Tag Archives: Japan

Heaven on Earth: The Canadian Embassy in Tokyo

Next weekend Canadians around the world will be celebrating our national holiday and those lucky enough to score an invite to their local embassy will enjoy a spectacular party. If I could pick one city to experience this, it would be Tokyo, if only to get to see the remarkable complex designed by Raymond Moriyama of Toronto’s Moriyama and Teshima Architects.

Photo: Move and Stay

Moriyama’s personal story is as interesting as the buildings he designs. During World War II, his father was sent to a POW camp in Ontario, while Moriyama and his mother were detained in a Japanese internment facility in British Columbia. He was further alienated by the other children at the camp, who teased him about his scars from an earlier accident. He built himself a tree house as a refuge, which would later serve as the inspiration for the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo.

Photo: Moriyama and Teshima Architects

The glass roof of the embassy rises out of the lush foliage of the adjacent Akasaka Imperial Grounds and Takahashi Memorial Park. Moriyama envisioned the glass-enclosed upper floors (the embassy) as heaven, with the bottom three floors (leased offices) representing earth.

(Photo: Moriyama and Teshima Architects)

The fourth floor terrace, which is open to the public, links the two and symbolises the harmonious meeting place of the Japanese and Canadian peoples. To access this peaceful area one ascends a glass-enclosed escalator through the treetops, just as Moriyama escaped the discord of his youth.

Photo: A Fish Out of Water

The terrace encircles the building and illustrates aspects of the Canadian landscape through Japanese stone gardening techniques. Its designer, Shunmyo Masuno, is one of the few Zen priests who still practices ishi-tate-so, stone setting originally performed by itinerant priests of the Heian and Kamakura periods.A Japanese stone garden depicting Canada

Photo: A Fish Out of Water

For this project Masuno used roughly cut rock from Hiroshima to represent the bedrock of the Canadian Shield. A traditional Inuit inukshuk balances at one corner, symbolising the northern part of the country.

Photo: City Photos

Three peaked pyramids embody the Rocky Mountains of the west.

Photo: Graham Cooper’s Project Japan: Architecture and Art Media, Edo to Now,
via The Japan Society

A small water feature exemplifies the Pacific Ocean and links the Canadian elements with Japan, represented by the traditional raked gravel of Zen gardens.

Photo: Gap Photos

According to Masuno’s design philosophy, “the garden is a special spiritual place in which the mind dwells.” For visitors and locals alike, the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo offers both a beautiful respite from the hectic urban environment and a place to contemplate the history and cultures of both countries through the visionary design of Raymond Moriyama and Shunmyo Masuno.

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The History of the Step Chest

Greentea Design's Large Elm Burl Step Chest

When they first encountered the step chest, or Kaiden Dansu, in the 19th century it was love at first sight for travelers from the West.  It’s such an iconic piece of Japanese furniture, with an instantly recognizable shape. Their asymmetry; the many drawers and sliding doors; the intricate Japanese joinery techniques that ensure they’re built to last: Step chests strike a perfect balance between art and design, form and function.

how a step chest would've been originally usedImage via Pinterest from Picasaweb

These beautiful solid wood pieces first appeared during the late 1700s custom built by the local carpenter for stores and loft spaces in Japan.   They were built to serve the practical purpose of acting as both staircase and storage. These step chests are constructed in three parts that can be arranged in various configurations.

Haru Step, reconfigured

Historically, building step chests in multiple parts served a couple of key purposes:  it allowed the pieces to be easily transported, carried on shoulder poles, from one place to another (tansu were generally considered fancy storage boxes); but it also allowed the furniture to be reconfigured depending on a space’s needs.

Step chest in three parts Greentea Design’s 3D Step Chest Guide

And the need, from time to time, was to screw the taxman.  Space has always been a hot commodity in Japan.  And as the story goes, these step chests would function as staircases to the upper level of a loft, where you’d find a family’s living space.  The government at the time taxed owners on their livable floor space only, so when the tax inspector came around, the step chests would be reconfigured – poof! The staircase was gone! – and the owner would claim the loft above was soley used for storage – with no permanent access to the space – and therefore untaxable. This worked for a while until, predictably, that loophole was closed.

