LACQUER ARTWORKS by Simon Pilling

April, 2015

IF I WERE AN OCTOPUS…

Lacquer work of ANDO Saeko by Simon Pilling

 

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Coloured lacquers, shell, egg-shell and metal inlays

Each panel 60 x 15 x 1.8 cm

The work of Saeko Ando combines two lacquer traditions – those of Japan and Vietnam. While Vietnam shares a long-standing East Asian tradition for lacquered utilitarian objects, its lacquer paintings, son mai, are an art form dating only from the arrival of French colonists and the establishment of the École Superieur des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine in 1925.  Thus local tradition and materials were blended with a more Western-centric familiarity, to become a unique fine art for which Vietnam is rightly acclaimed.

 

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Ando-san, based in Hanoi for almost 20 years researching and practicing every aspect of the Vietnamese skill, has brought to it a further rigour and technique taken from the Japanese tradition of togidashi-e where repeated layering and polishing results in a mirror finish of great depth.

 

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“Underwater creatures fascinate me because of their diverse colours and patterns, not just found on the skin surface but lying somewhere deep amongst the translucent cells. Many of them, just like these octopuses, cleverly change their colours and patterns to protect themselves and to catch their prey.  It seems to me that Vietnamese lacquer is the only material in the world which can metamorphose into such magical composition.  Though natural Vietnamese lacquer may lack the strong glow of Japanese urushi, it has very high transparency compared to lacquer from any other country. Additionally, this transparency is not so prominent at the beginning, but as time passes, and the layers of lacquer continue their chemical reaction with the atmosphere, a greater transparency occurs, colours brighten, and details increasingly reveal themselves”. (Ando Saeko, September 2014)

 

Simon Pilling, MA, RIBA, FRSA is a graduate of Sotheby’s MA in East Asian Art and is based in London, UK. He is a member of the Asian Art in London group of dealers and specialises in 20th century and contemporary Japanese lacquer.

Simon’s website

Simon Pilling East Asian Art & Interiors

PO Box 40062 London N6 6XB


December, 2014

Lacquerware Marvel

Gakuto Sasaki Lacquer Box #2

Lacquer expert Simon Pilling describes Psyche 2013, a work by gifted young Japanese lacquer artist Gakuto SASAKI that invites the viewer to suspend preconceptions.  At first sight the appearance is familiar – a high-grade, tooled leather box, with double zip fastening.  Touch it, however, and it is immediately apparent that the eye has been deceived. There is no leather, tooling, canvas ribbon or metal zips. All is recreated in lacquer – an illusion drawing on the viewer’s allusive preconceptions.

 

The Western equivalent artistic tradition can be seen in ‘trompe-l’oeil’ paintings (lit. deceive the eye) – a playfulness to intrigue and amuse. In Japanese lacquer arts there is a similarly rich tradition, dating back to at least the 18th-century, of using lacquer in replication of materials. The 19th-century artist Shibata Zeshin perfected such techniques. Sasaki-san is continuing this important tradition, bringing his work directly in line with contemporary values to question our current fascination with luxury goods.

 

 

Gakuto Sasaki Lacquer Box #1

 

Size of piece:  23 x 20 x 8 cm

Technique: kanshitsu (dry lacquer), kawari-nuri, (innovative lacquer), maki-e, (sprinkled picture)

 

Simon Pilling, MA, RIBA, FRSA is a graduate of Sotheby’s MA in East Asian Art and is based in London, UK. He is a member of the Asian Art in London group of dealers and specialises in 20th century and contemporary Japanese lacquer.

 

Simon’s website

Simon Pilling East Asian Art & Interiors

PO Box 40062 London N6 6XB


Feburuary, 2011

Contemporary Lacquer Artist

Steve here: Below, my friend, a London-based lacquer dealer, shares about his passion for the work of a very special artist.                                                        

The Art of Wakamiya Takashi,  by Simon Pilling

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The evocatively named ‘Thunderbird’ train pulls out of Kyoto’s futuristic station, and I am embarking on a journey to visit one of Japan’s rising stars of lacquer ware – Wakamiya Takashi.

More about Wakamiya Takashi


Japanese Ceramics by Robert Yellin

January, 2016

Tamba Ceramist NISHIHATA Tadashi

by Robert Yellin

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Of all the Six-Ancient pottery towns in Japan, none retain the tranquil country life feel and environment as Tamba. Located in Hyogo prefecture not that far from bustling metropolises Kobe and Osaka, Tamba is situated in a valley where for a millennium the potters have used the perfect slopes of the hills to build their wood-burning kilns. This is the setting where veteran ceramic artist Nishihata Tadashi works and where his family has worked for hundreds of years.

 

スクリーンショット 2016-01-27 15.01.20

 

Nishihata’s Tamba ware combines all of the great aspects of classic Tamba, such as bringing out the natural warm beauty of the local clay on his jars to the Tamba-only technique of adding red-slip to works to give them a glossy lacquer façade. He also combines various glazes on his works that are then fired and given overlapping lively natural ash-glazes in various tones that create abstract action-painting looks to the clay surfaces. Nishihata truly is a master potter and has been awarded many times for his work in Japan (winning the Tanabe Museum’s Grand Prize Modern Tea Forms 3 times!), yet the real reward is seeing the glint in his eyes when he describes his work. We hope the photos seen here from a recent Tokyo exhibition will clearly show the magic that Nishihata creates using only clay, air, water, fire…….and spirit.

 

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Robert Yellin is one of the world’s authorities on Japanese ceramics.  A resident of Japan for nearly 30 years, he has played a central role in the introduction of cutting-edge Japanese artists to the world as an author, lecturer and gallery owner.  His website, http://www.japanesepottery.com, serves as a primary source of information for thousands of ceramic enthusiasts, worldwide.


August, 2015

Kimura Moriyasu—A Universe in a Tea Bowl

by Robert Yellin with photos by Ron Beimel

 

10-Medium

The Japanese say that there is a universe to be found in a small hand-held chawan, a ceramic bowl used for serving whisked green tea. This metaphor for the magical space in a bowl for gazing is similar to Blake’s way to see the universe in a grain of sand. For some of Japan’s potters, the colors and textures in a chawan actually do mimic a star-filled night sky and the unfathomable universe; oil-spot tenmoku being the most obvious style for such observations. And at the age of 80, Kyoto’s Kimura Moriyasu is one of the brightest tenmoku ceramic artists in all of Japan’s long ceramic history.

 

2-Medium

Kimura is one of three famous Kimura ceramist brothers, the other two being Morikazu (b.1921) and Morinobu (b.1932). Helping his elder brothers while still in his teens, Moriyasu has not once stepped off the tenmoku path, having mastered all the classic styles, such as the aforementioned oil-spot tenmoku and another known as hare’s-fur tenmoku.

