[Interview Highlights] Taro Kihara, Shop Manager at Kihara, Tokyo, Japan

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Last month, I met Taro Kihara, who is Kihara space manager in Shibuya neighborhood in Tokyo. The brand specializes in producing porcelain from Arita, where the team works closely with a network of fifty factories “big or small” – whether it be for making a cup or a vase, the right conversation partner can always be found. Kihara combines in-house design works and international collaborations – each remaining true to their culture. I first got to know the brand in January 2019 at Maison & Objets fair in Paris. Concerning The Dorayaki Project, I chose to broaden the scope of my research and include a brand that uses a unique craftspeople-and-machine combination, as well as a wider-spread network of suppliers and business partners. I wanted to find out what it means to produce faster, in bigger quantity than a solely-owned craftsmanship company and to sell on an international scale. This is all about perspective!

 

Origins of Arita porcelain

“Four hundred years ago, Korean people came to Arita and found the material in Arita. So Arita is started a porcelain factory”. Traditional know-how is rooted in Arita, as the Koreans, who learnt from Chinese people, taught Japanese people how to make porcelain. In addition to “quality”, Arita’s porcelain has a “specific white blue, blue and not perfect white but a little bit blue white” color. Got it? It seems simple, but it is all about shades. One should train their eyes to spot a genuine Arita porcelain.

 

Getting inspired at the museum

When he can make some time in his busy schedule, Taro-san likes to go to museums and see “old-style Japanese crafts in Japan for exhibition”. Taro-san believes that old-style Japanese porcelain are timeless: they are “always good”. Young people do not fancy this kind of precious, hand-painted, refined artworks. Even though he is young, Taro-san if fond of products which would seem old-fashioned to many. “I understand porcelain history and techniques. I have this knowledge, so I can appreciate old-style porcelain”, Taro-san explains.

 

Innovation: clients ask for more contemporary lifestyle brands

Arita’s economy is relying on porcelain: “most people are working in a porcelain factory or store”, Taro-san confirms. Therefore, when economic uncertainty occurs, the consequences can be tragic. When “Japanese economy [was] down”, it was time to stop and think. In addition, in a globalized world, competition with China can be particularly dreadful. As a result, “people didn’t buy old style [expensive] porcelain, because very cheap porcelain was made available by China”. In this context, Arita turned a threat into an opportunity by choosing the way of innovation. The brand used to offer “old-style”, refined and therefore more costly porcelain. The offer was adapted in order to fit with a more contemporary and relevant style. “So we are just thinking to change the concept…”, to integrate “lifestyle” as “European style, American style”. It is a real shift: Arita team members were ready to “change thinking” and therefore change the brand spirit.

 

Cultural design

I mentioned earlier that an in-house designer was responsible for providing designs, moods and patterns for the Japanese market. Taro-san found out that “only Japanese people understand [Japanese] designs”. What is a typical Japanese design? It should represent the characteristics of the place. Taro-san gives us an example: “Have you heard of Naoshima, in Shikoku prefecture? This island has a lot of museums, and a lot of cats as well”, so Kihara is making magnets that represents cats and museums in a very figurative way. More broadly, “what is Japanese culture about, what can be identified as Japanese immediately?”, I ask. It is mainly about “anime, Tokyo Tower, kabuki and maid cafés”, as far as Taro-san is concerned. “This is Japanese culture”, he states. Moreover, Taro-san emphasize the importance of the four seasons: “we just feel the design or pattern means spring, summer, autumn or winter”. He acknowledges that foreign people might not notice this way of expression. Therefore, Kihara developed a local approach for products which are to be sold overseas. This expressed in collaborations with foreign designers in Paris or Singapore. “For example, we want to express French style, but Japanese don’t understand French culture and History, but we can mix it with Japanese style, so that it makes it easier for Japanese people to understand French culture”. That is how one can take the leap from a national perspective to a comprehensive multicultural approach.

