Paris, France – Down a narrow alley of Le Marais, a fashionable district in central Paris, stands Ogata Paris, an elegant four-story art and dining complex that its creator, Shinichiro Ogata, sees as something of an embassy for Japanese culture.
“Currently, Japan has several premier brands but lacks one that promotes an entire way of living based on our traditional culture,” says Ogata, who is the founder of the design firm Simplicity. “I believe that Japan needs and is seeking an ambassador to interpret the country’s culture and communicate its values to the rest of the world.”
Judging by his efforts, Ogata fancies himself as a top pick for the post. He chose Paris as the location for his first European venue because, as he puts it, both the French and Japanese cultures share strong attachments to their heritage in design and traditional architecture.
“The French people seem to have a special understanding of Japanese culture and are eager to learn more,” Ogata says, adding that the Japonisme movement of the latter half of the 19th century influenced both sides to draw inspiration from each other.
Ogata maintains he has long been a proponent of cultural exchange. He grew up in Nagasaki, which itself was the only port open to the rest of the world during Japan’s sakoku (closed country) period from the 17th to the 19th century, and his fascination with the wider world led him to become a fan of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), who drew inspiration from Japanese art and designed the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.
“After (I completed) my studies in interior design, I began to make annual trips to New York where I was constantly exposed to art and culture. It was a time of my life where I was curious about everything and eager to absorb foreign cultures,” he recalls. “I eventually realized that Japanese concepts and ideas influenced many artists and designers I admired. That is the moment I rediscovered Japan.”
In 1998, Ogata set up Simplicity with the intention of bringing modern Japanese culture to the world. The design firm’s first independent project was Higashi-Yama Tokyo, a restaurant in the neighborhood of Nakameguro that Ogata designed and operated himself. In 2018, Higashi-Yama was converted into a research lab for Japanese cuisine under the Food Nippon initiative to rediscover traditional recipes and offer seasonal meals made with regional ingredients from various parts of Japan.
In addition to Higashi-Yama, Ogata has created various restaurants and tea salons, including Yakumo Saryo in Meguro Ward, which offers kaiseki (traditional Japanese cuisine) dishes with a modern twist, and tea ceremony, Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience in central Tokyo, and Yorozu in Fukuoka. The designer oversees the architectural aspects of each location, as well as having a hand in every single item on the menus, from sourcing ingredients to checking the sweetness of a wagashi confectionery.
The designer says that, for him, food culture is a principal factor in presenting Japan’s unique sense of aesthetics, as well as a lifestyle focused on being in harmony with nature.
“There is a major connection between architecture and food,” Ogata says. “Expressing modern Japanese culture through cuisine involves many components, showcasing not only the ingredients but vessels and implements as well, so people may fully appreciate with their five senses our proposed themes of refined and enriching ways of living. We also offer spaces designed to create an immersive culinary experience. For me, everything is connected.”
Ogata Paris, which includes a restaurant, bar, tea salon, gallery and a boutique showcasing handcrafted goods created in collaboration with Ogata and Japanese craftspeople, not only encapsulates the designer’s career in developing dining establishments but also his background as a designer.
“I am just an interior designer, I’m not an architect nor a cook,” he says. “However, I work closely with traditional specialists to incorporate contemporary designs and modernize their processes while respecting their traditions and techniques. I want to help create a system for sustainable production that leverages skills and brings innovation.”
During the three years it took to build Ogata Paris, Japanese craftspeople were brought in to teach traditional construction methods, including the use of shikkui lime plaster and kakiotoshi earth plaster walls.
“(The craftspeople) worked closely with the French artisans to pass on their know-how and to exchange (knowledge),” Ogata says. “I believe this project has brought together many different master craftspeople. Japanese understand delicacy in millimeters, while French understand delicacy in centimeters. I’m not saying either is good or bad, simply that the Japanese are more into detail whereas French have a broader point of view. It was interesting to see the collaboration between those two very different perspectives.”
The collaboration yielded some beautiful results. The renovated 17th-century townhouse that is now Ogata Paris boasts an entrance with a striking water feature made from date kanmuri stone from Miyagi Prefecture. This leads to a spacious atrium with traditional Japanese furniture, which sits among some of the building’s original fixtures. Ogata’s belief in sahō, a way of being in harmony with nature, has been meticulously applied throughout the complex: Concrete floors are imprinted with the texture of tatami mats to prevent slipping, and the feet of dining chairs are designed to match the tatami grooves to ensure seamless movement.
“We have kept some original walls, stones and pillars,” Ogata says. “It is very important for me to keep those original parts of France so I don’t impose Japan on it forcefully.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the designer believes that people have become more mindful about their approach to design and their lifestyles, and sees that as the reason they might be able to benefit from Japanese customs now more than ever.
“I’m convinced that the way of life that Ogata Paris proposes will gain much more recognition (from non-Japanese societies),” he says. ”It is about going back to a primitive way of living by respecting nature. In that way, Japanese culture can provide some much-needed guidance.”
For more information about Ogata Paris, visit ogata.com/paris/en.