When I was leaving Tokyo in July 2015 to move back to LA, I thought that I’d visit at least once every year, as I’ve been convinced that Japan is truly, my second home. Living in Tokyo was a major reason why I chose to live in New York City over Los Angeles for the past few years; It’s bustling – there’s something happening around every corner, the food and art scene has been in a constant rush, public transportation actually exists. Since I’ve moved to New York City, I’ve mainly met O’s friends and my brother, Tony’s friends. It’s honestly been a bit lonely sometimes because to this day, I still feel a little culturally out of place. This time, I brought O to meet some of my best friends – some of the characteristics and rituals and mannerisms that could define me a bit more.
4-9-22 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo
First off, Majima-san – my Itoya coworker, has known me too well for these past 5 years and invited me to Toraya, this gorgeous confectioners gallery and cafe. Not sure how she does it, but whenever Majima-san invites me for an outing, it’s always particularly mesmerizing. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who’s so spot-on for what kind of food, drinks, interiors. and experience I love. Toraya, founded back in the 1600s, has been renowned for its gorgeous illustrated wagashi design books from the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) and well known to feudal lords. It blows my mind how the original location in Kyoto was burnt to the ground along with the original Imperial palace and such a place still exists. And who knew wooden restrooms and hallways could smell so earthy and heavenly at the same time.
While we did check out a few ramen restaurants, Afuri was the best – better than Tokyo street/Rokurinsha 六厘舎, better than Kyoto’s burnt miso ramen. Not sure why, but I loved the Yuzu ramen this time more than I had when I lived in Tokyo. Maybe it’s because we were the first that morning.
I don’t know why, but Tokyo Disney Sea makes Disneyland look almost sad and ghetto. Something about the scenery of Tokyo Disney Sea makes me want to go every single time I visit Tokyo. I vividly remember my dad telling me stories of Tokyo Disney Sea when I was growing up. Although I’ve been there 4 times within the past 5 years, I fall in love with it every time – from the entrance, from getting my mickey mouse popcorn bucket filled with various flavored popcorn, to gazing out the ocean, eating curry, and screaming hysterically at random rides. There’s something hilarious about Indiana Jones and Genie speaking Japanese and Mickey Mouse fighting in Japanese.
What I like to call…”Kyoto in Tokyo” and one of my favorite gardens (with a museum) by Kengo Kuma and his associates. This gorgeous minimalist museum with Traditional little tea houses even includes a cafe with wagashi. Everytime I come here, I always feel like I am at peace. But of course, O and every other architect I bring here spends almost more of their time/energy on studying the joinery and details rather than the garden – that’s particularly mindblowing in the fall.
3rd Floor, 1 Chome-6 Jingūmae, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0001
Originally, O and I were going to go to an owl cafe, but when he noticed a sign for capybaras along Harajuku’s infamous Takeshita… he insisted we come here instead, just for the capybara. I had no idea that this animal existed nor that rodents could be so relishing with 4 webbed toes at its hind legs and 3 webbed toes at its front legs. Such peaceful creatures.
On the bittersweet side, who knew coming back after 2 years would reveal that 1) My home of over one year is no longer there because of Japan’s disposable housing market, 2) Tokyo metro and J-rail feels and looks cleaner than I’d recall, 3) the majority of my favorite places and coworkers would still be there and 4) To me, truly, these architectural designers are #1 in the world, including my JMA friends.
It’s been only 4 months since I moved from Tokyo to LA. But after those most horrifying first few months of my life, I booked my flight to Tokyo to pamper myself and make my transition from home to home a bit smoother. Although I lived 15 years in California (5 of it in Los Angeles) I still feel like half of my heart is in Tokyo. Living and working just over 2 years in Japan made me feel like I’ve lived and learned 20 more years.
I’ve realized all the foreigners and Japanese individuals I’ve worked and befriended with in Tokyo are older, worldly designers, builders, go-getters, do-ers. We all wanted to escape from something and/or find something greater in our lives. The Tokyo lifestyle I became accustomed to kept my mind, hands, and feet busy with designing, photographing, and cooking, but it also made me afraid to rest and sleep – because I became too afraid to miss an incredible moment and opportunity. And by the end of my journey, to leave my incredible friends – my family, all my memories and incredible projects we worked on together behind, to move back to Los Angeles – was the scariest move that I had to do by myself. Some tell me I moved not only back, but backwards in life. And it still hurts.
