Thursday, 28 November 2013

Another from the Japan Times

Was away on vacation and saw this when I arrived back home. thank you Jordan and JT! m(_ _)m

Providing an in-depth overview of all things kawaii (cute), this book traces the cute aesthetic from its inception in the 1970s as a schoolgirl trend to its position as a leading cultural norm, and includes interviews and hundreds of photos showing how kawaii characters such as cute animals and girls appear pretty much everywhere in Japan. Despite the light subject matter, the authors also provide analysis of the history and culture of kawaii, even peering into the darker effects of the phenomenon.
A must for any Japanophile, the book has enough grounded perspective for those new to Japan’s zanier aspects.

Sunday, 10 November 2013


I feel like a ham but  ....
dont forget to get my kokeshi book for Xmas!
You can get in on amazon, (its better if you can get it somewhere like Kinokuniya if you are in Japan, and should be easy to find overseas too at large bookstores)  it's not expensive, and interviews are great for lovers of crafts and handmade things, someone called the mood "meditative" which is really apt.
Real artisan heart and soul. <3333

Whoever wrote that comment on my amazon (thank you) if I ever do another edition, yes there will be comprehensive listings next time for places to eat and sleep, I'm already getting mails asking where I should stay, so that is a bit of a regret, as there isnt that much info in English online and some of the homepages are super ghetto (like html 101 class with fluro animated gifs)  but the actual place is amazing.  And also smooth out some gaffes.
Im about to go on vacay, but in the least I will try and write some places on this post in December with links to where we stayed, we did a ton of side trips as well.

oh and thanks to Andrew Lee at The Japan Times for reviewing it yesterday.
It was unexpected so I was super happy.
m(_  _)m

Kokeshi dolls are a mainstay of tourists shop across Japan, yet many visitors to the country may not know that these simple handmade wooden dolls are, by and large, associated with Tohoku, the region in the northeast that was so devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011.

In “Kokeshi: From Tohoku With Love,” author Manami Okazaki visits the region and interviews 20 koujin (kokeshi makers) who create these traditional dolls to discover the history and culture behind the various varieties of kokeshi (there are 11 aparently). The result is a delightful little book that captures the warmth of the artisans involved in creating the wooden dolls. “That moment you place the brush on a kokeshi your spirits lift. It is a strange and fascinating thing,” says one. Some of the koujin Okazaki speaks with have been carving and painting kokeshi for more than 50 years and many are carrying on a family tradition that goes back generations. “I have been making kokeshi since 1945, I was 18 years old and it was the will of my parents,” says another.

Throughout the book are photos of the people and places Okazaki visited, and as the dolls are also associated with the onsen (hot springs) areas of Tohoku, the book also includes a guide to the area. The photos of the matsuri (festivals) in the region are particularly fun.

Overall, the book reveals how deeply something as a basic as simple wooden doll can become so entrenched into a culture. Proceeds of the book will go toward Tohoku relief aid.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

blog going to sleep

This blog will go to sleep soon, but I will upload a bunch of outtakes (shoots we didnt end up using) over the next few posts. I.e. they will give more pleasure when I share them as opposed to them sitting in my phone. 
A lot of projects are appealing to journalists and photojournalists because the subjects are difficult, or getting access is a challenge, or something a long these lines, but I have to say with the  kawaii book, you can point your camera in any direction (including the sky, as there are SO many kawaii planes now) and hit something cute. 
Therefore,  it was more to show a nice cross section from the cliche to the more niche, but inevitably a lot got cut, especially the more obscure stuff in favor for the everyday cute. Its just so ubiquitous. I think my ed did a good job in steering the book in a way that made it the success that it was. And really I cant thank the readers enough for buying the book. SO SO SO grateful. 
And do have to add, even if it didnt sell, I had such a great time making it and discovering a lot about design theory and loved all the young and not so young entrepreneurs and artists. 

police ad:

Kumamon is the mascot for Kumamoto in Kyushu. 
Each prefecture and district has its own ultra cute mascot. The one below is the one for Nagano 
(not my photo)
 If you want to know why kawaii culture is getting so much attention lately, especially from otherwise quite serious press, it because it is a hugely profitable industry in Japan that goes way beyond being a trend or a subculture. 
According to the Bank of Japan, Kumamon generated 124.4billion yen in revenue (both from tourism to the region and products) over his 2 year stint as Kumamoto's ambassador.

 There are old school  mascots by Sato, a pharmaceuticals company. 
You see these outside dispensaries and pharmacies all over Tokyo.

For whatever reason, public transport companies LOVE kawaii things. 
This is the Odakyu Doareamon exhibition. 


