japanese art, design and culture

Category — Go and See

The Cats of 19th Century Japan

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When Buddhism was imported into Japan around the 500s, the philosophy was accompanied by a few furry friends:  cats, who were brought along to protect valuable scriptures from mice. Since then, felines have made appearances in classical Japanese literature like The Pillow Book and The Tale of Genji. They’ve also been welcomed into Japanese homes, not only for their functionality, but for their mystical charm, bewitching behavior and, yes, of course, their cuteness.

So it’s no surprise that, artists, even back then, knew that depictions of cats would sell well. Those lovable pre-internet cats are now the subject of an upcoming exhibition. The Shoto Museum of Art in Shibuya, which just underwent a drastic facelift, is dedicating their first post-renovation show to ねこ・猫・ネコ (basically, “cats” written 3 different ways). The show open April 5 and runs till May 18, 2014.

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Cat Playing with a Toy Butterfly 1828  Totoya Hokkei

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Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)

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April 3, 2014   1 Comment

The double-sided anime images of Makoto Taniguchi

One side shows a blurry painting resembling a distorted, disturbing face. The other reveals the calm, comforting expression of an anime character. The journey back-and-forth between those images are what make the works of Makoto Taniguchi so special. Only able to see the blurry image at first, one has to move around the mirror to try and get a glimpse of the clear painting on the other side.


The 32-year-old Japanese artist wants viewers to feel lost contemplating his work. By playing on the ever-present faces of anime culture, he explores the mysterious ways in which our mind turns reality into fleeting images

When I try to draw the interior ‘images’ which though invisible to the eye surely do exist, the dazzling brightness and the ephemeral nature of that existence surges forth, and I start to think about my own ideas of ‘existence’ and my views on life

If you are in Tokyo, you can see Taniguchi’s works in his “Untilted” exhibition at Nanzuka Gallery until March, 29th 2014.




Images: public-image.org, White Wall Tokyo, Fudge.jp

March 27, 2014   1 Comment

The Secret World of Japanese University Cafeterias

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One of the cafeteria options at Toyo University

It’s arguably one of the best kept secrets of the Japanese culinary world: university cafeterias are open to the general public. That’s right. You don’t have to show ID or even look like a student. Even tourists or backpackers can enter and enjoy gakushoku, as it’s commonly referred to. But why would you want to? That’s a fair question, but only if you’ve witnessed the horrors of American university cafeterias. I’m sure there are more, but here are 3 good reasons:

  1. It’s cheap – Japanese university cafeterias operate on a non-profit basis so they’re able to charge only for the raw ingredients. The menu usually rotates but on any given day the staff are churning out hundreds of the same meal for all students, which also helps to dramatically lower the cost.
  2. It’s healthy – most schools usually have a dedicated nutritionist who ensures that all their students stay healthy and are able to focus on studies. Schools source fresh ingredients and most meals come with 3 or 4 side dishes for healthy variety.
  3. It’s Japanese – sure there are Western or even South Asian options but the majority of menu listings are Japanese. So if you’re in Japan and looking for a true Japanese meal, a university cafeteria is a sure spot. If you’re unsure of what to order, the pros suggest you go with the school’s signature dish, which usually has the school’s name in it.

Akira Karasawa, a professor, author and self-proclaimed university cafeteria expert compiled a list of the best cafeterias, taking into consideration his own experience but also polls conducted amongst students. The full list is below but here are a few of his top picks:

Aoyama Gakuin

The Christian University near Shibuya is the top pick – a 3-star Michelin ranking, if such a thing existed for cafeterias. In fact, says Karasawa, you shouldn’t even think of it as a cafeteria because it is much more. Beef stew is 460 yen, fried chicken is 480 yen and ramen is 230 yen. Just for reference, the national average for a bowl of ramen is 800 yen, a 250% difference.

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Toyo University

Toyo University, known for its philosophical studies (especially Indian philosophy) ties with Tokyo University for 3rd and 4th place. If you’re looking for ethnic foods this may be the place to go as they have a designated Indian chef baking Naan. Their cafeteria looks like a French restaurant. Prices start at 450 yen (Katsudon) and go to 850 yen (Chirashi-zushi).

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Nittai (Nippon Sport Science) University

If you’re looking for volume, Nittai is the place to go. The highly athletic school has an emphasis on sports and boasts many famous athletes among its alumni. It’s hard to tell from the pictures, but the cafeteria meals are supposedly extra-large because those young athletes sure do eat a lot. The majority of the menu ranges between 200 – 400 yen.

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List of Top University Cafeterias

Aoyama Gakuin
Chuo University
Toyo University
Tokyo University
Seijo University
Kokugakuin University
Nishogakusha University
Meiji Gakuin University
Kwansei Gakuin University
Nihon University
Komazawa University
Ritsumeikan University
Rissho University
Doshisha University
Taisho University
Toyo Eiwa Women’s University
Shirayuri Women’s University
Tokyo University of Foreign Studies

Note: The cafeteria’s listed here are all open to the public. However, not all university cafeterias operate this way. If you’re going to one not mentioned here, do some research and make sure you won’t get turned away. Also, most cafeterias make you purchase a ticket at a vending machine, which you then hand to staff. Some basic Japanese language is necessary to operate the machine.

