50 things to improve your life
You don’t need to sample everything we’ve listed. But then again maybe you do — we’re quite sure these deliver the goods.
The perfect little street
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker: while the latter may be hard to come by, the nursery rhyme has far more of a ring to it than the series of chain stores turning England’s towns into clone zones. Our perfect street includes a grocer with cheery Astroturf shelving, an independent bookseller that foregoes blockbusters, a wine shop run by someone called Pierre with an enviable range of Fleurie, a newsagent that doesn’t close on Sunday afternoons and devotes an entire wall to penny sweets and the other to magazines, a toy shop, a florist and a post office. Our traffic-free high street would have a history, clearly visible in the hotchpotch of architecture: Georgian, Edwardian, 1930s and the odd modernist experiment, overseen by a lovely Victorian clock tower. We’d like a small daily market, too, selling all manner of items – perhaps even a candlestick. Oh, and can it be within 90 minutes of London?
A beach house by Herbst Architects
Auckland-based husband-and-wife team Nicola and Lance Herbst have built around 15 houses since founding their practice in 2000 and we’d happily live in any of them. Favouring local stone and wood, they are masters at slipping their buildings seamlessly into the landscape while making the most of spectacular scenery with large windows and convertible indoor/outdoor spaces. We’d plump for a secluded seaside spot on Great Barrier Island and ask the Herbsts to dream up a traditional bach (beach house) for us to while away our weekends.
A northern hemisphere summer that runs until early October
Global warming is indeed a terrible thing, yet we can’t pretend we don’t love being able to hit the beach well in to early autumn along the Mediterranean, not to mention the pleasing effect of strong, summery sunlight on reddening leaves in parks and forests situated comfortably above the Equator. Sitting outdoors on a weekend morning in October with a cup of coffee and the papers is one of life’s greater joys.
Cotton crêpe trousers worn by salarymen under their suits may sound an unlikely candidate for a fashion revival. Yet the popularity of three-quarter length suteteko has been gathering pace for some time now – thanks to steteco.com, set up by underwear company AS Corporation.
With a store in Tokyo and a second in Osaka, the range today includes 80 items, from a kids’ collection to women’s boxer shorts, alongside its original trousers. Key to its success is mixing high quality prints by modern Japanese designers (from enamel to Hirocoledge) with traditional fabric-making techniques. This summer, look out for its new accessory launch and a folding fan created by Kyoto’s Miyawaki Baisen-an with artwork by Ryu Itadani, the man behind our cover.
A clutch of Kentaro recipes you know by heart
For those dismayed by the fact that Japanese food is far easier to consume than it is to create, Kentaro Kobayashi is a godsend. The chef has penned a raft of Japanese cookery books, which make the task of rustling up a buttered yellowtail rice bowl or miso pork noodles seem effortless. His home cooking books also dispel the lingering myth that Japanese cuisine consists only of raw fish, rice and conveyer belts, with each focusing on a range of everyday food types. With many released under the umbrella title Easy Japanese Cooking, favourites include Bento Love, Donburi Mania, Noodle Comfort and Veggie Heaven.
A few essential furniture pieces from Maruni
This Hiroshima-based family company has been making wooden furniture since 1933. Thanks to its young president, Takeshi Yamanaka, the company has been winning plaudits for its revitalised back catalogue and new pared-down designs by the likes of Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison. Its chairs and tables are refreshingly simple, showing lightly varnished wood and the skill of Maruni craftsmen. A Hiroshima sofa and a lightwood table and chairs would set up any room.
More Trees planters
As summer comes into full bloom and we dream about open spaces, a good urban substitute is a flourishing plant box. At Monocle HQ we are using cedar plant boxes from More Trees, a Japanese organisation led by the musician Ryuichi Sakamoto. More Trees is committed to planting trees and looking after forests in Japan and abroad. It also has a catalogue of products made from wood discarded during tree thinning.
Its planters are made by Oak Village in Gifu prefecture and designed by Yuki Kumagai who was inspired by dandan batake – terraced fields that are sculpted into hillsides. When the plant boxes become old and decayed, you can remove the nails and let the wood dissolve back into the earth.
A kitchen stacked with Hakusan crockery
Why anybody buys “Sunday best” china is beyond us. Much better to have tableware that looks good and can be used every day. We keep coming back to Hakusan, the Japanese porcelain company. Based in the small town of Hasami in Kyushu, Hakusan does well-priced bowls, plates and teapots that fill homes up and down Japan.
Many of its best-known items (including its ubiquitous soy sauce bottle) were designed by the late Masahiro Mori, but new pieces by the in-house team have been seamlessly added to the collection. It’s hard to pick favourites but the Asano-ito (hemp thread) set is a classic.
Hakusan’s wares are sold in departments stores and kitchen shops throughout Japan – but the best selection is in the company’s shop in Aoyama, Tokyo.
An unlined Barena jacket
Milan and Naples might pop to mind first when the topic of Italian tailoring comes up, but we’ve found casting our sartorial net a bit further yields some interesting catches. Not far from Venice’s lagoon, clothing brand Barena sews together unlined jackets that let travellers easily move from plane to train to taxi and still look sharp when they brief the board or dine out on the town. Summer looks come in cotton fabrics fastened with horn buttons and are fitted enough so wearers won’t slouch or look too stiff.
