Japanese people love room perfumes. Therefore they design different types of objects, like these by Woodwork. All photos © Uta Abendroth
Monomade in Tokyo
by Uta Abendroth
Dec 25, 2013

Tokyo’s image is that of a high-tech heaven of a city with countless crowds who flock the streets of Shibuya, where the neon and LED screens make Times Square look drab. The reality is far more diverse, far more colorful and more traditional, in the best meaning of the term. Taitō is to the east of downtown and forms part of Shitamachi, the so-called lower city that embraces the lowlands to the sea and is considered the home of the not-well-off. One of the attractions here for local and foreign tourists is the Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest and most important Buddhist temple, erected in the year 645 in Asakusa, a sub-section of Taitō district.

Down through the centuries a flourishing crafts world relating to religious objects has arisen in the vicinity of the temple – destroyed on several occasions it has always been rebuilt – specialized in making jewelry, hats, bags, accessories, toys and dolls. Until well into the 1920s Asakusa was also the entertainment district in Tokyo, a phase brought to an abrupt end by the huge Kantō earthquake of 1923. In the 90-odd years since, Asakusa has not recovered, and while back then some 400,000 people lived there, today the number has dwindled to slightly over a quarter of that figure. The trend has been similar in many districts and re-urbanization has thus become a major issue in Tokyo.

A probationary period in the Taitō Design Village

In this context, the southern part of Taitō, Kachikura (a name designating the area between the sub-districts of Okachimachi and Kuramae, derived from the first few letters of the latter two monikers), has in recent years attracted much attention with a special project. In 2004, “Taitō Design Village” was set up in an erstwhile elementary school. Young designers and craftspeople can rent a studio there for three years on favorable terms. For many this is a real chance to start up their own company without having to shoulder a mass of debt from the outset in order to invest heavily in their independence. After the three-year probationary period, countless start-ups from Taitō Design Village have of late established themselves in the vicinity, with small shops or workshops, thus helping revive the district’s fortunes.

One event that quite literally gets the whole idea out on the streets of Kachikura and thus gets the message across to the masses is the “Monomachi Festival”. “Monomachi” means as much as “Craftsman’s Town” (mono = goods made by hand, and machi = town). May 2013 saw the fourth edition of the festival, with 400 shops in the district participating and over 100,000 visitors flocking to it. There are many aspects to this growing interest. Designers and craftspeople come face to face with clients, and manufacturers meet others of their ilk. In the best of cases, people discover sources for the materials or components they need locally. The products tend to be made directly in the district, some of them in greater Tokyo and only a few from other parts of Japan. The trend to “make and buy locally” has long since seized hold of Tokyo, and people are once again proud of the art of Japanese craftsmanship.

The emperor’s new furniture

Toru Shimizu is on the ground in Kachikura with his Monokraft label. His was no straight path to furniture design, as he started out life as an architect and then worked as a graphic designer. “We can’t look back on that long a tradition designing furniture,” Toru Shimizu says. “Only about 130 years ago, when pictures of the emperor on a chair did the rounds, did such Western furniture slowly, as in very slowly, come into fashion.” He focuses entirely on designing furniture made from solid wood, with no screws or other metal connections: “Here, the air if sometimes excessively humid and the wood round the metal would then tear or warp,” he explains. Individual furniture items such as wardrobes he builds in his modest workshop behind the showroom, whereas he has the tables, chairs and shelves manufactured at Interior NASU in Higashikawa on Hokkaido Island. “There, each individual item is made from start to finish by a single person,” Toru Shimizu comments. “The really complicated joints and experimental structures can only be realized because the company’s craftsmen combine a mass of skill with long-standing experience.”

Woodwork likewise manufactures wooden furniture of great simplicity. In fact, you could be forgiven thinking the items that are made in the carpentry shop under the store are Nordic designs, were it not for the proportions: Asians tend to be ten centimeters shorter than Europeans, which means here the customary table top height is not 76 centimeters – instead both tables and chairs tend to be about ten centimeters lower.

