Tokyo Recrafted

Japan's ancient arts—from silks to ceramics, calligraphy to kaiseki—are now more vibrant than ever. Jackie Cooperman goes shopping.

In a refined Tokyo ceramics gallery, a Bizen stoneware planter, accidentally broken by an employee, is filled with moss and wild grass and placed as a centerpiece on a lacquered Japanese elm table. Throughout Gallery Shun, azaleas and plum-tree branches from owner Yoshiaki Yuki's garden sweep over cherry-wood shelves and peek out of glazed ceramic vases. Rows of teapots and bowls perch on antique shelves and on tables by contemporary artist Futoshi Kurihara. One of Kurihara's cherry-wood tables is topped with clear glass, revealing an antique bamboo mat underneath. A stylish Italian light fixture illuminates a wood beam from an old Japanese country house. The artful juxtaposition of old and new, Eastern and Western, is emblematic of Japanese artists and craftsmen today.

Building on nearly 20 centuries of history and expertise, artists and entrepreneurs are applying new techniques to the ancient arts of ceramics, calligraphy, floral arranging, and textile weaving, and the results are visible all over the nation's capital. "The state of craft in Tokyo is not only alive but very well. Craft remains an extremely vital part of Japanese aesthetic and cultural expression," says Alexandra Munroe, director of the Japan Society Gallery in New York. "The last ten years have seen new heights in the use and patronage of contemporary Japanese crafts."

The vitality of art and craft in Tokyo stems in great part from the government's continuing commitment to honoring craftspeople as Living National Treasures. The designation, created in 1950, provides leading artisans with an annual stipend and accords them special status; in exchange, they teach, lecture, and exhibit their work. Part of the vitality, too, comes from a greater ease of travel in Japan; materials and techniques once unique to one region are now easily transported to others. A third factor, says Munroe, is that the Japanese have always valued craft as much as fine art. "In Japan, the applied and decorative arts have traditionally been considered one with the fine arts. In the West we privilege painting and sculpture over crafts," she says. "In Japan, you still see a tremendous fluidity between 'high' and 'low,' craft and fine arts."

A recent visit to Tokyo took us to a variety of shops that offer the best examples of the country's arts and crafts. From Blue and White, a magnet for crafts since 1975, to Nuno Works, a showcase for inventive new textiles that opened last spring, the dynamic city is featuring works from throughout Japan, and displaying them with reverence.

Indeed, modern aesthetics have not led artisans to abandon painstaking processes of handcrafting objects, nor to forget the deeply ingrained sensitivity to the changing seasons and the interrelated nature of many art forms. "In textiles and ceramics, fresh new voices and hands are springing up and a 'new Japan style' is emerging," says Amy Katoh, author of Japan: The Art of Living. "Old techniques are being pushed in new directions. It's hard to delineate this new style, but it is craft-oriented: simple, direct, handmade pieces, and singular earthy objects made of natural materials like wood, clay, paper, bamboo, cotton, straw, and fiber. There's a return to Japanese aesthetics among the cognoscenti."

Katoh, a Smith alumna who has lived in Tokyo for 40 years, speaks from experience. Her shop, Blue and White, in the Azabu-Juban district, has been highlighting the country's craft traditions since it opened nearly 30 years ago. Among other things, Blue and White carries hand towels and hand-stitched cotton pillows dyed in indigo and decorated with blue-and-white printed fabric squares. "For a long time people have been interested in aristocratic, imperial tradition," Katoh says, "but I'm much more interested in the real people of Japan." However humble the inspiration, everything Katoh sells is finely crafted, hand-dyed or hand-stenciled, and free of synthetic fibers. There are woven cotton duvets made from yukata, the fabric of traditional summer kimonos; Chinese porcelain beads; even South African votive candles that Katoh orders painted with Japanese blue-and-white designs of flowers, fireflies, and waves. Tenugui, the traditional handkerchief of the sushi chef, come in more than 500 patterns, including one with bawdy sumo wrestlers and their lovers in the manner of prints by the 19th-century master Hokusai.

