Banquets in the sky

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It would be tough for me to think backwards about what was served in each plate or bowl. I could imagine, of course, but I wouldn’t stop myself from thinking that the rectangular tray from the Lufthansa Rosenthal collection makes for a great soap-dish. Or that the Cathay Pacific Noritake bowl can be a watercolour brush dip. That is not my intention to collect these objects. As a designer of accessories, there is a lot to learn from the airline ceramics industry.

Respecting the tight constraints of airplane space, the basic function of eating & plating and the brand identity to be put forth, each airline has in the past and continues to present remarkably new products for dining in the skies. Not just the ceramics for the first and business class but for the entire domain of eating implements and cutlery as well. Add inflight furnishings, grooming and toiletry kits and you have a design category that literally stretches across continents. The fact that most of the ceramics are required to be white would not make the designer’s task any easier. So you come across great examples of form, shape, the occasional colour, texture and subtle print patterns.

Which is why I respect flea markets and even ebay – they teach and speak, if you’re listening. Products, often surprising ones, land up there possibly at the end of their primary life cycles. Books, ceramics such as these, cutlery, tools, watches, gadgets. To think about why they landed up there is only the beginning of imagining what their contributions to their users and owners was like. Almost to the dawn of the understanding that ownership is a hollow term and belief. Everything moves on.

Photo © Harpreet Padam

Cicada Summer

Japan. Because there’s a four week window in July and August when the clients don’t bother as much. Because when you look at the map of Hokkaido upside down, its almost the map of India. Because the land that nurtured Kuramata, Miyake, Kusuma, Noguchi, Fukasawa and so many more deserves a design pilgrimage. And because you must never need a reason to go anywhere.

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The landscape is familiar. We’ve all been to Japan in a parallel life. The magazines and television focus so much on the bizarre craziness of Japan’s character that we forget its basically a set of islands – rich, lush, beautiful islands that change colors with the seasons.

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Nine cities on our self made plan. A bit of everything, tailored to what we are and what we love. A precise balance of mountains and trains, streets, shops and shrines, aging cities and foreign-film styled hotels. Tokyo is rightfully first and last on the list.

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Four days later its time to validate and commence the Japan Rail Pass. 14 days of unlimited bullet train travel. The heart rate goes berserk at the sight of the first Shinkansen rolling into the platform. Its the Hayabusa, the fastest of them all.

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The destination is Obihiro, eight hundred kilometers north of Tokyo on the northern island of Hokkaido. Four trains and ten hours in all, but its a tireless breeze. The journey is a mix of 320km/h blurs, a tunnel that passes under the sea and lovely panoramic views of the sea from a track that runs along the beach.

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Its late evening when we reach Obihiro. The increasingly familiar lights of the vending machines are comforting. On another street, a phone booth waits longingly for its next conversation with a stranger.

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In the morning we catch the bus to Shikaribetsu lake, situated amidst the Daisetsuzan National Park. The park contains Japan’s largest primitive natural environment and is home to the brown bear and several rare wild birds. Besides all that trivia, its beautiful.

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An old abandoned road leads into nowhere, and that’s a nice place to be. Nature reclaiming its own from man is a prettier sight than the other way around.

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Back from Hokkaido, its a stopover at Tokyo for the night, in a hostel next to Philippe Starck’s Asahi Beer Hall and the Tokyo Skytree. The next morning its yet another bullet train – to Nagoya, the design capital. Two days packed with visits to the Noritake and Toyota Museums. More about that here.

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Onward to Takayama, the train ride leads to the interesting discovery of Shisa Kanko, the marvelous error prevention method of the Japanese railway system. Hida-Takayama is in the mountains, and the train is the Hida Wide View express. Wide. View. Enough words to sell a train ticket.

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A walking trail called the Higashiyama walk takes us through forests, shrines and old cemeteries. A grasshopper greets us along the way. I think of Aesop’s story about the ants and the grasshopper. Its still summer, so I’m sure he’ll do just fine spending his day on that sun soaked wood. Continue reading