Japan Suite visited The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition in New York City entitled, Kimono: A Modern History this weekend. It’s focused on Kimonos from the 18th century to modern day Japan, and the designs on these garments reflected the social trends and history from that time period. We were fascinated to find foreign and modern objects on these traditional Japanese garments — things like a woven Mickey Mouse Kimono or undergarments printed with a camera, which reflects the modernizing of Japan. Another interesting and possibly strange discovery were some garments infused with propaganda. Some kimonos had fighter planes and tanks, while another glorifies Italy’s takeover of Ethiopia in 1935, and we also found an elegant black silk kasuri (a style of woven, dyed fabric) with the Hinomaru (the rising sun symbol most well-known from Japanese flags). It is fascinating to know that the Kimono was sometimes a walking statement, reflecting various periods of history. The show was truly eye-opening, even for Japanese people.
Visited Japan Society “Garden of Unearthly Delights” this weekend, and again, blown away by Manabu Ikeda’s meticulous paintings. He fills in massive 6x11 foot space with fine-point pen, one of the works here took him 2 years by working 8 hours everyday. I was surprised to hear that he does not plan ahead and just keep drawing small parts spontaneously. Foretoken, which tsunami swallowing the civilization, was painted before 2011, and in fact, removed from an exhibition during the disaster.
It would take you days to find all these precious details. Hope you will enjoy!
Show is ongoing at Japan Society until January 11, 2015.
New York City played host to several artists from Ishikawa Prefecture in Japan in September. We were in Ishikawa last year visiting Kanazawa and Yamanaka, and have met many great new artists there. We are encouraged and excited to see their work being recognized broadly.
It started with with Toshiharu Hisatsune, an artist displaying Kaga Yuzen, a style of textile craftsmanship unique to the Ishikawa region. He exhibited his Kimono and Noren (a room divider made of fabric) in Brooklyn, and he demonstrated for the audience how he dyes fabric. He told us some interesting stories about the history of Yuzen and about traditional wedding rituals in the Ishikawa area.
Then, we met Satomi Den, who is a glass artist working in Kanazawa. Satomi-san has been working on a unique method of glass-making, which was inspired by her previous study of metal work. Satomi-san had her latest show at the tatami room at Globus Washitsu. It was great to meet her and discuss her work. It was quite interesting as her work is influenced by European lace design, but its beauty still shined through in a Japanese setting.
Finally, we saw an exhibition and lecture by Toshio Ohi, who comes from a long line of great craftsmen. His father is a renowned 10th generation master Ohi Chozaemon, and Toshio-san has been developing his own style in the genre. He is a true jet-setter, coming to NYC twice this month in between busy days as an artist, lecturer, jury, tea master, and teacher in Japan. His energetic and magnetic lecture was rich with knowledge in Japanese history, culture, and traditional tea ceremony background. We really enjoyed his thoughts and global perspective.
Meanwhile, we have been talking to a lacquerware artisan from Ishikawa, who has a fascinating philosophy, which is reflected in his life and work. He inspires us everytime we communicate. We are looking forward to showing his work in the future.
We sense Ishikawa’s geographical and political position in history has a strong effect in their psyche. As Ohi-san said, these encounters with people is a treasure in life. It is a pleasure getting to know these Ishikawa artisans. They keep inspiring us greatly.
Visited Satomi Den's glass art show on Broadway, I was fortunate to have a conversation with the artist about the inspiration, craftsmanship and Kanazawa where she is from. Very charming person, too!
Introducing people to Japanese culture in America is a key part of our mission at Japan-Suite, and an important part of that mission is to participate in events, such as the sake exploration we went to this weekend. Of course, it was a fun indulgence too.
We had an opportunity to visit the Sake Expo in New York City, where more than 20 Kuramoto (brewers) from Japan presented their brand’s sake and shochu. It was so crowded with enthusiastic trade people and sake lovers, that it was almost hard to walk around!
