'People Make Places' explores Tokyo's wondrous interiors

Written by
Time Out Tokyo Editors

By Sophie Knight

At last, a book about Tokyo’s interiors! First-time visitors often wax lyrical about the city’s glittering exterior: its neon streets and multi-storied walkways and futuristic train lines zipping through buildings above your head. But as any long-term Tokyo resident knows, the real magic is to be found inside.

Interiors in Japan have special cultural importance. Away from the caterwauling of clerks at big chain stores, the visual jumble of signs and the traffic clogging the streets, the interiors represent transformative, intimate, personal spaces that act as a balm for the soul of a tired urbanite.

Pull back the noren, slide open the door and slip, as if through a wormhole, into a parallel universe: a tiny, hushed ceramics gallery, a yakitori restaurant filled with people drinking sake in their socks, or a vintage clothes store where the floor is covered in gravel like a Kyoto rock garden.

Charles Spreckley's 'People Make Places' introduces these spaces and 46 more. As its name suggests, it is not only about places, but the people who create them. In Japan, and particularly Tokyo, owners of restaurants, cafés, galleries, gift stores and fashion boutiques put extraordinary effort into transforming their spaces, often decorating them in an obsessively authentic way. Compared to public space, where usage is dictated by dreary urban planners with a penchant for signs and rules, interiors are people’s own private wonderlands.

Those wonderlands are beautifully showcased in 'People Make Places'. Acting as guide, historian and storyteller, it unravels the centuries of history compressed into the city’s interiors, exposing intriguing details that would otherwise go unnoticed (or be lost in translation).

This book is about craft, creativity and reinvention. It lays waste to the stereotype of dull, homogenous salarymen. A case in point is Fumihiko Kimura, cocktail maestro at Kohaku: he was on track to be an engineer and got a job at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. He gave that up to devote most of his waking his life to making the best cocktails he could.

Obsessiveness is just one of the qualities associated with the Japanese character – besides fastidiousness, patience and a devotion to perfection – that are embodied in the unique personalities that created and maintain these spaces.

There’s Visvim’s Hiroki Nakamura, for example, who visited a Sami village before committing to making a Lapland-inspired design. Or the restaurateur Yoshiaki Takazawa, who takes ten hours to make a single bite of ratatouille for each diner. And then there’s Kuniatsu Kondo, owner of izakaya Owan, a self-proclaimed perfectionist who learnt ikebana because he wasn’t happy with his florist.

'People Make Places' expresses Tokyo’s strong sense of tradition, showcasing the fifth- and ninth-generation heirs of fabled restaurants and the children who continued their parents’ art galleries and collections. Here you’ll find mentions of 200-year old clay sauce pots that are never washed, merely topped up every day; wooden bowls that keep unrefrigerated rice safe for days; and the restaurant that first came up with oyakodon, now such a classic and widespread dish it’s hard to imagine there was a single inventor.

Against some more traditional, unchanging spaces that recall the Showa and even Meiji eras, some places reflect Tokyo’s fast-paced metabolism. Fashion house Anrealage, for example, is completely redecorated and re-designed twice a year. And Hiroshi Modegi, chef at Taimeiken, counts the very modern surfing and tanning among his hobbies, even while he runs a nostalgic restaurant that was founded by his grandfather.

'People Make Places' is also about the way spaces in Tokyo appeal to this particular historical moment: whether by satisfying the urbanite’s need for some lush nature or a hushed space in a hectic, technology-saturated city, responding to the hip obsession with provenance (restaurant Shima’s wagyu steaks come with the cow’s family tree and a print of its snout), or else answering the need for a personalised, customised novel experience in a world of sameness – at coffeeshop Satei Hato (aka Chatei Hatou), patrons are served a different cup each time they visit, out of a collection of 200.

Made over three years by the author and a small team of writers, photographers and designers, the book itself is presented like a beautiful interior: it arrives ensconced in matte black washi, with a brilliant origami technique using a single sheet of rectangular paper. You almost don’t want to unwrap it. But as you do, you’re rewarded with a rainbow glint from the silver-embossed edges of the pages – a touch that makes me want to display that side instead of the spine when it’s on the bookshelf. 

'People Make Places' is also an app and a personal concierge service (where Spreckley has experience, running the BeBespoke Japan travel agency) – which means that places can continually be added to the list.

But the book itself has the potential to be a classic. The layout and design (by Lizzie Murray and Ben Chong) is modern but timeless. There is no trace of the identikit format deployed for every other hipster coffee-table book going, with big photos and single-column bold-faced type that look like a printed-out webpage. It doesn’t feel overly 'designed'. It feels – much like the constantly evolving spaces it features – like it was made to last.

 Although currently out of stock, the book can be ordered from peoplemakeplaces.com, which is also a hub for the app and the concierge service.

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