All-things-Japanese events mark 50 years of Japan-Singapore relations

Three events in Singapore this month celebrate the culture of and products from the Land of the Rising Sun

This month is turning out to be a busy one for Japanophiles, with three events here celebrating the culture of and products from the Land of the Rising Sun.

You could pick up a gold-thread bridal kimono at department store Metro, delve into the history of Japanese porcelain at a festival by lifestyle label Supermama or watch the evolution of Japanese product design in an exhibition at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa).

The events at Metro and Nafa are in celebration of 50 years of diplomatic relations between Japan and Singapore.

The Straits Times checks out the events.


Recreating the buzz over Arita porcelain

When the flowers in Japan start to bloom in May every year, a sure sign of spring, tens of thousands of shoppers jostle down the narrow streets of Arita to get their hands on porcelain ware.

It is time for the annual Arita Ceramic Fair, where hundreds of stalls line the 4km-long main street of the fair. They sell items on the cheap - from chopstick rests to hand-painted vases.

The sleepy town in the western Saga prefecture - about 4,500km from Singapore - has become synonymous with delicate porcelain and is home to revered kilns and pottery masters.

  • VIEW IT / SUPERMAMA PORCELAIN FESTIVAL

  • WHERE: 01-26 Gillman Barracks, 47 Malan Road

    WHEN: Friday to Sept 30, noon to 6pm daily

    ADMISSION: Free

Home-grown lifestyle label Supermama hopes to recreate the buzz over porcelain here.

Its inaugural Supermama Porcelain Festival in Singapore will start next Friday.

Supermama Gallery Shop in Gillman Barracks will host an exhibition of ceramics from well-known kilns in Arita, Singapore and Asian ceramists. All the porcelain ware will also be on sale.

Supermama's founder Edwin Low, 36, is a frequent visitor to Arita and longed to start a Singapore version for years.

"Every year, almost a million people will visit the small town with just 20,000 residents. That's crazy. I hope to keep the spirit of Arita Ceramic Fair."

Famed kilns and ceramics companies from Arita - including Arita Porcelain Lab, Riso Porcelain, Hataman Toen, Gen-emon Kiln, 224 Porcelain, Fukagawa Seiji and Kihara - are showing their wares. Each was paid a personal visit by Mr Low, who persuaded them to put their pieces on show here.

The first piece of Arita porcelain was made in its eponymous town in Saga Prefecture on Kyushu island in 1616.

Its style is characterised by a pristine white base and deep blue ink, although many kilns developed their own colourful styles and techniques later on.

Owning Arita-made porcelain is seen to be prestigious in some circles. The Fukagawa Seiji kiln, for instance, makes Arita porcelain for the Japanese imperial household.

The festival here will include works by Singapore designers and ceramists.

Vessels - curated by Mr Larry Peh, award-winning creative director and founder of home-grown design studio &Larry - will be featured. The project brings together five designers and studios, including &Larry, and each put their spin on the classic vase.

Mr Low says of the project that was more than a year in the making: "There was no restriction (on the brief) at all. We hope to tell a story through the perspective of a Singapore designer. Each of them has his signature style and strong message that he wants to communicate."

Each vase is produced in a limited run of 10 editions only. Prices start at $6,000.

Also on display at Gillman Barracks are works by Singapore and South-east Asian designers who were asked to come up with works that "question and approach the porcelain material in different ways", says Mr Low.

The event may not have begun, but he already has plans to make the Supermama Porcelain Festival an annual event.

"Producers and consumers can have something to look forward to - whether it is to buy or launch something. I hope to start from my little studio in Gillman Barracks and then reach out to the South-east Asian region in the following years.

"When people come together around a common subject in the most natural way, I think the most exciting things can happen."

Mr Zestro Leow, 22, is a practising ceramist who will display five sculptures at the fair. They are for sale.

The Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts graduate says: "It's a good platform for me to get my name out there. It's also an honour for me to be at the festival with these kilns because my work is influenced by the Japanese Shinto religion."


Where old and new inventions meet

The utilitarian electric Toshiba RC-10 rice cooker and a glamorous 3D-patterned dress by fashion stalwart Issey Miyake make for strange bedfellows, but both are part of an exhibition celebrating Japanese design.

Japanese Design Today 100 showcases 100 items that embody the essence and style of Japanese design.


The Toshiba RC-10 rice cooker, which made its debut in 1955. PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI

The exhibition, which is touring the world, made its debut here on Tuesday at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) in Bencoolen Street. It is on until Oct 9.

In 2004, design critic Hiroshi Kashiwagi led a curatorial team - including Kawasaki City Museum curator Masafumi Fukagawa, design director Shu Hagiwara and journalist Noriko Kawakami - to bring together a series of products that they thought were creative solutions to problems.

Items from the collection, which was updated two years ago after touring the world for a decade, range from furniture and apparel to healthcare products and transportation vehicles. Some of these are shown in pictures in the exhibition.

The show, writes Mr Kashiwagi in the foreword in its information booklet, is a good way to introduce non-Japanese people to more than just Mount Fuji.

The 70-year-old writes: "People of the world could get more information about the diversity of contemporary Japanese life and culture by looking at Japanese design. Some product designs follow recent global tends, others carry on Japanese traditions and others reflect mass taste."

The exhibition was commissioned by The Japan Foundation, an organisation which promotes Japanese cultural programmes around the world.