Unfortunately, we got there a little late and couldn't try even a quarter of the products though, which may actually be a good thing because I have to say we were still able to try enough to get ourselves a bit tipsy. Of course, in NYC, we don’t have to drive, so it was great! Many brands we saw were familiar ones served at Japanese restaurants and bars, but quite a few of them are offerings we had never heard of. It was quite refreshing to see many Kuramoto are looking to embrace cultural differences and find new audiences.
One of the new things we enjoyed was the individually packed frozen shochu that can be mixed with juice, tea or anything you prefer - and you don’t have to dilute with ice (you can even eat shochu sorbet….delicious and a bit dangerous!). We particularly loved the sakes that are brewed in stainless steel containers and then transferred to Japanese cedar barrels for three weeks to add a nice woody flavor. This is completely different from oaky wines, and it’s more like drinking sake in a cedar masu (a traditional square vessel to drink sake from). Unfortunately, we missed the chance to sample the canned fruity jelly sake, which is the Japanese version of a jello shot!
It was very enjoyable chatting with and hearing stories from Kuramoto people. They are all excited about the growing popularity of Japanese alcohol styles abroad. From our experience, and from talking to some of the brewers at the expo, it seems American favorites are nigori (the unfiltered, cloudy ones) along with daiginjo or ginjo, which tend to have more expressive fruity/floral aromas with a smoother finish than Junmai. But, with so many varieties becoming available these days, we can switch from aperitif daiginjo to junmai to accompany the dinner, then frozen shochu as desert! Great idea. I believe we will. Kanpai!
It still feels like summer out, but those days will soon be fleeting as fall makes it’s arrival. While we love and will miss summer, autumn has many charms that we embrace. The leaves change colors as nature weaves it beautiful magic, late season fruits and vegetables are in markets and stores — and being the sake lovers we are, it also makes us excited for the arrival of the Fall sakes, including one of our favorite kinds, Hiyaoroshi.
Sake brewing traditionally finishes in spring of each year, and a six month aging process helps smooth out the flavors, which is why the new batches of sake are usually released in the fall. Typically sake is pasteurized twice to ward off any unwanted enzymes that can spoil the taste. Remember, sake brewing goes back many centuries before the advent of refrigeration, so the extra measures to protect it were vital to a great brew. However, once it began to get cooler in the season, brewers would release a version that is only pasteurized once — this is known as Hiyaoroshi. Sake lovers eagerly awaited its arrival every fall. So do we!
In Japan, some prefectures like Nagano and Saga have set September 9 as their official day for releasing each year’s Hiyaoroshi.
Hiyaoroshi has a lively, clean flavor to it — very vibrant with wonderful aroma and a nice, smooth finish. We can’t wait to try some of this year’s versions and will be heading to one of our favorite sake stores in New York City — Sakaya in East Village — to enjoy some when they arrive in the U.S. next month. We're excited to find out what this year's winners will be.
We encourage and invite you to try this seasonal delight. But don’t wait too long. Hiyaoroshi is typically released in small batches, so the supply can go quickly. Kanpai!
Seasonal recommendation from Sakaya
Wakatake Onikoroshi Akino Ki-ippon Tokubetsu Junmai Namazume
若竹 秋の生一本 ひやおろし 特別純米生詰め
Uraksasumi Tokubetsu Junmai Namazume
浦霞 特別純米 ひやおろし 生詰め
We’ve been enjoying our summer and many of the traditions that make summer so special – grilling, growing, late night walks, fresh food – and of course indulging in some of our favorite cold beverages. One of our top choices for a refreshing summer drink is sake. Okay, it’s one of our favorite drinks all year, but on a warm summer evening, a glass (or two…) of chilled summer sake is a wondrous thing to savor and enjoy. Sake has a depth of flavors and types probably unlike any other beverage. So, we wanted to spend some time talking about sake. After all, it is a craft made by artisans and one we appreciate wholeheartedly.
Consider this an homage to sake delivered in a few parts and, most importantly, we’d love to hear your thoughts on sake, so we encourage everybody to tell us what you think and join in the discussion.