 

Many thanks, Taro-san!

 

KIHARA TOKYO
1-14-11 2F, Tomigaya, Shibuya-ku,
Tokyo 151-0063 JAPAN
T : +81 3-6407-1571 | F : +81 3-6407-1572

The original location in Saga prefecture
KIHARA INC.
Akasaka, Arita-cho, Nishimatsuura-gun,
Saga-pref, 844-0024 JAPAN

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[Interview Highlights] Erika Mori, shop manager at aeru meguro, Tokyo, Japan

My meeting with aeru shop manager was special. First, because it was to set the tone of my time in Tokyo, being the first interview I carried out in the capital city after a three-month stay in remote Ogatsu, Miyagi-ken. Second, because it opened the research to “retailers” stakeholders, who have strong relationships with artisans – both commercially and as a corporate culture –  and also can provide a marketing and customer-oriented point of view. This was a very refreshing talk, and like every time, thanks to the talents sharing bits and pieces of their personal stories – very moving, too.

 

About aeru meguro

The store itself contains an iconic item from Japanese culture: the Kaidan-Dansu. It is used to exhibit the products and it also enables modular spaces in the room, when events or workshops are held. “It’s a traditional thing in Japan, because in Japan there is not so much space, we have to use the space inside of the stairs, too”, Erika says. Smart, efficient and aesthetic use of the space: this is design! “The adult can go under the stairs too! It is so high”, Erika adds. So, the promise is about fun for everyone, children and parents, too. Actually, aeru meguro has won a silver prize for its space design in Design For Asia Award.

 

Loyalty to craftsmanship

aeru carefully selects artisans in order to initiate and maintain partnerships in the long run. Moreover, aeru team members are truly passionate about the objects crafted by the artisans. They understand the value of craftwork and make it their mission to communicate about it to “everyone”. “[Craft works] would enrich my life! So, that’s why I was in love with these traditional things.” And the love story also makes room for… History. “I loved History, and, when I understand about these things, I connected with the past and.. I had more fun!”. Connecting past, present and future for all generations can be fun! It is also the key to support artisans: “if we can buy these objects, the artisans can make a living thanks to their talent”.

 

The journalism spirit

“During my private time, I go to lots of places to meet artisans”. After these visits, Erika Mori always feels the need to let the world know about the beautiful things she has seen and talented people she has met: “Oh, I want to tell these things to the people”. At aeru, every team member does their job as if they were journalists. “Our knowledge is increasing… and then, we can, well, understand a lot, very deep, so that’s how we can be a journalist!”

 

Contemporary traditions

This sounds like an oxymoron, but aeru made it come true. One example of that is how aeru team members can teach children about Japanese manners during workshops for instance. “Everyone will tell you that you say “Itadakimasu” to thank the rice and vegetables, as well as the people who made it… and we [at aeru] thought that we didn’t say thank you to the artisans and also to the tableware, so we wanted to add that when saying “Itadakimasu” !”

 

Many thanks, Erika Mori!

 

aeru meguro
3 Chome-10-50 Kamiosaki, Shinagawa, Tokyo
+81 (0)3-6721-9624

https://a-eru.co.jp/en

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[Conversation Highlights] Fumie Sato, Yanagiu washi craftswoman, Sendai, Japan

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There is a season for everything and washi paper follows the rule. In winter, the weather is suitable for washi making whereas in summer, Sato-san changes job and turns into a farmer. When I visited the workshop a couple of weeks ago, it was already too hot to make washi, so I could not witness the whole washi-making process. However, I was invited to come back during next winter. What a great time I had with Sato-san and her family! Besides giving me a couple of hours of her time and sharing her story, adorable ninety-year-old Sato-san also tried to evaluate the possibilities of me marrying a Japanese man and treated the interpreter and I with nice dishes and drinks. Overall, it was more like a casual conversation rather than a formal research interview, as I usually carry out. Anyway, some interesting insights were brought up by Sato-san during our conversation, so I will share them in this article!

