Japan's 700-year-old 'oke' craft gets a modern makeover

Japan’s 700-year-old ‘oke’ craft gets a modern makeover

It’s hard to imagine the humble bucket being a work of art, but those made by Shuji Nakagawa in his Kyoto studio go for thousands of dollars and have a loyal following.

Smooth, tactile and fragrant with the heady smell of hinoki — the Japanese cypress they are constructed from — “ki-oke” are used for a variety of purposes from storing rice and miso paste to holding water for bathing.

The level of craftsmanship, honed over a century of teaching and built on traditional methods that go back 700 years, creates a flawless finish and it is almost impossible to see the joints between the slats on the buckets.

“For me, there is such great skill, and history, and philosophy in one ki-oke,” Nakagawa says.


Nakagawa employs 700-year-old carpentry techniques in the making of wooden buckets and other specialist items Credit: Nakagawa Mokkougei

His following continues to grow, as has the critical appreciation of his work — he was chosen as a finalist in the prestigious Loewe Craft Prize 2017.

A 10-year-old’s first job

The story begins with Nakagawa’s paternal grandfather, Kameichi, who 90 years ago went to work at famed carpentry studio Tarugen — when he was just 10 years old.

At 45, Kameichi left to pursue his own ki-oke firm, calling it Nakagawa Mokkougei. Now run by Kiyotsugu — Kameichi’s son and Nakagawa’s father — the company still operates and is one of the most highly regarded traditional carpentry firms in Japan.

Punishing schedule

Nakagawa was initially resistant to follow his father, but he eventually joined the family business after graduating with a fine arts degree from Kyoto’s Seika University. He worked 10 to 12 hour days every weekday to learn the craft.

In 2003 he opened up his own studio — still an offshoot of the family firm — in rural Shiga province, a 90-minute drive from the downtown Kyoto workshop that he grew up in.

He says an ordinary piece would normally take about a day to finish, but for standout pieces, like his entry for the Loewe prize, he can spend up to a month working on them.

Changing demands

However, times have changed and as cheap, plastic, or mass-produced utensils have become readily available, the demand that was a given for his father and grandfather is no longer there. This third-generation carpenter has had to make some changes to the way his company designs, produces and — ultimately — markets its product.

“For my father and grandfathers’ generations, there was always enough demand for their product so they didn’t have to be innovative,” he says.

“But since people’s lifestyles have changed and they don’t use ki-oke any longer, this has dropped off. But for me, there is such great skill, and history, and philosophy in one ki-oke.

“To lose that is ‘mottainai’ — a great shame — to me. So if I can carry on this skill, this history and philosophy, the form is not important. If I can pass this on to the next generation I’m willing to change the form, to modernize, as long as the essence is there.”

Pushing boundaries

As a contemporary artist and master craftsman, Nakagawa mostly works alone, but he has recently collaborated with a diverse range of artists and designers to showcase his work and expand his impressive portfolio.

Weaving Shibusa: How Japan perfected an American classic

They include Danish design firm OeO, Italian designer Denis Guidone, Japanese design powerhouse Nendo and famed contemporary artist Hiroshi Sugimoto.

One collaboration resulted in a new, contemporary use for the buckets — for cooling champagne — and for two years he was the official supplier of Dom Perignon champagne buckets in Japan.

He’s a member of a project called GO ON, where he’s worked on conceptual pieces based on the theme of “home electric appliances of the future” in collaboration with Panasonic. The works will be presented to the public in April.

He also worked with OeO on a “Ki-oke stool” based around the lines and construction methods of traditional buckets and an “Indigo Gradient Table,” which follows the same design language.

“What is unique about it is that we’re all the younger generation — mostly in our 30s and 40s,” he says.

“When we got together we realized we had our own unique issues selling products that we can work together to solve. This isn’t like an old-style guild, we’re all working in different media so it’s truly a cross-genre group.”

Looking overseas

He says that attitudes towards traditional crafts in Japan have changed since his father first worked with his grandfather at Nakagawa Mokkougei — nowadays the keenest interest comes from distant shores.

This crystal universe actually exists

“If we go overseas people tend to look at what we do as a creative business and think of it as a very positive thing.”

Despite the renewed appeal his beautiful pieces hold, Nakagawa says he doesn’t want to force his own son — who is seven years old — into the family business.

“I don’t want to force my children into the family business unless they want to. Traditional crafts in Japan had been customarily taken over by the oldest son of the family, but I don’t think it is necessary.

