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In Which My Adventures in Kyoto Taught Me to Appreciate Shadows

July 27, 2017

by Gracia Ventus

Alexander Wang H&M Rad Hourani in Kyoto

Kyoto Adventure - Part Two

The rooms at the Waranjiya are about nine feet square, the size of a comfortable little tearoom, and the alcove pillars and ceilings glow with a faint smoky luster, dark even in the light of the lamp.

It was 9PM and I was sitting in a cafe next to the embankment of Kamo River, the beating heart of Kyoto. This place, though slightly Scandinavian with its interior decoration, still paid its dues to traditional Japanese aesthetics. During the day, the floor to ceiling windows were left wide open to let in cool breeze and sunlight, while allowing one to appreciate the sights of gently flowing water. At night, the lighting is yellow and dim, casting shadows amongst trinkets and furniture. One couldn’t help but to feel comfortably drowsy when bathed in such gentle illumination.

It had been a long day that involved plenty of walking. I got acquainted with traditional Kyoto confectionaries (matcha! chestnuts! matcha! red beans! matcha!) in every new block I found myself in; cursed at the huge throngs of tourists blocking my way in every temple and castles; and marvelled at the narrow alleys that reminded me of Beijing’s hutongs, often bathed in darkness that hides secret bars, restaurants and tea houses.


The old Gion street that leads to new Gion

As a general matter we find it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter. The Westerner uses silver and steel and nickel tableware, and polishes it to a fine brilliance, but we object to the practice. While we do sometimes indeed use silver for teakettles, decanters, or sake cups, we prefer not to polish it. On the contrary, we begin to enjoy it only when the luster has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky patina. Almost every householder has had to scold an insensitive maid who has polished away the tarnish so patiently waited for.

Of course this “sheen of antiquity” of which we hear so much is in fact the glow of grime. In both Chinese and Japanese the words denoting this glow describe a polish that comes of being touched over and over again, a sheen produced by the oils that naturally permeate an object over long years of handling—which is to say grime. If indeed “elegance is frigid,” it can as well be described as filthy. […] I suppose I shall sound terribly defensive if I say that Westerners attempt to expose every speck of grime and eradicate it, while we Orientals carefully preserve and even idealize it. Yet for better or for worse we do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them. Living in these old houses among these old objects is in some mysterious way a source of peace and repose.

Alexander Wang H&M Rad Hourani in Kyoto

Wearing: Alexander Wang x H&M jacket, Rad Hourani vest, Nike Air Uptempo sneakers

Kyoto - being the ancient capital of Japan and now its cultural capital - boasts many traditional wooden homes that have stood the test of time. This beautiful city was once considered as the drop site for one of the nuclear bombs because of its urban industrial area and it was home to many universities. The committee of American military generals, army officers and scientists "thought the people there would be able to understand that an atomic bomb was not just another weapon - that it was almost a turning point in human history."⠀

If historical records were to be trusted, Kyoto was single-handedly saved by the Secretary of War Henry Stimson who went directly to President Truman after failing to convince the committee to choose another site. He had visited Kyoto a few times before the war and fallen in love with this city that is now home to more than 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, a sentiment I completely understood and shared with him. Being a person who doesn't really do proper research beforehand, I stepped into the city not knowing what to expect. I went home feeling a little more hopeful about life and humanity - grateful for the existence of Masters who had crafted art and architecture throughout history. ⠀


A Midsummer's Repose by Kamo River

And so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows—it has nothing else. Westerners are amazed at the simplicity of Japanese rooms, perceiving in them no more than ashen walls bereft of ornament. Their reaction is understandable, but it betrays a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows. […] when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway.


Downtown Kyoto / Uptown Kyoto

The author Junichiro Tanizaki held the virtues of Japanese aesthetics in such high esteem that he devoted several paragraphs to describing the pleasures and meditative qualities of spending time in a traditional Japanese toilet. In the old days, they were housed in wooden structures - located separately from the main building - which allowed one to look out upon blue skies and green leaves. He even went so far as to speculate that great Haiku poets came by their ideas while indulging in the physiological delights of being encompassed in the wooden tranquility.