Big Burl Step Chest functions as a room divider

Greentea Design's CD Step Chest

Today, using traditional building techniques, Greentea Design has a range of step chests that fit beautifully in modern spaces.  With two-sided design, they function as room dividers and offer loads of storage that can be customized to your needs.  These are heirloom quality pieces, the unique focal point of any room, that imbue a space with a little culture and a little history.

Flying Cute Class: Hello Kitty Air

You would have had to been born under a rock to be unfamiliar with Hello Kitty, the adorable character created by Japan’s Sanrio in 1974.

Hello Kitty in airplane(Photo: Limcorp)

Through brilliant marketing, the company has produced thousands of bright pink Hello Kitty objects for children and adults alike; The Design Tree’s own Nathalie Mariano recently blogged about her past and present interest in the brand’s endearingly cute products.

Hello Kitty Jets by EVA Air(Photo: AirTeamImages via Flight Global)

But the obsession has reached new heights, literally, with the introduction of Hello Kitty planes. Sanrio partnered with Taiwanese EVA Airways to launch three Hello Kitty jets in October, 2011. Obviously it has been a popular move, as a few days ago EVA announced that two more planes will be added to the fleet at the end of the month.

Hello Kitty Boarding Pass Kiosk (Photo: Reuters via Metro UK)

EVA didn’t just stick a few logos on the hulls of their aircraft; passengers can expect a full immersion in Hello Kitty world for the duration of their flight, starting with the check-in kiosks. The blinding mix of pink and bows and stars resembles the bedroom of a twelve year-old. I simply cannot imagine a businessman checking in here!

Hello Kitty boarding passes and luggage tages(Photo EVA Airways via Kawaii Kakkoii Sugoi)

During their trip, passengers are introduced to more than 100 specially designed Hello Kitty items, ranging from luggage tags and boarding passes to soap and toilet paper in the washrooms. If this isn’t enough for you, there are also limited edition duty-free products for sale onboard.

Hello Kitty Air seat include Hello kitty pillows and head rests(Photo: EVA Airways via Gumship)

For those not obsessed with pink, the cabins are actually a rather lovely, muted shade of grey. And I think the little cushions are adorable and especially welcome in a time when such amenities are disappearing from other carriers.

Children's Meal on Hello Kitty Air(Photo: EVA Airways via Greasy)

The children’s meals look delightful and the fact that such an item is available speaks in part to EVA’s target audience for this venture. I don’t travel with children, so I am torn about these flights. Will all the memorabilia keep kids entertained (and quiet) or will they run riot like they would at an amusement park?

Not your regular airplane food on Hello Kitty Air(Photo: Popflys)

But EVA hasn’t forgotten the adults onboard. These meals (which I think are for business class) look delectable. Perhaps businessmen in the know will endure the embarrassment of check-in if this is what is waiting for them in transit!

Hello Kitty Air Waiting Area(Photo: If It’s Hip, It’s Here)

The planes run between Taipei, Fukuoka, Narita, Sapporo, Incheon, Hong Kong, and Guam. I’ve never really been the biggest Hello Kitty fan (though I have always wanted the toaster that imprints bread with the a little smiling kitty) but if I was travelling to one of these locations and the price was right, I might give it a try just for novelty’s sake.

Matching Hello Kitty Luggage(Photo: Kitty Hell)

What about you? Is this a dream flight or your worst nightmare come true?

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro Ono sushi

Image from Jiro Dreams of Sushi, courtesy Magnolia Pictures

I can’t quite put my finger on when – it was more than a decade ago now – but, Toronto became obsessed with sushi.  There are three places within 10 minutes walk from my home and that’s light compared to the sushi to population density ratio downtown.

Sushi from Omi on Carlton Ave in Toronto

Image via Omi Sushi

There are lots of budget sushi takeaways (great in their own rite) but these are balanced by a few really wonderful spots, Nami and Omi to name a couple.  Places that treat sushi like an art.

Sushi on a board by Omi Sushi, 234 Carlton Ave in Toronto

Image via Omi Sushi

But if it’s the best sushi in the world that you seek, it’s not surprising that you’ll need to travel east to Japan.  Once there however, you might be shocked to learn the world’s best sushi is served up in a humble ten seat place located in a Tokyo subway station.