 

1-Medium

Yet what really highlights the brilliance of Kimura is his thoroughly original tenmoku. Aptly named Tenmoku Andromeda, the radiant colors evoke a deep emotional response from viewers, often with a simple, “Wow” or a long deep breath of wordless amazement.

 

4-Medium

Tenmoku was the name of a chawan first produced in China during the Song Period (960-1279) and was first mentioned in a Japanese document in 1335 by Zen abbot, Onkei Soyu.  From the 14th century, the Ashikaga Shoguns held tenmoku and jade-like celadon in the highest esteem and this reverence reached its peak during the reign of the 8th shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1369-1395). Tenmoku also refers to the form of the chawan, with a small base that flares out into a wider opening, a form that Kimura prefers as “it allows for my colors to be seen more vividly.”

 

5-Medium

And even as Kimura enters his eighth decade he is still creating new glaze recipes that are stretching and re-defining tenmoku in the 21stcentury. One such style is called Koyama (yellow mountain), seen here with a dark-rimmed lip interspersed with black wavy calligraphic lines.

 

3-Medium

Kimura fires these in a gas kiln for about 16-20 hours, never knowing until the kiln door is opened how his tenmoku will turn out. The kiln unloading still makes his heart nervously pound knowing from 1000’s of past experiences that one magic chawan might be ‘born’ or the entire stock may be duds; the iron glazes are “that hard” to control. When Kimura speaks about this his eyes twinkle like a child. And one must always keep in mind that these chawan only really come alive when they are actually held and used.  Imagine frothy whisked matcha in Kimura’s Koyama-style chawan!

6-Medium

Other forms that Kimura creates include eared vases with white icing-cloudy-sakura petal-like effects, as well as tall jar forms where the broader ‘clay palette’ allows his glazes to take on the impressionistic feel of, say, Monet. In fact, if Monet was able to see the Kimura vase shown here he would applaud and bow in acknowledgement of an artistic creation with which he shares a similar inspiration.

 

Robert Yellin is one of the world’s authorities on Japanese ceramics.  A resident of Japan for nearly 30 years, he has played a central role in the introduction of cutting-edge Japanese artists to the world as an author, lecturer and gallery owner.  His website, http://www.japanesepottery.com, serves as a primary source of information for thousands of ceramic enthusiasts, worldwide.


March, 2011

Steve in Mishima b 1st

While riding the Shinkansen train from Tokyo on my way home to Kyoto (a few days before the earthquake), I made a special stop at Mishima, in order to visit the Robert Yellin Gallery, a must stop for contemporary Japanese ceramics enthusiasts.  Robert’s gallery is a surprisingly convenient way to see significant works by dozens of today’s top Japanese ceramic artists, all in one place.  Amongst pieces by such internationally recognized ceramic greats as Kohyama Yoshihisa, Kaneta Masanao and Kato Yasukage,  were younger artists like Kako Katsumi, whom I recently met at a group show at Takashimaya in Kyoto.

Kako Katsumi Tea Bowl REv
Tea bowl by Kako Katsumi
What is most impressive about the gallery is the wide variety of ceramic styles, from warm unglazed pieces, to soft glazed Hagi ware and stunning celadon, all displayed in a large, naturally lit room.
Robert promised to write a blog post for us about Yamada Kaku, a Mino-style artist whose studio I took Santa Fe artist Gail Rieke’s travel journal group, last November, when we were in rural Fukui Prefecture.

Robert Yellin is one of the world’s authorities on Japanese ceramics.  A resident of Japan for nearly 30 years, he has played a central role in the introduction of cutting-edge Japanese artists to the world as an author, lecturer and gallery owner.  His website, http://www.e-yakimono.net, serves as a primary source of information for thousands of ceramic enthusiasts, worldwide.


February, 2009

Shigaraki Ceramic Artist, Otani Shiro: A recorded interview with Robert Yellin

Otani Shiro

Shigaraki has been one of the great centers of Japanese ceramics for about 800 years. The clay of this district is light colored and contains tiny bits of feldspar that explode on the surface of the pots during firing. Whereas glazed ware may be fired in a kiln for about 30 hours, unglazed Shigaraki ware is fired for five days or more. Any apparent color on the surface of the work is entirely from the fly ash and flames within the kiln. Knowing how to manipulate that natural environment into a work of art, depends on the skill of the artist. Otani Shiro is a visionary and leader whose creativity has greatly expanded the Shigaraki tradition into the 21st century. His works are in the permanent collections of museums around the world, including the Boston M.F.A., the Freer & Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian and the Museum of Arts and Design (formerly the American Craft Museum.) In this recorded conversation, author, lecturer, ceramics expert and gallery owner, Robert Yellin discusses six of Otani-san’s works, in the order they appear in this post.

Click on the play button to hear Robert Yellin’s commentary on the following photos.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

See the six images described in the podcast


A Taste of Culture by Elizabeth Andoh

May, 2016

A Taste of Culture Newsletter: BAMBOO WORDS

1

© Copyright, 2016.  All rights reserved by Elizabeth Andoh.

Dear friends, colleagues and those who have expressed an interest in the FOOD & CULTURE of Japan:

 

Bamboo Words
Ta ké no ko Kotoba
たけのこ言葉

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Bamboo shoots inspire culinary creativity at table… and provide semantic fun in conversation.
 
Here are five quirky, linguistic manifestations of Takénoko:

 

 

Takénoko seikatsu 
筍生活 ”living a bamboo life”

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The expression “living a bamboo life” describes dire financial circumstances. Pawning off clothes and household items one at a time to make ends meet is likened to peeling back the many overlapping layers of bamboo. 

 

 

Takénoko zoku  竹の子族
”bamboo clan kids”

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In March of 1978 clothing shop BoutiqueTakénoko opened on Harajuku’s Takeshita Street. At the time, the most coveted fashion item was a "harem suit" — a billowy pant-and-cape outfit. Groups would gather near the entrance to Meiji Shrine in Harajuku on Sunday mornings dressed in these and other outlandish costumes to dance to music blaring from cassette recorders. Named for the store that started the trend, the wild youth were dubbed Takénoko zoku.
 
Takénoko no Oyamasari 竹の子の親まさり
“surpassing your parents”
Because bamboo shoots grow so quickly, their development is used as a metaphor for the rapid progress of child prodigies. Indeed, so rapid these whiz-kids soon out-strip their own parents in acheivement.
 
Takénoko Isha 筍医者 “bamboo doctor”
An especially inexperienced, clumsy, young practitioner will sometimes be called a “bamboo doctor” by unhappy patients. In other words, a bungling quack! A derogatory statement that hopeful does not describe your family physician…
 
Ugo no Takénoko 雨 後の筍
“bamboo shoots (popping up everywhere) after the rain”
New bamboo shoots seem to pop up everywhere after a spring shower. This phenomenon describes the rapid emergence of things like a chain of stores (Starbucks… everywhere) or a new and trendy hairstyle (dreadlocks, anyone?).
 

