Tokyo Blog, Tokyo Story

The blog of Stephen David Smith, Tokyo, Japan 2018

Motto Japan Fine Art Ceramics & Tableware

I haven’t posted on this blog for a LONG time, but today, I just wanted to mention a company I recently did some work with that I’m really excited about. I’ve been interested in Japanese crafts men and women ever since I arrived – be it sword-makers, fan-makers, metal workers or potters. This time it’s about the latter. There will be a new website launching at the beginning of October 2013 called Motto Japan which is to begin by offering never before available fine art ceramics and more everyday use tableware made by the skilled craftsmen and women of Japan. Later it may be expanded to include a wider range, but for now it’s to be focused on ornamental and practical pots, vases, plates, cups, teapots and a variety of other formats of glazed and unglazed clay, porcelain and the like for you table and/or collection. Anyone who’s been to Japan and browsed tableware items in the shops or eaten off of it in any of the amazing restaurants or ryokans over here will know what I’m talking about when I say it’s really wonderful stuff. The online store is currently warming up in preparation for the forthcoming launch by offering visitors the chance of winning one of three teapot and cups sets. It’s free to enter and even if you don’t win you can get free delivery for the first month, so do get over there and see what it’s all about and see if you can win yourself some of the cool ovenware on offer.


Mag Containers

I really want to get some of these, but they’re really pretty hard to find in shops, even here in Tokyo. I first saw them on TV here in Japan when there was a program about the designers and creators of these innovative little wooden boxes. The concept is really simple but really original. The sides of these boxes and their lids have correspondingly positioned magnets embedded in the wood. This allows you to stick them together in various configurations and create shapes and patterns, even images, whilst also functioning as small tidy-aways for your desk or home office.

In the TV show I saw how they’re first designed on computer in the designer Keisuke Tachikawa’s studio in Tokyo. The designs are then sent off to the workshop of an old carpenter somewhere in the country, I forget where, where they are hand crafted from beautiful Japanese wood, boxed and shipped to buyers and resellers. There’s no shortage of handcrafted wonders like these in Japan and that’s one of the things I really love. The joy of making things well by hand lives on in Japan.


Ryoji Ikeda

I recently discovered a sound artist I really liked called Ryoji Ikeda, who is currently based in Paris but originally from Gifu, Japan. His work caught my eye when I was browsing YouTube as the aesthetic he uses is very glitch. His visualisations of sound are in fact the product of computer programs interpreting raw sound such as sine waves, noise and signals in order to created harsh static imagery and sublime monochromatic geometric patterns. When I saw it I remembered wondering if Squarepusher may have taken inspiration from this for his recent performances. Here is a video of Ryoji’s work:

Amazing, isn’t it? He has also released albums of his music on various record labels, but it’s not easy listening by any means!


niko and…

This brand might not be so new to those living in Tokyo, but recently niko and… is starting to come into its own as it finds its identity and finds a market for itself. Like so many other Japanese fashion and lifestyle companies such as BEAMS and MUJI, it combines lifestyle concept with fashion style in an attempt to create a complete lifestyle philosophy around which to build its range of products. Now, with more new stores, a series of TV adverts and an online shop, they’re set to become the next big thing. It’s more expensive than some comparable stores, but not overly so, and offers some great stuff in this year’s Autumn/Winter range, recently picked up by and featured in Monocle Magazine. Temperatures are dropping here in Tokyo and I’m thinking of moving house soon, so I can see me buying quite a lot of stuff from the Niko and… online shop in the coming weeks and months. If you’re able to do so, take a look in one of their stores in either Ikebukuro’s Parco, Ebisu, or Kita-senju’s Marui.


25th Tokyo International Film Festival

This year’s Tokyo Film Festival kicked-off the Saturday just gone and so with the first weekend over I’ve decided to post about some of the things I’m liking about the eight day event centred around Roppongi Hills. First off, it’s good that the Tokyo film festival goes some way to differentiate itself from the other famous film festivals – Cannes, Venice and Berlin – by adopting a theme of ‘ecology’. The red carpet at the event is therefore a green carpet, made from recycled PET bottles and that already puts it at arms length from the vulgar excesses of the likes of Cannes in particular. The film offering this year includes a few movies that have caught my eye, the first one being The Black Square, directed by Hiroshi Okuhara but shot completely in Chinese and on location in Beijing.

The ominous shape mentioned in the title is actually a rectangle, and reminds me a lot of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or even the one from the Carlos Casteneda book The Journey to Ixtlan where a giant black rectangle appears spontaneously in several locations in the Sonoran Desert. The thing which most compels me to watch this movie is its mystique as there is no synopsis of what it’s really about other than that it’s a romance with sci-fi fantasy overtones. I’ll be catching it on the 24th (Wed) with any luck.