Bullet train Kumamon
Rune Naito airplane. The company name, btw is PEACH (!) Rune Naito's work is in my book as well. He is often credited for being the godfather of cute, which is debatable, but he was the person that popularised the term Kawaii in everyday conversation. If you are in Tokyo, Japanese girls will use "kawaii" for everything and anything, and this is greatly because of the influence of Rune Naito. 
Iga town, home to a historical ninja sect boasts this amazing 
PINK matsumoto leiji ninja train. 
They did not, ever, have pink ninjas, btw.

panda bus in asakusa

I guess this guy is a station master?

 This is the mascot for the fire department:

 Pipo-kun is the mascot for the Tokyo metropolitan police force. He makes regular appearances all over the city. Ashikawa prison also have their own kawaii mascot too. 
Check out this site, (other district police forces) even for someone like me who just wrote a whole book on kawaii, I really find this amazing, I was at a friend's house pouring over it for hours. The mascot for Yamaguchi is so great.’s-police-mascots

This is the mascot for Hamaoka nuclear power plant. It was decommissioned shortly after Fukushima, as it is in a highly vulnerable location in Shizuoka. The site was mind-boggling at best, a bit like a theme park advocating nuclear safety and environmental friendliness.
Anyways, this kawaii guy is like the ambassador for Hamaoka nuke energy -- kawaii diplomacy at its most insidious.

Hamaoka nuke plant:

This kawaii catfish appears everywhere there is something earthquake related in Kanagawa. 

I didnt use so many food package designs as I ended up using examples of the food itself being beautiful. But kawaii packaging is all over sweets and chocolates. I think one of the most famous is Koala March
kawaii inflatables. I did have Yotta Groove's massive kokeshi but in retrospect I should have included more of these, even though I really had no more space in the book because there are so many great examples of artists and designers from sanrio to Yayoi Kusuma's yayoi chan and her polka dog, to Momoyo Torimitsu making these. I think they work quite well because we usually associate cute things with being small, so when they reach these proportions, they begin to look almost quite monstrous.
(not my pix) 

Monday, 21 October 2013

sugar coated

Found this nicely edited vid,  the interviewees responses are basically the same as what my interviewees for the kawaii book were saying despite being a different cultural context. 

Sunday, 13 October 2013

kokeshi jidai

Back in Japan finally! It's Autumn and so beautiful, will be running around Kyoto, Osaka etc and hopefully get a few days to chill out at the end of my trip.

I dont know how much upcoming kawaii book news I will have as that initial post release frenzy is over, but the kokeshi book will be available on amazon soon, as well as several international book stores and will hopefully do some talk events based on that, and kawaii culture, fingers crossed. It is nice to see that little book crawling its way up amazon rankings, it is in the top 15 for Japan travel books and number one for wooden toys as well as wood crafst on which is nice.

Having said that, there is nothing like going to a bookstore to buy books, especially speciality, niche specific book stores.  I am not a neo-luddite and use amazon as much as anyone else, and in HK miss that instantaneous service that you get in Tokyo,  but going into a bookstore which is curated in a way that makes it almost like a gallery is suuuch a luxury. Hopefully not a dying luxury. Tsutaya Daikanyama even has staff called "concierges" who have had previous jobs that make them experts in certain fields like music and cooking. Some speciality bookstores will remember your tastes and call if a book comes in that you may like -- completely tailored service. Some people might think bookstores are expensive but it is worth the extra dollars and it isnt that bookstores are expensive, it is that amazon is cheap. If you are looking for a book and it is available at a speciality book store, it is SO worth it to buy from there, especially if you have questions.

KOKESHKA in Kamakura is one such store, their shop is in the kawaii book. Everything there is produced or otherwise curated by cult photographer and poet Genqui Numata. They also produce a mag, (which is more like a book) called Kokeshi jidai. It has absolutely top class design, photography, contents, has a lot of archival material, information on onsen and Tohoku culture, it has to be one of the best magazines in Japan. If you like vintage, or retro style design, it will be right up your tree. Numata is a very well known photographer but asides from that, he is probably the most prolific documentarian of Tohoku rural culture and one of the main cogs responsible for the current kokeshi boom.

Asides from that, the shop is adorable and is the only place I know of that you can buy Tohoku kokeshi without actually going to Tohoku, as well as Matroyshka dolls and a hybrid of the two designed in house.
google "kokeshka kamakura" and check it out next time you are in kamakura.

Thanks for everything, love the mags, and hopefully see you soon! m(_  _)m

PS if you are in tokyo there is a kokeshi event in Koenju 26 at Studio K 1F.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

WSJ Scene Asia, school girls!