“Washi” is Japanese paper made by hand, piece by piece. There are various kind of washi, light to strong, white to brown, rough to soft-touch but all of them are part of Japanese traditional know-how. Yanagiu washi is of far superior quality and costs more than twice the price of factory-produced paper. Nowadays, people are more likely to buy cheap and mass-produced paper. All the other Yanagiu washi producers went bankrupt and this very workshop is the last one of its kind. Why did this company made it year after year, in spite of challenging economic background? “Because it was the biggest one in the area!”. As a result, “we get all the orders and we are busy all year around”. Sato-san is faced with all the responsibilities towards customers and passion for her craft: “I cannot die!”, she acknowledges.

Business-to-consumer is the business model, meaning that Sato-san does not sell the washi she produces to shops and retailers but instead customers come straight to this location to buy some. The beautiful house with adjoining workshop and garden makes it worth the experience of paying a visit.

On transmission and learning

What kind of tasks can be done by students or volunteers who come for one day at Sato-san’s workshop? Unfortunately, there is nothing they can be helpful with. Every gesture requires time and practice before they can be mastered. However, Sato-san welcomes local or international groups of students and helps them getting an experience of Yanagiu washi. The next guests will learn how to make postcards for instance. On the top of that, Yanagiu washi company members teach and share their experience of craftsmanship with children in schools.

Sato-san was not a washi-paper craftswoman from the beginning. When she was around forty, Sato-san started by helping her parents-in-law with their business “My parents-in-law were aging, so I gave them a hand. I tried, I imitated their gestures, I trained”… and finally mastered washi.

Both tradition and experimentation as a mindset

Not only is washi hand-made but it is also hand-dyed. Sato-san loves experimenting with techniques and pigments. She used onions and even soot to make colorful paper. “I thought the paper would turn out black when using the soot and actually it came out green!”

This positive, energetic and playful mindsets seems to be key to a long and rich life: “my mind stays clear because I talk a lot and I work a lot, too”, Sato-san joyfully claims.

 

Many thanks, Sato-san! 

 

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[Interview Highlights] Hariu Kenba, Tsutsumi ceramics maker, Sendai, Japan

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During my quest of trying to understand what it means to be a craftsperson today, and what it suggests for tomorrow, I managed to get an interview time with Hariu-san. He is part of the Tsutsumi yaki family business that makes this craft since ten generation. Hariu-san was nice enough to book three hours of his time for talking with me and showing me the kiln. It is very important to me as it is the first ceramics maker I meet here in Japan – and I am quite a fan. I believe that surrounding ourselves with beautifully crafted objects can help to make life more joyful. Collecting ceramics while traveling on a restricted capacity such as… a backpack makes it obvious that sometimes, I should just look at them. And sometimes, carefully choose to buy one and carry it with me! I am also very curious to discover Hariu-san’s point of view on topics such as tradition, innovation and dedication.

Materials is key to Tsutsumi yaki

“The Tsutsumi Yaki is defined really by the materials, which are gotten from around here”, so it makes the company strictly rooted in Sendai area. They quality and uniqueness of their craft relies on the glazes and clay they find in the soil. They had to move the kiln around fifty years ago because houses were to be built in the previous location. However, a geological professor had investigated the area and told them that there was the same kind of geological layers in the new location. Safe!

On Hariu-san’s professional path 

Hariu-san quotes one of his friends, who is a washi paper maker: “he was born into it”. Moreover, “when I was younger, there was nothing to do but play with the clay”. An early appeal that has been confirmed thanks to a trial-and-error life process. Indeed, Hariu-san tried a lot of different jobs, such as “truck driver of door-to-door salesman”, he made his own experience before he makes the enlightened decision of taking over the family business.

