So this post is a little late in arriving but I still wanted to share my amazing trip to Japan with you!
Right back at the start of last year I was paid a visit by two lovely chaps working for the Japanese department store Hankyu. They asked whether I would like to attend the 2015 Hankyu British Fair to show my products and demonstrate some work … in Japan. Never one to turn down a challenge, I accepted and then very typically of me, spent the next few months wildly panicking about what I had let myself in for.
Hankyu stores are similar to Selfridges in the UK, and this was to be their 35th year holding the British Fair. They invite over a curated collection of designers, makers and food specialists that they consider to be the best of British, so it was unbelievably flattering that I had been selected. I would be meeting my Japanese distributors for the first time and spending a week each in two different stores painting the English Garden flowers, which are inspired by a piece of vintage artwork.
Nerves were very much switched on the morning I left for the airport and an unforgiving trail of endless traffic doubled them before I arrived at Heathrow, rather too close to gate closing time than I would have liked. I boarded my flight, stuck in my headphones and watched back-to-back chick-flicks while taking hourly breaks to lunge and stretch my way up and down the isle… I had run my first ever half marathon the day before.
After a short internal flight from Tokyo I arrived in Fukuoka. A group of us Westerners managed to pick each other out at the luggage carousel and determine that we were all heading to the same place so we bunched together and piled through the exit. Greeting us on the other side was our trip co-ordinator Keiji who we had all met at the start of the year. We were ushered into lace-trimmed taxis furnished with rooftop neon hearts, and there began the start of our two and a half weeks in Japan together!
The first was a five-day show in the city of Fukuoka, right in the South of Japan. For the next five days I sat at my desk with my vintage tin full of paints, a teapot stuffed full of bright flowers and my lovely team of distributors selling my wares by my side. At night the other exhibitors and I head out into town in search of some local cuisine, Japanese beer and warm sake. And we tried all sorts; raw chicken, fresh tofu, tiny dried fish and intestine stew – just to name a few. All totally delicious. (Especially the warm sake). Ellen (who was also painting at the fair) and I soon discovered that if one was feeling slightly fatigued after a day spent staring into your mixing palette that a little warm sake is the perfect little pick-me-up!
We took the bullet train up to Osaka for week two and had a day off before work began. I was very kindly treated to a day out by my distributors Mr Asano and Mr Hiroshi that entailed three of my most favourite things – gardens, culture and food – not in that order. (Food is always first) The Osaka British Fair was a much bigger deal than I was expecting, kicking off with an arrival party for all the exhibitors attended by the British Consulate General in Japan with some traditional and very beautiful entertainment. This was a much bigger fair with lots more exhibitors joining us from England amongst whom were Burleigh, Jan Constantine, Harrods, Shangri-La at the Shard and would you believe it, my favourite British chocolate maker Pump Street Bakery! Seriously, if you haven’t tried his sourdough and sea salt bar you really should.
Each morning just before the store opened all employees (including myself) stood up to hear what I think was the National anthem and at the end of the tune bowed. We came to know this as the calm before the storm. Now, this was particularly interesting on the first day of the Osaka show as when we re-surfaced from our bow the elevator doors slowly opened and what can only be described as a well mannered stampede came bursting out as hundreds of women (and some men) hurtled towards the pop up Victorian tearooms to get in line for Britain’s best scones. And so this continued everyday for the next week. There were a phenomenal amount of visitors in that second week in Osaka, all as lovely and interested as the previous week. It was such an amazing experience. Even Boris Johnson popped by one morning; it was that same week he was in Japan rugby tackling school boys – you remember! And who was the only plonker in the whole fair who asked if they could take a selfie with him…
During the two weeks I spent demonstrating I was totally bowled over by the lovely manner of the Japanese and their unexpected expressions of kindness. I chatted with the loveliest people who took such a keen interest in what I was doing and wanted to hear about my inspiration from England. Some even brought me gifts of flowers, fabrics, or visited a second time with actual printed photos they’d had taken with me earlier in the week.
I wasn’t prepared for how much I would fall in love with Japan on this trip and I’ve spent the last 3 months trying to convince people that it’s a place they shouldn’t miss out on. The food, the style, the lovely traditions and demeanour. And lets not forget those lovely little pots of warm sake.
And a big shout out to these three below who made it all the more fun exploring Japan for three weeks – Mike from Ortak Jewellery way up in Orkney, Grace the scone making champion who’s now bombing down snowy mountains somewhere and my sake drinking partner Ellen from Anzu.