From electrical lighting to scientific advancements and hospitals, Tanizaki wondered what these inventions would be like had they been spearheaded by the Chinese and Japanese, who have a contrasting temperament and approach to beauty compared to the West. It is almost too easy to dismiss his romanticism for another old person’s rose-tinted view of the past, especially one articulated with undertones of racial stereotypes, but one cannot help feeling that their forebears’ steadfast poetic touch in every facets of life has culminated in a design and lifestyle perspective that is uniquely Japanese, such as the famous smart toilets ubiquitous only in modern Japan. Had China not gone through the Cultural Revolution, she might have been less inclined to pursue the same artificial glitz as the West, and be more willing to incorporate her own intellectual and artistic history in the pursuit of modernity.⠀

While I am not one to harp on and on about the superiority of travel over material goods, I do think it's important to get out of one's comfort zone. President Truman himself couldn't be arsed to consider the cultural significance of Kyoto for the Japanese people because he'd never experienced the city. It was easy for him to dismiss Japan entirely based on the cruel actions that its leaders had mandated. The importance of travel for the sake of travel has never been more evident in this instance. ⠀


The neighbourhood I stayed in

It was 5:45 AM when the sun started to rise. The flight to Kyoto was scheduled to depart at a little after six. I had only slept for two hours the night before but I was far too excited to feel drowsy. The light of dawn broke through the glass walls, illuminating the airport lounge with fiery orange glow. My first trip to Kyoto was marked with a poignant start.

Living in Shanghai has given me the chance to see more of East Asia because it's just 2-3 hours away from major historical and cultural sites of the region - from China to Japan, Taiwan to Hong Kong. The more solo travels I do, the more I grow dependent on fuss-free, highly-utilitarian garments. This is not to say that I have abandoned my high priestess-space warrior clothes, I still bring them with me in my travels. However, the process of getting to and fro requires clothing that allows for maximum mobility while minimising hindrance, especially on trips where I’m lugging 20kg of clothes and food. In the past, loose, billowy clothing have served me well, and they still do. However, as I started to incorporate sportswear into my daily and travel wear, I have learned to appreciate the joy of technical, synthetic garments. They are often airy and breathable for summer, or warm and water-resistant for colder seasons. Fabric weight and characteristics are technicals issues that have to be thoroughly considered at all times. Too light, and it feels cheap. Too substantial, and it becomes a hindrance. The point where technology and fashion collide has become a breeding ground for creative minds. Which is how I found myself collaborating with Daniel to build VELAMEN. Daniel is a product and industrial designer who is no stranger to fashion, having collaborated with the menswear designer Peir Wu and also produces his own garments via snowmantailoredgarments.com. We aim to build a range of technical apparels and products, going so far as to ordering custom-made fabrics that would be suitable for the needs of urban nomads. In short, we are making techwear. However, unlike most techwear brands made for the male audience that women have to co-opt, we aim to create a unisex range of clothes on the get go. It has been an incredible learning experience, in which I discovered the nitty gritty of technical fabrics, specialised constructions and to a certain extent, ergonomics.

Running around Kyoto, fully garbed in synthetics, one cannot help but feel a little disconcerted amongst historical grandiosity and weathered dwellings. The old and the new, the rigid and the fluid. It is a sense of discomfort that forces one to rethink one’s position and outlook in this world.

Alexander Wang H&M Rad Hourani in Kyoto

End of Kyoto Adventure - Part 2

All excerpts from In Praise of Shadows, by Junichiro Tanizaki


In Which I Write About A Series of Adventures in Japan – Part One

July 19, 2017

by Gracia Ventus

Issey Miyake Madame T

I sat by the window typing these words, accompanied by the gentle roar of the river blending with the harmonious beats of Bonobo. Compared to Tokyo, the air up in the mountains of Gunma was cool and fresh even at the height of summer. My travel companion was fast asleep. Midnight, the world was adrift and at peace. I dug deep into my memory and wrote.