Jiro Ono, world's best sushi chefImage from Jiro Dreams of Sushi, courtesy Magnolia Pictures

Sukiyabashi Jiro, is the first sushi-only restaurant to ever receive 3 Michelin stars,  it’s chef and proprietor, Jiro Ono, is considered the world’s best.

Chef Jiro Ono at work with his sonImage from Jiro Dreams of Sushi, courtesy Magnolia Pictures

At 85 Jiro loathes holidays, or any reason that would keep him from his sushi bar.  And Jiro, who has been practising his art for most of his life, isn’t done evolving.  He runs his little restaurant from sun-up to well into the night, with his eldest son, Yoshikazu, by his side.  His son will one day be responsible for continuing Jiro’s legacy.    Indeed it’s this relationship between father and son, along with a mediation on the quest to perfect an art, that has formed the basis of a new documentary film called Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

The film also asks if it’s true that doing what you love means never working a day, or whether you just work that much harder, with tolls on other facets of life.  The film is, as Anthony Bourdain reviews, “Thrilling and beautiful”, perfect for foodies and anyone else for that matter.

The film is currently playing here in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox and then makes the circuit through our city’s rep cinemas.  If you’re in the US, here’s the film’s list of local showtimes.

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Spring Break Design Destinations

Film still from Where the Boys AreScene from “Where the Boys Are”

Spring break is something anyone still in school looks forward to, regardless of what you decide to do for its duration. For some it might just be a reprieve from the usually hectic academic schedule and a way to catch up on an increasingly heavy workload, but for the most part many choose to take the time to enjoy some of the first bouts of warm weather for the year.

For the last few years I sadly haven’t really had the chance to do some exploring for spring break and mostly kept it local. For those people who still might be looking for some cool design and art-related destinations, however, I put together a list of some interesting destinations. I hope I get to visit some of these places in the future!

Towada Arts Center

Towada Arts Center in Aomori Prefecture, JapanImage from Wikimedia Commons

The Towada Arts Center is an art and exhibit space located in Aomori Prefecture, Japan, north of Tokyo. It’s located in a small town, which, although developed, is still very much a part of the rural Japanese landscape. A visit to Towada would be interesting to see innovative contemporary art installations against the backdrop of traditional Japan.

Living architecture

Stay in an architect designed home during your next vacationPhoto from www.bustler.net

Ever wondered what it would be like to live or stay in a space designed by a famous architect? Living Architecture, a social enterprise, gives you the chance to do just that. The collective currently has five houses designed by firms such as MVRDV and David Kohn, with one opening in 2013 designed by Peter Zumthor. The houses themselves are tucked away from an urban setting, but this vacation is definitely all about staying in.

North America, Stop 1
Washington, DC

Washington DCImage from www.realcourage.org

A few weeks ago, the online magazine GOOD had a feature on 8 cities in America experiencing a boom in arts and design. I was beyond thrilled that DC made it to the list – the nation’s capital really has taken strides in becoming not just political hub, but a cultural center for the United States as well. The museums are overflowing with visitors, and art gallery walls are constantly being refreshed. There are also a number of notable interesting hotels to stay in if you decide to visit – like the Capitol Skyline hotel, which boasts a very mod exterior and lounge inside.

North America, Stop 2
Austin, Texas

Austin Texas' cultural festival SXSWPhoto by Brittany Ryan / SXSW

Another American city on the list was Austin, Texas. I haven’t looked into it too deeply, but one event that happens in Austin every year that is certainly on my list of things to do or see at some point in the future is the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference. SXSW is an annual event that showcases music, film, and interactive design. It was originally more of a music festival, but has grown over the years into a highly anticipated cultural event that heralds new trends in the cultural industries.

North America, Stop 3

Visit Montreal, Canada a cultural hubPhoto from Sid Lee http://www.flickr.com/photos/sidlee/

Last year I had the great fortune of participating in the first international conference of the Society for Environmental Graphic Design (SEGD) in Montreal. While the conference location changes every year, last year’s even definitely put Montreal on my map of cultural hubs. Apart from iconic sights such as the Biosphere and the old city, there are numerous art installations and a constant flow of art and design events, such as the Design Montreal Open House. Unsurprisingly, Montreal is a UNESCO city of Design for this reason.

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