From writers to artists, Japan has a history of inspiring creatives to bring a new dimension to their work. When Spanish artist Amaia Arrazola took up an art residency in Tokyo, she was inspired to create an entire art portfolio after spending a month in Japan’s capital. The Tokyo Travel Sketchbook: Kawaii Culture, Wabi Sabi Design, Female Samurais and Other Obsessions is the fruit of Arrazola’s labour.
Capturing the beauty of Japan
Part art collection, part city guide, The Tokyo Travel Sketchbook features a stunning range of drawings that perfectly capture Japanese culture. Arrazola takes the reader on a journey through her travels around the city, starting with the moment she got off the plane, to her final day of the residency.
Her art is colourful, animated and fun, showing the futuristic buildings of Tokyo, vibrant food and local history. One of her earliest pieces in the book depicts a daruma doll and a funny caption that describes what made her connect with it.
Arrazola reinterprets classic Japanese ukiyo-e paintings in her own style, while also drawing famous Japanese mythological figures like Tomoe Gozen. She also provides helpful background notes on why she chose to draw certain pictures and what she was feeling when put pen to paper.
The dark and the absurd
While The Tokyo Travel Sketchbook showcases many beautiful aspects of Japanese culture, Arrazola doesn’t shy away from capturing dark and absurd moments. One example is of her being bewildered by the Japanese viewpoint that the ‘Golden Flame’ on top of the Asahi Beer Hall resembles a giant golden turd, called Kin No Unko for luck.
Another piece of art is devoted to a protagonist called Oshiri Tantei (Butt Detective) that she came across in a comic. The character’s face looks like an ass and her drawing is comical and cute.
Arrazola also shows the darker side of Japan through her explicit drawings of Kabukicho, the Japanese sex industry and stressful work culture. Her pictures of inemuri are poignant, sad and hopeful all at once. Inemuri refers to the Japanese concept of taking naps in public, whether on the train, in a bar or sitting at a café. It’s the idea that you’ve worked so hard that you deserve to take a rest and people take full advantage of that wherever they can.
Arrazola’s experience of Japan is best described in her own words:
“I’ve become aware of having gone through these three stages since I arrived. I think this could be extrapolated to other countries; but they’re particularly striking in Japan.”
“Stage 1: Your mind is blown. Everything amazes you, the lights, noises, sounds. You don’t understand anything, but everything amuses you. Your jaw hangs open, you don’t get it, but you’re bowled over by the people, the buildings, the street, the food, the way people act, even their tone of voice. Japan feels like some kind of giant amusement park to you.”
“Stage 2: You begin to understand what’s behind the behaviour in Japanese society. You discover a darker part to it: the issues of work, the non-existent physical contact, the strange sexuality. Why? Where do this all come from?”
“Stage 3: You get used to it. The things that enchanted you, that amazed you, stop attracting your attention. You find that you chameleonise yourself within your surroundings, you no longer stand out and you become part of the crowd, you stand in the same lines they stand in to eat ramen, you fall asleep in the subway, you don’t shout, you speak quietly, you’re more discreet about blowing your nose than before.”
This is the essence of the book. It’s showing the contradictory nature of Japan. The technology and the value of tradition. The crowdedness of Tokyo with the loneliness of being just another face. It’s beautiful and it’s tragic. It’s real and it’s human.