At Katoh's shop and throughout the city, people are embracing traditional elements of Japanese arts and crafts—and adapting them for new uses. "It's not that you see an abandonment of traditional ways of making ceramics or textiles, but rather technology adding to them," says Munroe. "It's as if a whole new craft has emerged with the integration of these technologies—especially in textiles and papermaking. You also see it with super-high fired porcelains, or extremely high-colored polychromes that use gold and silver to great effect. These are areas where you find an amalgam of old and new."

Quite a different confluence of old and new occurs twice a week at a public recreation center in Tokyo's fashionable Minato neighborhood. Here, some 20 students, mostly women in their twenties and thirties, leave their Prada, Ferragamo, and Tanino Crisci shoes outside Yasuko Shien's calligraphy class. Inside they sit on tatami mats, working with brushes and charcoal on lacquer trays, and devote themselves to replicating ancient characters and brush strokes. Shien dresses in a traditional silk kimono and laughs, geisha-style, when asked her age, but admits she's been teaching calligraphy for 24 years. Shien's scrolls, on fine linens and silks, hang at the front of the room, one with a kanji character for "dance," another with an excerpt from The Tale of Gengi. Her wooden brush box with decoupage is tied with a traditional obi. Though it will take them years, Shien's students aspire to her technique.

"Japanese design is very exotic to young Japanese," says Koichi Hara, a former copywriter for McCann-Erickson in Tokyo and owner of the distinguished Japonesque gallery in San Francisco, which specializes in contemporary Japanese craft. "They're interested in simple lacquer ware or wooden bowls instead of the plastic or shiny Western porcelain they grew up with, especially in Tokyo."

Witness the mini-empire of calligrapher and entrepreneur Yoshiaki Yuki, 57, who in the past 15 years has opened not only Gallery Shun and two restaurants in Minato but also Gallery Muu in Yamanashi prefecture, an hour and a half west of Tokyo.

Here, in a garden in the shadow of Mount Fuji, atop a white stone fountain, floats a single bubblegum-colored peony. The fountain, in front of Gallery Muu, is an antique, and the garden, a rather wild assemblage of peach blossoms and hyacinth, surrounds the large converted farmhouse. Inside, fashionably dressed ceramics collectors, many in from Tokyo for the weekend, examine the modern wares displayed on antique furniture from Tibet and China.

Opened in 1988, the three-floor gallery includes some traditional elements—to enter, one walks past a brook and a teahouse—and many modern twists. For one thing, Yuki mixes regional ceramic styles from throughout Japan instead of focusing on a particular area or genre, like porcelain or unglazed stoneware.

The sales manager at Gallery Muu laughs in mock despair when asked how many items were in stock—or, at least, the number of genres represented. A walk-through reveals thousands of pieces of pottery. Some shelves hold Bizen ware, an unglazed ceramic style dating to the 13th century and often chocolate brown in color, and Iga ware, ash-colored vessels originally produced to store rice. Elsewhere are stacks of luminous green and blue Oribe ware, from the Gifu prefecture; bright red lacquer ware designed by Yuki; and blue-and-white Imari bowls from Kyushu province decorated with images of plump white plums.

Each corner of the gallery contains a surprise. There are wall sconces made from traditional handmade paper, small Buddha figures carved in stone, and wisteria branches twined around roof beams. A large wooden table is covered in the red lacquer ware; wooden shelves hold dozens of silk and brocade pillows. The same sensibility, although refined to suit the more sophisticated, and much smaller, Tokyo space, is evident at Gallery Shun, which Yuki opened nine years ago.

"A significant point about Japanese culture is that it places priority on combinations rather than on the originality of a single piece," says Yuki, a prolific calligrapher (he says he makes 10,000 calligraphy drawings annually) who became interested in ceramics through an early passion for archeology. "Even today, in a Japanese house you'll find Chinese, European, and American food, cups, and dishes. Combinations should look balanced and beautiful. If they do, I've succeeded."

