‘Would you like an egg with your soba?” Jun Obara asks as he conjures an egg from his fur-lined jacket. Without waiting for a response, he cracks open the white shell and carefully mixes its contents into the steaming bowl of noodles.
We’re sitting in a small restaurant located in Tsumago, a village in Nagano Prefecture that once served as a post town along the Nakasendo trail, the Edo Period (1603-1868) route between Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and Kyoto. Obara, an eccentric local fashion designer grew up in this “mountain village” and now owns a clothing store selling zany garments, all bearing his name.
The soba shop is one of a series of small commercial enterprises that line the main thoroughfare in Tsumago, catering for the slow stream of tourists walking the Nakasendo, now a hiking trail. Tiny souvenir shops, inns and sake outlets are housed in picturesque two-story wooden structures. They all blend seamlessly with the region’s mountainous backdrop.
That is until you reach the Obarajun shop. As you approach, the orgy of iridescent colors is like a smack in the face. The window-display is crammed full of mannequins, their lifeless forms animated by the vibrant clothing. All jostling for the limelight.
The best model of the garments, however, is Obara himself, who today wears a blue suit with a striking Sharaku ukiyo-e design printed across it. This is topped off with thick-rimmed black glasses, as favored by style-icon Iris Apfel, and a pair of diamante earrings.
At first glance, the shop looks like a vintage store, an outfitter for the dandies of the 1970s: flared trousers, waistcoats and jackets with large lapels, all in audacious colors. As you approach the mannequins, however, you notice that these clothes are very different from anything available in other stores.
The fabrics, which Obara designs himself, all use sashiko, a running stitch technique used in the Edo Period to strengthen or repair indigo-dyed work clothes.
Obara’s sashiko, though, is unlike the muted tones of the past and instead involves a series of arresting color combinations. His most popular fabric design, aptly dubbed “Strawberry,” has a fruity-red base woven with neon green thread. The sharp difference in color gives the fabric a rich and indulgent texture.
The designs, like sashiko, are rooted in Japanese tradition. From his Sharaku-inspired prints, to the chrysanthemum motifs, Obara’s devotion to the past is palpable. He becomes particularly animated about his indigo-colored items, which he says was inspired by Edo firefighters’ jackets. On the outside, the fire jackets were subdued in color and style — appropriate for a working man. However, on the inside was a hidden lining of elaborate design. Made to be reversible, the jackets allowed firemen to switch from work to festivities without a change of clothes.
Obara turns the firefighter’s coat inside out, making its lining into the defining feature of the outfit. His fashion is unashamedly bold and require a level of self-confidence on the part of the wearer. The customers tend to be “unique people who are walking their own path,” he says. “When they try on my clothes, they find out something about themselves. Art does that.”
Like art, the items don’t come cheap, a reflection of the involvement of various craftsmen in the dyeing, weaving, printing and sewing stages. Shirts start at around ¥40,000 and jackets at ¥80,000. Though designed primarily but not exclusively as menswear, Obara’s clothing is most popular with middle-aged men, and the Obarajun office walls are lined with photographs sent in by customers proudly modeling their purchases.
But in such a remote part of Japan, his regulars are limited. He explains, “The biggest difference between shopping here and shopping at Dolce & Gabbana, is that no one knows before coming to my shop that they will end up here.” But shrugging off his concerns about the rural location of his store, he laughs, “I am not a businessman. I am an artist.”
The lack of business acumen, reflected by a rudimentary website, poor social media presence and his visible apathy toward technology as a business promotional tool is perhaps related to his attitude toward the modern fashion industry and his predilection for nonconformity.
As a teenager, Obara used every trick up his sleeve to bend the school uniform rules. Now, as he walks through Tsumago’s streets, you can tell he is used to attracting attention. He’s unfazed by the passers-by who cannot help but steal a second glance at his unusual outfit.
“Everyone is Uniqlo,” he laments, while also lambasting some prominent fashion designers for being “boring.”
Obara is rebellious and far from boring. But he is also a product of where he is from, and in many ways, he embodies the traditional values that Tsumago represents. In Obara’s view, if you produce great art, people will naturally beat a path to your door. This is perhaps a metaphor for much of the craft industry in Japan.
But he is beginning to understand that to reach a clientele beyond Tsumago and his faithful customers, he needs to reach out. He has just opened a second shop in Osaka.
He is a bit of a conundrum: a slice of modernity in a nostalgic world that itself is struggling to compete with technological advances. If we can learn anything from his cheek in bringing his own eggs to a restaurant, it seems that Obara will find a creative way to bend the rules in his favor.
For more information about Jun Obara, visit obarajun.shopinfo.jp.
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