There is a wide range of sake varieties and brands, each with it’s own characteristics depending on type of rice, where that rice was grown, the water, etc...These result in each batch having it’s own personality, flavor and aromas. It shares many similarities with both wine and craft beer.
Westerners often think of sake as rice wine, but that is not really accurate and also unfair to this unique beverage. In fact, sake is brewed from grain – yes, just like beer is, and there are certainly similarities to the process that takes place using fermentation to convert grains into an enjoyable alcoholic beverage. As a home brewer (of beer), I recognize and appreciate this. But I won’t go into science here other than to say yeast eats sugar, extracted from the grains, and the meeting of the two produces alcohol in various strengths and, more importantly, a multitude of tastes in various ranges and bouquets emerge. Okay, science lesson over. Sake is sake. It is not a wine or a beer.
Sake is typically classified in four types depending on the process of their creation. We will talk more about that in another post.
Sake is unlike most other alcoholic beverages in that it is served in a wide range of temperatures – from 40F to 140F (5-60C). Personally, we enjoy it chilled more than heated, but it depends on individual preferences. Most brands are pasteurized, which results in a clearer beverage. Unpasteurized sake is called namazake, and it must be stored chilled. It has a very fresh taste and is one of our favorite sakes, especially on a warm summer evening.
Interested? We will write more in our next post, but until then, let’s get the discussion going. We want to hear from you. We encourage you to tell us your feelings and ideas about sake. We look very forward to hearing from you and talking about this wondrous elixir – sake
Flower artist Makoto Azuma and Sacramento-based JP Aerospace launched Bonsai tree and flower arrangement into orbit. These are such beautiful imagery of art meets science moment.
It took place at Black Rock Desert in Gerlach, Nevada, and images of flying flowers were captured by GoPro cameras. The bonsai traveled for 100 minutes, up to 91,800 feet, free from the gravity.
We love this romantic experiment, and will continue watching his unique creative activities...!
Today is a special day all over Japan where people celebrate Tanabata, the Star Festival. Tanabata is celebrated to commemorate the romantic story of two lovers represented by the stars Vega and Altair who are only allowed to meet each other once a year as long as the skies are clear. It is celebrated on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month, which is July 7th in the modern calendar. Some places in Japan celebrate Tanabata on August 7th in accordance with the older Chinese calendar, which is where the legend originated. The most famous of all the Tanabata festivals is celebrated in Sendai on August 7th, but most of Japan recognizes Tanabata today (July 7th).
On Tanabata, people write wishes on small pieces of colored paper called tanzaku and hang them on bamboo trees. These become beautiful wish trees. On the following day, the decorated trees are floated on a river or in the ocean and burned as an offering. There are many celebrations all over Japan, which also include parades, food stalls, colorful decorations, and fireworks.
Tanabata originated from a Chinese legend called Qixi and was brought to Japan in the 8th century. This is the story of two lovers. Princess Orihime, the seamstress, wove beautiful clothes by the heavenly river, represented by the Milky Way. Because Orihime worked so hard weaving beautiful clothes, she became sad and despaired of ever finding love. Her father, who was a God of the heavens, loved her dearly and arranged for her to meet Hikoboshi, the cow herder who lived on the other side of the Milky Way. The two fell in love instantly and married. Their love and devotion was so deep that Orihime stopped weaving and Hikoboshi allowed his cows to wander the heavens.
Orihime’s father became angry and forbade the lovers to be together, but Orihime pleaded with him to allow them to stay. He loved his daughter, so he decreed that the two star-crossed lovers could meet once a year--on the 7th day of the 7th month if Orihime returned to her weaving. On the first day they were to be reunited, they found the river (Milky Way) to be too difficult to cross. Orihime became so despondent that a flock of magpies came and made a bridge for her. It is said that if it rains on Tanabata, the magpies will not come, and the two lovers must wait another year to be reunited, so Japanese always wish for good weather on Tanabata. There are many variations of this story, but this version is the most widely held.
We hope for clear skies on Tanabata so the lovers can always be reunited.