The Japanese aesthetic of combined artistry is perhaps most apparent in the tea ceremony. In this centuries-old tradition, tea and food are served on pieces of masterful pottery, flowers are arranged according to the strictures of ikebana, and the precepts of kaiseki—in which seven light courses are served, taking into account the seasons and other concerns—govern the preparation and presentation of the small dishes.

At the celebrated Kozue restaurant in the Park Hyatt Tokyo, chef Kenichiro Ooe, 42, serves a refined, updated kaiseki menu, with dishes like conger eel wrapped in a cherry-blossom leaf with lotus root and red bean, or simmered broad bean with wildflowers, firefly squid, and pickled egg. Ooe presents his delicate food exclusively on his own collection of 30,000 dishes and serving pieces. Kept with great care in several kitchen closets, the collection includes wares from various regions of the country, such as bright green Oribe and blue-and-white Imari. Colors range from earthy browns to bright teals, greens, and reds, and forms include traditional squares and fanciful flowers or leaves. There are also sake glasses in Japanese crystal.

"Kaiseki is a very elaborate cuisine, and can sometimes be a little pretentious, but I wanted something that was warmer and honest," says Ooe. "I'm interested in preparing and presenting Japanese cuisine, and pottery is a natural extension of that."

The third component of the tea ceremony, ikebana, or flower arranging, was first brought to Japan from China as part of Buddhist practices in the sixth century. By the 15th century ikebana was studied in a formal school, Ikenobo, and practiced by warlords, samurai, and priests. It wasn't until the late 19th century, with the growth of the middle class, that women began working with flowers, arranging them to decorate the tokonoma, or traditional alcove used to display family art objects or scrolls in the home. Increasingly, Japanese florists are adding Western techniques and styles to their ikebana training.

"I love ikebana but I wanted to move beyond it, to incorporate European and Western styles," says florist Kawori Nishikawa, owner of Plant's Planet Garage in the Shibuya neighborhood. Nishikawa, 39, a sprightly woman with spiky hair, gave her store its eccentric name to express her view that, like an automobile, the planet needs care and should be taken to its own "garage." In this case, a charming wooden one full of eucalyptus and wild orchids.

Nishikawa's shop reflects her passion for native trees like bonsai and Japanese maple as well as for imported flowers, like lilies and peonies in shocking fuchsia. Her sophisticated color palette runs to hues not typically mixed in ikebana, like bright pinks with beige. "I like to arrange freely, using ceramic bases," she says, pointing to shelves full of ceramic dishes and vases, some textured with sesame grains. "I love ikebana, but it has strict rules that I don't like to follow."

Like Nishikawa, the current generation of Japanese textile designers are also pursuing forward-looking changes. "To my mind, textiles are the most exciting things going on in Japan," says Jack Lenor Larsen, a noted textile designer and Japanese craft collector. "A number of designers there are ahead of the rest of the world. They're using high technology and ancient methods, and combining the two creatively."

The Nuno group, perhaps the best-known proponent of new textiles, has two shops in Tokyo where one encounters science mixed with a healthy dose of whimsy. "Origami" bags and scarves, for example, made from iridescent polyester, come folded into triangles, open up spectacularly, and return to their compressed forms just as easily.

The original shop, Nuno, a showroom and retail space, opened five years ago in the Axis Building, a center for modern Japanese design in the Roppongi neighborhood. "Here we have more traditional Japanese weaves and colors," says chief designer Reiko Sudo, 50. The products show off her ingenious gathering, stitching, and folding techniques. Clothing includes an off-white organdy blazer with nylon ribbon stitching and an elegant gauzy jacket embedded with feathers and leaves. Tables hold colorful scarves, designed by Sudo and her colleagues, in cotton, rayon, and silk.

Nuno Works, the new, more intimate store, aspires to what Sudo calls a "European aesthetic." The bright, whitewashed boutique in the fashionable Aoyama district carries hand-printed fabrics, sheer aqua silks with silver paint "water drops," pillows and tote bags, and the origami bags and scarves. Bolts of printed cotton and toile line the shelves. The store will make pillow covers, other household items, and even clothes in any of the materials.

