Japan HouseA Window onto Japan
“We hope the shows we present will teach people something, to lead them to a realisation about Japan, which can take time; we must take them beyond an initial wow factor.”
Behind an art deco exterior on Kensington High Street lies a transformational experience. Under the scrupulous guidance of its chief creative director Kenya Hara, Japan House London hosts a programme of profound encounters with Japanese culture, design and tradition. Having opened in London in summer 2018 as part of the global cultural initiative of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it joins two other spaces in São Paulo and Los Angeles.
Vast glass cubes dot the spare, bright space of the ground floor. Masamichi Katayama, the designer of the interiors, conceived these enclosures as a reinterpretation of the tokonoma, a traditional, recessed alcove in a Japanese home, where a prized object such as a scroll would be displayed for adoration. The cubes house a rotating display that corresponds with the main exhibition space downstairs.
The objects within these glass tokonoma command full attention. During the recent Biology of Metal show, copper pots and kettles beaten by hand in Tsubame-Sanjo sat alongside elegant smoking pipes, called kiseru, whilst round spectacles, with broken quails’ egg shell welded into their delicate frames, mingled with durable metal pegs capable of penetrating tarmac. In another, a carefully pruned pine tree stood in a stony garden, its branches held in place by ropes fanning out from the tree’s tip like a narrow crinoline. The gardeners that created this display flew over from Sanjo City, where ropes are traditionally used to support the branches of trees against the strain of heavy snowfall. In the exhibition space, a diverse array of metal hoes was meticulously arranged, each one boasting a markedly different design. Gathered from all over Japan, their divergent shapes corresponded to the varying soil conditions found across the archipelago, ranging from almost arctic conditions in the north to subtropical climates in the south. In this way, they formed a conceptual map of Japan. A quote by Gustav Mahler, emblazoned across a wall, read: ‘Tradition is not the venerating of the ashes, but the passing of the flame.’
This sentiment is characteristic of Kenya Hara’s vision for Japan House. “I want to introduce Japanese culture in candid terms. I’m not talking about a space where people wear kimono, play Japanese taiko drums, and eat sushi. These things can feel very exotic and make people go ‘wow’, but they do not lead to a long-lasting interest in Japan, ” he explains, pausing frequently for thought. “I like to use the word exformation, as an antonym of information. What is important for me when introducing Japan is not to make things known, but to make them unknown, to help people realise how little they really know about the country.”
By virtue of materials and bespoke details, the building itself is part of this unconventional introduction to Japan. All three floors are laid with handmade kawara clay tiles from Awaji Island. Upstairs in the restaurant, which offers a dining experience dedicated to the principles of food, presentation and tableware, the chairs and tables use the designs of 20th century woodworker and architect George Nakashima. A serene, traditional tatami room, replete with reed mats, a raised seating area, and a tokonoma, acts as a private dining room. Even the enormous steel staircase and lift in the centre of the building were shipped from Saitama and Fukushima, in one tonne pieces, and assembled on site.
Downstairs, next to the exhibition space, is the permanent portion of a two floor library, curated by Yoshitaka Haba, the founder of BACH. The book specialist arranges his selections according to theme; in this way, he hopes to enable surprise encounters and discoveries – all the more vital in the age of internet searches and algorithm-generated recommendations. Sections on the relationship between Japan and London flow into nature and the seasons, whilst art and film transition into cookery. Here, among Ramen recipe books, one might stumble across The Banquet by photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, which reveals an intimate documentation of his wife’s last meals, all the more moving for this unexpected context.
Upon entering the Biology of Metal show, visitors were met with a sprawling image of the purple inferno of a furnace, before emerging onto a staged factory floor. Sounds of machinery grinding and metal striking metal – recorded from the factories of Niigata Prefecture – rang out across the exhibition space. The same space- now hosting Subtle, which originates from Japan’s 47th Takeo Paper Show – has remarkably transformed. Simple spotlights fall on a collection of rectangular tables holding delicate paper artworks. Vivid, tiny explosions of colour appear in the form of paper flowers, created from the shavings of an incrementally dyed pencil. Another work displays a row of tiny human silhouettes, gradually rising out of the paper they have been cut from before sinking back into the pristine whiteness, like a life cycle in miniature. A single piano note strikes suddenly through the silence, its low undulations fading into a faint memory, before another note returns, higher in pitch. Hara, who has personally curated this exhibition, explains: “I wished to have an accompanying sound that would generate silence. Galleries can be noisy places. But due to the delicate and subtle nature of the pieces on display, something with a tangible melody would have been too distracting. This way, the audience can focus completely on the pieces.” Indeed, hardly anyone speaks a word in the gradual decay of these notes.
Where the Sanjo garden installation stood, Hara’s poetic interpretation of a shishiodoshi, a Japanese water feature, now occupies the ground floor tokonoma. Traditionally taking the form of a hollow, seesawing bamboo, which gradually fills with water, tips, and strikes a rock below to scare away deer, Hara’s design replaces the bamboo with clear glass, and the rock with a sonorous metal plate. An intricate maze of blocks across a smooth surface, like lines of telegraph code, obstructs the cascading water, breaking the stream into silvery, mercury-like drops.
These are the kind of diverse encounters Japan House hopes to encourage: unexpected yet informative – or perhaps exformative. “The culture of a country is something that is difficult to express,” observes Hara. “We hope the shows we present will teach people something, to lead them to a realisation about Japan, which can take time; we must take them beyond an initial wow factor.”