My latest blog for WSJ on kawaii culture. Maybe one more on Harajuku. I think Japan is one of the only, if not the only country where being a school girl is an image and a kind of status. Most people consider uniforms to be restrictive or oppressive but girls buy cute fashion uniforms at conomi to wear on weekends.

and... I remember how much people used to complain about how boring the traditional fashion week is in Tokyo, compared to the other fashion capitals of the world, esp as Issey Miyake, Comme de Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto don't even show their collection there. Even if clothes, fashion is not your thing, Tokyo Girls Collection is an overwhelming glimpse into school girl culture and most importantly anyone can go (not just press and buyers).

 High school. For many girls, it represents a time of awkwardness and cringe-worthy crushes. In Japan, however, schoolgirls are seen as style mavens. A symbol of youthful freedom, they are a widely exalted as fashion and pop-cultural icons, featuring in manga such as “InuYasha,” anime like “Sailor Moon” and Hollywood movies such as “Kill Bill.” But they’re not just an object of fascination. They also have tremendous power as consumers.

Thanks largely to their parents, they often wield a decent disposable income, and they have an uncanny ability to instigate new trends. So far, they have been responsible for cell-phone charms, loose socks, Pikachu onesies (as street wear, no less), purikura photo booths, Cheki instant cameras and a plethora of kawaii character goods, to name just a few. In fact, even back in the Taisho era (1912-1926), it was schoolgirls who were the first consumers of kawaii items such as prints, cards and umbrellas adorned with designer Takehisa Yumeji’s feminine illustrations.

While researching my book on Japan’s kawaii culture, I saw hordes of immaculately made-up schoolgirls on the streets of Harajuku or Shibuya’s 109 department store after school. Toyoko Yokoyama, vice president of Conomi, a Harajuku-based brand that makes “fashion school uniforms” for girls to wear on the weekends, told me that “Japanese schoolgirls are iconic because they are good at expressing themselves. They know the brand power of being a schoolgirl.” In fact, one of Conomi’s corporate advisers is Shizuka Fujioka, who travelled to places like Thailand as a “kawaii ambassador.” Dressed in Conomi’s preppy outfits, she spread the gospel of Japanese cute culture as part of a soft-power diplomacy project by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2009.
Nowhere is the consumer power of young Japanese girls more visible than at the biannual Tokyo Girls Collection show, the biggest fashion event in Tokyo, which takes place this Saturday. It counts more than 60,000 attendees a year, who pay between 5,500 Japanese yen ($56) to 15,000 yen (around $150) per entrance ticket. On this weekend’s lineup are catwalk shows, entertainment by all-female pop group HKT48, comedians, a Miss TGC beauty contest, and a stage by fashion director (and former Lady Gaga stylist) Nicola Formichetti.

The carnival-esque atmosphere is amplified by the frenzied enthusiasm of a squealing teen audience. It’s in stark opposition to the traditional Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Tokyo, which is largely attended by po-faced buyers and press. Most of the brands at Tokyo Girls Collection are casual labels like the hyper-girly Cecil McBee and Jouetie. Rather than showcasing next season’s designs, the brands allow the audience to buy the clothing shown on the runway in real time. The girls make their purchases on their cell phones via the event’s website, which has over half a million subscribers and 2 million unique visitors per month, according to organizers. The purchased items arrive on the girls’ doorstep the following day.

Many of the 80-plus models and celebrities at this season’s show are half-Asian, such as Japanese-Polish singer and actress Anna Tsuchiya, and Bengali-Japanese-Russian model Rola. Instead of the intimidating fashion models that strut the catwalk at orthodox fashion events, the look at Tokyo Girls Collection is decidedly kawaii – many of the models are no taller than 165 centimeters, and step onto the runway dressed as cheerleaders, carrying giant lollipops or sporting Minnie Mouse-size ribbons in their hair. It is a loud, extravagant six-hour affair that can frankly be overwhelming. But it can’t be beat for a glimpse into Japan’s schoolgirl culture, in all its bedazzled glory.

Manami Okazaki writes about the more colorful aspects of Japanese contemporary culture. She is the author of five books on Japanese pop culture, including most recently, “Kawaii, the culture of Cute” (Prestel UK).

Hakkunsou in Tsuchiyu

Just saw all over the Jp press that an old ryokan in Fukushima was burnt to the ground. Had a closer look and realised it was one of the places we stayed in for a few days while shooting in Tsuchiyu onsen (kokeshi town) The proprietress whom I interviewed is missing. I hope she is ok, so so sad news. Such as shame, especially as it survived the earthquake in one piece. Built in 1917 it was perched on the side of a mountain, and truthfully a total hassle to get to -- even taxis were reluctant. The building was a haphazard mix of architecture, with maybe the wonkiest stairs I have ever seen going to several riverside baths -- however it was one of the best place we stayed in the whole trip. Really old school atmosphere.

Oh and the rice was incredible.

 Here are some pix. (pix: Hakkunsou, Kokeshi artisan Watanabe and Tsuchiyu onsen scenery)