An­cient and mod­ern

Revered as a his­toric Ja­panese cap­i­tal, Nara is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a cul­tural re­nais­sance, led by a savvy herd of young cre­atives

Wallpaper - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy Carol Sachs Writer Jens H Jensen

The next-gen­er­a­tion en­trepreneurs re­viv­ing Japan’s an­cient cap­i­tal, Nara

T here are so many places to visit in Japan that Nara, a charm­ing old cap­i­tal city lo­cated roughly at the cen­tre of Hon­shu, is of­ten over­looked. Two years ago, while work­ing on a book project on the Nara pre­fec­ture, I fi­nally made it there, trav­el­ling around to visit the ceram­i­cist Shiro Tsu­jimura, who lives deep in a for­est in a house he built with his own hands; wit­ness­ing a Ja­panese tea whisk be­ing made from a sim­ple piece of bam­boo by 20th-gen­er­a­tion crafts­man Tango Tan­imura; and ex­plor­ing the com­pact city cen­tre. I’ve been com­ing back reg­u­larly since.

While Ky­oto is most of­ten thought of as the tra­di­tional old cap­i­tal of Japan, Nara was in fact cap­i­tal longer ago, in what is known as the Nara pe­riod, from 710-794. Much of Ja­panese cul­ture orig­i­nated here and the city is still brim­ming with tem­ples, shrines and tra­di­tional work­shops, but is at the same time home to many young cre­ative souls fus­ing tra­di­tion with con­tem­po­rary de­sign.

My first stop when­ever I visit the city is the lit­tle Mi­namo café in a lovingly re­stored

machiya town­house in a quiet res­i­den­tial area of town. Its daily lunch spe­cial is a treat; to­day it’s a main dish of fried aubergine topped with minced beef and soy sauce, a hearty miso soup, steamed rice and a side dish of bril­liant green stir-fried string beans. Mi­namo’s young owner, Yoko Fuku­moto, serves great cof­fee and home­made cake, but there is also the newly opened Tabi Cof­fee Roast­ers a short stroll away. The roast­ery is a tiny booth in one of the city’s more run­down covered mar­kets, tucked amid a cou­ple of green­gro­cers and op­po­site a small Chi­nese restau­rant that doles out cheap ra­men and stir-fries to loyal reg­u­lars. With cof­fee that is freshly roasted, ground, brewed and

served at a few high chairs at the small counter, Tabi is just the kind of place the city didn’t re­alise it was miss­ing. It might also help to re­ju­ve­nate the mar­ket and is cer­tainly a breath of fresh air.

As Nara is less than an hour from Ky­oto, many vis­i­tors don’t bother to spend the night. It’s a real shame, as while the city might not have a vi­brant nightlife, a late evening stroll along the quiet streets of the old Nara­machi area brings its own re­wards. Most of the ar­chi­tec­ture is pre­served wooden fam­ily homes, and street light­ing is kept cosy with the odd lantern in front of restau­rants and old lamp posts; near the Saru­sawa pond, one is re­warded with ma­jes­tic views of the fivesto­ried pagoda of Ko­fukuji Tem­ple. Fol­low this up with in­ven­tive cock­tails at the Lamp Bar (mixol­o­gist Mi­chito Kaneko won the top prize at the 2015 World Class bar­tend­ing com­pe­ti­tion) or a cold beer over sim­mered

oden dishes at Take no Yakata, a favourite af­ter-hours hang­out among lo­cals.

There are a hand­ful of nice ryokans within or near the stun­ning Nara Park, or the clas­sic (but, let’s be hon­est, rather run­down) Nara Ho­tel de­signed by Kingo Tat­suno in 1909, but for me the only proper place to stay is Kider­ano-ie. Kidera, as it is of­ten known, is a se­ries of five town­houses on the out­skirts of the Nara­machi dis­trict. Orig­i­nally sched­uled for de­mo­li­tion, they were painstak­ingly re­stored by the Fu­jioka fam­ily, who wanted to show that in the right hands, these small homes could not only live on as spec­i­mens of ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory but also lead the way in com­bin­ing tra­di­tional ver­nac­u­lar build­ings with a mod­ern way of life. The five homes now sit in a lit­tle pocket of what Nara could look like, if peo­ple such as Shun­pei Fu­jioka and his fa­ther Ryusuke, the ar­chi­tects be­hind the ho­tel, had more of a say in city plan­ning.