Issey Miyake Madame T

Gunma Adventure - Part One

Words don’t come easily to me, though incoherent thoughts are relentless. We had spent the day on a bullet train and two buses, making our way from Tokyo to a remote onsen up the mountains of Gunma. I had never been here, but I held on to the faith that the ryokan and mountains would be worth the stress of the journey.

One aspect of myself that I constantly try to improve on is time management while traveling. And there’s no better way to do that in a country as pedantic as Japan. I thought I had given ourselves enough time to make our way from our lodgings in Omotesando Hills to Tokyo station where we would catch a bullet train, but we got carried away loading up on lunches and snacks. As a result, we had to race across subway stations, probably did a hundred meter sprint midway, while both of us were lugging 20kg and 30 kg of goods respectively. No guessing who packed the heavier one. I lost my grip on the luggage handle mid-sprint as we were transferring from the subway to the overground. It cracked upon hitting the pavement. Stairs had to be climbed, people to apologise to. Several station gates through Tokyo station and profuse sumimasens later, we caught the right shinkansen with two minutes to spare. As we took our seats on the duck-billed train - struggling to catch our breath - my companion blurted out, “HIIT has nothing on this.”

End of Gunma Adventure - Part One

Issey Miyake Madame T Margiela Tabi Boots

Kyoto Adventure - Part One

As someone who travels quite often to Japan, I had wondered why I hadn’t gone to Kyoto almost immediately. It was after all the ancient capital of the country, now its cultural capital, where the concept of wabi sabi was born. If you have been reading my essays you will know how much this philosophy permeates the way I think and consume; the beauty of imperfection, the ageing process of people and material goods, the signifiers of usage - these are all embodied in the clothes I wear, the wares I sell, the photographs I take.

I decided to give Kyoto a try when I found out that Japan’s low-cost carrier Peach Airlines has a Shanghai-Kansai route at a relatively affordable cost, though it involved taking a six am flight. I had no idea what to expect, other than a vague idea of the cultural significance of the city. My motto in life has evolved to “have zero expectations from new experiences in order to avoid disappointment”.

Issey Miyake Madame T

Kyoto itself is by and large an industrial town. Sitting in the train that whisked me away from Kansai airport on an hour-long (or was it two?) journey, the view outside wasn’t what I would call picturesque. Yet it’s still quintessentially Japan - angular suburban homes intermingled with well-pruned greenery, elderly people tending to a patch of gardens at a random car park, chimney stacks not too far off in the background, small practical cars weaving in and out of narrow streets. The view remained unchanged even when the train pulled into Kyoto station. A touch of familiarity mingled with the excitement of arriving in a new city; PA system announcing train departures and arrivals in a friendly voice, sararimans careering around dawdling tourists trying to navigate the complexities of a large Japanese train station. As I dragged my typically heavy suitcase from the station to my Airbnb lodging along the city’s systematic grid-like road system, I began to notice the exceptionally old age of Kyoto homes - ubiquitous wooden structures bore the mark of ancient history, snuggled between modern flats.

The closer I walked to the central district, the older the homes became. The city was a lot easier to navigate around than Tokyo as the roads were named numerically relative to the Kamo River that runs from the north to the south - the beating heart of Kyoto. I passed by a cafe that overlooked the embankment, which I knew would become one of my favourite working spots.

Issey Miyake Madame T

More old wooden homes built alongside narrow streets. I finally arrived at my Airbnb somewhere in a tiny block of flats. I did my best to carry my 20kg suitcase up a narrow flight of stairs. I keyed in the code for the door to my rented flat, opened the door, and saw the tatami and futon bedding arrangements. Minimal, clean and cosy. I knew I’d sleep well that night.

End of Kyoto Adventure - Part One

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An Ending, A Beginning

July 3, 2017

by Gracia Ventus

Rick Owens Sphinx Biker Jacket

There is a real contrast that I love between the layered voluminous styling, the high end labels and the dilapidated stagings where you shoot. There is a way you democratize these impossibly avant grade clothing in a way that is refreshing. Its clear that you are an “otaku” of these labels you write about. Are you trying to connect with people like you? To find other “nerds” of these obscure and difficult labels? or are you trying to do something different with your blog, retailing, writing?