“I’m willing to take on new apprentices and staff. Increasing the number of people who know how to make ki-oke is what we should be doing.”

Read Full Story

The stars of London's architecture renaissance

The stars of London’s architecture renaissance

Written by Edwin Heathcote

Edwin Heathcote is the architecture and design critic of the Financial Times, and author of more than a dozen books. This is an edited excerpt from his introduction to “New London Architecture,” published by Prestel.

There are old cities. There are new cities. London’s strange and seemingly eternal attraction lies in its ability to be simultaneously both.

London is a city with Roman foundations and a street plan that emerges as a chaotic hybrid of arrow-straight Roman roads, winding medieval alleys, and marketplaces; but also well-meaning, if often half-hearted, attempts to make it grander, more beautiful — or at least more rational. But it resists all attempts to overlay it with a sense of logic, just as it defies the efforts of successive generations to transform it, despoil it, or iron out the creases.

Through this chaos emerges one of the world’s most persistently desirable, expensive, successful, and unpredictable cityscapes, a place that is constantly changing yet somehow always remains fundamentally London.

Each century seems to bring its radical transformations, from the Great Fire in the 17th to the elegant city squares of the 18th, the explosion of the suburbs of the 19th and the scars of war and the neophilia of modernism in the 20th. But the 21st century is arguably already bringing about the most radical shifts in scale and skyline that the city has seen since the medieval era.

While the post-Great Fire skyline was defined by the spires of Sir Christopher Wren’s churches, culminating in the great dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, the new cityscape is marked by supertall towers articulating the city’s real estate status as the reserve currency of the global elite.

That transformation from a skyline that once combined commercial development with social housing into one that celebrates the victory of private wealth has been radical in its visual impact and eye-watering in its pace.

And, as if to reimpose itself on a profile in which height in itself is no longer enough to make a statement, London has supercharged its architecture to make itself seen.

Cities with porcupine skylines are almost a cliché; what actually makes a city buzz happens in its streets and squares, its shops and bars, the chandelier-crowned restaurants and the subterranean dive bars. And that’s been a different story, one expressed through a cocktail of the salvaged and the shiny, the particular and the generic.

In one interpretation, the city’s streets are being homogenized, the plate glass windows and the glazed facades reducing the interface between public and private, interior and exterior to a banal membrane. But in a parallel route, architects and clients are weaving their buildings back into the historic fabric, the city streets becoming intriguing palimpsests in which the high tech gleams next to artfully maintained dilapidation.

Walls are being stripped of centuries of plaster and wallpaper and taken back to the bare bones of brick and steel; battered floors and ceilings are revealed as precious surfaces divulge their history through their degradation.

Many of the best new works in the city appear not as monuments or towers, as museums, or malls, but as pieces of infill — considered, modest, occasional glimpses of a coherent, characterful architecture that has somehow emerged from this polyphony of voices, styles, and forms.

Eric Parry Architects‘ faience facade at 50 New Bond Street and 6a Architects‘ cast-iron shop front for Paul Smith’s store in nearby Albemarle Street seem to represent a new, but also rather traditional, idea of ornament as inherent to structure, a willingness to merge experiment and art with the historic texture and the subtle but intriguing decorative character of the city.
Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance by Herzog & de Meuron

Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance by Herzog & de Meuron Credit: ©Richard Schulman

Adjaye Associates‘ Rivington Place, meanwhile, introduces what appears to be a memory of soot-stained industrial architecture scaled at the level of the street, while Herzog & de Meuron adopt the cheap, polycarbonate, and concrete language of industrial construction for their shimmering Laban Building.

The complexity of London’s streetscape, the incoherence — perhaps even absence — of an overarching plan, the layering of historic strata, and the way in which modern megastructures are allowed to burst through the filigree lace of medieval scale and grain, mean that buildings are never experienced in a straightforward way.

Instead they are glimpsed poking above streets or reflected through shop windows or rain puddles.

London is not a city of monuments but a metropolis of glances and slightly hidden surfaces. Once obscured by the fog, it now fades into the drizzle or creates the backdrop for the ebbs and flows of the crowd absorbed more in their phones than the streets they are walking through.

The photographs here capture precisely—or perhaps impressionistically—that realm of glimpses and impressions, unexpected details and sudden surprises, a cityscape of infinite variety and constantly evolving aesthetics, which, no matter how well we think we know it, folds, collapses, and elides into new views and vistas even as we walk its endlessly intriguing streets.

“New London Architecture,” published by Prestel, is out now.