The will for becoming a craftsman

“It’s much easier to become a normal company employee or something like that.”
“It’s much better, if you like pottery, just to do it as a hobby”

What is at stake here is mainly financial uncertainty. “There are no guarantees whatsoever that you are gonna make a living out of it. And so, you have to be really firm in your own mind that it is what you wanna do”

“Out of the fifty people in total who have been apprentice here, about half of those are making pottery to sell as a business.”

The only one left

Years ago, there were like twenty or thirty places like this that used to make the Tsutsumi yaki. “We cannot stop because we are the only ones left”, even though “now, compared to the most busy time from years ago, it is about one tenth of the volume”.

The perfect apprentice’s skills set

It takes ten years to become a proper apprentice at Tsutsumi yaki. “But you can probably master the basics in about three years.”. We are talking about a long-term commitment here. Plus, discipline: “When I was working here, like, as an apprentice, and with my father, whether they were here or whether they were at home, I called him “sensei””. Plus, perseverance: “apprentices might be told to do the same thing for three years. Just do the same thing over and over again.”

That is something young generations do not want to do anymore.

Nowadays, Hariu-san is teaching his nephew about how to become a Tsustumi yaki craftsman.it’s a bit different. I make my nephew think for himself and get his opinions on things, so it’s not as strict as it was with my father”

The Mingei movement

Two generations before, when Sōetsu Yanagi (philosopher) and Hamada Shōji (ceramist) came to Tohoku, “my grandfather met with them”. “Through the mingei movement, the Tsutsumi yaki and Tohoku pottery became more well-known, a lot more people became aware of it”

Aesthetics of daily life

“My father used to tell us that we should pay most attention and take the most care when we make the everyday articles.”, which they might be selling for one hundred or two hundred yens, but those things are very important too. Nowadays, Hariu-san still follows this golden rule: making the customers satisfied makes him happy

Improvement of gestures and technique

“So, [the products] are easy to use and they feel nice in your hand – good things – that is the satisfaction of making it.”

The funny thing is, it always gets back to the basics: “over a ten-year period, some things might change, and after ten years come back to the way it was before. We probably have the best shapes, because it’s a three-hundred year’s process”

Wabi sabi?

Hariu-san can describe the feeling of the pieces he and his father made: “the object itself has a strong presence, it has a lightness about it as well. It is Delicate.”

You can visit their shop in Sendai to see for yourself:

Tsutsumiyaki Kenba kiln
8-4 Akasaka Kamiyagari Izumi-ku, Sendai, Miyagi
981-312 JAPAN

When I ask about wabi-sabi feeling in Tsytsumi yaki products, Hariu-san confesses that “most Japanese don’t understand wabi-sabi so… if you go and live in Kyoto for a long time, maybe you will understand.”

Many thanks, Hariu-san!

 

 

Sakurai Kokeshi, traditional Kokeshi Craftsmakers

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Contribution to craftsmanship

Kokeshi is a traditional product of Miyagi. This craft is designated as a national traditional craft of Japan. Kokeshi is a fully hand-made wooden doll with a painted human-like face. The Sakurai Kokeshi company is located in Naruko-Onsen, a retreat and wellness place for hot springs. Kokeshi began as a souvenir and developed in that way.

In the Sakurai family, Kokeshi are decorated with very carefully and skillfully painted flowers, which gives the product an elegant and refined look. It comes from the fact that the Sakurai family originally found lots of inspiration from their artistic sides. That made the Sakurai family’s craftspeople more likely to explore various designs.

What is the hardest part in training to become a Kokeshi maker?

For Sakurai Akihiro, the father, wood carving is the most technical step. In addition there is the difficulty of turning your imagination into a living Kokeshi; “it is difficult to realize what you are imagining”.

Motivations for becoming a Kokeshi craftsperson

Sakurai Kokeshi has been a family business for five generations. Sakurai Akihiro, the father, grew up “watching [his] father work with Kokeshi”. When a passion arises, there is no need to justify it: “I just simply like making things”. His son, Sakurai Naomichi, initially went his own professional way before coming back to the family business. Together, they are thinking about innovative ways to develop their craft.