 

Two Ways to write takénoko in Japanese: 

筍                竹の子
       Takénoko    Také no Ko
 
(Bamboo Shoots)

 

 

Stay connected with Elizabeth Andoh.

Elizabeth is looking forward to your comments on the items she posts to her

Facebook page!

She does hope you like it!


October, 2014

5 Colors, 5 Flavors, 5 Ways

goshiki  五色 

5 Colors 

 

 

 

 



When you choose a colorful range of foods, nutrients "naturally" come into balance without doing complicated dietary calculations. Although the specific nutritional profile of foods in the same color category are different  — carbohydrate and fiber-packed corn and vitamin C-rich lemons are both yellow; low-sodium, calcium-rich black sesame seeds and low-cholesterol, Vitamin E-rich nori are both black —  by including some food from each of the five colors you are sure to achieve variety. And when combined with the other considerations of including various flavors and cooking preparation methods, balance — and harmony — is the result.

 

 

 

 



 

Umeboshi

Maguro Tuna

RED 赤 aka 

The category RED contains fruits, vegetables, meat and some dried beans. The palette ranges from orange & russet tones to pink & magenta, and includes crimson & ruby hues, too.  Although artificial red food dye does not contribute to the nutritional profile of a food, tinting foods such as umeboshipink with the natural food dye processed from dried red shiso (called aka-jiso or yukari, in Japanese) will qualify a food for inclusion in this category.

 

 

 

 

 


 

Okome Rice

Tofu

 

WHITE 白 shiro 

The color category white includes rice, and many other grains, cereals, and seeds in addition to several vegetables and tubers. The white category, also includes tofu and soy milk. Mild-flavored, delicate white-fleshed fish (shiromi-zakana, in Japanese) and “white meat” chicken and pork can also be counted in this group.

 

 

 

 

 



 

Mackerel Fish

 

 

GREEN 青 ao 

The word ao in Japanese means both “green” and "blue." This category includes many legumes, leafy vegetables and herbs (aquatic and terrestrial) in addition to oily fishes such as mackerel and sardines, called ao-zakana (literally “blue” fish).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

Kabocha

YELLOW 黄 ki

This category includes fruits and vegetables, eggs, and some grains and nuts. Although artificial yellow food dye does not contribute to the nutritional profile of a food, tinting foods yellow with the natural food dye processed from dried gardenia pods (called kuchinashi no mi in Japanese) will qualify a food for inclusion in this category.

 

 

 

 

 


 

Fresh Shitake Mushroom

 

Black Sesame Seed

 

BLACK 黒 kuro
 

Very dark foods such as nori laver, eggplant skins, shiitakemushrooms, black soy beans, and black sesame seeds comprise the color category of black.

 

 

A TASTE OF CULTURE culinary arts program combines spicy tidbits of food lore with practical tips and skill-building lessons on how to prepare Japanese food. Programs are conducted in Tokyo, Japan, and offer a unique opportunity for foreign residents and visitors from overseas to explore and enjoy Japan's culture through its food. Instruction, by Elizabeth Andoh, is in English.

 

 

 

 

Born, raised and educated in America, Elizabeth Andoh has made Japan her home for more than four decades. A graduate of the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Andoh’s formal culinary training was taken at the Yanagihara School of Classical Japanese Cuisine (Tokyo).

Andoh is the author of six books on Japanese cooking, including two IACP award-winners, An Ocean of Flavor (Morrow, 1988) and Washoku (Ten Speed, 2005). She was Gourmet's Japan correspondent for more than three decades and was a regular contributor to the New York Times travel section for many years. Andoh lectures internationally on Japanese food and culture and directs A Taste of Culture, a culinary program based in Tokyo, Japan.

Elizabeth Andoh’s website, http://www.tasteofculture.com/


July, 2014

梅雨入り

Tsuyu iri "Entering the Rainy Season"

by Elizabeth Andoh

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Most of Japan has been enveloped in record-breaking heat these past few days. Even Hokkaido hit 37 Celcius (98.6 Fahrenheit)! Its supposed to cool down by week’s end, as most of the archipelago enters the rainy season.

 

Once tsuyu arrives in earnest the weather report will vary little for 6 weeks or so: some days the rain might be a light drizzle that manages to float up under umbrellas, while on other days, heavy downpours will create mud-splattering puddles – the kind that keeps the dry-cleaning industry busy. But most days it will be steady showers… and for me, a constant reminder of just how curly (spell that f-r-i-z-z-y) my hair is!

 

To cope with the relentless, high humidity during tsuyu Japanese households launch jiméjimé taisaku or “anti-dampness campaigns.”  Makers of modern cleaning products bring out new, and improved (or so they say) items at this time of year – lots of moisture-absorbing silica gel and (musty, mildew) odor-absorbing charcoal in pellets and packets.

 

Old-fashioned strategies rely heavily upon the (non-culinary) power of vinegar (su) and green tea (ryokucha). Applied directly to various surfaces including tableware (ceramic, glass, cutlery), cutting boards, and cooking utensils (chopsticks, otoshi-buta dropped lids, rice paddles) both vinegar and green tea possess anti-bacterial, anti-microbal properties. Green tea rubbed on wooden surfaces is is especially effective in curbing mold-growth.

 

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tsu        yu        tai        saku

 

 

su (vinegar)

 

 

Fill a bowl or small tub with a solution of  7 parts pure vinegar (no additives) and 3 parts water. Soak problematic tems in the solution for at least 15 minutes and up to several hours. Drain, and allow items to drip-dry, naturally.

 

 

緑茶

ryokucha (green tea)

 

 

Use ready-to-fill tea bags or wrap loose tea leaves in cheesecloth to make packets.

Brew and enjoy as a beverage. Use the leaves (in their bag or cheesecloth) tosponge down wooden surfaces.

 

 

On-Line WORKSHOPS

 

At WASHOKUcooking you'll find a great way to use rice crackers that have gone soggy dispite your most diligent efforts to keep them crisp. Enjoy these Spicy Smashed-Sembei Sliders!

 

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At KANSHAcooking you will find a tasty way to use the bits and pieces of kombu that accumulate after stock-making. The recipe I offer makes use of tongue-tingling sanshō pepper.

 

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At my KIBOcooking site you'll find Taste of the Tohoku, a page that features local dishes. This summer edition offers information and a recipe for what is called DASHI in the local dialect. You'll discover its a refreshing salsa-like topping for noodles, rice or tōfu.

 

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Born, raised and educated in America, Elizabeth Andoh has made Japan her home for more than four decades. A graduate of the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Andoh’s formal culinary training was taken at the Yanagihara School of Classical Japanese Cuisine (Tokyo).