I specifically want to thank not only the loyal friends who reached out to me for support in this season of uncertainty, but also the friends who accompanied me as I re-visited Japan. My head spun with excitement, nervousness, and anxiety as I organized, but my architecture colleagues who flew in from all cities throughout the states and accompanied me reminded me to truly let it all go and enjoy this trip. Surely, it is quite exhausting to lead a group of 5 guys through their first time in Japan, yet we were able to organize appropriate roles for each of us to contribute our skill sets to the trip.
The experience of going through Japan is extremely different as a visitor versus a full-time working designer and resident. The grass is typically greener on the other side (of the world) But I think when all things come crashing down on you, it’s appropraite to be selfish in pampering yourself- escape from all daily life duties, regain your wholesomeness, and go out as far as possible. Lately, I’ve also been interested in creating my own job between the United states and Japan because I am certain that both cultures can contribute and benefit to one another in regards to design, art, social issues, and cuisine. I’m not a fluent translator, nor am I an expert architect/chef/politician, but I have a huge heart for serving both countries and I believe the powers of kickass food and kickass design can improve lives. Japan clearly excels in the culinary and art; Japan consists2x more architects than in the states, and consists of the most Michelin restaurants in the world. Simply growing up in the states as an American woman has taught me to speak up, work collaboratively, and fight the fuck on and for others for my rights, our rights. And I believe this can resolve Japan’s social issues on depression, overworking hours, gender inequality, and high suicidal rates.
This 10 day trip through Japan has helped me step closer to creating this job by re-uniting with some of the most talented designers and chefs in the world. And I want to translate the best of both worlds to everyone. This trip also wouldn’t have been as great if it weren’t for the handful of designers and chefs throughout Japan that reached out to us with such hospitality. The crew that accompanied me were my 5 architecture colleagues: Benny W. and Marcos C. from LA, Andrew L. from SF, Jordan R. from Seattle, and Spencer M. from CLV. Our itinerary covered 4 major cities: 1) Tokyo, 2) Kyoto, 3) Kanazawa (my solo trip), and 4) Naoshima.
I first visited Tokyo, my hometown and neighbors in Nikotama, sped through my favorite streets and buildings through Shibuya, and caught up with a few Itoya coworkers, Satsuki-san and Miyasaka-san in Omotesando and Ginza. Then just before catching a shinkansen/bullet train to Kyoto, I visited my previous firm JMA, for lunch and with my interior design team, visited a multi-purpose office project that I also worked on in Kanda. Fortunately, it was just one stop away from Tokyo station so after checking out the progress and patterning of M3, I was able to quickly re-unite with the rest of my crew and head out to Kyoto.
I first met Irven Ni, Cordon Bleu Paris alumni, in Tokyo at a Nikken Sekkei/Kuma house party during my first year in Japan. He’s this British humored/shit talker, yet smooth gentleman who I was astounded by because he would cook up anything delicious and new in the kitchen instantly for me. He inspires many including me with his courageous background story: He quit his actuary job years ago, traveled around the world for a year, and courageously took the leap to become a chef 3 years ago. After he studied French cuisine in Le Cordon Bleu for a year, he moved to Tokyo to further develop his French cuisine, and eventually farewelled me goodbye on my last evening in Tokyo. While I moved to Los Angeles in July, he moved to Kyoto to work as a chef in 3-star rated Michelin restaurant, Kikunoi. After I told Irven that I was visiting Japan this November, Irven invited me and my friends for a stunning kaiseki lunch. We were welcomed by the restaurant owner’s daughter, and gestured into a gorgeous 9-tatami sized private room with a Japanese garden and pond that Irven specially selected for us. Notes from the restaurant and chef’s statements: “Kaiseki means a traditional multi-course Japanese meal. Yet originally, kai means bosom and seki means stone… and over the years, the word came to mean light meals to ward off the pangs of an empty stomach.” Our menu for the month of Shimotsuki (November) consisted of: anglerfish liver, mibuna, karasumi, kuwai chips, duck liver pate with white poppy seeds, maple leaf shaped cuttlefish coated with pickled sea urchin, tai sashimi, bluefin tuna, vinegared chrsanthemum petals, curled udo stalks and carrots, red tilefish steamed with chestnuts, lotus root salad, quail dumplings boiled in a hot pot, mochi and rice steamed in sake, topped with salmon roe, fermented black bean paste skewered on pine needles, and persimmon splashed with brandy.
It was truly a sensational, heartwarming gift to enjoy this kaiseki lunch with hot sake made by my friend and his team, in a private, carefully arranged and decored room, especially while cold rain started pouring outside. At the end of this evening, Irven and his friends treated me to drinks at Fishbowl in Kyoto, while he introduced me to other international Michelin chefs and taught me how he poured sake into my rice halfway done before it finished to make it melt in my mouth.