Source: this episode of Matsuko no Shiranai Sekai

March 20, 2014   No Comments

Wanderlust | Tokyo’s Volcanic Crater Island Aogashima

aogashima 1unless otherwise noted all photos by flickr user mh2718

Aogashima – the blue island

Despite being 222 miles south of Tokyo, Aogashima, a remote yet inhabited island, falls under the administration of Japan’s capital city. But the address is where the similarities end. As of 2010, the 9 square kilometer (about 1680 football stadiums, for all you Super Bowl fans out there) island has 98 households and a population of 165, making it the smallest village in all of Japan.

Looking almost like a Jurassic Park-like natural fortress, the volcanic island is known as a caldera. Within the large crater is a smaller crater – a cinder cone – that was formed after the larger explosion. The steep rugged cliffs of layered volcanic deposits rise up as high as 1388 feet.

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Origins Shrouded in Mystery

How people first ended up on the island is largely considered a mystery. The island’s own legend has it that the island was once forbidden to women because it was believed that man and women living together on the island would anger the gods. The first written records of the island appear around the 15th century and many of them are of shipwrecks so there’s a strong possibility that sailors may have taken refuge on the island and eventually made it their home.

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Returning Home After Tragedy

A series of earthquakes in 1780-81 was followed by volcanic activity 2 years later. Lava flows burned down all the houses and residents were forced to flee to the nearest island, Hachijojima. Unfortunately, about half of the 327 residents did not make it out in time and perished. Those who did survive were forced to live out the next 40 years of their life on Hachijojima. Some sought out new life elsewhere but others could never forget their beloved island. One of these people was Jirodayu Sasaki, who, after 18 years of planning, courageously led an expedition back to the island and successfully resettled in 1835. He’s considered a hero on the island and there’s even a statue of him.

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Traveling to Aogashima

In this day and age, getting to Aogashima is actually much easier than you might have thought. They even have their own heliport!

  • First Class – fly from Tokyo to Hachijojima and then take a helicopter. A one way trip will take just a little over 2 hours and will cost about $240.
  • Economy Class – sail from Tokyo to Hachijojima and then take a smaller boat. A one way trip will take 14 hours and will cost about $100.


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So what do you actually do once you get to this lost paradise? Well what it doesn’t have in beaches the island makes up in starry skies. Photographer Toshihiko Ogawa documented some of these fantastic starry nights. The photos were taken from the 2nd caldera, where many people will go to camp out. There is also a volcanic natural hot spring where you rest those muscles from all the rock climbing you did getting there.

Otherwise there’s plenty of fishing, hiking trails and shrines to see. And the internet is probably shoddy so it’s the perfect place to unplug.


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Source: Aogashima Village | Blue Island | Wikipedia

January 31, 2014   3 Comments

Kimono Forest Lights Up Kyoto’s Arashiyama Station


all photos courtesy yasumichi morita | click to enlarge

Visitor’s to Kyoto’s Arashiyama Station were greeted with a bright surprise when the station unveiled its latest facelift. The designer Yasumichi Morita (previously) collaborated with Kyoto’s Kamedatomi Corp. to create yuzen kimono fabric patterns.

The patterns were then placed inside 600 illuminated poles that were strategically lined along pathways of the station, creating a bright kimono forest.





source: Yasumichi Morita

January 9, 2014   1 Comment

Lightgazing | Japan’s best illumination spots of 2013

Illumination. It’s an odd word to hear in a sentence, made only odder as a seeming tourist destination. But In Japan, especially around this time of year, it’s a term that casts a twinkle in the eye of every romantic, spectacle-loving soul around. Illumination refers to the act of using numerous holiday bulbs to light up streets, gardens or other public spaces. It’s a special event in Japan and is always heavily attended. If you’re looking to participate, here are some of this year’s not-to-miss illumination spectacles.


Japan’s very first illumination occurred in Sapporo in 1981. A modest 1048 bulbs lit up Oodori Park in 1981. But the northern city has come a long way since then. This year’s “white illumination,” taking place in the same spot it did 32 years ago, features 420,000 that culminate in “crystal river” of lights. The entire show runs on self-generated biodiesel energy.

2013 illumination sapporo 3unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy xmas.yahoo.co.jp

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Thought flowers were only for the spring and summer? Think again. During the winter Tochigi’s Ashikaga Flower Park recreates many of their famous floral attractions using LED lights – 2.1 million LED lights to be exact. And yes, it includes their famous wisteria tree.

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If you’re in Tokyo, head to Tokyo Midtown. Each year the shopping/business complex puts on an impressive show and this year is now different. Their 2000 sq meter public yard is being converted into a “starlight garden” of 280,000 LED lights. They’re even boasting the world’s first attempt at installing “cross-over illumination,” which is supposedly some sort of cutting edge technology to create illuminated arches.