Andoh is the author of six books on Japanese cooking, including two IACP award-winners, An Ocean of Flavor (Morrow, 1988) and Washoku (Ten Speed, 2005). She was Gourmet's Japan correspondent for more than three decades and was a regular contributor to the New York Times travel section for many years. Andoh lectures internationally on Japanese food and culture and directs A Taste of Culture, a culinary program based in Tokyo, Japan.

Elizabeth Andoh’s website, http://www.tasteofculture.com/


December, 2013

里芋

 

Sato Imo "Country Potatoes"

by Elizabeth Andoh

 

Sato imo (“country potatoes”) Colocasia esculenta are also known as taro potatoes in many markets. They boast a creamy texture and a low Glycemic Index (unlike other potatoes with a high GI that cause peaks and crashes in blood-sugar readings). The tubers are thought to have originated in eastern India and have traveled east to Southeast Asia, China and Japan… and west to Egypt, West Africa and from there to the Americas.

Cultivated for their edible corms (tubers, or “potatoes”) and stalks (these are sold sun-dried as zuiki), the plant contains (toxic) calcium oxalate that must be treated before consumption.

Possibly the earliest known cultivated plant, sato imo remains an important staple in many food cultures throughout the world today. In Japan, there is evidence that the tubers were first consumed by Jōmon-jin, the hunter-gathers who inhabited the archipelago thousands of years ago.

Before they can be eaten, sato imo must be washed and boiled (or otherwise cooked). If the tubers are peeled raw, naturally occurring but irritating oxalic acid can cause hands to itch. The Japanese down-home remedy for this is vinegar; washing itching fingers with acidulated water does bring relief.  Many Japanese cooks, though, prefer to avoid peeling altogether. Instead, they rough-wash the raw tubers imo arai-style to the point they can be cooked with their thin, tasty and nutrient-rich “skins” intact.

IMO ARAI potato-washing is done either by harnessing Nature's energy in the form of a fast-flowing stream (the imo arai kuruma wheel, to the left).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or, by hand with paddles in a barrel (the community-sponsored, post-harvest festival, below).

 

imo arai ・washing sato imo

Goro goro, goro goro

… the sound of tumbling tubers being rubbed and scrubbed…

 

IDIOM of INTEREST: the phrase imo arai is used to describe people in over-crowded conditions. Peeking inside the barrel, you can understand why the agitated action of potato-washing is a fitting way to portray packed trains at rush hour and swimming pools with standing-room only!

Detox methods include steaming, par-boiling, and/or soaking for at least 8 hours in an alum solution (yaki myōban sui).  Instructions for this are included in this downloadable recipe

Country Potatoes with Chicken Sauce (Sato Imo no Tori An Kaké)

 

My cookbook, WASHOKU:Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen (Ten Speed Press, 2005) provides a solid introduction to the principles and practice of harmony and balance (washoku) in the kitchen and at table. This workshop page enables me to guide you further.  ENJOY! 

 

 

On-Line WORKSHOPS

 

At each of my websites I have created a Workshop page that features SATO IMO. Recipes can be downloaded from the workshop pages. ENJOY!!!

 

 

At KANSHAcooking sato imo are soy-stewed with root vegetables, thick fried tōfu and shiitaké mushrooms to make a satisfying main course.

 

 

 

At KIBOcooking you'll find a Tohoku hot-pot classic from Yamagata: Imo ni kai. This meat and potato casserole is served at community and family gatherings.

 

 

 

 

 

Born, raised and educated in America, Elizabeth Andoh has made Japan her home for more than four decades. A graduate of the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Andoh’s formal culinary training was taken at the Yanagihara School of Classical Japanese Cuisine (Tokyo).

Andoh is the author of six books on Japanese cooking, including two IACP award-winners, An Ocean of Flavor (Morrow, 1988) and Washoku (Ten Speed, 2005). She was Gourmet's Japan correspondent for more than three decades and was a regular contributor to the New York Times travel section for many years. Andoh lectures internationally on Japanese food and culture and directs A Taste of Culture, a culinary program based in Tokyo, Japan.

Elizabeth Andoh’s website, http://www.tasteofculture.com/


May, 2010

Tonkatsu

Steve here: I have invited my friend, columnist, author and educator,  Elizabeth Andoh, to share with us a little about the history of  Tonkatsu in Japan.

Elizabeth Andoh: Chef Motojiro Kida of Rengatei, the first yoshoku-ya (western-style restaurant) to open to the public in the Ginza, is credited with first serving pork cutlets to a curious but appreciative clientele. At the time (1895, the 28th year of the Meiji Era), he called them poku katsuretsu. The current name tonkatsu  (the “ton” is an alternate reading of the calligraphy “buta” meaning “pig”) was coined later, at the beginning of the Showa era by another owner-chef, Shinjiro Shimada, of Ponta near Ueno. Interestingly — and rather telling of the rapid rise to popularity and continued devotion to this dish — both of these family-own-and-run restaurants are still in business today!

Rengatei (the name means “brick abode”) has several branches, all carefully preserving the legacy of founder, Motojiro. The third generation Akitoshi (76 years old) and his son, Koichiro are at the helm of the Ginza establishment (3-5-16 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo. Phone: 03-3561-3882). Established in Meiji 38 (1905) by Chef Shinjiro Shimada, Ponta’s current chef is 4th generation Yoshihiko. Located near Okachimachi station (3-23-3 Ueno, Taito-ku, Tokyo. Phone: 03-3831-2351). If you are in Tokyo wanting to sample classic tonkatsu at either of these venerable establishments, be forewarned that neither takes reservations.

For those of you without access to Tokyo, or preferring to try your own hand at making tonkatsu, download the recipes below. ENJOY

Classic Tonkatsu

豚カツ

(Tonkatsu)

 

 

 

Download the recipe

 

Elizabeth Andoh bio here.  Link to A taste of culture homepage.


 

Born, raised and educated in America, Elizabeth Andoh has made Japan her home for more than four decades. A graduate of the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Andoh’s formal culinary training was taken at the Yanagihara School of Classical Japanese Cuisine (Tokyo).

Andoh is the author of six books on Japanese cooking, including two IACP award-winners, An Ocean of Flavor (Morrow, 1988) and Washoku (Ten Speed, 2005). She was Gourmet's Japan correspondent for more than three decades and was a regular contributor to the New York Times travel section for many years. Andoh lectures internationally on Japanese food and culture and directs A Taste of Culture, a culinary program based in Tokyo, Japan.

Elizabeth Andoh’s website, http://www.tasteofculture.com/


 


SAKE お酒 by John Gauntner

Sake of the Month – June, 2011: Fukucho “Moon on the Water” Junmai Ginjo

Fukucho - John Gauntner June 2011 REV

Steve here: The world of sake brewing was traditionally a man's world. Tell us about a sake made by a woman.

