The setting is pure Kyoto. On a quiet residential lane, a latticed door with a simple white noren (fabric curtain) slides open to reveal a stone entrance to a small store. Inside are neat rows of smooth, shiny and circular tea caddies, made of brass, tin and copper, sitting on clean-lined, light-wood shelves alongside green plants, seasonal flower arrangements and hanging lanterns.
What happens next pierces the serene and old-time atmosphere. Takahiro Yagi – known by most as Taka-san and the sixth-generation owner of his family’s 143-year-old tea caddy business, Kaikado – places a single brass tea caddy onto a central table. Then, with a sense of ceremony, he slowly lifts the rounded lid off the tin. Suddenly, the space is filled with the stark sounds of 21st-century pop music.
“It’s a speaker!” smiles Taka-san, clearly delighted by the incongruous ingenuity of encasing modern technology inside a traditional tea tin, with sound controlled remotely by his iPhone located nearby. “It has Bluetooth connections and we’ve created it for Panasonic. Only 100 will go on sale next year.”
Perhaps one of the most evocative names in the travel lexicon, Kyoto has long been associated with all things traditional. Japan’s ancient capital is famed as the birthplace of a raft of Japanese cultural cornerstones, from the tea ceremony and ikebana (flower arranging) to calligraphy and incense-making. Today, Kyoto continues to offer a glimpse into Japan’s rich cultural heritage, as home to more than 1,000 Buddhist temples, 400 shrines and countless generations-old artisan businesses.
But what is perhaps less obvious to the city’s identity is its strong innovative streak. It’s no coincidence that some of Japan’s most high-profile tech companies are headquartered here. Nintendo’s original Art Deco-style building sits just a short walk away from Kaikado. Kyocera, a leading solar power and electronics company, has a big presence here too. Kyoto is also home to Panasonic’s Kyoto Kaden Lab, which brings together artisans to reimagine the future of traditional skills and their application in new household objects.
And then there are the family businesses that are modernising at the hands of next-generation owners – a move required not only to keep the traditional crafts alive in today’s fast-paced, digital-driven age, but also because innovation is often second nature for the city’s creatives.
“[Kyoto] has inherited the strict traditions and techniques of the past, but… it also has a capacity for accepting new things”
Among them is Taka-san, warm and friendly in his stylish T-shirt, cardigan and glasses. Over the past decade, the CEO of Kaikado has firmly steered his family’s business into the global contemporary design spotlight. “People have this [mental] image of Kyoto residents liking very old things,” he explains. “But people in Kyoto are actually very innovative – they like new things and they also like to keep things original. So, we need to balance the old and the new.”
The tea caddies at Kaikado are a testament to this. Today, they are still painstakingly crafted according to tradition. Taka-san is among around 10 craftsmen who make roughly 40 caddies a day between them in the old-school atelier at the rear of the shop. Here, shoes are slipped off at the entrance and the sound of tapping tin fills the air, as artisans sit hunched over their tools on the floor, surrounded by boxes of raw materials and products piled high.
The production process may be traditional, but the uses are clearly more modern: While once upon a time, Kyotans would not have dreamt of using the tins for anything other than storing green tea, today they have evolved into speakers, vases and lampshades. One highlight is Kaikado’s Objects Collection, a clean-lined contemporary homeware range created in collaboration with the Copenhagen design studio Oeo.
Today, Kaikado’s products are sold in 10 countries, with fans – Taka-san reveals with an incredulous laugh – like musician John Legend, who apparently has a large-sized tin in his kitchen. The company exhibits regularly at events such as Salone del Mobile in Milan, New York Design Week and Maison & Objet in Paris; collaborates with high-profile artists such as Hiroshi Sugimoto (Kaikado co-created a vast water-filled tea tin lamp for a Sugimoto installation at Pace Gallery in London); and their products even feature in the permanent design collection of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
Just around the corner from the shop is the sunlight-filled Kaikado Café in a 90-year-old former government building. Renovated with Oeo, it has concrete walls offset by blonde wood furniture, plants and copper lighting; the latter matching the Kaikado tins on display.
The café is the embodiment of Taka-san’s ultimate goal: that these artfully created tea caddies should be used – and enjoyed – as much as possible, rather than simply displayed on a shelf and admired for their beauty. “Traditional handicrafts should be kept close to daily life,” he says. “That’s how you keep the [craft] alive.”