Making the Kokeshi business more sustainable

The first way is expanding market territory. That is why the Sakurai Kokeshi company now offers international shipping. However, utilizing domestic talent remains a trusted source when it comes to being united. Sakurai Kokeshi was part of some collaborative projects organised by the Japanese Ministry of Trade Economy, in which domestic designers were involved. Some cross-disciplinary collaborations with artists lead to electronic music performances that included samples of wood carving (!).

Valuing local communities

There is definitely a community of Kokeshi makers. They unite for the local Kokeshi festival in Naruko. Sometimes, they go together to Tokyo, to showcase their products or take part in events. They also act together on a business-level, for example co-purchasing raw material.

This sense of community is not known only to Kokeshi makers. Naomichi also collaborates with other talent, thanks to the Koshiki Project. In this project, he shares what he feels is important, rich and unique about Naruko and its citizens: “I wanted to contribute to the Naruko community with Kokeshi”, Naomichi explains.

Cultural highlights about Japan

Historically, being an apprentice in Japan and learning a craft meant the master “just look[ed] at you work on Kokeshi, and they figure out themselves”, Naomichi states. So, no matter how an apprentice learns how to see through their master’s back, there is a time when “l’élève dépasse le maître” [the apprentice becomes more skilled than his or her master]. This French saying seems very appropriate here. However, “stealing the skill of your master is not necessarily a bad thing; that is what you have to do”, Naomichi explains. However, this might lead to complex issues regarding industrial property. In earlier times, for instance, there was no way for the Sakurai family to protect their unique flower designs.

Useful tips for someone who wants to become a Kokeshi craftsperson

You can start by attending Kokeshi painting workshops to experience and express your creativity! If you are really into Kokeshi making, the simplest task remains wood preparation – peeling off the wood. Moreover, in the future, Sakurai Kokeshi plans to open up to the most motivated and curious people, nationals and internationals. Sakurai Kokeshi company is currently working on how to integrate this new kind of workforce. Learning by doing remains the motto! If you really want to become a Kokeshi apprentice, and, later on, a master, start making your own tools! Just like a fountain pen is tinged with his owner’s gestures and influences writing style, each Kokeshi craftsperson makes his or her own personalised tools. Let’s call it a personal “toolprint”! “So each person’s characteristics is reflected on the tool”, Akihiro explains. That is what brings this vibrancy in the Kokeshi – as well as the spontaneous and generous laugh of Akihiro that resonates in the shop!

 

Special thanks to Sakurai Akihiro, Sakurai Naomichi, Saito Takaharu, Tanaka Ulala, Roger Smith for making this visit happen! 

For more Kokeshi stories, please visit Sakurai Kokeshi’s website: http://en.sakuraikokeshiten.com/ 

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Ishinomaki (off the beaten track)

Last Wednesday in Naruko, I met with Sakurai Kokeshi’s team. Roger, who was part of the team, recommended that I meet one of his friends, Dennis “you should really meet him somehow”). So here I am! On Thursday, on my way back to Ogatsu, I met Dennis in Ishinomaki. We could share opinions about local communities, social innovation and craftsmanship. He is really involved in letting students (local and international ones) get together, share ideas and turn words into action about revitalizing communities in specific local areas.

He showed me around, letting me know about the behind-the-scenes recovery story in Ishinomaki “city center” (in the Ishinomaki Station area). It seems like people here got the energy, creativity and resilience to build a whole new network of warm places where you can come along and get to know new people. Good news is that foreigners are also invited to take action in favour of Japan’s will for creation and innovation.

Make sure to visit Dennis’s company’s website and get to learn more about local projects carried out by international teams at Sosei Partners

This picture was taken at IRORI Cafe. This location is part of Ishinomaki 2.0 network.