The at­ten­tion to de­tail is as­tound­ing, from the care­fully ren­o­vated Shōwa in­te­ri­ors with fresh tatami mats and spot­less earthen walls, to the thin cot­ton string tied around the spare roll of toi­let pa­per. Each res­i­dence is dif­fer­ent, but all come with a kitch­enette, bath­rooms (many with hi­noki cy­press bath­tubs), sep­a­rate sleep­ing and liv­ing ar­eas, and a small gar­den. Un­like a room at a reg­u­lar ho­tel, the Kidera homes of­fer the chance to live in Nara like a lo­cal and ex­pe­ri­ence the charms of an old town­house. Guests are left pretty much to them­selves af­ter be­ing given their keys, though staff can be reached by phone 24/7 should the need arise.è

Break­fast is a high­light at Kidera. Brought in by smil­ing staff in a large alu­minium car­rier, it’s the epit­ome of a tra­di­tional Ja­panese morn­ing meal. There’s brown rice with black se­same, miso soup with two kinds of tofu, a lo­cal spe­cial­ity of sim­mered daiwa

mana greens and deep-fried tofu, as­para­gus dressed in a sweet se­same sauce, per­fectly grilled mack­erel, pick­led plum and sea­soned kombu seaweed, all served in care­fully se­lected lo­cal ce­ramic dishes.

While run­ning the inn, Shun­pei and his fa­ther con­tinue to ren­o­vate tra­di­tional homes in Nara and have com­pleted about 20 small and large projects in town to date.

Af­ter break­fast, I head out to ex­plore Tak­a­batake, the pre­dom­i­nantly res­i­den­tial neigh­bour­hood south of the Ka­suga Grand Shrine. I start at the well-kept for­mer res­i­dence of nov­el­ist Naoya Shiga. The house is a mix of tra­di­tional Ja­panese tatami rooms and some clearly Western-in­flu­enced ad­di­tions, such as the bright Sun Room, an ex­pan­sive space at the back of the house with heavy tiles un­der­foot and a large glazed open­ing in the ceil­ing that lets in plenty of nat­u­ral light. This is where Shiga is said to have held his fa­mous Tak­a­batake Sa­lons, where fel­low nov­el­ists and thinkers gath­ered to dis­cuss world af­fairs late into the night. The tra­di­tion is be­ing kept alive next door at a small café, where cof­fee, tea and cakes are served al­fresco un­der­neath a tow­er­ing Hi­malaya Sugi cy­press tree.

Be­yond Shiga’s for­mer res­i­dence, there are also a few unique shops in the Tak­a­batake area, in­clud­ing To­moshiki, a small store sell­ing sim­ple clothes lovingly hand­made by own­ers Kenichi Kishi­moto and Noriko Ya­suda, and So­ramitsu, an arts and crafts shop of­fer­ing made-in-japan goods as well as show­cas­ing the work of lo­cal artists and crafts­men. (Many of the shops and cafés in the area have lim­ited open­ing hours, so check be­fore­hand.)

The city is home to many more in­ter­est­ing out­lets, in­clud­ing Anna Hasegawa and her hus­band Man­pei Tsu­rubayashi’s Soni­house speaker brand. The cou­ple have con­verted the first floor of an old sushi restau­rant into a work­shop for their in­no­va­tive speaker sys­tems, with a com­bined show­room and con­cert space on top. In 2007, af­ter work­ing in speaker de­sign for a large au­dio man­u­fac­turer for two years, Tsu­rubayashi set out to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­i­ties of om­ni­di­rec­tional sound and started Soni­house with Hasegawa. Their 12- and 14-faceted speak­ers of 12mm birch ply­wood are now fêted by mu­si­cians and mu­sic lovers for their abil­ity to recre­ate nat­u­ral and am­bi­ent sounds. The show­room pro­vides a per­fect space for ex­pe­ri­enc­ing this in per­son – the sound seems to fill the space from all di­rec­tions and as one moves around, the qual­ity doesn’t change. The show­room is also used reg­u­larly for in­ti­mate con­certs, both acous­tic and elec­tronic. There is usu­ally food from one of Nara’s many great cafés and restau­rants, and al­ways an eclec­tic crowd that shares Tsu­rubayashi and Hasegawa’s pas­sion for sound.

Be­fore I leave, Tsu­rubayashi shows me a beau­ti­ful lamp with a hand-blown glass shade hang­ing above the stair­case lead­ing up to the show­room. ‘Do you know Na­gatomi-san from New Light Pot­tery?’ he asks. I don’t, but af­ter a quick phone call a meet­ing is set up.

That’s the beauty of a small city like Nara. Once you know one per­son, your net­work ex­pands quickly. Most of the in­ter­est­ing young en­trepreneurs know each other, and there is strong sense of ca­ma­raderie with­out ev­ery­one nec­es­sar­ily do­ing the same thing or even headed in the same di­rec­tion. In big­ger cities such as Tokyo or Ky­oto, there is in­tense com­pe­ti­tion among the cre­ative crowd, but here in Nara, they seem to en­joy each other’s com­pany, which makes the city all the eas­ier to pen­e­trate, and more fun.

When Nara was Japan’s cap­i­tal, crafts­men from all over the coun­try fol­lowed the em­peror and set up shop here, leav­ing a long and im­pres­sive line of tra­di­tional crafts in the city. Ev­ery­thing from beau­ti­ful

raden lac­quer­ware to cast-iron ket­tles (once a must-have item for the tea cer­e­mony, now in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar among af­flu­ent Chi­nese tea-drinkers) are still made here. Hiroyuki Maeta is one of the younger gen­er­a­tion of crafts­men, spe­cial­is­ing in hand­carved wooden sculp­tures called it­to­bori. The tech­nique is unique in that only straight cuts are made us­ing ra­zor-sharp chis­els and carv­ing knives. Many of the works are then painted in vivid colours, dis­tin­guish­ing them from other Ja­panese carv­ing tra­di­tions.