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And while you’re at Tokyo Midtown, why not hop over to KITTE, the city’s newest shopping complex right outside Tokyo Station? There you’ll find an architect-designed Christmas tree accompanied by a special ceiling installation that creates the illusion of snow indoors. It was designed by Makoto Tanijiri.

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If you’re interested in sheer numbers, head down to Kanagawa for the Sagamiko Illumillio. Coming in at 4 million bulbs (what does that even look like when in storage?) the amusement park is also the Kanto region’s largest light show. And if that’s not enough of a reason to go, the amusement park rides stay open late during the holidays.

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But for the absolute largest display of lights in all of Japan you’re going to have to head farther down south to Mie prefecture. The Nabana no Sato Winter Illumination boasts 7 million LED bulbs that are sure to satisfy your luminous desires. The main attraction is, of course, the light tunnel – a long archway decked out in yellow lights that will make you feel like you’re walking under the milky way. But there are also many other sights that rival the tunnel like the twin trees and a light bulb representation of Mt. Fuji.

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December 11, 2013   4 Comments

Mass Production | Kenzo Minami at hpgrp gallery

kenzo minami mass production spoon-tamago (3)photos by kaori sohma for spoon & tamago | click to enlarge

Kenzo Minami is a man of many ideas. Ask him a question about his work and you’ll get a 20-minute answer that ends with Minami’s description of the final scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1962 film Eclipse. But therein lies the genius of the enigmatic, all-over-the-place designer.

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The product designer-turned graphic designer got his start in television but eventually transitioned into the role of freelance as his side projects became main projects.

And maybe that’s why his current retrospective “Mass Production” at hpgrp gallery feels so timely. It is indeed the first time Minami’s extensive, eclectic body of work, which includes a MoMA inducted Dunny toy of his model, Reebok sneakers, Eastpak carry-on luggage and a $5000 Affinity track bike, is being showcased together. And headlining the show is over 100 t-shirts (only a fraction of the work) from the Kenzo Minami apparel line, which had a healthy 9-year run and ended in 2011. And now he is in the midst of considering to reboot the line.

We caught up with Minami on site to discuss his current show.

Kenzo Minami: Mass Production
hpgrp gallery, New York
now extended through December 21, 2013



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December 2, 2013   Comments Off

The Blue Pond in Hokkaido Changes Colors Depending on the Weather

blue pond hokkaido (2)all photos courtesy Kent Shiraishi

Filed under: Places I Want To Visit. If you’re a Mac user you may be familiar with the “Blue Pond” located in Hokkaido. The OS X Mountain Lion wallpaper, as well as these images you see here, were all photographed by Ken Shiraishi, who calls this pond “The Most Beautiful Pond In The World!”

According to the photographer, who made a pilgrimage up to Northern Japan last month to take these shots, the water contains a high degree of aluminum hydroxide, which reflects blue light – a phenomenon responsible for our lovely blue skies. Shiraishi spent several days up there photographing the pond in various light.

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blue pond hokkaido (7)How to get there: the closest train station is Biei Station. It’s about a 2-hr train ride from Sapporo Station. You can also drive from Sapporo but that will also take about 2 hours. But beware: once heavy snows set in the pond becomes inaccessible. So it’s best to go before November. (Google Map)



source: Kent Shiraishi | MyModernMet

November 13, 2013   2 Comments

LIFE-SIZED | an exhibition of paper cutouts by Risa Fukui

20130814171432_originalphotos courtesy keniichi shioda | click to enlarge

Another show I attended while in Tokyo was LIFE-SIZED, an exhibition of large-scale paper cutouts (kirie) by Risa Fukui. The 38-year old artist presented 10 new works that, while hard to believe, were created by simply cutting lines into the paper to create negative space.

For LIFE-SIZED, Fukui created her works on hanging translucent panels. Each cutout is double-sided and viewable from the front (in white) or from the back (in color). The intricate details are hard to ignore but what was especially beautiful was the cast shadow on the floor from each cutout.

Fukui’s show is on display at the Pola Museum Annex until September 8, 2013. (all photos by keniichi shioda)









August 27, 2013   3 Comments

A Haunted House Art Exhibition for Kids

obake 1 largeunless otherwise noted, all photos by spoon & tamago

We highlighted it in our selection of Japanese haunted houses for this summer, but the only one I actually went to was with the kids at Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. Typically art exhibitions are just one big pain for parents – no running, no playing and, most importantly, no touching. But for this Haunted Play House created by Torafu Architects, kids could not only touch the art but they could jump inside the canvas, often becoming part of the art.

The space was filled with replicas of famous paintings that were also part optical illusion. It was a really fun way to learn about art without all the museum rules and annoyances.

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obake_04_fuminari_yoshitsugu-400x600Photos by Fuminari Yoshitsugu for Torafu

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August 25, 2013   Comments Off