Since the jet age, tourism to Japan has grown slowly and steadily, but recently it has shot up, doubling in the past four years. The government can see that tourism is a big earner, the language is no longer a stumbling block, and, as hosts to the Rugby Wold Cup 2019 and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, they want us to visit.
Today Japan House, backed by the Japanese government, opens its doors on Kensington High Street to showcase everything thats cool and cultural about these Pacific islands. Alongside Japan House in LA and Japan House Sao Paulo, London has been chosen as the European incarnation – and all three are hubs for Japanese “creativity and innovation”.
Japan Houses mission is to show us aspects of Japan beyond the tropes of geisha and manga, and introduce us to its broader culture through heritage and craft (theres also a travel desk should you wish the full immersion). Shop staff are briefed to explain the intricacies and provenance of the crafts and product has “exhibit labels”.
Japanese artisans used to protect their techniques and guard their knowledge, but that this insularity was killing it off
Muji, a few doors away from Japan House, has been a Kensington High Street stalwart for years, and they share a creative director/art director in Hara Kenya, president of Nippon Design Centre. Like Muji, browsing is the name of the game at Japan House, but the feel of the interiors couldnt be more different, here its more like a gallery.
Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto, inspecting Stacked Colours, one of 100 items on display as part of his exhibition, Futures of the Future at Japan House
In this light-filled Grade II Art Deco former department store (latterly a GAP store) homewares are spaciously displayed as if each bowl, spoon, teapot, writing set and high-tech speaker were the most precious object – yet prices are reasonable, and make superb gifts, from the polyester flat-pack flower vases that pop into life when filled with water (£16.80 for two) to the miniature paper architectural models that you pinch out and arrange (£20.40). You could be forgiven for mistaking the pure-white Japanese picnic plates and cups for porcelain, when in fact they are biodegradable as theyre made from sugar cane (at £14.40 for six, they are posh picnic plates, and too good to throw away).
I ask the shops curator Kato Saeko what her favourite pieces are, and she guides me to the kitchenware. A glass cabinet contains the most exquisite miniature cookie-cutter sets. Saeko explains that these are traditional kitchen tools called nukigata for cutting vegetables into shapes for festivities (£27). Alongside them are zesters in the shape of a fish, a crane and a radish – all traditional Japanese motifs (from £20).
Items on sale on the cultural retail floor of Japan House
The ground-floor shop is accompanied by an exhibition space downstairs, currently filled with the most delightful architectural models (a must-visit), while upstairs is a 90-cover Japanese restaurant and bar, Akira, taking bookings for lunch and dinner, and a private-dining room – the tatami – seating ten in traditional Japanese style. Both look to be hot new destinations for the capital. I imagine this vast tranquil space will be mobbed come Christmas.
Saeko explains how Japanese artisans used to protect their techniques and guard their knowledge, but that this insularity was killing it off. Now they want to celebrate and show the world not just the finished product but the heart and soul of the maker.
Japan House opens today at 101-111 Kensington High Street, W8 (japanhouselondon.uk)