I couldn’t help but break the silence and laugh at the scale comparison of Andrew and the chairs they gave us. I’m relieved that Andrew didn’t complain about the pain of his legs/back, and it’s probably because every mouthful of the 3 hour meal, gulping sounds of endless refills of hot sake, and ambience were that damn divine.
And me being me, restless and anxious to catch some espresso (and photography) shots at Arashiyama’s Arabica, I woke up soon after sunrise to catch a cab and head out for Arashiyama’s Abrica coffee.
I’m still trying to be better, stronger, independent, happier, and conquer obstacles in the morning, so I made this one day getaway break by waking up early and taking another 3-hour shinkansen ride to Kanazawa. I came here once with my boyfriend at the time and coming here alone was strange, sad, but also kind of refreshing with bittersweet memories. I’ve been so determined to move on and free myself of all bad memories by moving forward and I practiced shooting more photos of contemporary design by swinging by the Umimirai library (to my bitter disappointment, the library was closed temporarily and the website didn’t post an update on that) so I only caught a few exterior shots and visited a few other parts of SANAA’s 21 contemporary art museum I didn’t get to see before. I’ve been obsessed with Maruni chairs and these by SANAA are just so lovely. But I fear that if I were to purchase one, it’d break on me because of the rate of all the sushi balls, ice cream, and drinks I’ve been intaking.
The guys and I then took another shinkansen to Okayama, a train to Uno station, then a ferry to Naoshima Island. Naoshima reminded me of a remote secret agent headquarter island, and Ando’s Benessee and Chichu museum reminded me of a villian’s lair. (enter whatever 007 quotes you can think of) After biking about 10 minutes uphill and walking into Chichu’s Art Museum’s of mystery (and works by Monet, Turrel, and Walter de Maria) we were all left breathless. Ando always does a fascinating job angling light and designing with concrete. His concrete is always so smooth that you want to rub your face all over it and touch everything you shouldn’t touch. Although photos are strictly prohibited (and I was called out countless times with curators even following and watching me put away my camera) I snapped no less than a hundred photos. And after Andrew jumped on top of Yayoi’s pumpkin, I’m pretty sure Andrew and I are one of the least welcomed back onto the island.
Now, it’s been a few days since I’ve been back and better from Japan. And I’m really excited to continue exchanging all kinds of baked and handcrafted goods with my old and new friends here and abroad this holiday season. It’s a sweet time of giving and receiving. Bring in the last few weeks of 2016. I’m ready to kick the shit to the very end of 2016 and run through Boston, New York City, to start off 2017.
This week I had the pleasure to meet with Kirk Bairian, Co-founder of No Greater Good Magazine, and take him around Tokyo for the weekend while sharing my experience for his magazine! Thanks again Kirk for entrusting me for the weekend! Excerpt taken from original published post here
My name’s Lillian Lin. I’m a full time Interior Designer.. chef, blogger, and photographer who moved from Los Angeles to Tokyo in May 2014. You can follow up with my latest recipes on TheChefcharette.com and my adventures on my personal blog: Lillianlin.com!
a. What drove you to Tokyo?
Throughout my childhood, I loved cooking, arts and crafts, and architecture.. and I was always mesmerized by Japanese cuisine, art, and culture. I was so keen to learn how to properly assemble a bento box and package gifts so well since I loved preparing meals, baking and shipping cookies for friends… and I also wanted to learn to live more minimally and nourish my own future family well. All the Japanese moms I’ve also met have always excelled in all these hospitality and household managing areas…so I thought I could really learn from them to apply these skills into my life since I’m so passionate about design, hospitality, and building a bright, future family.
While I was studying architecture at USC, I was accepted a job opportunity to design this rooftop cafe in Ginza for Itoya, this stationery company I was interning for in their LA office. Itoya invited me to come, move to Tokyo as soon as possible, so I had to fly in a week after graduating and start working on this project immediately…Hahah It was an INSANE transition, since I had to move out of my apartment,say goodbye to all my friends within a week, start learning Japanese quickly since hardly anybody in the office spoke English, and I was completely financially broke… but I believed it was an amazing opportunity I couldn’t miss and that it was worth immersing myself in this culture that excels in all areas I wanted to grow…Although it’s still been a difficult journey, I’m very thankful that I came and am at this point today, because the experience of working and living here has definitely honed all the hospitality, design, and woman skills I wanted to hone.
b. What’s been the hardest aspect of Japanese culture to adapt to? The easiest?
