Cool Japan is hot in the Middle East

October 07, 2011

By SOPHIE KNIGHT / Staff Writer

Some say it will be years before Japan, with its string of recent disasters, returns as a top tourist destination in world rankings.

But Emirates, the Middle East's largest airline, thinks differently.

In November, the carrier is not only adding flights between Dubai and Tokyo to create a daily service, it will also devote an issue of its monthly in-flight magazine to Japan, focusing on the country's creative culture.

"There's simply nowhere else that is as hip and interesting as Japan. It's the one country that could sustain a whole issue," says Conor Purcell, the editor of the magazine.

Although the number of foreign visitors to Japan plummeted after the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, the tourist trade is slowly picking up.

It's sure to be given a boost by "Open Skies," a publication so slick it puts the regular cliche-ridden in-flight magazines to shame. Packed with in-depth features on everything from gastronomy to literature and printed on high-quality matte paper, it's no wonder so many of its 2.2 million readers take it home with them.

"The publishers are complaining that they have to pay for more issues. But it's a good thing. Emirates love that customers take it away with them," says senior editor Mark Evans.

Following issues on the fashion industry and Arab literature, Purcell now wants to delve into the hidden side of Japan not often presented in guidebooks.

"We wanted to stay away from Mount Fuji and geisha, and instead show more authentic places where normal people actually go," he says.

In addition to the lowdown on hidden away shops, street fashion snaps and local delicacies beyond sushi and noodles, the issue will feature the works of around 10 Japanese graphic designers and artists. Each has been asked to illustrate their favorite place in Tokyo -- be it a sneaker shop, a hole-in-the-wall bar, a park, or whatever.

The artworks will later be auctioned in Dubai, where Emirates is based, with the proceeds going to the Japanese Red Cross's tsunami relief projects.

One of the artists, Ko. Machiyama, has a colorful yet serene style. He chose Nezu shrine as his favorite place, which is tucked away in a traditional district in northern Tokyo and off the beaten track.

Animator and collage artist Takahiro Kimura has chosen to focus on Kabukicho, a famously seedy entertainment district in Shinjuku.

"I wanted to convey how busy and jumbled up the area looks, and explore all of its contradictions," he explains. Kimura makes composite faces and images out of pages he rips out of magazines, which make them seem curiously familiar and yet alien at the same time.

Video artist Takafumi Tsuchiya is also hoping to capture some of the capital's energy with a still focusing on the roads in his local neighborhood of Nakano.

"I think that the sound of cars is as soothing to someone who grew up in a city as the sound of the river or sea is to someone who grew up in the countryside," he says."

The energy of Tokyo is similarly attractive to Middle Eastern urbanites. According to Purcell, Japan is seen as the creative hub of the world by people in Dubai, a young city known for its blend of international influences.

"Because Dubai has a 'manmade' culture, and quite a shallow history, it imports all the best parts of other cultures," he explains.

Japan's influence in the emirate's fashion, design and food culture is clear: some of the most popular restaurants in the emirate are Japanese, including the internationally acclaimed Nobu and the London-based Zuma.

Purcell is hoping to expand upon this appetite for Japanese culture by introducing some of the country's hottest talent.

Rather than focusing on internationally recognized artists, he asked local design experts to cherry-pick a few of the brightest stars. He also uprooted his staff and decamped to Tokyo to produce the issue, a first for a magazine based in the Middle East.

According to Purcell, there was good reason for making the effort:

"Japan is pretty hip, and Dubai likes to buy into hip: it imports only the best."

By SOPHIE KNIGHT / Staff Writer
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Covers from recent issues of Emirates' in flight magazine, "Open Skies." (Provided by Open Skies)

Covers from recent issues of Emirates' in flight magazine, "Open Skies." (Provided by Open Skies)

  • Covers from recent issues of Emirates' in flight magazine, "Open Skies." (Provided by Open Skies)
  • Takahiro Kimura's interpretation of the colorful and chaotic Kabukicho district in Shinjuku, Tokyo. (Provided by Takahiro Kimura)
  • Ko. Machiyama's illustration of Nezu shrine in Tokyo. (Provided by Ko. Machiyama)

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