John Gauntner: How about the Junmai Ginjo called Fukucho, “Moon on the Water?” This sake hails from Hiroshima Prefecture and is brewed by Miho Imada, the daughter of the company’s president and owner-inherit. Imada took over the operation when she realized that if she did not take it on, no one would. Even a few decades ago, a woman would not have even been allowed to enter the kura (brewery,) much less be a brewer; much, much less be the toji (master brewer).

More about Sake


A Taste of Culture Newsletter: BAMBOO WORDS

A Taste of Culture Newsletter: BAMBOO WORDS

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© Copyright, 2016.  All rights reserved by Elizabeth Andoh.

Dear friends, colleagues and those who have expressed an interest in the FOOD & CULTURE of Japan:

 

Bamboo Words
Ta ké no ko Kotoba
たけのこ言葉

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Bamboo shoots inspire culinary creativity at table… and provide semantic fun in conversation.
 
Here are five quirky, linguistic manifestations of Takénoko:

 

 

Takénoko seikatsu 
筍生活 ”living a bamboo life”

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The expression “living a bamboo life” describes dire financial circumstances. Pawning off clothes and household items one at a time to make ends meet is likened to peeling back the many overlapping layers of bamboo. 

 

 

Takénoko zoku  竹の子族
”bamboo clan kids”

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In March of 1978 clothing shop BoutiqueTakénoko opened on Harajuku’s Takeshita Street. At the time, the most coveted fashion item was a "harem suit" — a billowy pant-and-cape outfit. Groups would gather near the entrance to Meiji Shrine in Harajuku on Sunday mornings dressed in these and other outlandish costumes to dance to music blaring from cassette recorders. Named for the store that started the trend, the wild youth were dubbed Takénoko zoku.
 
Takénoko no Oyamasari 竹の子の親まさり
“surpassing your parents”
Because bamboo shoots grow so quickly, their development is used as a metaphor for the rapid progress of child prodigies. Indeed, so rapid these whiz-kids soon out-strip their own parents in acheivement.
 
Takénoko Isha 筍医者 “bamboo doctor”
An especially inexperienced, clumsy, young practitioner will sometimes be called a “bamboo doctor” by unhappy patients. In other words, a bungling quack! A derogatory statement that hopeful does not describe your family physician…
 
Ugo no Takénoko 雨 後の筍
“bamboo shoots (popping up everywhere) after the rain”
New bamboo shoots seem to pop up everywhere after a spring shower. This phenomenon describes the rapid emergence of things like a chain of stores (Starbucks… everywhere) or a new and trendy hairstyle (dreadlocks, anyone?).
 

 

Two Ways to write takénoko in Japanese: 

筍                竹の子
       Takénoko    Také no Ko
 
(Bamboo Shoots)

 

 

Stay connected with Elizabeth Andoh.

Elizabeth is looking forward to your comments on the items she posts to her

Facebook page!

She does hope you like it!

 



Zen Buddhist temple by Waro KISHI

Zen Lounge…..

A contemporary space in a Zen Buddhist temple, with commentary by the architect, Waro KISHI

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On occasions in which this Zen temple was to host very important ceremonies, the room was designed to be a waiting room for guests from the head temple during the ceremony and to be a study for the chief priest afterwards.

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82_102The client's wish was to turn the attic space, which is located on the top story of the reinforced concrete Japanese-style temple completed in 1988, and on the upper side of the main temple, into a modern contemporary space, yet also having a sense of tradition. As the adjoining flat roof was also possibly the subject for the renovation, turning the roof into a garden created a garden space that only can be viewed from the interior of the penthouse study. I decided that the garden should be the main feature of this space. Coming back to the room following a ceremony in the main hall, one encounters the landscape of "Buddhist Heaven" from the attic. 

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The interior design of this space corresponds to that of the main temple downstairs. As a comparison to the traditional architecture of the temple space which used "lines" mainly for the design in a traditional Japanese way, the principle here was to compose the space with "planes" with a modernist approach and yet to use authentic materials at the same time, as in the main temple. The water garden, the plasterwork on the walls and ceilings, the roughly-finished chestnut flooring in the Japanese tradition, the hanging black-rusted steel panel and the Venetian style stucco-coated ceiling panels, are selected with such an intention.

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See more works by Waro KISHI at http://k-associates.com/

 

Photography by Hisao Suzuki


Setsubun

A Taste of Culture

Setsubun

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© Copyright, 2016.  All rights reserved by Elizabeth Andoh.

Dear friends, colleagues and those who have expressed an interest in the FOOD & CULTURE of Japan:

 

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Setsubun marks the break between seasons and occurs several times during the year. Most Japanese today, though, think of setsubunbeing on February 3, corresponding to the start of the lunar New Year. In China and other parts of Asia this break is celebrated as New Years. But in Japan since the switch to using the Gregorian calendar in the Meiji period, Setsubun is celebrated quite apart from Osōgatsu (New Year activities, which come to a close in mid-January).

 

Rituals developed aroundsetsubun to insure that evil was left behind in the old year, and good things could (and would) happen in the year to come. In Japan, onimonsters personify bad things and are traditionally expelled by shouting and by
throwing dry-roasted soybeans (mamé maki).

 

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Kids get to pelt Oni (good-natured Grandpa) with roasted beans.

 

Want to make your own setsubun commotion? Buy already roasteddaizu (dried soybeans) called iri mamé ("roasted beans") in an Asian grocery… or roast your own. Place daizu (dried soybeans) in a dry skillet and place the skillet over low heat to s-l-o-w-l-y roast them. Jiggle and/or swirl the skillet gently to keep the beans in motion until the skins on a few beans begin to split (about 20 minutes). Remove the skillet from the stove and let the beans cool in the skillet (they will keep for several weeks and make a great beer snack….)

 

Take a handful of the beans and throw them outside while shoutingOni wa soto! (Demons, get out!). They then throw another handful inside, shouting Fuku wa uchi! (Good luck, come in!). Finally, everybody gets to eat the same number of roasted beans as their age… plus one (its a good thing I LOVE iri mamé…)

 

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Although most of Japan does mamé maki bean-tossing with roasted soybeans, the Tohoku region (Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima, Aomori, Akia, Yamagata) prefers to use roasted, unsalted PEANUTS (落花生rakkasei) in their shells. The nuts are not removed from their shells until AFTER they have been tossed, and collected — certainly makes clean-up easier!

 

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March & April

2016

 

A Taste of Culture

 

Download a catalog from the

PROGRAM page

 

The March KANSHA Intensive Workshop is filled

but those interested in participating in a 3-Day Intensive Workshop later this year, please download a detailed description and application form.