The exhibits, which are not for sale, are a collection of old inventions - 11 are post-war designs from the 1950s to the 1990s that informed current design - and modern ones.

The RC-10 rice cooker designed by Mr Yoshiharu Iwata for household electronics giant Toshiba made its debut in 1955. It was lauded for its minimalist design and shortening the cooking time of rice. Before this invention, rice grains were typically cooked in a pot of water over a stove.

  • VIEW IT / JAPANESE DESIGN TODAY 100

  • WHERE: Lim Hak Tai Gallery, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Campus 1, 80 Bencoolen Street

    WHEN: Till Oct 9, 11am to 7pm. Closed on Monday and public holiday

    ADMISSION: Free

Since then, modern rice cookers have remained largely similar, but have been updated with more compact designs.

Visitors will also recognise familiar items on display, such as the Kikkoman soy sauce bottle, with its fire-engine-red cap.

The iconic condiment dispenser was designed in 1961 by Tokyo- born industrial designer Kenji Ekuan, who made the bottle drip-free.

Other items include the cheeky Cupmen 1 Hold On (2009) - a human-shaped figurine that, when placed on the lid of a cup of instant noodles, holds it down; and the stylish Helmz SSSD SR1 bicycle (2013), which has a single-speed carbon belt drive. The bicycle is a collaboration between bicycle company Bridgestone Cycle and narifuri, a fashion label for cyclists.

Dr Bridget Tracy Tan, director of the Institute of South-east Asian Arts and Art Galleries at Nafa, says the exhibition shows the sheer "spectrum" of how Japanese design has influenced everyday life.

The designs too, she adds, reveal that the Japanese have a special knack for solving problems.

The A-shaped stools by Japanese studio Torafu Architects, for instance, can be slotted together to form a bench or used as individual seats - a space-saver.

Nafa, which offers design courses to students, has regularly put on Japanese-themed exhibitions, workshops and masterclasses.

Last year, a retrospective on famed designer Sori Yanagi and a related workshop drew 2,579 visitors, students and participants.

Ms Marchyntia Dwiayu, 21, who has a diploma in design and is studying for a degree in 3D design at the school, had a first look at the exhibition on its opening day.

She says: "It has a wide range of products. We use quite a few every day, but never knew who made them. It makes you appreciate the product even more to know that it has been picked to show what is good design."


Fancy buying a $23,250 kimono?

Do not expect the usual Japanese fare at Metro Meets Japan, a three-week lifestyle event at the department store's Centrepoint store.

Here, the spotlight is on products from 21 prefectures in Japan, including lesser-known areas such as Tochigi, Nara and Wakayama.

Products from 63 brands were curated by Singapore-based company Ippin, which is a Japanese-owned company that supports small- and medium-sized Japanese enterprises.

  • VIEW IT / METRO MEETS JAPAN

  • WHERE: Metro Centrepoint, 01-14 The Centrepoint, 176 Orchard Road

    WHEN: Till Oct 2, 10am to 10pm dail

    INFO: Go to bit.ly/MetroMtsJP to register for workshops

There is much to browse: homeware items such as teacups and plates, food and drink offerings such confectionery and sake, jewellery and even a bag that you can put together yourself.

Ippin's marketing manager Ayumi Fujishiro thinks that it is timely to unveil Japan's wide spectrum of design products to shoppers here.

More Singaporeans, for one thing, are visiting Japan - a testament to the growing interest in all things Japanese.Last year, 308,783 Singapore tourists visited Japan - a 35.5 per cent jump from 2014, according to the Japan National Tourism Organisation.

Ms Fujishiro says: "This means that more Singaporeans now know the authentic side of Japan. Mass products are becoming less attractive. Also, as Japan is very big, there's a whole range of products which we have yet to introduce here."

Some unique items on sale include flavoured bread - in matcha, orange and strawberry flavours - in a can that warms up when opened, and made-in-Kumano brushes - ranging from calligraphy to make-up brushes.

Kumano is the brush-making capital of Japan.

A jaw-dropping $23,250 gold- thread kimono is also on display. The intricate piece, known as a Uchikake kimono, is a brocade bridal coat on top of another kimono. There is just one on sale.

Fans of famed Japanese furniture brand Actus will also get a peek at its furniture in Metro - ahead of the opening of a standalone store in the central business district next year.

The brand closed here in 2002 after a 17-year run, citing stiff competition and the recession then. It is being brought back in by Singapore multi-label retailer atomi, which carries Japanese products and has a store in Mandarin Gallery.

Actus products for sale include the three-legged beech wood Shoemaker Stool and a walnut-finish dining table.

Mr Andrew Tan, who runs atomi with his Japanese wife, Ms Mitsuko Murano, says they are confident of Actus' comeback here.

"We did not take short cuts and have taken the necessary time to understand the Singapore market," he says.

On sale are items from other design brands as well - such as home accessories by Kime; made-in-Japan stationery by Hightide, brought in exclusively for this event; and art by Japanese calligrapher Suisen Nakatani, who uses ink made of vegetable oil soot.

Whisky lovers who venture to atomi's lifestyle space on the third level can pick up whiskies and drink accessories such as glasses.

Even if you are not looking to buy anything, there are cooking demonstrations, tea and art workshops, and performances. Some workshops have a participation fee.

For a start, catch performances this weekend featuring traditional Japanese instruments, such as the three-stringed shamisen and shakuhachi, a flute.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2016, with the headline 'Nod to all things Japanese'. Print Edition | Subscribe