The other movie that I really liked the look of was Yellow by American director Nick Cassavetes. This surreal movie features some great acting by the lead actress and also includes an appearance by Ray Liotta. The synopsis describes it as “A drama about a drug-dependent substitute teacher who takes control of her life by confronting her estranged family”.

Beyond this, I can’t see me having time to enjoy any other movies or events unfortunately, however, a few other honourable mentions must go to: Japan In a Day which includes footage of real Japanese people reeling from the events of last year’s earthquake and tsunami, and I don’t see why it would be a crime to check out the new 007 Skyfall for some pure cinematic entertainment. One to avoid: The Woman In Black with Daniel Radcliffe in his first lead role since Harry Potter. I saw it on the plane on one of my recent trips home to the UK and it has mediocre plot and mediocre acting, so I don’t recommend it.


Radio Tokyo Vol. 5 – Brooklands

After a longish break from making mixes, Radio Tokyo is back with this latest offering which is a montage of bleak and haunting musical soundscapes from the electronic music scenes of UK, Germany, and US. Moody enough for you? Here’s the playlist:

  1. I Made a Tree on the Wold – Telefon Tel Aviv
  2. Error 404 – Apparat
  3. You Are Here (Four Tet Remix) – Nathan Fake
  4. Harrowdown Hill – Thom Yorke
  5. No Release – Lindstrøm
  6. Lump – James Holden
  7. Rusty Nails – Moderat
  8. Mobula – Fairmont
  9. Cerulean – Simian Mobile Disco
  10. Street Halo – Burial
  11. Crackle Blues (Burial Remix) – Blackdown
  12. No Special Bed – Prefuse 73
  13. Arcadia – Apparat
  14. Mdrmx – Brothomstates
  15. Gold – Darkstar
  16. Ode to Bear – Mount Kimbie
  17. Wilhelms Scream – James Blake
  18. Missing – The XX
  19. Oaklands – Chris Clark
  20. Soft Trees Break The Fall – Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

View all podcasts in the Radio Tokyo series and download this episode here.


Biscuit in Sendagi/Yanaka

I was so impressed with Sendagi I was planning on moving there having visited the area just last month for the first time. Actually, I’d been to Yanesen (nickname for the area comprising Yanaka, Nezu, Sendagi) many times before but only to Nezu and Yanaka for some reason. On the walk into Sendagi from Yanaka Cemetery I went down Dangozaka, a small street on a gentle slope that ends at a crossing in front of Sendagi station on the Tokyo Metro Chiyoda Line. There are lots of interesting shops and even some good-looking drinking places and cafes but about half-way down was Biscuit, a shop which is owned by Japanese artist Masami Takewaki. The address is officially Yanaka but I feel like it’s more a part of Sendagi based on its proximity to Sendagi station and I actually made the mistake of thinking it had a Sendagi address when I started writing this post, hence the strange title. What you see above is the postcard designed by the artist herself. What’s interesting is the ‘O’ in house is stuck on as a sticker over the printed background.

The shop is interesting, although mostly geared towards women with its retro dolls and accessories, but it also has some good stuff for your house and some (mostly German) retro board games and even stationery. There’s wrapping paper and cards in there literally dating from as far back as the sixties and maybe even further. One of the reasons I liked it is because I’ve never seen a shop that sells these kinds of products before, and the rest of the neighbourhood is worth visiting too so if you’re out for a walk I recommend checking it out.


Invader Spotted in Omotesando

I spotted this piece of street art by French artist Invader whilst I was out for a walk down Cat Street in Omotesando (if you’ve never been down there before it’s well worth a look with its custom made bicycle shop and good non-luxury brand fashion stores). Invader basically puts up these mosaics featuring retro video game sprites, particularly those from space shooters but he’s also done Pac-Man ghosts. I like his stuff and it’s not particularly common to see it so I thought I’d post this up for us all to enjoy, although nothing beats the real thing when you come across one or happen to notice it. That’s the great thing about good street art in my opinion: you never know when you’re going to come across one and when you do half of the satisfaction comes from finding it and half from knowing its origin. Invader has stuff in cities all over the world including Paris, London, L.A. and probably many others and you can see him at work in Banksy’s mockumentary Exit Through The Gift Shop.