I don’t necessarily write to connect, but it has become a wonderful result that I wasn’t expecting when I started. My writing is a declaration of my love (or disdain) for specific topics and labels, and through my reading, research, and collecting, I hope to spread the things I have learnt to my audience.

Talking about dilapidated, messy wabi-sabi backgrounds do you think this is something of having grown up in the tropical Asia?

Possibly. Who knows what my preference will be if I had grown up in Oslo.

Some early photos showed you in a sort of emo/goth style that currently has evolved into something more refined and minimalist but still quirky and wild. Were you subversive or interested in underground cultures growing up or currently? I’m curious having lived in Singapore/Malaysia in these sort of regimes how that might have influenced you? How is being in China changing your attitudes to that?

Before I found fashion my energy was focused on music and competitive sports. I played the drums and listened to mostly angsty music. My choice in clothing was pretty literal in showcasing my music preference. Growing up I had developed a rebellious attitude in which I disliked the mainstream (eg. choosing rowing over football). I’m less snobbish now, but I still prefer ideas that stimulate my thinking process, be it social issues or creativity. Being in China has been an eye-opening experience. Beneath the authoritarian regime and the quest to keep up with the joneses, China is the bubbling pot of creativity with its own distinct flavour; thousands of years of history, ready to be drawn out and reinterpreted for modern times.

An excerpt of my interview between Robert Patterson and me, from one fellow entrepreneur to another. For the full version, please click here.

Rick Owens Sphinx Biker Jacket
Wearing: Rick Owens sphinx biker jacket and samurai shorts; Ann Demeulemeester pirate boots, available on ROSEN here

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Knotted and Disjointed in Rick Owens

June 7, 2017

by Gracia Ventus


On the bright blue sky over the lush greenery that is Shanghai's Zhongshan Park, a crescent moon rose over the horizon in the middle of the day. Children ran across the field while every third person with a cell phone was taking selfies. The world doesn't exist if it's not recorded in pixels.

A young man in t-shirt and shorts walked over to interrupt my reading. He didn't heed my pretention that I couldn't speak Mandarin - I do, at least enough to rent a flat and open a bank account, not enough to hold a political conversation - and proceeded to speak in broken English. My biased predisposition took over but not enough to stop him from demonstrating a magic trick. With a few sprays and a wet cloth, he showed me how he turned his dirty soles squeaky clean. I was impressed. Terribly impressed. Buy one get one free, he said, after which he took out his pen, gave a quick scribble on his shirt, then did the same thing again with the magical spray. What is this sorcery?!, I thought to myself as I tried not to stare in wide-eyed wonder.

Buy one get one free
How much?
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eighty renminbi
How can I pay?
Wechat, Alipay, or money

I took out my phone and paid him electronically by scanning his Alipay QR code. For the price of twelve American dollars I cannot refuse these magical potions. I was already drooling at the thoughts of finally having stain-free white shirts and whitening my geobasket soles. He sat for a little longer to ask me where I was from - Indonesia, I answered - while he told me he was from Hubei. Do you know where it is? I shook my head. He proceeded to enrich my knowledge of China's geography. An affable lad. I wished him the best of luck before he went off, searching for the next customer. Throughout the entire interaction I was feeling terribly ashamed of my earlier dismissive discrimination. It highlighted my hyper-vigilant attitude that I have adopted to strangers - useful in some situations, yet potentially cynical and unkind. How does one find a balance?



Wearing Rick Owens coat and shorts; Ann Demeulemeester boots, now available here

These images were taken on my birthday when I took a trip to my favourite place in China - Hangzhou's West Lake - that doubled as a short breather from my daily work in the overwhelming city of Shanghai. Though it may be one of the most touristy spots in the country, there are pockets of quiet reserves one can escape to. I had picked out an inn halfway up the Longjing tea plantation - a short distance away from the lake itself - because it had a balcony overlooking the hills. Every morning I sat on the metal chair accompanied by a steaming mug of coffee, and dived into a book and pen and paper as the sun rose to warm up the cool spring air.