Just in time for summer when chilled sake tastes great before dinner, we are introducing a few Guinomis from Horiguchi Kiriko.
We are going to introduce a few great selection of sakes in a few weeks!
I personally rarely do this as I like Kannyu and other surface changes on pottery I witness over time. (also I'm quite lazy..!) The porous surface of ceramics will absorb oil and food easily. This may result harsh stain and odor. When we love the way the piece looks at first sight and want the look to last long, there are little tricks we can do easily. It's called Medome in Japanese.
I just cooked some ceramic bowls in a large pot for 30 min. This does not just prevent liquid get absorbed in cracks, but also makes the structure of the ceramics a little tighter.
— Japan Suite takes care of this part so you can enjoy the first use right after you open the box! —
After this initial step, we just want to soak the piece in water for a few minutes before each use. Although these little stains will add a unique character to it, and the vintage feel is certainly something to enjoy.
We just saw an exhibit of Ai Yamaguchi, currently showing at Joshua Liner gallery in Chelsea, NYC. Her delicate work, somewhere between Ukiyoe and comics appeals to the anime generation, but it goes far beyond. When you get closer, you will see hidden textures and other interesting nuances.
She paints intriguing portraits of young prostitutes in the Edo period. But their facial expression is as if they are in another world — almost like that of a super heroine, while still appearing innocent and sincere. Never ennui like as in Ukiyoe. The titles are inspired by ancient poetry, which adds even more intrigue, as I do not understand the old language, but it sounds very cool.
Adding to the many nuances, they are painted on futon canvas. The frame is literally wrapped by a blanket! They look more like ceramics or plaster than canvas, and it transforms this wonderful two dimensional work to 3D.
Can’t wait for the day to hang a futon on my wall.
Right now is an exciting time of year for green tea (ocha) lovers and that includes us here at Japan Suite. The first new crop of Japanese green tea is now being picked and is going on sale for a limited time. It is called shincha (新茶), which comes simply from “shin” (new) and "cha" (tea). These are the first new leaves of the year, and a small batch of the first picking is used for shincha--a lightly processed tea that has a wonderfully delicate and unique flavor.
Shincha should be enjoyed in the next few months (May-July) to fully appreciate it’s enticing aroma and light sweetness that invigorates the taste buds with a refreshing subtlety. It is less bitter and lower in caffeine than other green teas. I love good ocha, and shincha has a special place in my heart.
Shincha is made from tea leaves that have been very lightly steamed immediately after harvesting. During the winter, tea plants store up life-giving nutrients, which nurture the growth of spring shoots and new leaves. The first growth shincha leaves are full of these nutrients.
Japanese celebrate this special, delicate and fleeting new tea of the year -- and we encourage you to do the same if you are in Japan or fortunate enough to find shincha in your city. I know I am planning to head out this weekend in New York City to search for one of my favorite things of the season. Oishisou!
The Golden Week Holiday of Children, Carp and Sweets
Today (May 5) is a famous National Holiday in Japan, now known as Children’s Day, or Kodomo no hi（こどもの日). It is the fourth of the collection of Holidays in Japan that make up Golden Week, which is usually a week-long series of Holidays where many Japanese have work off and travel in and out of Japan. Because of the timing of this year’s calendar, Golden Week has actually been broken up into two sets of Holidays around two successive weekend.
The roots of Kodomo no hi date back nearly 1,500 years and, until fairly recently, was a festival to celebrate boys. There is also a Girls Day, known as Hinamatsuri (雛祭り), which is celebrated on March 3, although it is not recognized as a National Holiday.
Until 1948, the festival was known as Tango no Sekku and was celebrated on the 5th day of the 5th moon in the old lunar calendar. After Japan switched to a Western calendar, the date was moved to May 5. In 1948, the government changed the name to Kodomo no hi and declared it a National Holiday to celebrate all children and give thanks to their mothers.
Of course, there are some primary traditions observed on kodomo no hi, most notably koinobori and kashiwa mochi.
