Eighteen Days in Japan – Part 2

In the Part I recap of our recent trip to Japan, we ended with a glimpse of Kyoto. Here is Part 2 for that trip, starting where we left off. 

We began with an authentic tea ceremony in Kyoto at the En Tea House in the historic Higashiyama district.

I absolutely love drinking from traditional green tea cups that are shaped like bowls, without handles. The traditional Japanese teacup shape differs from that of Western cultures, making for a rare experience in that sense. 

The whole ritual of a tea ceremony is magical. All the essential components and tools used during the ceremony like the tea bowl, scoop, whisk, caddy and chakin cloth, all feel like precious objects. The manner in which the tea master prepares and presents the matcha in perfect sequence is nothing short of a highly skilled performance. Of course having casual tea or an informal tea gathering, chakai as they call it in Japan, can be a ritual in itself but we highly recommend checking out a formal tea ceremony if the opportunity arises. We’re looking forward to bringing a lot more products that promote Japanese tea culture into the store in the coming months, so be on the lookout for more teaware. 

The next morning we wake up at daybreak to catch the train to Gifu, where we would be meeting with Mitsuhiro Konishi. Our meeting was very brief last year and I left feeling evermore curious about the specifics of Konishi’s craft as a metal artisan who specializes in hand-hammered flatware. This skill is uncommon in our generation of craftsmen so we made it a point to check out his process during this visit.

As soon as we arrive, Konishi is ready to give us a demonstration after changing into one of the cooler ‘work uniforms’ we’ve seen from an artisan!

Konishi lights up his torch and begins heating the spoon shaped metal cutouts. When the metal is red hot, he places it into a mold made out of a harder metal alloy and begins shaping the spoon with his hammer. It’s loud, but fascinating to witness the spoons come to life with each hammered facet.

Before heading back to Tokyo, Konishi shows us a few sketches of forks and points out the retirement center across the street from his workshop – a Tadao Ando designed building to our surprise. Thank you Konishi for welcoming us to your studio!

I was really looking forward to circling back to Tokyo where we’d be making more studio visits, the first with designer Oji Masanori.

We’ve met with Oji on multiple occasions in Japan and New York when we hosted the Yukari and Kumu exhibitions. He has been incredibly gracious to open up his home and studio in the past, each time giving us a deeper understanding of his design process. The visit was a tremendous pleasure this time around because we had the chance to see Oji’s new studio and more importantly, to meet his wife, first son and adorable newborn baby boy, Isshin. His meaningful name translates to “one heart”.

Isshin is one happy baby. Surrounded by beautiful objects… bassinets, linens, tableware, slippers… I couldn’t help but think that he is lucky to be born into such an inspirational, creative world.

I was especially curious to see how Oji lived with his own designs, giving me new perspectives on how his works could be integrated into the home and office, like his very handy Sojirushi brooms for an outdoor space. It’s always great to chat with Oji and get the inside scoop on all his projects, especially over COEDO beers.

Rina Ono graciously invited us into her home as well. She and her husband Tadanori even prepared a home cooked meal for our visit. It was really awesome eating from the Cara wooden dinnerware line in particular. Didn’t know Rina was such an amazing cook too!

She also gave us a sneak peek into her latest designs, standing bamboo storage baskets. What struck me the most however was how blonde the finish of the bamboo weave appeared. I had a thought that they would be a nice addition to our white-on-white bathroom in Brooklyn. Thank you for the incredible hospitality Rina and Tadanori!

Later that evening, we caught up with Daisuke and Kenichi of 10¹² Terra in Chiba.

We discovered many changes at the 10¹² Terra studio since our last visit. They showed us new products including a glass pendant in development. It was very exciting to realize that the design studio was beginning to expand into new product categories, especially the realm of lighting fixtures. Always a pleasure meeting with these two emerging designers and seeing their new creations! 

Sometimes memories become a bit of a blur when you’ve been living out of a suitcase for days, jumping cities and hopping from one train to the next. The morning of Day 11, with it’s 4am call time, was one of those hazy moments. It didn’t help that we had a 4 hour road trip to Nagano ahead of us to visit the glass blowers, Studio Prepa. Matt snoozed in the back of the tiny sedan while Taku and I traded off at the wheel. It took me a while to adjust to driving on the right side of the road (and car), so it was quite the adventure to say the least.