Almost three months later I'm writing this on my couch before I get on with the day's work. Orders to fulfil, books to keep, images to edit. My photographs are often not related to the texts. They could be taken months beforehand because it's far easier to wear nice clothes than do a decent piece of writing.



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Championing Solitude in The Instagram Era

June 1, 2017

by Gracia Ventus


Wearing: Yohji Yamamoto cardigan; Comme des Garçons skirt; Ann Demeulemeester boots

There's the old cliché attributed to Yohji Yamamoto of black representing the desire to be left alone - 'I don't bother you, don't bother me.'

I can't help but wonder, do we really want to be alone? I am one who enjoys solitude, but it took me some months after a series of traumatic life experience to be comfortable in it. Many people I've talked to are deeply afraid of eating alone, sleeping alone, traveling alone, being alone. In their 20s, men and women need to be physically surrounded by friends, families and/or sexual partner(s). Past that age, the gnawing feeling that one must find a life partner begins to suffocate our lives. Biology dictates that we must pass on our genes, hence the need for a significant other.

We are afraid of being alone, not because being alone is inherently bad. It's that society equates being alone with loneliness, that both are inseparable when in fact they are - despite their correlation - mutually exclusive. We are constantly bombarded by imageries of people having fun surrounded by other people, that if you do things on your own, you are missing out on the best things in life. We scroll through Facebook and Instagram feeds being envious of other people's romantic and social lives, without recognising that they too are not immune to isolation. We get the feeling that doing things on your own make you a loser.

We forget that there are people who are desperately lonely despite being in a relationship or surrounded by friends. One simply needs to read Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway or Murakami's South of The Border, West of The Sun to identify the various types of loneliness experienced within marriages and social circles. We grow up thinking that loneliness will go away if we have a partner, a loving family, or robust social circle - which is incredibly inaccurate in reality. The feeling of loneliness doesn't stem from external circumstances, it is the perceived feeling that the people we care about doesn't care as much about us, or worse, that noone cares about us at all. Loneliness is like a stomach pain. Everyone will eventually get it and more often than not they do pass. But unlike stomach pains, humans aren't taught to work through it. We know to avoid bad food or get the right pills for pains, but we don't learn to recognise incoming loneliness and walk around it. If despite our best efforts it still hits us, we don't learn to be comfortable in its presence, nor take the necessary steps to deal with it. It is no wonder that chronic loneliness is on the rise.

That is not to say that constantly wallowing in solitude is the solution. Humans are wired to form social connections with people. But the drive to avoid being alone at all costs becomes a dysfunctional reason to form terrible friendships and relationships. We form superficial connections, especially sexual ones, in a desperate attempt to have someone next to us. We don't take the time to judge what is good or bad for us because we think that loneliness is just around the corner if we don't say yes to another crazy night out or work on a dysfunctional relationship, or leave, if it has to come to that. The fear of being alone holds us back from making decisions that will be more beneficial in the long run, and thus we descend into a downward spiral, often into a place of depression and desperation.

Literature has been one of the most powerful ways to understand and overcome loneliness. It allows us to form a cognitive and emotional connections with people throughout history and places, knowing that our personal struggles are not unique. At 6 AM everyday with a cup of coffee - whose aroma Murakami aptly described as the separation of day and night - when the world is still and the mind uncluttered, I dive into the agonies of life cloaked behind fiction. Words that spoke through time, words that I can relate to. At night, I would fall asleep to lectures on cosmology and astrophysics. When faced with the sublime it reminds me that we are ultimately insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe - a thought that offers comfort.

On the streets, we put up a façade of being aloof as a self-defence mechanism against the dangers of the world. And it works. But the danger is that we become oblivious to our inner fragile self that hasn't grasped the ability to enjoy our own company. Knowing how to be alone is a valuable tool that will help us form healthy relationships. And most importantly, it is the best defence against loneliness.



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