 

 

Hands-On Cooking Classes:

 

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Other foods associated with Setsubun include plump sushi rolls called éhō maki. These are meant to be gobbled, uncut, while facing the "auspicious" direction for that year. The auspicious direction for 2016 is:

 

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Download éhō maki recipe from

KITCHEN CULTURE

TASTEofCULTURE.com

 

 

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Shuji Nakagawa – Oke Maker

Nakagawa Shuji: Oke Maker

Interview by Steve Beimel

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When Nakagawa Shuji’s grandfather, Kameiichi, turned ten years old, he went to work at Tarugen. This famed maker of oke (wooden pails or buckets) and barrels, had been established in Kyoto during the waning years of the Edo period (1603-1868), and was to become Kameiichi’s workplace for the next 40 years. In the process, Kameiichi became a master shokunin (artisan). For his loyalty to Tarugen, he was allowed to open his own shop and make, among other items, yudofu-oke, oval-shaped wooden containers used for serving boiled tofu, which he sold to high-class Kyoto restaurants and private buyers. “Grandfather at work was beautiful to watch.” Shuji remembers, “And the products he created were also splendid and of high-quality. The ideal of the Japanese woodcraft artisan is that at the final sweep of the plane, the separate elements become a single object. My grandfather was making oke that way.”

The first task assigned to an oke apprentice is to shave the bamboo nails which, with rice glue, hold the side slats of a bucket together. Since the tough bamboo soon wears down the metal blades, the apprentice also learns to sharpen tools. Shuji’s collection of wood planes number more than 200, with the oldest dating back to the 18th century. Apprentices are expected to make about 300 nails a day. Shuji began shaving nails when he was in junior high school and made enough for him to use for the next ten years.

An oke apprentice will learn how to dry wood properly, “read” its grain, and master a variety of tools, including the curved, two-handled plane called a sen, virtually unchanged in form since medieval times. When making the slats that form the sides of a bucket, he will learn to patiently shave off half a millimeter at a time until they fit together so perfectly that no light will pass between. This also achieves water-tightness as well as the seamless beauty of the side panels. The better he becomes at constructing buckets, the less wood will be wasted.

An apprentice learns by carefully observing everything his master does. Instructions are rarely given verbally. Over years of watching and working, a quiet transmission of skills and sensibility takes place across generations: for the Nakagawas, from Kameiichi to his son Kiyotsugu, and from Kiyotsugu to his son Shuji.

“As was typical of his generation, my dad made 200 to 300 oke per month,” Shuji recalls, “I haven’t even made enough to match his first year.” Kiyotsugu elevated oke-making to an art at a time when more convenient and cheaper plastic goods were flooding the market. Unlike typical oke makers, Kiyotsugu would enter independently produced works into exhibitions. The Nakagawa family carved out a niche by specializing in smaller crafts that require a high degree of accuracy and fine workmanship. In 2001, Kiyotsugu was rewarded by being certified as a Living National Treasure by the Japanese government.

Nakagawa Shuji decided to pursue his talents independently from his family in 2003 and now works with four apprentices of his own at his own studio. In addition to oke and yudofu-oke, he also makes ohitsu rice containers, yuoke hot liquid containers, guinomi sake cups, chirori, Nakagawa has stepped outside tradition to create a unique line of champagne coolers, stools, tables and beds for pet dogs.

Concerned about the survival of his and other traditional Japanese crafts, he moved to the forefront of a movement aiming to break down the boundaries between craft, art and design by joining together with the sons of five other established Kyoto traditional craft companies to form the Japan Handmade. This collaborative, including Kaikado (teaware), Nakagawa Mokkougei (woodcraft), Hosoo (textiles), Kohchosai Kosuga (bamboo arts), Kanaami Tsuji (metal knitting), and Asahiyaki (ceramics) reached out to the Danish Design Studio OeO to help them revitalize their Japanese traditional industries and bring novel products to the international market.

 

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“The problem is that we Japanese, ourselves, do not fully recognize the value of what we produce here… It was only when the quality and value of my work was acknowledged by many people from abroad that I finally realized how great Japanese traditional technique really was…”

Steve Beimel: I’ve spoken with many traditional Japanese craftspeople over the years and they usually say that traditional craft in Japan will end with this generation. But you and the other members of Japan Handmade are very positive about the future of craft here. Where does your confidence come from?

Nakagawa Shuji: Traditional products have seen a consistent drop in sales over the past 20 to 30 years. However, though some things like ohitsu (containers for serving hot rice) and oke (wooden pails or buckets) may eventually disappear from our daily lives, if we can preserve and maintain both the construction technique as well as a class of highly skilled artisans, we can apply the same methodology to making new products that are suitable for contemporary living.

In addition to new products, however, it seems to me that there is still potential demand for ohitsu and oke. Everyone in Japan has a Japanese bath set up. I think that most young people who have grown up using plastic basins for washing, don’t know the joy of using a hand crafted wooden oke. Isn’t this due to a lack of marketing? In a similar way, while French and Italian textile-related brands are featured in posh districts of every major city in the world, far superior Japanese woven and artisan dyed textiles are almost nowhere to be found, and are even losing major market share to PR-savvy European companies in the Japanese domestic market.

I feel the same. The Italians spend 50% of the cost of production on PR and 50% on production. Japan spends 90% on production and only 10% on PR, and we are losing. Maybe this tendency to avoid self-promotion is our national characteristic. At Japan Handmade, because we have confidence in our skill level and the quality of our products, we decided to push hard with PR. I hope someday that it will be common to find internationally-recognized brands coming out of Japan. We have the talent here. We just have to put more energy into the PR.

I don’t think that most foreigners grasp what it takes to produce a crafted piece of Japanese craft, just by looking at it. When I take guests to the Japan Handmade prototype showroom and they hear that Hosoo painstakingly reinvented their ancient loom in order to produce the same highly complex, 3-dimentionally woven fabrics that combine silk with gold leaf paper as in their legendary obi but at 5 times the width, they seem to finally get it. When they realize that your champagne bucket with its sleek, contemporary design is made by precisely fitting slats of cedar that are held together with just a brass band, they suddenly become engaged. Since most foreigners are not acquainted with the impeccable, age-old Japanese craft tradition, it may take a lot of PR to raise awareness of craft in Japan.

Yes. I believe that it is essential to team up with PR professionals in order to expand globally. But there is also the issue of product design. In Europe, even tiny local craft studios have their own in-house designers. Just like with PR, the design aspect of production is not taken seriously here in Japan. I heard the same thing from the home appliance department people of a major Japanese manufacturer. Though they are very strong technically, their design section is weak. And that’s the reason why they are losing market share. Japanese must become more conscious about and invest in design.

