DUMBO x Japan

New York City and Tokyo are so-called “sister cities” and as you walk the cobbled streets of DUMBO, an interesting pattern emerges: Usagi here, Shibui there, Front General Store on the corner. From coffee and antiques, to design and art, DUMBO is infused with a Japanese sensibility. We spoke with a few retailers and artists to get the scoop on how their work each has a unique tie to Japan.

Nowhere is the Japan x DUMBO connection more pronounced than at Usagi, an art gallery-café-library experience at 163 Plymouth St. Usagi is the brainchild of Tsukasa Sakamaki, who opened Usagi in 2015. Sakamaki tapped Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto to design the space. The sliding screens throughout the gallery act as moveable walls, giving the space a modern feel. Although they look ultra-modern, they are actually designed off a traditional Japanese house, also known as a minka; the feature that movable panels are based on is called “fusuma.” These panels make a space flexible for a variety of set-ups.

“Japanese culture is known for its perfectionism, and attention to detail and design. I think that has infiltrated a lot of the places that have opened up in DUMBO, and also resonates with people in Japan,” said Olga Fedorova, PR Director at Usagi.

As DUMBO continues to grow, its reputation as a hub for creativity is spreading–farther than we may think. “Sometimes people in New York don’t know what DUMBO is, but people in Japan immediately recognize the name,” continued Fedorova.

Speaking of recognizable names, many both in DUMBO and Japan know the name Shibui. In Japanese, “Shibui” is said to be the highest level of beauty¬–a beauty that is restrained, subtle and quiet. That’s the name that Dane Owen gave his store at 38 Washington St.

Owen moved to New York seven years ago and ended up in DUMBO mostly by chance (and some good luck.) “I found a space in DUMBO and I thought that it would be good for the warehouse, [while] we would do a retail space in the city,” said Dane. “When negotiations broke down on the space I was looking at in the city, I thought, oh I’ll just sell out of my warehouse [in Vinegar Hill].” After his rent went up five years ago, Dane moved his retail shop from Vinegar Hill to his current space in DUMBO.

Owen has been traveling to Japan for years. “I spend one month usually over [in Japan]. I travel to 25-30 different cities and buy everything, bring it back here and we do the restoration in-house, in New Jersey actually. Then, we sell out of this location,” said Dane. “It’s a month of buying, and then several months of restoration. We will buy 150 furniture pieces, plus all the things to fill the drawers – kimonos and scrolls and screens, old account books – that kind of stuff.”

As rents rise in the neighborhood, Owen says he’s lucky to have landlords that have worked with him. He plans to stay in DUMBO, which he finds kindred spirits with Tokyo. “If you go to Tokyo, it’s a huge city, and it’s clean and beautiful and the trains run on time. I think there’s a lot of that in this neighborhood,” said Owen. “There’s a certain care given to this street–when they tore up the cobblestone, and put down more cobblestone, that was a remarkable thing in New York. The level of restoration that has been given to a lot of the warehouse buildings has been high and I think that’s also something that appeals to Japanese. I don’t think it makes any real sense except that something happens, and a gravity develops and people are there.”

Owen says Shibui is one of the few Japanese antique stores left in the NYC area. He is selling furniture for life, and in a time where goods have become almost “temporary,” Owen is combatting it by reminding his customers that the inventory in his store is will last for generations to come.

“It’s crazy when you think about the pieces out here” said Owen. “For 200 years, each generation had the chance to throw something away, and yet each generation kept it. One of my biggest points is you’re not going to need anything else. It’s always going to be beautiful; it’s always going to work. We’re constantly trying to find a way to take something that is no longer useful in it’s original sense and turn it into something useful. But so many of the things, dressers, they don’t change their usefulness.”

When it comes to quality goods, both vintage and new, Front General Store at 143 Front St. has the hookup.

“We didn’t want people to think this is a vintage shop or antique store, that’s the reason we named ourselves a “general store,” said Hide Sagawa, co-founder of Front General Store. “We do new and vintage. We are assessing what people from the neighborhood like; we started carrying kitchenware, books, objects and things for their home.” Prior to opening up shop in DUMBO, Sagawa worked for a high-end vintage shop in Soho. When it came to picking DUMBO, the choice was simple. His business partners owned an office upstairs from what is now the Front General Store, and they saw the DUMBO potential. “At that time because there was no retail shop doing vintage shop lifestyle type of store in DUMBO, and we knew that DUMBO was up-and-coming, that more people were coming [to the neighborhood] and that’s why we decided DUMBO,” said Sagawa.

