Designer Tess Koptiuch travels to Japan and discovers a country where modernity and ancient tradition go hand in hand. As told to Haley Beham
If ever there was a picture of how millions of people can peacefully coexist, Japan is it. Over 127 million people call the island country home, yet the streets are clean and people are civil and polite to one another. If ever there was a picture of how millions of people can peacefully coexist, Japan is it. Over 127 million people call the island country home, yet the streets are clean and people are civil and polite to one another.
It’s full of stark contrast. I take in these odd, striking juxtapositions as I travel from Tokyo to Kanazawa to Kaga, and back to Tokyo again. Yet the big picture is harmoniuous. After a brief stay in high-tech Tokyo, I board Japan’s luxurious Shinkansen bullet train in Gran Class (first class) for Kanazawa, a town known for its well-preserved Edo-era districts, restored Samurai houses, geisha culture and regional handicrafts. Because of its relatively remote location, the city escaped bombing during World War II. As a result, much of its traditional architecture is still intact. Its proliferation of traditional arts like hand-painted silks and ceramics, earned Kanazawa designation as a UNESCO Creative City for Crafts and Folk Art.
As I watch the artisans cut gold leaf into small squares, I learn that Kanazawa is the leading producer of gold leaf in Japan. The city’s gold leaf production dates back 400 years and today is a source of local pride for the artisans and residents alike. You can find it decorating folding screens, ceramics, glassware, temples and shrines. I am served green tea with a piece of gold leaf in it. Before leaving, I am given a piece to keep in my wallet for good fortune.
From Kanazawa, I continue my journey to Kaga, a quaint spa town. I stay at Araya Totoan, a traditional Japanese ryokan, where I am steeped in classic Japanese hospitality. Established in 1639, Araya Totoan has been owned by the Maeda family for 18 generations. Hostesses anticipate my every need and fresh Kaiseki-style meals are served on rare Kutani ceramic and Yamanaka lacquerware.
Inside my suite I indulge in modern amenities that complement the traditional, minimalist Japanese style. I also take full advantage of two hot spring bath tubs. In addition to the private baths, Araya Totoan has three public baths filled with the restorative waters of Yamashiro hot springs.
While in Kaga, I have the rare treat of visiting the artist Buzan Fukushima at his home studio. Buzan is a master of Aka-e painting (red painting), a highly valued craft first produced in 1640. In 2015, he was commissioned by Hermès to paint 12 watch faces for the Slim d’Hermès line, marking the first time Japanese art was combined with French porcelain. I enjoy seeing the intricacy and difficulty of his craft firsthand. I’m surprised to see that he paints with such precision, even without the use of glasses or a magnifying glass. To demonstrate his craft while I’m there, he paints my name onto a single grain of rice. He then signs the back and gives it to me. All of Buzan’s works are commissioned and cannot be purchased in a shop, so my little grain of rice is my most prized souvenir.
It's Japanese tradition to remove your shoes when entering a home or various other establishments that you will surely visit. Wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off. And be sure to wear socks!
- Tess Koptiuch, Designer
I wrap up my journey in the heart of the action, at the Palace Hotel Tokyo, a property that effortlessly blends old and new. The luxe high rise is impeccably clean, with 278 spacious rooms and 12 suites that sit opposite the Imperial Palace Gardens. Throughout the hotel, I find an eclectic mix of over 1,000 pieces ranging from traditional ink washes to colorful abstracts and laser-cut paper art. Each piece has been specially selected or commissioned for the hotel from some of Japan’s most loved artists, as well as some of the country’s most promising up and coming creatives. But the cornerstone of the hotel is its staff. Friendly, polite and attentive, Japan’s traditional culture of hospitality is present even in the cutting-edge, urban hotel.
Japanese hospitality encompasses so much more than friendly service. I experienced it throughout my journey, from the meticulous preparation and presentation of meals to the pride artisans take in their craft. I felt it most in the sincere kindness of each person I met along the way.