And that is exactly what the six member companies of Japan Handmade have done. I have been waiting a long time to see traditional Japanese products evolve with superior design and practical use in today’s world with effective marketing so foreigners can finally understand why they are so special. This should be a nation-wide movement, not just in Kyoto.

The problem is that we Japanese, ourselves, do not fully recognize the value of what we produce here. Even though I grew up in a craft environment and studied design at university, I didn’t fully appreciate my own family’s work until about 5 years ago. It was only when the quality and value of my work was acknowledged by many people from abroad that I finally realized how great Japanese traditional technique really was. It is difficult for Japanese to come to this realization by staying solely within the Japanese context. Therefore, one of our goals at Japan Handmade is to encourage and support younger craftspeople to go abroad and gain confidence by experiencing this for themselves.

 

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You were born and raised in Kyoto, Nakagawa-san. What made you leave Kyoto and establish your home and workshop in Shiga (the prefecture next to Kyoto)?

I had worked alongside my father until he was designated a Living National Treasure of Japan in 2001. I decided then that it was time to create my own studio, where I could explore and develop more independently. I chose to leave Kyoto because I was a little afraid of the “Kyoto” brand. I wanted the challenge of creating works, without the benefit of my father’s name or the high reputation of Kyoto.

Moving to Shiga was probably challenging, but it sounds like it was also very liberating.

Yes, it was. Though working under the Kyoto Brand is a considerable sales advantage, I was afraid that the power of such a brand behind me might camouflage any deficiencies that existed in my work. Leaving Kyoto meant that my work had to stand on its own merits.

I see that freedom can often cause anxiety. Have you missed having the back up and support of Kyoto brand?

Yes. It is definitely more difficult being on my own. Since Japan Handmade is a new brand that is working to stand alone without the power of the Kyoto brand behind it, I am hoping that it will eventually spread beyond Kyoto to include crafts people working nation-wide.

That is exactly why it’s named “Japan Handmade” and not “Kyoto Handmade”. Once this initial effort involving six companies reaches sufficient success, would you consider having other companies and crafts people join in?

Definitely. In my opinion, we are currently experiencing a state of market saturation for traditionally-rooted artisan crafts in Japan. We are now ready for new ideas and products to come forth from that state, and I think Japan Handmade is one of those new sprouts. However, there is still much to be done and much to be learned before we can think about inviting other companies to join us.

So now is the time to prepare the way by building a firm foundation before you can think of future expansion.

Exactly. Increasing the number of members beyond the current six would involve certain risks. It was difficult enough to move six companies forward with the same shared vision. Even within each of our companies, our attitudes and aspirations for the traditional crafts may differ from that of our staff members. So, any company we bring in would need to come into one accord with us. Otherwise there could be a malfunction in the organization. We must all share the same consciousness that we are traditional craft companies functioning in a global environment.

So the first priority seems to be the attainment of a credible level of success for Japan Handmade.

Indeed.

It may cost you quite a lot of money as well.

Yes, financially, it’s probably impossible for one company to enter the global market on its own. Another advantage of six different industries teaming up together is that we can deal with wider range of customers. Some clients may be interested in wood crafts; others in textiles and still others in metal work. Our group can cover all of those needs. 

When I saw your wood craft being sold at the Kaikado metal craft shop , it was like witnessing a reincarnation of Japanese-style “division of labor.”

The skills that we had once applied only to our own individual brands are now joining together, resulting in entirely new, higher value products of Japan Handmade that utilize various combinations of wood, bamboo, ceramics, copper, wire mesh and textiles.

The founder of Japan’s Mingei folk craft movement, Yanagi Soetsu once encouraged the teaching of technical skills to people with artistic talent. Denmark did that during the Industrial Revolution, and as a result produced many wonderful things. Other countries in Europe, on the other hand, did the opposite by teaching art and design to established technicians and much of what they produced lacked the kind of beauty and strength of design of the Danish works. I guess you followed Yanagi’s way by going to art university first then coming back to your traditional roots.

I was not so forward thinking back then, but I now find that my university education is very relevant to my work. At school, I actually used to make objects with iron.

I think that there is a certain common sensibility shared by all forms of art.

I agree. Though making iron objects has no direct connection to making oke, the artist or designer’s way of seeing and thinking about things is very similar for both media. It is very important for me to maintain this sensibility.

That is a crucial point. Apprenticeship has traditionally concentrated on developing technical skill. It trained people to reproduce work as high level journeymen. It can be very challenging, however, for technically skilled artisans to develop the kind of sensibility that will make them artists.

Yes, and the opposite is also true. For people who know design but are unaware of production technique, there can be a gap between their ideal and reality. I have recently begun to collaborate with the Nendo Company and am very impressed by its founder, Sato Oki. Sato is a highly regarded, internationally recognized product designer who begins each of his projects by first looking deeply into the production process. Other designers seem to limit themselves by only looking at the obvious shapes of the design and, thus, fall short in product practicality.

 

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You have had exceptional mentors in your life. I am surprised that so few craftspeople and artists I interview have apprentices. The Japanese apprentice system is so unique in way that the master doesn’t directly teach very much. It seems that it takes about ten years for Japanese apprentices to gain mastership by plugging along through trial and error with very little guidance, whereas if they had had consistent lessons, mastery might only take two or three years. However, this time consuming apprenticeship has produced a level of mastership across dozens of disciplines here in Japan that is probably unrivalled anywhere in the world.

I am presently working with my fourth apprentice; my first and second apprentices now have their own studios and are actively applying their acquired skills. I believe that the apprenticeship system will continue on. Unfortunately, effective apprenticeship which combines both production technique with design, is still quite rare. To create a new product, you need someone who can create a prototype, as well as people who can transform that into a product which can be mass produced. For people who learn how to make prototypes in art school, it can be very challenging to translate their work into in mass production. On the other hand, the traditional system of craft trains people for mass production. Ideally, we will be able to combine the efforts of apprentices trained in centuries’ old technique with prototype designers and thus create new products for the global market.

The works of many crafts people I’ve met would not be suitable for mass production. But in order to sustain a viable business, production numbers are so important.

Japan Handmade is not a collective of “artists” but rather of “industries.” Art is produced as one-of-a-kind pieces where industries produce in high numbers. Actually, the concept of “artist” did not appear in Japan until the beginning of the modern era (after 1868.) There wasn’t even a Japanese word for “art” until that time. So we are somewhat late in catching up to Europe in that sense.

There is a growing interest in craft in Europe and the U.S. Up until recently, craft was not given the attention or respect that it may have deserved. The Japanese, on the other hand, have historically maintained a high regard for craft.

That’s right. Even as recently as 15 years ago in Europe, for example, I noticed a hierarchy of importance which placed art at the top. This was followed by design and craft was at the bottom. But today, they all seem to occupy the same level.

