Tucked in the quiet backstreets of Tokyo’s artsy Kuramae neighborhood, in stylish premises accented by warm woods, verdant foliage and apothecary-style shelves of herbs and spices, the newly opened elab is initiating social change.
Operated in co-op style by a group of young creative professionals, elab — whose moniker is a portmanteau of the term “laboratory” and the similarly pronounced Japanese verb erabu, meaning “to choose” — is a three-pronged initiative encompassing a kitchen, living laboratory and rooftop garden. Its overarching objective is to help create a circular economy, wherein waste products and food loss are minimized or eliminated altogether, offering an alternative to mainstream practices of commercial materialism.
With members including a chef, circular economy specialist, food director, herbalist, landscape designer and real estate planner, the collective hits all of the right buzzwords: SDGs (sustainable development goals), zero waste and ethical design. Emphasizing that they prioritize action over words, however, members say they deliberately try to avoid using such terms in order to keep their focus on walking the walk.
“What drives us is putting ideas into practice,” explains Takako Ohyama, who conceptualized the elab project and is the major force behind it. While living for a decade in the United States, she found herself deeply influenced by cooperatives in Brooklyn and Berkeley — particularly the power of community behind them. Aiming to launch something similar following her return to Japan in 2015, she founded design company fog inc., which conducts research and consulting to help create circular, regenerative societies.
A self-described yashu — its literal meaning is something like “rustic taste,” but is rendered in English as “circular scape collective” — the co-op “strives to utilize the wildness of nature, and the idiosyncrasies of its members, toward the research and practice of creating a circular society.” Thanks to support from the Taito Ward government for local designers and creatives, elab has already begun tapping into its members’ extensive networks, which include artisans, university professors and corporate leaders, to make those goals a reality through workshops and other initiatives.
Ohyama points out that numerous natural materials found throughout Japan, including bamboo, wood, stone and earth, have historically been used within monozukuri (the “making of things”) in a way that avoids disrupting the delicate balance between humans and their environment. She explains, for example, that traditional Japanese packaging practices have involved tucking eggs inside woven straw, and wrapping mochi rice cakes in bamboo grass.
“These materials help safely preserve the items inside, and are then able to be returned to the soil,” she says.
While the pre-Westernization Edo Period (1603-1868) is often cited as the best example of simple and sustainable living in Japan’s history, Ohyama explains that this time period is not the only one to be emulated in this regard.
“One innovative example of circular craftsmanship in action is Okinawa during the postwar Occupation, when people took the numerous Coca-Cola and whiskey bottles they found, and turned them into Ryukyu glassware,” she says. “When it comes to traditional knowledge, Tokyo has so much to learn from other areas of the country.”
Elab procures items from throughout Japan, including dishware crafted from natural materials in Oita and Shimane prefectures, medicinal herbs for teas and cooking, such as tōki foraged in Nara Prefecture, and a bar-restaurant counter from Mizuno Seitoen Lab in Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture, where traditional ceramics are combined with cutting-edge product design.
Gesturing toward the countertop, Ohyama notes that both its surface and the bricks lying underneath were fashioned using the same clay, which is rich in iron and changes color as it ages. “This allows us to watch the counter transform in real time, as we ourselves also continue to grow and change,” she says.
Pointing toward its sectional break, she explains that because elab is located in a neighborhood targeted for redevelopment, the counter was deliberately crafted to enable easy disassembly and transport to a new location, should that become necessary.
“The soul of the craftsperson is found inside this countertop,” Ohyama says. “We understand that it may one day have another owner, who will in turn infuse it with a new soul.”
This concept regarding the ongoing cycles of life is key to understanding the idea of sustainability within a circular society — and it is practiced at every level of the elab initiative.
“We find a use in our cuisine for every part of every vegetable,” explains chef Momoyo Morimoto, who concocts vibrantly colorful lunches including donburi (rice bowls), and curries prepared using spices such as ukon (turmeric) and cumin. “And while our menu is primarily plant-based, we do sometimes serve meat that has a story, such as wild boar or deer that have been culled in order to prevent crop destruction,” she adds.
When I visit just ahead of elab’s opening on Oct. 31, my lunch includes a chunky potage of satsumaimo (sweet potato) and kabocha (pumpkin), along with a hearty sandwich featuring root vegetables and accented with a smear of zingy Genovese-style sauce crafted from shiso (perilla leaf), shio-kōji seasoning and cilantro. The plate is in turn garnished with the fresh root of the cilantro, and although I hesitate at first to consume its intimidating-looking tail — which I certainly would have thrown away at home — I found that it was as tasty as the rest of the plant.
Another innovative practice at elab is the use of Edish takeaway containers, which have been created from food waste and can be composted after use. Lesson one in circularity.
Root-based cuisine makes an additional appearance in the creatively accented plates from chef Yoko Aoyanagi, who presides over elaborate dinners at elab on weekends. She also runs its weekday evening taco bar, which brim with innovative twists such as tortillas made of corn flour kneaded with carrot and gettō (shell ginger, an herb often used in medicinal teas) and topped with imaginative vegetable combinations, including epazote (an aromatic herb from Mexico) with turnip, tomatillos and jalapeno, and Chinese broccoli spiced with Mexican cinnamon basil.
All of elab’s vegetables are sourced from its partner fields, Ome Farm and The Hasune Farm, which Ohyama emphasizes are both completely pesticide-free. Elab’s food mileage and carbon dioxide levels are also reduced since the farms are located in the greater Tokyo area.
“Japan has an extremely rich food culture, including its use of fermentation,” she says. “And the more you learn, the deeper you realize this culture extends.”
The concept of roots is again apt — both as metaphor and as object. The sign outside elab’s entrance is perched atop a large root that was brought from Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture, as were the numerous root plants available for sale inside elab’s living laboratory. The displays were arranged by an artist and self-described kusabito (“plant person”), who aims to encourage appreciation for the roots’ unique knobby aesthetic.
The elab laboratory features a resource library for those who wish to delve into circularity-related topics, and has a sewing machine for visitors to use freely. The space also houses exhibitions and a sales corner for ethically designed products, and the team plans to hold weekend workshops on everything from worm composting and marimo moss-ball creation to fabric-based product development.
Programs will be tailored toward different community demographics, Ohyama explains, such as plant-identification walks for local residents, and lunch meetings aimed at inspiring corporate employees to launch new business projects that put circularity into action.
Yohaku, an apparel company located above elab inside the same building, also practices circular ideals by recycling cotton — a process it showcases via a small exhibition alongside its stylish T-shirts and other clothing. Leftover fabric scraps from the company are repurposed by elab for creative use as bathroom hand towels and oshibori hand wipes.
While people often seek to learn about the ideals of a circular economy in an exclusively professional capacity, Ohyama wants them to understand that this should be practiced within their own private lives as well. “In order to achieve a truly sustainable society,” she says, “we need to change people — not just systems.
“Craftspersons in Japan have inherited extremely important information from our past, and we must continue passing this history down into the future, rather than just looking toward other countries to learn about sustainability,” she adds.
“We have forgotten our own culture — and now is the time to reinterpret the rich knowledge from our history in order to create a circular-based society once again.”
For more information, visit elabtorigoe.tokyo.
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