Tokyo Station Newly Restored and Open

Tokyo Station’s long restoration is now finally over and the new frontage was unveiled in a big projection mapped light show just last week. It was officially open as of 1st October and is said to include new retail spaces, restaurants and cafes, ‘entertainment’ (but I’m not yet sure what that refers to) and of course, the luxurious Tokyo Station Hotel. If I wasn’t so busy I’d go down there and check it out first hand but it’s just not possible at the moment with all the work I’ve got on, and it’s probably best to wait for the crowds to die down anyway.

If you don’t know about Tokyo Station, it’s a train station in central Tokyo not far from the imperial palace that connects Shinkansen (Bullet Train), JR (Japan Rail) and Metro lines and serves as Tokyo’s main station. It’s not the biggest however, as Shinjuku station beats it in terms of size and sheer volume of passengers, but it’s the biggest in terms of the number of lines and services that converge here. The red brick side of the station has been around since 1914, and that’s the side which has received the renovation treatment. It was damaged by bombing in World War II and has been added to and expanded since then with the Yaesu side being added and modernised around the early 1950’s.

It’s interesting for me to see it finished now, as it’s the first time I’ve done so. Ever since I came to Tokyo in 2008 it’s been undergoing renovation and has been covered with scaffolding and sheeting.


Japanese Illustrators for Monocle

Reading Monocle, I always wondered who did the illustrations in most of the issues. There are guest illustrators from time to time, and one of them is a Japanese guy called Akira Sorimachi. His work reminds me a little bit of the guy that did Uncle Tory for Suntory Whisky, Ryohei Yanagihara in that it has the same retro feel. Recently Sorimachi has created a poster for Monocle (part of which can be seen above), and also a range of cards. Monocle’s illustrations are superb, and most of them are done by Japanese illustrators. Other artists who have created illustration work for Monocle Magazine include Satoshi Hashimoto and Gaku Nakagawa. Check out their work below.


Tokyo Metro Book Share

If you go to Nezu station on the Chiyoda subway line of the Tokyo Metro you will find these unusual bookcases in the shape of metro trains. The books on the shelves can be read whilst sitting in the driver’s compartment of the fist carriage, or you take them with you to read on an actual subway train. It’s things like this that I like most about this city, and that’s the communal nature of the way things work here and how everyone looks out for one another and they aren’t always trying to get one over on someone else, etc. People in Tokyo also don’t feel so desperate that it’s necessary to steal books, and have a great enough sense of civic duty to make sure they return any book they borrow after they’ve finished with it. That’s also why there is no litter on the streets here, I suppose.


Kayaba Cafe, Yanaka

I was out in Yanaka the other day with the intention of going to SCAI The Bathhouse (which was closed again – looks like I missed the recent exhibition although I’m sure it was listed as open on TAB), but this time I came from the main street, Kototoi Dori, instead of through the backstreets where the shrines and temples are, and to make up for my disappointment at not being able to go into the gallery I discovered this great cafe on the corner. I’m sure many of the people who have been to SCAI The Bathhouse are aware of this little gem, although if you don’t pay attention you could dismiss it as just another old style Japanese kissaten. From the outside this what it looks like. Apparently it’s been in business since 1938, but it has recently had new life breathed into it by Yuko Nagayama & Associates architectural firm who have been responsible for the mix of modern and retro inside.

The staff are young and fashionable and the coffee is really good. The homemade cake isn’t bad either, you can get both as a set for about ¥800 as of writing. It seems like a lot of cafe lovers come here to smoke cigarettes and read books while enjoying the atmosphere. The whole building shakes when heavy vehicles pass by and the furniture is just a shade too small for those of us over 6ft, but you put up with that to enjoy what for me is one of the best cafes I’ve been to in Tokyo so far. There are a stack of them in Omotesando, but isn’t that where everybody else goes? I’m taking my laptop next time and I’m going to make the most of my free refills.


St. Mary’s Cathedral Tokyo

Ever since I went to Metabolism – The City of the Future architecture exhibition at Mori Art Museum I’ve become more and more interested in the golden era of avant-garde Japanese architecture that started around the middle of the last century through to the late 70’s. My love for Nakagin Capsule Tower is already on record, as is that of Kyoto International Conference Center, the latter of which was designed by a member of the Kenzo Tange school of architects. I knew he had also designed buildings in Tokyo, and I knew he was responsible for St. Mary’s Cathedral (東京カテドラル聖マリア大聖堂 Tōkyō Katedoraru Sei Maria Daiseidō) located in Bunkyo-ku in the center of the city. Well this week I managed to find time to go over and take a look. Not knowing what to expect, I took my camera along anyway and made my way by Tokyo Metro to Waseda station as it’s easier for me than Edogawabashi station (although if you’re planning to go, both will do you fine). After about a 15 minute walk through pretty residential streets I saw the bell tower which is basically an obelisk-like stone structure which stands separate from the main building. Once I reached the site I was initially surprised by how modern it looked. It was built in 1964, so this puts it slightly before Kyoto Int. Conference Center, but to some extent it appears to be in better condition. As you walk around the building (and it is possible to view it from all angles if you walk through the car parks) you get an idea of its size, which is impressive, and the reflections on the steel-clad exterior change depending on what angle you view it from. The best was yet to come though, as the interior for me was even better.