Families with boys raise colorful flags of koinobori, carp-shaped flags, which symbolize boys growing and becoming strong. Typically the pole will contain one or two larger carp that can symbolize the father and mother. One carp streamer is added for each boy in the family. This ritual is based on an ancient Chinese legend of a carp that swims upstream and becomes a dragon. The carp is admired for it’s ability to fight upstream against strong currents, thus overcoming obstacles and gaining success. Some of the carp flags also have a rider, known as Kintaro, who was a legendary child figure in ancient lore who rode a bear instead of a horse and communicated with animals. Families will also set out warrior dolls with kabuto, a traditional helmet worn by samurai. Both kintaro and kabuto, symbolize strength and bravery.
People also celebrate with sweets, especially the traditional Kodomo no hi offering of kashiwa mochi. These are rice cakes (mochi) with sweet bean paste, wrapped in oak leaves (kashiwa). Another favorite of kids and adults on this day is chimaki, a sweet rice dumpling wrapped in bamboo leaves.
Many people also take baths sprinkled with iris leaves (shobu) and roots to promote good health and ward off evil.
While a hundred or more countries around the world celebrate some form of Children’s Day, a celebration, very similar to Japan’s version, is also held in Korea on May 5, while other versions with similar themes are held in early June in China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
Reincarnating special things
Kintsugi(金継ぎ) technique is a very Japanese concept. It is also known as Kintsukuroi (金繕い). Both refer to an ancient method used to repair broken pottery.
Whether it is a special gift, an expensive purchase, or something you got on a whim, when we use the vessels for a long time, they develop a character, and we can become quite attached to them. These objects survive regular use, moves, and spring cleanings. The longer we have them, the closer we bond with them. They are the truly loved ones. And when it cracks or chips, we feel like crying. We want to mend them, to keep the bond. When this happens, there is a way to rescue them and give a completely new look at the same time.
This is done using Kintsugi, which is a technique where lacquer resin is dusted with gold, silver or platinum powder. There are a variety of ways artisans use to do this, and the object becomes a new palette for them to work with. Some can appear almost without any scar. And in Japan, we call this “scenery”, meaning a new look, depending on how you view it. An old and loved object can now be appreciated differently.
This is part of a larger Japanese philosophy, known as wabi-sabi, which is at the core of Japanese beliefs, and approach toward art and aesthetics. It is a fascinating concept, derived from Buddhist teachings, which basically means embracing imperfection, impermanence and the incomplete. It can also be thought of as nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. But through this, comes a particular beauty, something to embrace and cherish while it is there.
Some artists use Kintsugi as a way to take what is there and reinterpret it, often in an abstract manner.
Here are some very good examples of beautiful “scenery” repairs done in the Kintsugi method by Yukiko Kuroda. She uses a time honored technique that takes weeks to finish. It is worth the extra time and effort!
Thanks to kintsugi, we are not afraid of using the special bowl or cup given to us from our mothers and ancestors. We know we have a way to continue their long life.
Spring (or “haru”) heralds a very special time of year in Japan, and Tokyo is now in the height of this special time that Japanese hold close in their hearts. It’s sakura season, which means the symbolic and fleeting time when the cherry trees blossom and ohanami celebrations occur.
It’s actually a two month phenomenon as the blossoms open south to north, beginning in southern Kyushuu in early March and making their way north to Hokkaido in early May.
Sakura symbolize the fleeting impermanence of all life. They bloom in delicate beauty, inspiring emotions, and they leave just as fast. It’s all tentative. A big wind or heavy rain can take the blossoms away, much like nothing is certain in life. Japanese enjoy the beauty and inspiration while it is there, celebrating life and friendship. A big part of sakura time is “ohanami” where people set up camp and picnic under the trees, enjoying food, drink and music with close friends and strangers. It draws people closer together, if only for a short time, much like life does.
A few days ago, the Imperial family opened a section of Inui Dori on sacred palace grounds to the public to view nearly 100 sakura trees in full bloom. This first-time event is in celebration of Emperor Akihito’s 80th birthday.