I think the hardest aspect of Japanese culture is the communication barrier…not necessarily speaking and listening to the language (which is difficult), but more-so understanding, accepting, and committing to Japanese standards. I think Japanese expectations are generally exponentially higher and stricter than American/European standards… Particularly, the Japanese working environment is very unique, strict, traditional, and usually not flexible. I’ve been working here for almost two years and although I’m very used to constant bowing and speaking like this Japanese…secretary, it’s still a very physically, mentally difficult environment to adapt to.The easiest is figuring out things to do and what to eat, whether you’re by yourself or with friends. Japan comes up with some of the craziest, strangest, and most fun activities that are easily accessible all over the country so my friends and I never get bored. The food and restaurant standards are so high that you don’t need to Yelp or check with people for food recommendations. You can easily walk into a random place and find something at least decent to eat… People even waited 2 hours for the Taco Bell here since it tastes exponentially better than the ones in America haha.
c. We know the Japanese aren’t exactly famous for their love of human interaction. Do you find this to be true, and is it affecting you at all?
Hahah oh yes… I actually didn’t know this about Japan until I settled in. But I was totally creeped out when I walked into a ramen restaurant with my senpai (professional mentor) and couldn’t see him nor the person serving food to me. I was sitting on a small stool, facing a counter, and there was a wooden board in front of me and against my sides… I watched the board in front slightly lift and hands pop out with my ramen…and had to talk to my senpai by listening through the wooden boards between us. It was SO weird and awkward to me. I eventually started feeling really uncomfortable and depressed since I went months without a hug/handshake…so my friend convinced me to buy this Duffy stuffed animal at Tokyo Disneyland so I had “someone” to hug and sleep with at night. And I seriously spent my only $40 in my wallet then on this stuffed animal for unlimited hugs and more loving nights…
d. I’ve been reading a lot of Japanese fiction lately (cough Murakami cough), and it seems that there’s always this aspect of… surrealism, or sense of magic that pervades everyday life. Do you think this is just the vestiges of ancient Japanese mysticism, or a vehicle of escape from the soul-crushing banality of the salary-man life? Or both? Or should I just stop reading so much Murakami?
I’ve actually never finished reading a Murakami book… oops…. hahah, so I’m not sure if I understand your question. But I think there is a strange aspect of surrealism here because it’s so crowded here and a lot of us still tend to feel extremely lonely and troubled to express our feelings and ideas…especially with all this high technology and little human interaction and . It’s hard to explain but even though I keep myself preoccupied with work and friends, I definitely feel it.. Especially when I’m squished commuting in trains to work, or when I hike, run, visit parks, shrines… explore and travel through Japan by myself.
e. Best food? Best coffee?
Food-wise, I am a huge sucker for izakayas. They’re basically these small, cozy, loud and lively Japanese gastropubs that serve a variety of yakitori (chicken skewers) and other traditional Japanese comfort food and drinks. My local friends and coworkers typically go to these after work or any evening and spend hours in them having a blast. Sometimes we’ll also order nomihoudai, a 2 hour all you can drink option. For something more upscale and intimate, I like Kachou in Ginza – my last CEO surprised me by treating me and my friends to a private dinner here for my last night at my first job. The interior and food presentation is absolutely stunning with gorgeous fine wallpaper, napkins, floral arrangements, and shoji screens.
My favorite coffee shop was this coffee kiosk called Omotesando Koffee; it was this 3×3 meter cube coffee kiosk tucked away in a 60 year old traditional Japanese house in Omotesando. It was always an obstacle to get to since it’s tucked away in a neighborhood, but that was part of the fun of it. Eventually you’d step into this mysterious wooden cube with delicately arranged lights and paper bags…and finally reach the counter and order from this ridiculously good looking, pleasant Japanese gentleman – barista – owner. He made the best macchiato and even small cheesecake cubes. It was like…this coffee ritual experience I enjoyed by myself on weekends. But since it sadly closed at the end of 2015, I’ve been searching for the next best coffee in Tokyo.
f. I’m in town for one night – where are you taking me? Let’s get wild.
First, we’ll eat an early dinner at an izakaya and nomihoudai (all you can drink) with a Japanese set course menu for 2 hours, run through Harajuku’s Takeshita and Shibuya’s crossing, blast through the arcades, karaoke and bar hop in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai / micro-sized pubs, take kawaii purikura photobooth pictures that filter us to make our faces look thinner and eyes look ginormous, club 11PM – 5AM in Roppongi, and eat ramen for breakfast and green tea ice cream waffles in Lawson’s until you really have to leave… You can sleep on the airplane.