Miyako Andon

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[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

Shun Okubo

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On a small street in Nakameguro populated by trendy shops and cafes, one store stands out: under a neon “S” logo are a set of imposing, floor-to-ceiling glass double doors that open at an angle. “The doors were order made and are easily the most expensive thing about the shop,” says Shun Okubo, who sells his eponymous line of jewellery here. They also allude to the designer’s undeniable creative sense, which extends not only to his products, but to the raw concrete walls, custom black wood display cases with clean geometric lines, and eclectic mix of art portraying things like French cafe scenes or a quote by Louise Bourgeois. It is art, in fact, that inspired many of Okubo’s early designs. Originally following the path toward a career as a fashion designer, Okubo lived in Paris for some years, where he would often visit Constantin Brancusi’s studio at the Centre Pompidou. “My initial approach to jewellery design was to make things like these abstract cultures, but on a scale that fit the body,” he says. After returning to his native Tokyo and realising that his timing was off if he wanted to produce a fashion collection for the upcoming season, Okubo stumbled into jewellery. “I didn’t want to just do nothing, and an acquaintance of mine was a jewellery maker, so I told him that I wanted to do something with my hands, and I asked him if he would make jewellery for me that I designed,” Okubo says. This was the birth of the brand, which has now been operating for over a decade. In the early years, Okubo always thought he would eventually get back into fashion, but now those ambitions have waned, at least when it comes to launching a full-fledged fashion brand. And while he studied accessory design at fashion school, he acknowledges that his entry into the field was an unconventional one. “I wasn’t that familiar with accessories. It’s complex work, and even though I was selling jewellery, I still felt that I didn’t have very much experience with jewellery design, and I wanted to deepen that,” the designer says. “My philosophy is to take things like artworks or everyday items and interpret them into jewellery. I have no interest in just doing jewellery as a business.” But Okubo’s initial inexperience also worked to his advantage, as his mind was more open to try unusual production methods or material combinations. Many of his pieces use mixed mediums, like yellow gold with black rhodium, platinum with rose gold, or pearls with wood. “The world changes through different colour combinations,” he says. “When I was a child I really hated the colour brown, but then once I saw a fashion brand combine brown with blue, and it was really beautiful. I had never used brown, but after that I started to incorporate it. With materials as well, you can take a material that looks old or worn out and by combining it with something else you can … Read More

Book and Sons

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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

Amezaiku Yoshihara

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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

Ginza Motoji

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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

Aritsugu

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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