There are sakura festivals in many places around the world. In the U.S., two of the better known places to are in Washington D.C. and New York’s Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. In 1912, the mayor of Tokyo gave 3,000 cherry trees to the nation’s capitol as a symbol of friendship between Japan and the United States. The trees were planted around D.C’s famed Tidal Basin, and most are still there, flowering in late March or early April when Washington D.C. holds the National Cherry Blossom Festival, the largest in the U.S. It’s a three-week event that welcomes spring while celebrating Japanese culture and the close ties the two countries have.
The beauty of the cherry blossoms remind us of how fragile and precious life is. We hope you have a chance to experience the fleeting beauty and the wonder of the festivals while reflecting on how precious life is.
I walked into Pace Gallery here in New York City last weekend to a nice little surprise.
They are exhibiting the legacy of Mingei, a Japanese folk craft movement from the 1920s. The display and the quality of the collection made me feel like I was in a museum!
The Mingei movement explored cultural identities when Japan was experiencing rapid growth and westernization in the early part of the last century.
Soetsu Yanagi, founder of the movement, discovered beauty in everyday ordinary and utilitarian objects created by unknown craftsmen.
At Japan Suite, we are passionate about presenting respected and known craftspeople, but we are equally passionate about discovering new and unknown artists who will carry this great tradition forward.
As such, we want to honor Yanagi-san’s philosophy. In this spirit, we are excited to work with artists who understand these philosophies — artists who are honoring the past traditions, while also adding their unique interpretations to the legacy of Japanese crafts.
Here is a beautiful quote from Yanagi.
“Beauty must have some room, must be associated with freedom”
Today, even stronger than usual, my heart and my spirit are with Japan.
Three years ago, I awoke as usual in my apartment in Washington DC around 6:30am. As the coffee was brewing on a “normal morning” and I was ready to eat breakfast, I opened my laptop to the CNN homepage. My normality abrupt changed. There had been a massive earthquake in the Tohoku region of Japan measuring 9.0. Details were still sketchy, but there were early reports of a massive tsunami. I immediately reached out to my girlfriend, Ria, in New York to alert her as her family all were living in the Tokyo area. Then, I sent messages to my friends in Japan to see if they were safe.
With an anxious and heavy heart, I went to work on that Friday morning. As always, work was busy, but none of us could concentrate, most of all, me. I have spent a lot of time in Japan, and my soul feels as if it has been there in other lifetimes.
We spent much of the morning hovering around my desk, watching in horror as the videos started coming in of the tsunami washing ashore. Work became an afterthought. It took me back to September 11, 2001 in my country. As with that day, the news kept getting worse. And as with that day, my thoughts were not with anything normally felt in my life. I was riveted to the indelible images, and my thoughts poured out to the people so devastated by what was happening.
In the days and weeks that followed, I was overcome by the sometimes incongruous emotions of grief and admiration. I grieved for the souls who were lost, and my heart felt deeply for the survivors who lost so much. I attended benefits in Washington DC and New York City. I contributed money. I never felt I did enough.
But amidst the grief and concern, I also felt incredible admiration for the spirit of the Japanese people. In the face of terrible devastation and loss, the survivors banded together, and they helped each other. They patiently awaited assistance. No, this is not completely unique to any country. It’s happened around the world, and it’s happened here in America. However, I was profoundly struck by the lack of angst, by how the Japanese people reacted with incredible patience and kindness. Their spirit shined brighter than any sun, brighter than any light in the aftermath of that horrible day.
I am still overcome with admiration, and I always will be.
The people of Tohoku still need help. Many remain in temporary shelters, and many others cannot even go “home” because it is near the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster zone. There are many worthy ways to help, many organizations to contribute too. They are too many to name here, but Ria and I are contributing here in the U.S. through Japan Society in New York City. You can learn more here.
On this third anniversary of the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, we send our hearts, our feelings and our spirit out to all of the souls lost, all of the survivors and to the spirit of the Japanese people.