him the responsibility of caring for his beloved rooftop garden. “I think that was the first time I fell in love with plants,” he says. “Cut flowers are wonderful, but they are normally bought for an occasion and then thrown away. Plants live on.” Shirata is a skilled, self-taught bonsai artist whose lack of formal training allows him to take a fresh view on this tradition-bound art. On the shelves of Neo Green, a 30-year-old miniature zelkova sits alongside palm-sized pines fashioned to look like Christmas trees. Traditionalists would balk at this, but to Shirata such innovations are the bridges that can connect bonsai with younger generations. Ever the tech-savvy entrepreneur, Shirata maintains a database of every customer and what they have purchased. If a plant, separated from his masterful touch, starts to show signs of fading, he can instantly pull up exactly what was purchased and when, in order to give the customer the best possible care instructions. More recently, people have started taking smartphone pictures of their plants and sending them to the shop for a visual check-up. Shirata doesn’t mind – working hand-in-hand with his customers to care for their plants is crucial to his mission. “If we care for them, they give back to us,” he says. “It’s all about partnership – between myself and my customers, and between human beings and plants.”

Tokyo, Yoyogi Koen, Yoyogi Uehara, Shops

“Wherever you go in the world, there are always coffee shops near parks. Parks and coffee shops – they compliment each other. They’re places where people congregate,” observes Daisuke Hamada. “But that wasn’t so true of Tokyo, which is why I chose this place.” Hamada is referring to Little Nap Coffee Stand, his diminutive shop beside Yoyogi Park. One of the largest open spaces in Tokyo, the park is the city’s unofficial playground, used for early morning jogs, dog walks and outdoor yoga. During cherry blossom season, the grass becomes a patchwork of parties celebrating the arrival of spring. In the evening, sounds fill the air – a violin here, a saxophone there – as musicians use it as a place to practice. Little Nap is housed in a slither of a building squeezed between an offshoot of the park and a railway line. Every time a train passes by, the shop rattles a little. It’s a sensation Hamada says he has learned to love because, “it’s just the rhythm of the city.” The location is more auspicious than it sounds. Across the tracks is one of Tokyo’s most boho suburbs, home to young families with money and taste, and with – one might guess – more dogs per square mile than anywhere else in the city. Little Nap is en route to the park. “The shop is supposed to be a place where you can drop by for a break in your day,” says Hamada. “It’s like a siesta – but with coffee.” Hamada’s love of the bean was planted by his father, but nurtured during a trip to Italy while working for a company that imported espresso machines. His first café was a disused shop in rural Toyama, his home prefecture northeast of Tokyo, and he decorated it simply with the help of some friends. Years later, and having long-since relocated to Tokyo, Hamada opened Little Nap. The distinctive logo, inspired by his love of vintage typography, is what most will notice first, and yet it’s the more no-nonsense type saying ‘Coffee Stand’ that he deems most important to its look and feel. “In America, you see signs on the side of the highway that just say ‘Restaurant’ or ‘Coffee’,” he says. “You don’t even know the name of the place, but that doesn’t matter. You’re just being told what it does, but the sign somehow has the ability to make you feel something.” With his scruffy beard and Salvador Dalí-esque moustache, Hamada is clearly at home in his self-made surroundings. Consciously fashionable, he has a nonchalant air that masks a keen mind for both the business and the science of coffee. “I customised my espresso machine,” he says proudly. “I changed the pumps, water lines, and temperature settings – it was like pimping up a car.” The changes, Hamada maintains, make the machine easier to use when he’s busy, and allow him to tweak the flavour of what he serves – finessing this begins when he arrives ... Read More

Tokyo, Yoyogi Koen, Yoyogi Uehara, Cafes