"The way Sudo works with her employees is unique: even the salespeople have a say in the process," says Desirée Koslin, a professor specializing in textiles at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan. "She lets everyone in the company participate in an integrated way, and that's a really attractive, postmodern idea that they embrace."

While the company takes advantage of "smart fabrics," highly innovative textiles with properties that prevent wrinkles or even components that contain vitamins, it also pays homage to Japanese craft tradition. "Sudo may take a traditional feature and make it into a minimalist component of the design," Koslin says. "There's a Japanese embroidery stitch called sashiko, and she devised a fabric a couple of years ago that has a running stitch look-alike. A Japanese person would look at it and say 'she's doing sashiko' but it's so subtle that if you don't recognize it, you just think it's another line."

Jewelry designer Mariko Sakaguchi also incorporates traditional elements in her work. A former jewelry buyer, the elegant Sakaguchi started designing Tahitian and South Sea pearl brooches partly as a tribute to the proper Japanese ladies who always wore them. ("Brooches were introduced in the late 19th century," notes Alexandra Munroe. "They have been quite popular among the upper class. You do see Japanese women wear them more than women anywhere else.")

"In Japan, the brooch is seen as old-fashioned, so I wanted to refresh it," says Sakaguchi, who also makes necklaces and bracelets on request, sells her jewelry exclusively in Japan, and sees clients by appointment. "I see my work as bridging the gap between accessories and really big jewelry, like a piece by Cartier or Harry Winston. This is something you can wear every day." Each of Sakaguchi's pieces, sold under the label Link International, is one of a kind; she buys the pearls and semiprecious stones and designs the brooches, which are then made by local craftsmen. "I wanted pearls from abroad," she says. "Japanese pearls tend to be too small, too round, and too perfect. I like the imperfections in shape."

Increasingly in Japan, and particularly Tokyo, transformative techniques and details are seeping in from the West, from the American potters and weavers on display in Gallery Shun to the South African-made candles at Katoh's Blue and White. In the chic Ginza shopping district, a new tri-level shop, Ginza Tanagokoro, promotes the use of traditional binchotan charcoal as an environmental purifier, and packages the material in little cotton figures (a frog or a teddy bear) in yellow-and-blue Provençal motifs. Ginza Tanagokoro is clean and modern with bleached wood floors, small potted plants, and aquariums where tropical fish swim amid charcoal sticks. It sells everything from linen eye pillows filled with charcoal bits to loose charcoal for cooking rice and filtering water to gift sets that come with charcoal-based shampoos and soaps.

"It's so trendy now to use charcoal. It has great benefits to purify the water. We always did this when I was a child," says Koichi Hara, whose Japonesque gallery supplied Donna Karan with stones for the garden of her Madison Avenue shop. "Everyone's crazy about this new trend, but it's actually reclaiming a very old tradition of using charcoal for cooking." Indeed, Hara says, Tokyo's newest generation of artisans and entrepreneurs have found ways to make old crafts contemporary, to spin textiles, ceramics, flowers, even the most basic charcoal into fresh designs, with increasingly Western accents. "Tokyo has lots of contemporary Japanese galleries and stores that are using Japanese ideas, adding Western concepts, and redigesting them again for the Japanese."


Ceramics Savvy

For the sophisticated serious shopper, there are a few things to know before heading into the rarefied world of Japanese pottery.

Before you go, you might read up on ceramics. Our recommendations would include The Unknown Craftsman, A Japanese Insight into Beauty, by Soetsu Yanagi et al (Kodansha International, 1989); Chanoyu: Japanese Tea Ceremony (exhibition catalogue, The Japan Society, 1979); Modern Japanese Ceramics in American Collections (The Japan Society, 1993); and Shigaraki: Potter's Valley, by Louise Allison Cort (Weatherhill, 2000).