Front General Store prides itself on the quality of their goods and the uniqueness of their products.

“I someone wants to buy souvenir jacket – a new one – it’s going to cost you a thousand dollars, or two thousand dollars,” said Sagawa. “Come and look at the vintage. Vintage basically never goes out of style. Sometimes vintage is even cheaper than the new product, quality is even better, so I want them to recognize why this kind of business exists.”

Their customers are not just DUMBO-based however. Through word of mouth, they get visitors who have heard about Front General Store from across the globe. Sagawa says many buyers from Tokyo will also stop in and purchase goods to re-sell back in Japan. The store also buys special goods such as Kuumba incense from Japan to stock their shelves here in DUMBO. “We get a lot of customers, some from Japan, we have some friends and relatives in Japan,” said Sagawa.

Japanese buyers aren’t the ones making the trip to DUMBO. Japanese Ballet dancers have started arriving in the neighborhood as well. The Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet, which trains students from around the world, was founded by Artistic Directors, Gelsey Kirkland and Michael Chernov in 2010. It moved to its home at 29 Jay St in 2015.

Chernov said since their founding, they have had anywhere between four and eight dancers from Japan each year, and after holding a special in-person audition in Tokyo during August 2016, they have seen this number rise. This season they have 15 advanced dancers from Japan in the academy and eight dancers in the company.

The Japan x DUMBO connection would be incomplete if it didn’t include tea. Luckily, the neighborhood plays host to the U.S. headquarters of Japanese tea company Ito En. Ito En came to the U.S. fifteen years ago and created “Tea’s Tea” brand, a rebranding aimed at the U.S. consumer. It’s been a success: since expanding here, they’ve created new products unique to the US market and they’re continuing to grow with roots here in DUMBO.

As we’ve seen, DUMBO has benefited deeply from Japanese influence in the neighborhood—but it’s not just a one-way connection. Take Natchie, the art and illustration shop at 141 Front St. Natchie is the brainchild of Nadia Ackerman, who is both an illustrator and a singer/songwriter, and it’s this art + music pairing that makes Ackerman’s unique: she draws her music. As she writes a song, she sees an image in her mind that represents that exact song. She jots down a rough sketch of the image and fully develops the artwork once she’s written every song on the record. Once each piece of artwork is complete, the song lyrics and a free download to the song are placed on the back of each drawing.

Natchie has been in DUMBO for a little over a year and a half–and this summer, it expanded to Japan. “DUMBO is where my shop’s supposed to be. It’s like the perfect place for my shop. DUMBO is like a dreamland and it’s like a weird village. There’s something going on down here,” Ackerman told us.

So how did the expansion come about? One rainy Tuesday night in November 2015, two customers walked into Natchie. “I spoke to them and explained the concept and when I told [one of the customers] about the concept his face was just like [in awe],” said Ackerman. “40 minutes later, they’d gone through the whole shop and he had collected a whole bunch of prints and he’s downloading songs and figuring out how it works and doing all this research.”

Turns out, the mystery customer is a buyer for Loft, a major department store in Japan. His job is to scour New York City and find products to stock the store. Every September, Japan hosts the New York Exhibition, where a section of Loft is dedicated to all-things NYC. Before leaving, he gave Ackerman his card and said he would be in touch in a few days. He was: he wanted Natchie to be in Loft, and the rest is history.

“They ordered 30 original drawings and gave me 10 New York City images they wanted me to draw that their customers like. On the back, I put songs and I could choose any of my songs that I wanted,” said Ackerman.

A few weeks ago, Ackerman took a trip to Japan where she had a chance to perform at three of the department stores featuring her work in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. “For me it was really just a big deal. I had been working so hard and trying so hard, I didn’t really how big it was until I got there,” said Ackerman.

Natchie is the not the only homegrown DUMBO business moving to Japan. Neighborhood institution Brooklyn Roasting just set up shop in Tokyo, too!

As DUMBO continues to grow, we look forward to seeing new connections and relationships that are sure to follow.