Doughnuts, art and sake: a London tour of Japanese delights
By Rebecca Salter PRA
Published on 15 March 2022
From a noh theatre festival to centuries-old arts and crafts, via the best of East Asia’s doughnuts, Rebecca Salter PRA’s route round the capital includes cultural and culinary treats.
Rebecca Salter is President of the RA.
For Japanophiles like me the pandemic means that even if we’re prepared to endure a 12-hour flight in masks, the country we love may well not let us enter. Japan has retreated into seclusion before (for a much longer period) and so the ‘idea’ of Japan rather than the reality has been a powerful force in the Western mind.
When I left for postgraduate study in Kyoto in 1979, I had done my best to prepare myself and experienced all the Japan that London could then offer. I had viewed Japanese prints at the British Museum, seen Kabuki theatre at Sadler’s Wells, signed up to the only Japanese language class at the City Lit and dined at a restaurant in Bayswater with a tartan carpet and bizarre Scottish baronial décor. Happily, London now has much more to offer us pining Japanophiles in 2022. Let me take you on a trip.
1. Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection at the Royal Academy of Arts
We must begin with the Royal Academy’s own show Kyōsai: The Israel Goldman Collection (19 Mar–19 June). Kyōsai’s artistic career spanned the period after 1868 when Japan reopened to the outside world after its lengthy seclusion and, as a result, Kyōsai met many visiting Western artists. He was a colourful character, known for impromptu painting parties fuelled by his daily intake of a litre or two of sake. Although he is known for his expressive brushwork and wicked humour, Kyōsai was classically trained and produced traditional paintings to the highest standard.
2. Japan: Courts and Culture at The Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace
An exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace, Japan: Courts and Culture (8 April–12 Mar 2023), highlights the history of gift- giving and cultural exchange between the British and Japanese Royal and Imperial families – a rare opportunity to see the finest of Japanese classical arts and crafts, from armour and swords to ceramics and lacquer.
3. Japan House, Kensington High Street
To experience the strength of arts and crafts in contemporary Japan, I recommend a visit to Japan House on Kensington High Street. The ground-floor shop stocks the very best of craft and design, and its temporary exhibitions explore regional craft traditions. I have another reason to visit Japan House: the restaurant upstairs, Akira, serves my favourite bento (boxed lunch) in London. It is a work of art and not to be missed.
4. Noh Reimagined festival, Kings Place in King’s Cross
Having experienced kabuki theatre in London, it wasn’t until
I was living in Kyoto that I went to my first noh theatre performance on a stage lit with torches. It is Japan’s oldest theatrical form with actors wearing masks and richly brocaded costumes, performing
a highly stylised interweaving
of music, narrative and dance. As part of its Noh Reimagined festival (24–25 June), Kings Place in King’s Cross is staging highlights from the noh drama Fuji (Wisteria), a tale of a travelling monk who meets the spirit of a wisteria tree in a famous beauty spot. As night deepens, both admire the wisteria blossoms with poetry, song and dance.
5. Isamu Noguchi at White Cube Bermondsey
The Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi’s close bond with nature was beautifully revealed in a recent exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery – White Cube Bermondsey is showing more of Noguchi’s work this spring (until 3 April).
6. Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms at Tate Modern
Yayoi Kusama also spent much of her time in the United States, having left Japan for New York as a young artist; she has only recently received the attention she deserves in her homeland. At Tate Modern, in Kusama’s ‘Infinity Mirror Rooms’ you have the opportunity to disappear into her beautiful, if sometimes unsettling, spaces of endless reflections (until 12 June).
7. Rise Japanese Bakery and Bar, near Piccadilly Circus
Before I suggest ending your day with sake, I would like to take you to Rise Japanese Bakery and Bar on Panton Street, near Piccadilly Circus. Soon after I arrived in Japan I had an unfortunate experience with a hybrid Japanese bakery product. I bought what looked like a sweet doughnut but it was actually filled with curry! At Rise, I think I will play safe with a yuzu (Japanese citrus) cream doughnut.
8. Pantechnicon, Belgravia
[I will] then wander over to Pantechnicon, which is a very harmonious Nordic-Japanese venue on Motcomb Street in Belgravia. At their restaurant, Sachi, sushi meets British beef and Sussex- grown Japanese vegetables, all accompanied by a dazzling list of regional sake, from the aromatic and floral to the earthy and fully matured. Until I can once again explore my favourite Kyoto and Tokyo haunts, I will console myself with a glass, after experiencing the best of Japanese London in 2022.
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