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From Tokyo to London: This is the house that Japan built

by Mio Yamada

Staff Writer

Visitors to Japan House London, which opened on June 22 on Kensington High Street in the heart of the British capital, could be in for a bit of a surprise.

As the city’s new cultural hub of all things Japanese, its minimalist open-plan interiors, striking contemporary central spiral staircase, three floors of innovative design, art and architectural works, and classy open-kitchen restaurant impressively avoid the all-too-easy stereotypical preconceptions about Japan.

Kenya Hara (left), chief creative director of the Japan House projects with Masamichi Katayama of Wonderwall at Katayama
Kenya Hara (left), chief creative director of the Japan House projects with Masamichi Katayama of Wonderwall at Katayama’s central spiral staircase in Japan House London. | ADRIAN BROOKS/IMAGEWISE

What may come as more of a surprise, however, is that the immaculately re-fitted art deco London building — which also houses an expansive design store, specialized library and cafe area — is, in fact, a Japanese government initiative.

A collection of items selected by Saeko Kato for The Shop in Japan House London.
A collection of items selected by Saeko Kato for The Shop in Japan House London. | JAPAN HOUSE LONDON

Following others in Los Angeles and Sao Paulo, Japan House London is the latest addition to the Foreign Ministry’s most stylish cultural outreach project yet — a series of international establishments designed to introduce and nurture an overseas appreciation of contemporary Japanese culture through exhibitions, events, workshops and retail experiences.

The Shop at Japan House London
The Shop at Japan House London. | © LEE MAWDSLEY

The initiative named Kenya Hara, one of Japan’s most-celebrated designers, as its chief creative director, and the impressive list of collaborators continued with the interiors of Japan House Los Angeles conceived by Junji Tanigawa, Kohei Nawa and Ryu Kosaka, and Japan House Sao Paulo supervised by the leading architect Kengo Kuma.

For London, Masamichi Katayama, the interior designer and principal of Wonderwall, joined the roster with a concept inspired by the traditional Japanese home and its tokonoma — the empty raised alcoves built into Japanese houses specifically for the artistic appreciation of kakemono hanging scrolls or ikebana flower arrangements.

“The center of attention is not the design but rather what occurs in the space,” Katayama says of his work, which in its minimalism draws the eye to the activities housed on each of the floors, all visible from the central spiral staircase.

‘Stacked Colours,’ one of 100 works of architect Sou Fujimoto’s ‘Futures of the Futures’ exhibition. | ADRIAN BROOKS/IMAGEWISE

The lower floor houses The Gallery, its inaugural exhibition a showcase of architectural models and innovative concepts from leading architect Sou Fujimoto, while the ground floor is primarily dedicated to The Shop, which boasts extensive inventory of both craft and contemporary design products, accompanied by The Stand tea space and a compact library of art, architecture, design and other books related to Japan.

“At the core of the selection is the highly regarded philosophy of monozukuri,” says Saeko Kato, curator of the The Shop, which offers a carefully edited collection of household goods ranging from washi paper stationery, kitchen utensils and tableware to cosmetics and bath products.

The Shop at Japan House London includes items made using traditional craftsmanship, such as this mage-wappa cedar and cherry wood rice container.
The Shop at Japan House London includes items made using traditional craftsmanship, such as this mage-wappa cedar and cherry wood rice container. | JAPAN HOUSE LONDON

“Literally meaning the art of making things, monozukuri is a pursuit rooted in Japan’s history,” she explains. “It’s a commitment to produce excellent products and constantly improve the system of production — from one-of-a-kind handmade craft through to large-scale manufacturing.”

Such reverence for artisanship and originality resonates throughout the building, and is often hidden in the details. Katayama’s spiral staircase, which was crafted in Japan and then shipped and reassembled in London to span the building’s three floors, features handmade kawara clay tiles from Awaji Island and steelwork completed in Fukushima.

Akira Restaurant has an open kitchen that allows diners to watch the chef at work.
Akira Restaurant has an open kitchen that allows diners to watch the chef at work. | © LEE MAWDSLEY

The top-floor restaurant Akira, named after the chef Akira Shimizu, also serves some of its contemporary-style Japanese dishes — including chargrilled kushiyaki (skewers) of wagyu beef and donabe (clay pot) steamed rice — on unique stone-like ceramics, earthenware, porcelain plates and bowls, designed by Shimizu himself and commissioned from craftspeople in Japan. Akira’s unconventional multi-compartment bento box presentations, too, Shimizu says, are “something we don’t see in Japan, but made using Japanese materials and craftsmanship.”

Akira Shimizu
Akira Shimizu’s sashimi assortment is served in a custom ‘bento box’ made by artisans in Japan. | JAPAN HOUSE

“Each product in The Shop has a story to tell, introducing the cultures of Japan,” says Kato, and her words ring true of everything on display in Japan House London. Even the snacks at The Stand feature Japanese dorayaki bean-paste cakes, while the beverages — served hot, iced or in unusual latte versions — focus on matcha and hojicha.

Messengers deliver blooms selected by flower artist Makoto Azuma to members of the public for the opening of Japan House London.
Messengers deliver blooms selected by flower artist Makoto Azuma to members of the public for the opening of Japan House London. | JAPAN HOUSE LONDON

With upcoming exhibitions including “The Biology of Metal: Metal Working from Tsubame Sanjo” and “Subtle: Takeo Paper Show,” the promise of cutting-edge technology exhibits and a host of forthcoming workshops and talks in its dedicated event space, Japan House London looks set to be, not just a magnet for fans of Japanese culture, but also a popular Kensington attraction that draws both locals and tourists.

“I think people will be curious, intrigued and surprised,” says Michael Houlihan, Japan House London’s director general, just before the grand opening. “Many will come expecting to see Mount Fuji, geisha or lanterns. Instead, they will find a space and content that are contemporary, but unmistakably an expression of the Japanese aesthetic.”

For more information on Japan House London, visit www.japanhouselondon.uk.

Yoshitaka Haba, founder of Bach
Yoshitaka Haba, founder of Bach | © CYCLINGOODWEB

Listen to Bach for a new way to curate books

Perusing the Japan House London library — stocked by Yoshitaka Haba, founder of the library and book-store curation company Bach — promises to be an unusual browsing experience.

A vanguard of library and book-store curation in Japan, Haba has attracted the attention of major book stores and design shops by eschewing the conventional categorization of publication by discipline, and creatively shelving them according to theme and subtheme. His system — which he calls “editing shelf style” — allows art, science, cooking, travel and other volumes to mix in a way designed to nudge browsing readers into “serendipitous” discoveries of unexpected recommendations.

“If people are looking for a specific book these days, they buy it via the Internet,” Haba says. “So in stores and libraries, I think they are hoping for encounters.”

While looking through books on Japanese cuisine at the Japan House London library, for example, you may stumble across Nobuyoshi Araki’s unusual photography book featuring his wife’s last meals, or you could become sidetracked by a special shelf displaying a selection of publications personally chosen to complement the Japan House gallery’s exhibitions and events.

To herald the opening of the new Japan House, Haba’s highlighted collection includes a 360-degree popup artwork of Mount Fuji alongside a photo book of mountain climbing and a rare copy of Risaku Suzuki’s ethereal scenic photography, one of his personal favorites.

His reasoning for the collection? “Sou Fujimoto’s exhibition and Japan House are a celebration of Japanese culture,” he says. “And I just thought of how that culture always starts with nature.”