In keeping with the architect’s other work, the interior is both brutal and other-wordly with its steep concrete walls which rise up to meet in the center, and the central shaft of light which bisects the vault of the ceiling. Straightaway I was reminded of the final scene of Star Wars IV: a new hope where Luke, Han Solo and Chewbacca receive their awards for defeating the empire. This reminded me of when I visited Kyoto Int. Conference Center because I remember being reminded of The Empire Strikes Back when I saw that building – more than just a coincidence? I’m no architecture expert, and I’m not going to repeat what you can already read on the Wikipedia entry for this building, but on a pop-cultural reference tip: it also reminded me of the kind of architecture you see in the Vampire Hunter D movies, especially Bloodlust, where you’re not sure if what you’re seeing is a church or a spacecraft, where gothic meets the space-age.

I made sure I had a good look around before I left. Really, I was looking for the crypt. I knew that almost all Roman Catholic cathedrals have one where they interre the remains of key members of the church. After almost giving up I found a door at the back of the confessional booths (yes, finding those was also cool in itself) that lead on to a corridor. There was absolutely nobody there and it was totally silent. The corridor was made of the same stone as the rest of the interior – it felt really oppressive. It was quite a labyrinth and there were a lot of twists and turns which I couldn’t reconcile with the line of the exterior at all. Finally I went down more steps and I was in the first chamber. There were 3 tombs like pyramids of marble with flat tops on my left which were made up of what could be described as blocks, each one studded on 4 corners with dome-headed steel rivets. There are more of these throughout the crypt, which was extensive, but surely the strangest tombs I’ve ever seen. There’s a funeral chapel which also has a secret room with a one-way mirror window. The crypt was pretty heavy so I made my way back up through the corridors to the main part of the Cathedral and I did think at one point how Tadao Ando must have been influenced by the work of Kenzo Tange as his corridors at 21_21 Design Sight are very similar. After one last look down the center of the cathedral and up at the enormous organ on the mezzanine I went back outside to face the hot, humid Tokyo summer once again.

After visiting this building I’m interested to see more of his work, and I’ve since been looking for what other buildings he has designed. It turns out that Tange was responsible for most of the iconic buildings in Tokyo. For example, he also designed Yoyogi National Gymnasium (for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics), Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (the building with the twin towers), Shinjuku Park Tower (which houses the Park Hyatt Hotel of Lost In Translation fame) and the very recent cocoon-like structure of Mode Gakuen Tower, also in Shinjuku. All of these more well-known structures I’m not particularly enamored with, although the olympic stadium is incredible, it’s his lesser-known, and certainly less-visited cathedral which stands out for me as his masterpiece.


My Local Sushi Place

I’ve had so much good food recently but always forget to take a picture in the heat of the moment. Having a 3GS doesn’t help matters as it has a potato camera, but I’m just holding on until this Autumn for the new iPhone. Still, just so happened to have my good camera with me when I was at my local sushi place the other day and took this picture of what I always order these days. It’s summer, so it’s super hot in Tokyo and I always feel like eating something cold and refreshing, and sushi is one of my favourite Japanese foods, so inevitably I end up here and ordering this. It’s 16 pieces of sushi, salad and a bowl of miso soup (which is amazing too by the way – they always have good dashi fish stock at sushi places). It’s not the best sushi you’ll find obviously, but you get all this for ¥1,100. Compared to London, that’s a steal and anyway, the stuff in London doesn’t come close. This particular restaurant is near my apartment in Kasai, east Tokyo. Sorry, can’t remember the name – will update later.


Numark Mixtrack Pro

Long time no see! An incredibly chaotic summer this year, but good news on the podcasting front is that I picked up a mix controller to use alongside the mixing software on my Mac. I tried a Vestax Spin when I was back in London about 6 weeks ago, but upon getting back to Tokyo decided to go with this baby instead. It’s taken care of the cue / monitor issues that come with using mixing software with a normal soundcard (i.e. only having one channel and therefore no way to hear the track you’re trying to mix) and not only that, it’s actually possible to scratch on it which I didn’t expect. So, I made a video and put it on YouTube. I’ve got plans for some podcasts which I intend to create sometime very soon.