Read Full Story

Photographer finds beauty in dying love hotels

Photographer finds beauty in dying love hotels

Written by Stella Ko, CNN

In one photo, a dusty chandelier hangs from the ceiling above a large circular mattress framed by a mirrored headboard. In another, an abandoned suit of armor stands guard over a chariot bed adorned with stained pillows.

Signs of decay, from the scattered debris of a collapsing roof to water stained walls, are everywhere.

Yet the images — all taken in the rooms of an abandoned Japanese sex hotel by Dutch photographer Bob Thissen — seem oddly serene, like staged monuments to love.
Thissen is no stranger to derelict beauty, having traveled to almost 60 countries since 2007 in search of abandoned buildings.

A professional urban explorer, he is part of a growing group of young photographers who travel the globe, cameras in hand, exploring abandoned ruins and unseen parts of the man-made environment.

“It’s nice to see nature taking over earth,” says Thissen, “when humanity comes to an end, nature will rule again.”

CNN spoke to Thissen about his photography travels and the allure of Japan’s crumbling sex hotels.

You’ve visited thousands of abandoned buildings in different countries in the past ten years. What inspired your first journey?

The first trigger was a dream of becoming a modern Indiana Jones going on an adventure. It’s like going to a museum without any rules. First I took pictures just to show my friends and family where I’ve been.

Now it’s part of my job to go around the world, explore abandoned buildings, and bring them back to life using stop-motion technique, splicing each frame together to give the appearance of movement.

Why do you choose ruins instead of well established buildings?

What really attracts me is the texture and style of old buildings. They look way nicer with decayed walls and moss and cracks. In my opinion, crumbling things look much more interesting than straight white walls without any texture. They look haunted and magical.

How do you locate the buildings you photograph?

I try to go farther than other people, to countries nobody else explores. I spend a lot of time researching on the internet to find places. It’s a really long process and sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you’re not.

Those buildings have been demolished for different reasons — can you share a few interesting background stories about them?

Every building has an interesting story. One time I was in the palace of the now-deceased Central African Republic dictator Jean-Bédel Bokassa in Africa. It felt weird to be walking around his castle because he was accused of tyranny and cannibalism when he was alive.

The self-proclamed Emperor of Centrafrican Empire Jean-Bedel Bokassa on December 4th, 1977 in Bangui

The self-proclamed Emperor of Centrafrican Empire Jean-Bedel Bokassa on December 4th, 1977 in Bangui Credit: PIERRE GUILLAUD/AFP/Getty Images

Have you ever come across other photographers or locals inside abandoned sites you have photographed?

I try my best to avoid them and I rarely meet people because I only go to places that nobody else goes. But urban-exploring is really popular in Western Europe. When I go exploring during the weekend, there are so many people that it ruins the atmosphere of abandoned buildings.

You’ve recently been to Japan. How do their abandoned buildings compare to those in other countries?

As I travel a lot, I have noticed that when a place gets abandoned in Western Europe, everything gets stolen, looted, vandalized within a few weeks, maybe days. But when you go to Asia, they’ve got a little more respect for everything.

I was in an abandoned theme park in Japan, and everything was still in the exact same position as it was left, the kind of perfect decay that was really strange to find. I talked to the owner of the theme park and he said it had to face a natural death, just let it go and let it slowly die instead of taking everything out.

While you were there you photographed an abandoned “love hotel” called the Fuurin Motel. Why did you go there?

I did a lot of research on the internet. Japanese people don’t really talk about it, but it’s a pretty popular place in Japan. On the one hand it was a cool experience but on the other hand it was really awkward. I was afraid to touch anything inside.

Love hotels flourished when people didn’t have any privacy for secret relationships. I wondered what happened there. I also read that people there believe that there are ghosts or spirits staying around abandoned buildings.

You’ve visited other kinds of hotels in Japan. What were they each like?

It was fun to see different styles of hotels. I think Japanese people really love themes, because everything, even amusement parks, had different themes. I’ve also been to a ryokan but I don’t know much history about it as it was a road-find. It was fun to see different styles of hotels.

Are ruins glamorized or exploited with this kind of photography?

It’s quite a statement to show people what’s abandoned, because in my opinion, old abandoned buildings look way better than the modern ones. For me, urban decay is not something negative. It’s more of a term for the beauty of decaying buildings.

People can look at buildings in a different way. In the past, people built buildings to last forever but nowadays you build one and it’s gone in ten to twenty years, which is a shame.

Read Full Story