It­to­bori is most of­ten used for small takasago dolls, but Maeta is tak­ing the craft in a more cre­ative and hu­mor­ous di­rec­tion with his larger works, of­ten in­spired by an­cient Ja­panese folk­lore. His ad­ven­tur­ous de­signs have in­cluded all kinds of an­i­mals (a bright red oc­to­pus and a golden Arowana fish), and a set-up of a black devil play­ing a game of Go with a white devil. A few of these pieces can be seen at the Nara Craft Mu­seum near Nara­machi, and he was also re­cently in­vited to par­tic­i­pate in a craft ex­hi­bi­tion at the Nara Pre­fec­tural Mu­seum of Art.

Most of the in­ter­est­ing young en­trepreneurs know each other and there is a strong sense of ca­ma­raderie

An early morn­ing lo­cal train takes me to the quiet res­i­den­tial area of Ikoma for my meet­ing with Hiroyuki Na­gatomi, of New Light Pot­tery. Na­gatomi is quick to apol­o­gise that his gallery is al­most empty, but ex­plains that he is in the process of mov­ing to a new lo­ca­tion just out­side the site of the old im­pe­rial palace. He started his light­ing de­sign busi­ness while work­ing on the light­ing lay­out for a small bar in Shin­saibashi, Osaka, and strug­gled to find the per­fect fix­ture to sus­pend above the long wooden counter. He thought maybe he should just make his own.

Three years on, Na­gatomi now boasts a cat­a­logue of more than 20 pen­dants and a dozen bracket, clip and ta­ble lamps – the brand does not pro­duce pot­tery, rather its name sug­gests an am­bi­tion to in­fuse the highly in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion of light­ing fix­tures with the hands-on, craft-ori­ented ap­proach of a ceram­i­cist. Most of the lights are made with a com­bi­na­tion of glass and brass, the lat­ter with var­i­ous fin­ishes, such as ham­mer­ing and colour­ing with burnt Ja­panese lac­quer to cre­ate a mes­meris­ing black sur­face. Na­gatomi is a rare breed in Japan, where a cou­ple of large light­ing man­u­fac­tures have dom­i­nated the mar­ket. ‘I was re­cently in New York to visit some of the many light­ing stu­dios to get in­spi­ra­tion for my own new space. There are so many in­ter­est­ing new light­ing com­pa­nies there, and I won­der why Japan is fall­ing so far be­hind,’ he says. Judg­ing by the swift suc­cess of New Light Pot­tery, he might be start­ing a trend in his home coun­try.

Be­fore leav­ing the city, I have booked lunch at Ako­rdu, a restau­rant set just on the edge of Nara Park, close to the per­fectly man­i­cured Yoshikien and Isuien gar­dens. The spa­cious open din­ing room of­fers a sooth­ing view out across a large lawn, with parts of the park in the back­ground. I had heard great things about chef Hiroshi Kawashima’s in­no­va­tive cook­ing and strong fo­cus on lo­cal in­gre­di­ents, and am not dis­ap­pointed. Each of the beau­ti­fully pre­sented dishes is not just cooked to per­fec­tion, but also of­fers a sub­tle twist that be­comes ap­par­ent ei­ther when you take your first bite or via the ex­pla­na­tions of­fered by the at­ten­tive staff. Lo­cal thin miwa somen noo­dles are pre­sented as a cold pasta dish with a re­fresh­ing sauce of mint and green pep­pers. Per­fect straw­ber­ries are mar­i­nated with lo­cal green tea and el­der­flow­ers, some­thing that for me brings back mem­o­ries of sum­mers in Den­mark. Kawashima has spent some time at Mu­garitz in the Basque Coun­try and named his estab­lish­ment af­ter the Basque word for mem­ory.

Just like my meal at Ako­rdu, Nara is a trove of small de­lights. Be­hind its time­less façades is a con­stantly evolv­ing city that teems with cre­ative en­ergy as new en­trepreneurs move in and set up shop.

Hiroyuki na­gatomi Light­ing de­signer Na­gatomi founded New Light Pot­tery in Nara in 2015 af­ter he found it dif­fi­cult to find a great light for a bar he was de­sign­ing. To­day he spe­cialises in brass and glass mod­els, all hand­made with the help of a num­ber of tal­ented lo­cal crafts­men. new­light­pot­

Lo­cated next to Nara Park, the 1909 Nara Ho­tel is an ex­am­ple of late Meiji ar­chi­tec­ture. It is the work of Kingo Tat­suno, the ar­chi­tect of Tokyo Sta­tion

Op­po­site, clock­wise from top left; the Fu­jiokas’ Kidera-no-ie guest houses of­fer a tra­di­tional break­fast; sim­ple rooms with tatami floor­ing; pri­vate gar­dens; and shoji screens

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