Designer Masako Unayama has not focused on a specific type of product. As the owner of SyuRo she is possibly one of the real engines driving the revival of the district’s crafts world, and awards countless jobs to local craftspeople. Unayama loves designing simple boxes or cans made from metals of different colors that can be used as containers to store tea or small items – but likewise conjures up concrete luminaires, ceramic bowls, cutlery or wooden baby rattles. “I hope that my products will bring people great satisfaction in their everyday lives by enabling them to surround themselves with beautiful objects,” says Masako Unayama. “At the same time I also seek to preserve the Japanese crafts tradition.”

Now that’s something also nurtured by the Nisshin Kikinzoku silversmith workshop, where at present two generations work under a single roof to draw, cast and hammer typical silver vessels for the tea ceremony or for sake drinking. Torigoeno Shibata uses traditional kimono fabrics to create little bags, at Dashin old printing techniques involving individual lead type are applied, and Tanaka Hakuoshijyo prints all manner of materials using gold-foil characters made in Germany.

Paper laterns – design or art?

In Germany, the line dividing design, arts and crafts would probably be more rigid than in Japan, where it tends to be more osmotic. For example, a paper lantern such as one of those made by Oshimaya Onda has the same shape lanterns have had for centuries, meaning the design is not new. Nor the notion of making them from paper and then painting them – so what’s art here and what is craftsmanship?

Tokyo-ites especially like bags. And not just the women among them, as the men have the same penchant. The stylistic range of the made-in-Taitō bags is as astonishing as it is overwhelming. Yuichiro Murakami, who originally studied architecture, spent three years watching Florentine bag-makers at work before founding his own label m+ in the Taitō Design Village back in 2001. Three years later he was successful enough to rent his own store, where he sells bags and wallets with clear lines and ingenious novel fastenings. “The m stands for Murakami,” he explains, “and I added the + to make it obvious that an object can first be perfected by the combination of maker and user.” Kyoko Hayashi also started out in the Taitō Design Village before going it alone with her Coquette store, where she presents bags with a playful French elegance to them, festooned with Swarovski crystals and floral embossing.

The Mecca for “made in Tokyo”

Takeo Fujii produces bags from leather and old newspapers. Beneath the Okachimachi subway station a small mall has arisen, boasting stores that offer products made in Japan. Here you’ll find Fujii’s shop “@Griffe”. “I use vintage fashion magazines or comics, soften them in a solution, dry them and then laminate them to make them robust,” the 50-year-old says. Fujii and his mini-workshop were based for a few years in the district of Aoyama, but there weren’t many clients there who appreciated the artistic and crafts status of the products. He is firmly convinced of the strengths of the Japanese crafts tradition. And as the head of the Monomachi planning committee he is devoted to spending the next few years promoting the district, the locals and the skilled craftsmen there. Fujii has a clear goal: He wants Kachikura to be the established Mecca for design “hand-made in Tokyo” by 2020, when the city hosts the Olympic Games.

Highlight in Asakusa: the gate to Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest and most reknowned Buddhistic temple.
Fusion of Scottish squares with Japanese weaving techniques: Shiho Seya and her label Coova.
Textile experiments: the fabric for Shiho Seya’s label is produced in Japan.
Bags with perspective: Tokiko Nakajima, who installed her label Pottenburn Tohkii also in the Taitō Designers Village.
Art on clothes: Hiromi Hayashi worked in the film industriy before she started her label Romei.
Traditional: Torigoeno Shibata produces little pockets of kimono fabrics.
Uniforms reloaded: Eily and Jammy founded their label Neverland in 2010.
Gold foil made in Germany: At the workshop of Tanaka Hakuoshijyo everything is printed with golden letters.
For tea ceremony or for sake: silver pots and bins by Nissin Kikinzoku.
Silver smiths with interpreter: Bins and pots made by Nissin Kikinzoku and his family.
Still popular: Oshimaya Onda decorates paper laterns.
Floorwork: At Sosho they grave wood still in traditional Japanses style on the ground.
Printing with Japanese characters: Print office Daishin, founded in 1951.
Source of inspiration: Ten years ago Masako Unayama founded her shop “Syuro“.
Chopsticks of maple, oak and walnut.
Woodwork offers typical Japanese design.
Secret technique: Takeo Fujii laminate old newspapers for bags.
Shop on the ground floor, workshop in the basement: at Woodwork.
Italian know-how in leather: Yuichiro Murakami and his label m+.