Land of the rising crafts

Japanese artisanal creations are all the rage with Singaporeans looking for clean lines and purity of form.

It is Saturday night, and you are having drinks at D Bespoke, the Ginza-style bar along Bukit Pasoh Road.

Owner and head bartender Daiki Kanetaka hands you a cocktail in a Kimura Glass. The long-stemmed glass is so elegant, and its mouth so paper thin, you worry about the hand-blown glass slipping out of your hands and breaking.

Love the glass? Then head over to the bar's lifestyle space near the entrance, where there is a collection of them on display together with other artisanal products that are used at the bar - which you can also buy.

For example, there are tin tea caddies from Kyoto's Kaikado, a family-owned company which has been around for 140 years. Or if you are a serious tea drinker, you may want to get your hands on a teacup set from Uji's Asahiyaki. The lifestyle space carries 10 artisanal brands.

"Japanese craftsmen take great pride in their art, and I apply much of that same attitude towards bartending. I also wanted a platform to showcase such works and give customers an opportunity to own them as well," says Mr Kanetaka. D Bespoke is the latest spot where fans of Japanese crafts can get their hands on their products. The other two popular places are atomi and Supermama.

D Bespoke prides itself on giving clients the option of customising the products that they wish to buy. Want a Kimura Glass but in another design? The bar can make arrangements with the Tokyo-based producer.

Mr Kanetaka says the quality of the glassware makes all the difference. "Skills and technique are a vital part of bartending, but just as important is the vessel the drink is served in. So we customise our glassware to suit the drinks."

Kimura Glasses retail from S$50 per piece, and there is a minimum order of a dozen. A Kaikado tin can costs from S$100, while an Asahiyaki teacup starts from S$75. You have to make a minimum purchase of S$150 per craftsman, and there is also a one-month wait.

Since the bar and lifestyle space opened a month ago, there have been enquiries about the glasses and the tin cans.

Over at atomi, the five-year-old store has gained a reputation as the go-to address for traditional Japanese items. "We bring in brands that represent 'Japanese design' and 'Comfortable lifestyle' - our vision statements for the store," says founder Andrew Tan. "We carry traditional Japanese brands, across multi-generations, made by traditional craftsmen, and which appeal to those who appreciate heritage and classic designs."

His brands include Oda Pottery and Miyama, sourced on one of Mr Tan's many trips to Japan with his wife Mitsuko. Besides visiting friends and family, they are always on the lookout for brands that are hard to find in Japan, specifically those outside of Tokyo, Osaka and Hokkaido, the typical places that Singaporeans love to visit.

"(Given their length of business) we get a lot of referrals from existing business owners in Japan and friends," says Mr Tan. atomi also gets invited by the Japan External Trade Organization on buying trips and is also their lifestyle consultant in Singapore. "We are also appointed by the Gifu Prefectural Government to be their consultant to promote the local SMEs outside of Japan, specifically Singapore. That's how we get to know more brands in Japan."

Even so, they are very selective about what they bring in. "They must be suitable for the Singapore market, which is an extremely cosmopolitan city yet having a highly fragmented, small local market," says Mr Tan.

Meanwhile, Supermama's founder Edwin Low became interested in traditional Japanese crafts after seeing the Tako lamp by Japanese designer Toshiyuki Kita. The wall lamp is made of traditional washi paper, but given a modern twist when used as a lampshade.

"When I started Supermama, I wanted designs that work with traditional crafts facilities to differentiate my merchandise from those of other shops," says Mr Low.

Some of the Japanese brands that he brings in include Kihara, Shotoku Glass and Sanshu. "Many of the techniques date back many years, even generations, and we would probably lose all of these if we don't create a market for them," he says.

Where possible, Mr Low visits the factories of the different brands. "By being there, you will understand the attitude and pride everyone takes towards their craft, which may even be just a simple process like packaging," he says. "What I love about working with Japanese craft companies is that when you make an order or production run, you can be sure that everything will be done well, from product quality, quality control to delivery time. The manufacturers always deliver."

Mr Low says that the primary audience for the artisanal products that he carries are the Japanese living in Singapore, as "most traditional facilities were set up primarily for their domestic market. Occasionally, I get Singaporeans and tourists buying them."

atomi's Mr Tan notes that because of their exclusive designs, limited productions and pricing, Japanese artisanal products "are never going to be wildly popular in Singapore. However, Singaporeans in general are very into Japan, especially Japanese cuisine, lifestyle and products."

He adds, "Our customers appreciate the good designs, trust the quality and brands atomi brings in and, most importantly, they know quite well the items they get from us. We also have a personalised service to bridge the cultural and language gaps between Singapore and Japan."


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