Studio Prepa’s workspace is in a beautiful airy building that they constructed themselves beside their home on the mountainside of Nagano. The workspace is enormous! It’s able to house all their glass blowing equipment, shaping tools, dyeing solutions and prototypes.

We met Mizuho and Katsuhisa of Studio Prepa a few years ago but this was our first visit to their workshop. We’ve always been fond of their blown glass pieces, so to be able to get a glimpse of their renowned techniques was a very precious experience. 

Watching the husband and wife duo working together in perfect harmony was very special as we’ve always had an affinity for couples that work together, for obvious reasons.  Synchronized in all their movements, they have to ensure there is no lag time when working with the hot glass. Timing is key. Sharing is also key! Something I realized when they began trading off tools in order to demonstrate how to make a lotus bowl.

Eighteen_Days_Japan_Nalata_Journal_Nagano_Studio_Prepa_TownNagano was also the site of the 1998 Winter Olympic Games. It’s a place of great disappointment for most Canadian hockey fans like myself, as our men’s hockey team failed to win a medal. The road trip up to Nagano was a little bittersweet in that sense but once we got to Studio Prepa’s studio, it was all smiles and warmth from this talented husband and wife team. Thank you to Katsuhisa and Mizuho for making a big space for Nagano in my once bitter heart.

Back in Tokyo, we were invited for dinner at Yakumo Saryo on Matt’s last night in Japan. We thought it was the perfect place to end off his journey. Although we don’t have a photo of Matt because he was behind the camera most of the time capturing images for our upcoming publication, he was a huge part of this trip. It was awesome having him as my wingman!

Yakumo Saryo combines a restaurant, tea salon and store, a lifestyle vision of renowned designer and owner Shinichiro Ogata. We were honored to have dinner there, especially since we will be carrying the Simplicity collection of home goods in the near future. The dining experience was imbued with Ogata’s philosophy of bringing a traditional  Japanese culture to a modern audience. He is involved in all aspects of Yakumo Saryo, from architecture to the preparation of the menu. With a focus on Kaiseki cuisine, the dishes are prepared with the freshest seasonal ingredients. The ingredients rotate monthly and the restaurant’s seasonal food guide is available on their site. We were thrilled to find out that the ingredient for the month of March was an Amadai Tilefish. The fish was treated with so much care, the chef even made sure to present it to us before it was cooked. I have to say, the food was amazing but eating off of well-considered cutlery and dinnerware added even more to the experience… just as much as something like a fine wine would in Western dining.

The next morning I needed coffee to jumpstart the last couple days of the trip. I’ve always wanted to check out Connel Coffee designed by Nendo. It’s located in the Sogetsu Kaikan building designed by architect Kenzo Tange in the 70s. On top of all that, the building also houses a rock garden designed by Isamu Noguchi. A haven for design enthusiasts, to say the least!

If you’ve shopped our products and read their first-person introductions, you’ll quickly realize that we’re big fans of double meanings. Which is why I was really drawn to the mugs of Connel Coffee, each with their own unique hand formed ceramic handles. The café’s name is a play on the Japanese word for “knead”, a nod to Nendo’s namesake, which actually means “clay”.

After caffeinating, I dropped by the Kiso Lifetsyle Labo offices to say hi to Takanori, check out their latest products and run over our designs. We are in the midst of developing a new line of hinoki wood objects for the bathroom with the company and can’t wait to unveil it! Stay tuned for more design process Journal entries as we move forward with this collection.

I couldn’t have ended the trip on a better note than at a confectionery store, specifically, Higashiya – the confectionery store of all confectionery stores, designed by none other than Shinichiro Ogata. True to Ogata’s design philosophy, he has taken an incredibly old Japanese convention and brought it to a modern time where today’s patrons can enjoy and understand the true pleasures of age-old traditions in their contemporary lifestyles. The art of wagashi in this case.

There are a couple locations. Higashiya Ginza is incredible although this time I went to the Aoyama district location, Higashiya Man. This location charmed the pants off me. It is tiny and even has a window that you can poke your head into to see their famous one-bite wagashi being made daily. If you can’t make it to the physical store, you can drool over the book by Shinichiro Ogata that documents the evolution of Higashiya with beautiful images.

As per usual, I was ready to head back to New York with a feeling of utter fascination for Japan, surrounded by inspiration and beauty… like a kid in a candy store.

Check out Part I here and stay tuned for more from our adventures in Japan as we update our Journal in the coming month.

Written by Stevenson Aung

Stevenson Aung

April 20, 2016

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