Artist Sugimoto Hiroshi recently was part of an exhibition at the Pace Gallery in London and New York, entitled Mingei: Are you Here? It would have been unthinkable for a craft-related exhibition like this to have taken place at the Pace, even 10 years ago. Top crafts people are now taking their places alongside top artists of contemporary art and design. The craftsmen of Japan are collaborating with designers abroad more than ever before. I, myself, had about 15 offers from Milan last year, alone. This is an exciting new era for the craft world.

Art went through radical changes in the 20th century. The role of art had been, in large part, to praise the greatness of the God. This was followed by Impressionism, which stimulated our hearts. Later, however, such influences as Duchamp, Warhol and Japanese otaku destroyed the concept of art as we knew it and succeeded in reconstructing it. That is why craft and art can stand on the same ground today.

Traditional art was directly accessible to people who were inexperienced in art. Many people find that much of post-war contemporary art and especially conceptual art engages them intellectually but not always spiritually. And though it may be very clever, it often requires significant experience before it is fully appreciated. In addition, since so many of our daily utensils are mass produced in factory settings with little attention to design, they do not satisfy our need to see, touch and use beautiful things every day. It makes sense, then, that handmade crafts are appreciated more than ever, because they are helping to fill this spiritual vacuum.

I think that the driving force behind the current appreciation of craftsmanship is the growing tendency towards higher levels of both technique and design.

In our house, we have dishes created by ceramists from all over Japan. The blending of different combinations of forms, textures and styles at each meal significantly enhances the quality of our mealtime experience. Well-designed handmade objects are like traditional art in that they universally appeal to people, regardless of their art background. As more people come to use well-designed objects in their daily lives, this appreciation of craft expands even more.

Indeed. There is a paradigm shift there. I think that such shifts take about 50 years to soak into the general public. We can see that in the fact that the art and craft of 1950’s is now getting popular. Art is always at the forefront; it is natural for us to take 50 years to catch up with an aesthetic trend.

Half a century? I don’t think I can wait that long.

Me either. But in that sense, if the craft world can manage to stay in the forefront alongside art, we may be able to change the lifestyle of ordinary people all over the world in fifty years. Wouldn’t that be fun?

 

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As an active participant in that process, where do you want to see your work go?

In addition to producing traditional work, I want to create work that transcends the needs of the Japanese lifestyle towards a more global standard. So, for example, with the same basic methods that I make buckets for the Japanese bath, I created a champagne cooler that can be of practical use anywhere in the world. I want to make things that are as functional in a house with carpeted floors as one with tatami mats.

The universal element here, of course, is wood. Wood is appreciated by most cultures in the world. I relate to it because the connection with wood is very deep within Japan’s long history. For us, it is a treasure, and I embrace the challenge of creating many things by way of this very special medium.

Japanese woodwork is often completed without the application of a protective paint or varnish. We see it in its natural state. When I was growing up in America, there were shops that sold unpainted furniture, and budget-minded people would take them home and paint or stain them. I always thought that the unpainted furniture was elegant and beautiful in the shops, but looked disappointingly cheap after being painted. So, I was surprised to see so much natural unpainted wood when I first came to Japan.

If painted wood should develop a water leak due to a crack, the water gets trapped and the wood will eventually rot. This is critical for dishes and bowls, since they are frequently wet. That’s why we don’t paint them.

There is also a spiritual reason why we often choose not to paint wood. As followers of Shintoism, part of our worship of nature is our deep respect for and feelings of awe towards natural wood. Our most sacred shrine at Ise is built entirely from unpainted wood. This Shinto influence affects our culture in many ways.

Wood in traditional Japan seems to be either completely naked and natural or painstakingly lacquered to a degree of perfection not found anywhere in the world. Both extremes are exquisite. In most homes in Japan, we see a perfect example, often in the same room, with the family’s Shinto shrine presented in natural wood and a Buddhist altar that has been impeccably lacquered. It is a balance of extremes.

That is an excellent example of Japanese esthetics.

Have you visited Café Kanetanaka on Omotesando in Tokyo, designed by Sugimoto Hiroshi?

Not yet.

The interior is powerful in its simplicity. The space consists of only two very long, tables made from unfinished, very light colored wood. The entire length of the room opens floor to ceiling to a simple garden. It is a strikingly beautiful space.

Working with Sugimoto-san was really eye opening for me. I learned so much. I find so strange that, though people like Sugimoto Hiroshi or Sato Oki are so well-known and well-received abroad, they don’t get the recognition they deserve here, in Japan.

So I come back to this again: Japanese people need to go abroad in order to be able to see the value of our culture. This is true for all Japanese people, not only artists. Both Sugimoto and Sato utilize their Japanese-ness in their work in wonderful ways. However, it is so natural and ordinary that many Japanese don’t even notice it within our context here and are therefore unable to evaluate it fairly. 

I think that coming to Japan from a culture that is relatively new like the U.S., it is easier perhaps to be moved and impressed by the skill level, beauty and creativity found here than for someone who was raised in this environment.

That’s why I think we need to step back with some detachment or the traditional craft market will continue to shrink. Japan Handmade is approaching our domestic market and seeking to raise the value of traditional crafts in the eyes of the Japanese people by focusing our first marketing efforts abroad. Since Japanese tend not to perceive the value of things made here until they are first appreciated abroad, it is not uncommon for domestic sales of products to jump only after they become popular overseas. However, going abroad first is such roundabout process. It could take Japan many years to grow out of this attitude.

And both domestic and international PR are part of your strategy?

Yes. Establishing ourselves globally depends as much on PR and design as it does the skill level that produces the work.

So Japan Handmade is moving forward by including PR and design in its model. With the addition of active collaboration, this group has stepped even further ahead of other traditional Japanese craft producing companies. You know, it continually surprises me that the people I meet from different art and craft-related fields all over Japan, often don’t even know each other. There is very little networking. 

You have a point. Ignorance is the biggest problem. Before we started Japan Handmade, even the six of us didn’t know each other. Though our industries are similar, there was no horizontal communication. Now, we are working together and using tools such as Facebook to share information and build a network.

Japan Handmade is based in Kyoto right now, but we are planning the Shiga Prefecture version as well, which should be quite different from the Kyoto JH. This coming fall, a group of Shiga craftspeople are planning a group show in New York, which will be interesting to witness. Though I said that it would take 50 years to establish traditional Japanese crafts in the global market, it really could be a lot sooner. If we try hard enough, maybe we can cut that time in half.

I’m glad that you said that. I really don’t think I can wait for 50 years since I’ll be 116 by then. I applaud the efforts of Japan Handmade to carry your respective families’ skills into the contemporary world, and introduce excellence in design and craftsmanship into the everyday lives of people throughout the world.

 

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This article originally appeared in the Kyoto Journal in 2014. 

Information about the Kyoto Journal:  http://www.kyotojournal.org/