Start out at galleries in Tokyo's leading department stores, like Takashimaya and Mitsukoshi, which have larger capacity than private galleries and change shows weekly.

Always ask to handle the work, but show respect by removing your rings.

Expect high prices. Beatrice Chang, an expert on Japanese ceramics, owns New York's Dai Ichi Arts Gallery (249 East 48th Street; 212-230-1680; www.daiichiarts.com). She says that while the Asian ceramics market in the United States is "underdeveloped," it is strong in Japan, where prices can be as high as $135,000 for a Korean Ito tea bowl. Values are rising in the United States, too, Chang says. Two years ago, Phillips auctioned a flattened stoneware vase by Kanjiro Kawai for $57,000. At Dai Ichi, prices for pieces by Japanese artists like Shoji Hamada, who was a Living National Treasure, are between $5,000 and $10,000; work by Kanjiro Kawai sells for $7,000 to $26,000.

Pay attention to how the pottery feels in your hands. "The beauty of ceramics comes not only from the visual pleasure but also from the tactile quality," says Chang. "With aging, the pieces become more beautiful."

Look at the clay's texture and thickness. Works from Tokoname, a coastal city, use sandy clay. Bizen is from the rice fields of Okayama, so the clay is full of iron. Shigaraki and Iga are coarse mountain clays.

A piece should come with a paulownia-wood box, or tomobako, which is signed by the artist and guarantees the work's provenance and authenticity.

Examine a piece's form as well as its glaze. "The form is subjective, you have to decide whether it speaks to you or not," Chang says, but the glaze reveals provenance. Japanese potters do not glaze the foot of a pot. "They want you to see the clay," she says. "They want you to see the artist's work on the foot. Some feet are carved, some are added on. It's an indication of where the clay is from—a connoisseur's mark. It's also how you tell which kiln was used."


A Directory to Tokyo Crafts

CERAMICS GALLERY SHUN, Sun Palace Building, no. 4-2-49 Minami-Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 81-3-3444-7665. • GALLERY MUU, Muutani, Oizumi, Yamanashi, Japan; 81-5-5138-0061. Prices at both galleries begin at $10 for a green Oribe ware sake cup and range to $8,000 for a traditional 19th-century oak stair chest.

TEXTILES NUNO, Axis Building, no. 5-17-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 81-3-3582-7997. • NUNO WORKS, no. 6-11-8 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 81-3-5468-0254. Items include tote bags in bright geometric patterns ($62) and an off-white organdy blazer with nylon ribbon stitching ($400).

TRADITIONAL MISCELLANEA BLUE AND WHITE, no. 2-9-2 Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 81-3-3451-0537. Items range from hand-dyed indigo tenugui ($8.50) to a blue-and-white yukata quilt with a fan motif ($2,000).

FLOWERS PLANT'S PLANET GARAGE, no. 2-5-18 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 81-3-3400-9501. $ Typical arrangements with a wood or metal base by a contemporary artist start at $450; with an antique ceramic base, $850. FLOWERS PLANT'S PLANET GARAGE, no. 2-5-18 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 81-3-3400-9501. $ Typical arrangements with a wood or metal base by a contemporary artist start at $450; with an antique ceramic base, $850.

BROOCHES MARIKO SAKAGUCHI, LINK INTERNATIONAL, no. 1-19-14 Higashi-Ueno, Taito-ku, Tokyo; 81-3-5688-3338. Items range from a diamond ring ($1,500) to a coral, sapphire, diamond, and South Sea pearl brooch ($8,500).

CHARCOAL GINZA TANAGOKORO, no. 1-8-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 81-3-3538-6555; www.tanagokoro.com. Charcoal items range from teddy bear eye pillows ($20) to a set of five four-and-a-half-foot-long decorative sticks ($850).

CALLIGRAPHY YASUKO SHIEN, Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 81-3-3478-4321. Classes are $250 per month; private lessons are $140 per hour. Shien's own calligraphy paintings range from $1,000 to $8,000.

Jackie Cooperman wrote about Japanese handmade paper in the November/December issue.

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