All spruced up (not really) and ready for a night out on the town. We jump in a cab (my suggestion of course, and the first of many) and head to 21_21 Design Sight, a design museum instigated by the likes of Issey Miyake and Tadao Ando (also the architect). I visited here a couple of years ago with the Anthropologie team, while shooting for my book Nomad (Nomado in Engrish and a very kuerr term at present). I saw the ‘Post Fossil’ exhibition here which I loved and have often referenced since. The current exhibition ‘TEMA HIMA: the Art of Living in Tohoku’ did not disappoint. We walked through beautiful condensed gardens full of in-season irises and hydrangeas to reach the museum. It glows like sails and is built like an iceberg. The tip is angular glass and pressed concrete in true Ando style. When dusk falls (TIP#4: Go at dusk) you access the lower galleries by descending stairs and moving through several spaces. It has great height & light even though it is not on ground level. This is achieved by the feeling that a meteorite has torpedoed into the earth into the middle of 21_21 creating a fission with glass walls that reach from underground to the sky.

The exhibition showcases an appreciation of the craftsmen and artisans who live in Northern rural Japan and produce handmade wonders that are used in everyday life from apple pruning shears by a blacksmith to silver birch woven plates by a basketweaver and natural rubber boots, gluten bread, rice cakes wrapped in bamboo leaves, lacquerware, apple boxes (more than you could ever imagine stacked high like skyrises) and cedar barrels with plaited bamboo trim. You are introduced to the people behind these crafts through video documentary that is breathtakingly shot exposing their life’s work, the landscape which they live in and determines their traditions, and the way that their hands are shaped by their craft, like a portrait. The winter stories suggested that when it wasn’t snowing, these artisans would be farmers or fishers, their craft being a seasonal trade.

Once we had watched every last story, we entered the exhibit where the produce was displayed in a no-frills style with an emphasis on the beauty on the wares themselves. From salted fish, preserved daicon, traditional soy bean sweets, lacquerware, ceramics, woodwork, bread, woven baskets, chopsticks, tofu and more. We pulled ourselves away from the exhibition and popped into the giant Muji store across the way to stock up on my favourite pencils & pens before heading to dinner.


I had a new level of appreciation at this traditional Japanese house, Inakaya in Roppongi, where we dined & drank. I felt like I had walked into the exhibition with the long wooden serving paddles that dived for the food and passed us our Asahis, the woven plates in silver vine that offered the salted fish, eggplant & everything else, sake porcelain spouted pots, chagrin to grate horseradish, wooden sake dove-tailed boxes, cotton striped napkins and indigo weaved coasters. To know the origin of these pieces made the dinner so much more special and to understand that these are things that people make for themselves to use, out of necessity, in the winter months & by hand for the coming year. Japan is not a buy & throw out supermarket society.

Written by Adam TSI Byron — October 28, 2019

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