Nomads

Apr 2016
Interview 01

The Era When Local Regions Are No Longer a Demerit (Part 1 of 2)

“Quiet and away from the city noise, with good accessibility”

Yo Shimada, Tato Architects; Tasuku Iwano & Tomohiro Morie, AKIND; Hiroaki Koizumi, Real Kobe Estate

Located on the mountain side of Sannomiya, the Kitano-cho area has many apartments that were built for foreigners decades ago. More people are utilizing these apartments in recent years: some people use the spacious apartments designed for foreign residents as a combined home and office, and young people use some as shared office spaces. Access to Shin-Kobe Station and Kobe Airport is easy, so the area is also convenient for “nomad workers” who travel often for work.

Convenient, Yet Secluded

— Mr. Shimada (Yo Shimada, architect and owner of the Tato Architects architectural design office), you have set up your office and been working here for 10 years. What do you like particularly about your current environment?

Shimada

Kitano is located at the north edge of the Kobe downtown area, nestled between the mountains and the sea. The area is attractive since there is not much city noise, and it is very quiet while still being only a 10 or 15-minute walk to the city center. It has everything we need.

Moreover, when I want to go to other cities, it takes only 15 minutes [on foot] to get to Shin-Kobe Station for the Shinkansen (bullet train), 20 minutes [on foot] to Sannomiya Station for other railway lines, and about 40 minutes [walking and then by train] to the airport. There is even an option to take a ferry.

Actually, I work in my atelier almost all of the time and I seldom go out. (laugh) Sometimes when I get stuck on something, I like to go for a walk on the mountain paths right behind my office, where there is often no trace of other people and I can think.

— One very nice point about Kobe is that the urban district is very much compacted into a small area, isn’t it?

Shimada

Japanese cities have a strong tendency toward urban sprawl (*), i.e. a city develops from the center stretching unboundedly toward the outside. However, Kobe is different. The mountains to the north and the sea to the south have limited this type of development. (*) A phenomenon where a city expands and stretches out in an unregulated way without an all-encompassing plan

— Kitano is located up on the hill, offering it a nice view. Do you often use your rooftop space?

Shimada

The office staff watches the annual Kobe Port fireworks together on the rooftop. We can also see the beautiful morning glow in the sky here. Sometimes I have breakfast on the rooftop if I wake up early.

— What do you think about the location from the viewpoint of a client that wants to come up for a meeting?

Shimada

If a large number of people were to visit my office often, perhaps this location would not be suitable, but in my case, most of the visitors are contractors and their clients. Moreover, the most important aspect of my business is to show the importance of a good living environment. So in that case I think I was right about choosing this location.

The Person Who Played a Key Role

— Mr. Iwano and Mr. Morie, you both moved from Tokyo to Kobe in 2014 and founded “AKIND”, a company specialized in branding for business and public administration. Were either of you originally from Kobe?

Iwano

I was born in Osaka but raised in Kobe from middle school, then moved to Tokyo to go to university. I worked in a furniture shop in Tokyo for a while. After that, I lived in the UK for 2-and-a-half years to get a master’s degree in branding & design strategy. Then I returned to Japan, got a job at a brand consulting firm in Tokyo, and met Morie there.

— (日本語) 森江さんも関西出身?

Mr. Morie, are you also from the Kansai region?

I am originally from Kyoto. I went to London when I was 20 on a leave of absence from university, and then backpacked all over Europe. After returning to Japan, I got a job in an advertising agency in Tokyo, then, in my late 20s, moved to the same brand consulting firm as Iwano. I worked there for 6 years, and we began to talk about starting up our own company. We had decided, “If we go independent, it would be better to do it in Kansai rather than in Tokyo.”

— Why did you think “better in Kansai”?

Iwano

When I was in the UK, I was living in a suburban city called Norwich, not in London. My experience there changed my views. The economic scale of Norwich was moderate, with nature in abundance. In such an environment, the people were leading a fulfilling life being a part of the local community and having a well-balanced lifestyle. Having just moved from Tokyo, this looked very attractive to me.

I also learned then that many competitive companies and freelancers in creative fields chose regional cities as their location all around Europe. For example, Edinburgh rather than London in the UK, Rotterdam over Amsterdam in the Netherlands, etc. I felt that this indicated the maturity of a nation.

After joining the branding company in Tokyo, I started to think, Tokyo is over-concentrated. So why not be based outside of Tokyo?

— Why start up in Kobe, and not Osaka or Kyoto?

Morie

We of course looked at Kyoto and other cities in terms of the market, transportation/access and so on. But the key factor in the decision was “people”. Back in Tokyo, I had been subscribing to a column that introduced Kobe: how Kobe was going to make an interesting transition in the future, and new ways to live and work there. I wanted to meet the writer/publisher of the column. So I actually made an appointment, met him, and found I could relate to his vision a great deal. That was how I made up my mind to move to Kobe.

Connecting with a key person in a local region can be a major factor in leading one to relocate to that area, doesn’t it? It can also help you connect with the various communities and work after moving to that area.

Information Is “Obtained”, Not Just “Received”

— Have you noticed any changes in the way you do business after your relocation from Tokyo to Kobe?

Iwano

We do the same branding business, but I used to work on solutions that could be achieved short-term in Tokyo. Now I feel I am expected to spend more time to work on long-term approaches. I think it is partly because Tokyo has bigger budget projects, but we also work together with our clients with the idea, “Even with a limited budget, what can we focus on that is most important to your continued success in the future?”

Also, Tokyo has so much information. So I think I was always trying to create something different that nobody had already done or tried to combine. Here in Kobe, though, it is not uncommon for us to “go back to the fundamentals to create new ideas”. Perhaps we have extra space for thinking because there is less information to be had in Kobe.

When I was in Tokyo, new information was constantly flowing in; and when a new shop opened, we would go and see it right away. In Kobe, there is much less of that kind of information. So we have changed to be more proactive and fly out to Berlin or Helsinki to get new information.

Shimada

I can totally relate to that. Looking back, I think I was lucky to be in an environment that did not burn me out. I created my own business when I was young, but if I had started in Tokyo, maybe it would have been easier to be picked up by the media. I can’t deny that I felt envious of such surroundings, but now I think it is better to appear in the media when one has matured to some extent, rather than being exposed while too young to know who oneself is.

Of course it has advantages and disadvantages, but nevertheless, I think that living in a place where the information is not too abundant and far from sources can work well.