A city house by Aires Mateus
When it comes to urban dwellings, we’re tired of converted lofts and exposed brick. It looks and feels a little last decade. City residences we currently covet are clean, crisp and contemporary, making best use of natural light and space.
Lisbon practice Aires Mateus gets it spot on. Interiors are defined by soaring geometric spaces with airy proportions, flooded with daylight. Exteriors are interesting and sensitive to their situation – enough to be an architectural talking point but never a blot on the streetscape. This is how 21st-century city houses should be.
Eyewear that attracts compliments
Inspired by (and named after) the spectacles Gregory Peck wore as lawyer Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, these frames by Oliver Peoples will turn heads in and out of the courtroom, released for the 50th anniversary of the novel last year.
An Eneloop solar charger
Sanyo, one of the leaders in solar power R&D, has launched a solar charger for batteries that looks good and works brilliantly. Its Eneloop Solar Cell Charger has a USB 2.0 port and the panel is angled so you can tilt it wherever the sun is. Keep it on a sunny windowsill for maximum power generation.
A sturdy neighbourhood runabout bike
For two-wheeled transport that perfectly complements urban life, Tokyobike ticks all the boxes. Based in Tokyo’s Yanaka district, the company’s popularity is expanding fast outside Japan with its second summer pop-up store open until early August in a former print workshop in Shoreditch’s Rivington Street. Fans of the Japanese bicycles admire its simple and minimalist arrangement of lines, capped with signature straight handlebars.
Lightweight city-friendly frames are made from Cr-Mo steel, while sleek 650mm wheels make the bikes easy to manoeuvre in tight urban spaces.
An Olfa papercutter
Olfa’s newest papercutter is made specially for magazine “tear-ists” who love ripping pages out of their favourite dailies and glossies – the blade only peeps out of its casing and can be adjusted by millimetres, depending on the thickness of what you are cutting. Founded by Yoshio Okada in Japan, Olfa invented the world’s first snap-off blade cutter in 1956 and later, in 1979, it revolutionised and lightened the workload for quilters and crafters with the invention of the rotary cutter.
Lunch at Grill Swiss
The joys of yoshoku – western-style Japanese food – can be hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t tried it. Take our word for it, korokke (a Japanese version of a deep-fried potato croquette) or omurice (omelette wrapped around rice with tomato sauce on top) taste much better than they sound. Grill Swiss is a yoshoku institution in Ginza, tucked away on a side street behind the glossy designer boutiques. Opened in 1947, its signature dish is katsu curry: Japanese curry and rice with a breaded pork cutlet and a pile of crisp cabbage. Katsu curry is a Japanese staple these days, but it all started here in 1948 when a regular customer, the ex-Yomiuri Giants baseball star Shigeru Chiba, ordered curry rice and katsuretsu (pork cutlet) and asked for them to be served together. Queues still form at lunchtime for a plate of Chiba-katsu and, while a long way from delicate kaiseki cooking, in its own way this cuisine is just as quintessentially Japanese.
An outstanding new radio
Designed and manufactured by a Scottish firm headquartered in the small town of Lanark, the design of the Heritage radio encased in walnut and aluminium, is a hark back to the glory days of 1950s table radio design. With a handy iPod dock and a function that allows you to stream over 11,000 internet radio stations and podcasts, it’s a welcome and unfussy addition to any home.
An elegant city tourer
While Italy has a reputation for turning heads with its impressive stable of sports cars, the over-engineered machines are of little use when navigating the downtown bits of the nation’s oldest cities. No amount of finely tuned horsepower under the hood can substitute two wheels on cobblestone streets, tourist-filled piazzas and narrow lanes – it’s also hard to top up one’s tan when behind the wheel. For summer, bicycle maker Abici makes the perfect urban mover and its models – try the Granturismo – come in less predictable shades (olive and baby blue) than Ferrari red.
A lengthy brunch at Café Tomaselli
An Austrian brunch is the ultimate cure if you’ve had a heavy night on the schnapps. And when in Salzburg head straight to Café Tomaselli, founded in 1705, which has had over 300 years to perfect the art of café culture. A frankfurter “mit senf”and cheese omelette, washed down with litres of coffee and followed by homemade strudel will have you ready for a fruity weissbier come lunchtime.
A pair of Joaquim Tenreiro side tables
Brazilian mid-century designer Joaquim Tenreiro had a very particular way with wood, combining the best elements of the native sculptural tradition with a more Italian refinement. He designed these pau marfim (ivory wood) side tables in the 1950s and a more elegant pair of bedside tables simply don’t exist.
Snacking on bagna càuda
Our favourite appetiser is bagna càuda – a Piemontese staple made from anchovies, garlic and olive oil that has been reinvented by Tokyo’s top restaurants. The mixture is traditionally warmed over a terracotta burner until it starts simmering, at which point you start to dip in vegetable crudités. If you’re a little hesitant to make your own, Il Mongetto makes perfect readymade jars of the delicious concoction, sold with an accompanying burner.
A Nissan El Grand
People movers, MPVs, family vans and anything else favoured by soccer moms are always going to be somewhat aesthetically challenged – or so we thought until we started staring at Nissan’s El Grand on the streets of Tokyo and Hong Kong. Looking like a cross between a shinkansen, a mini-bus and something from the Infiniti design studio, the El Grand features business class style reclining seats, multiple monitors and enough space for a herd of cub reporters (and their equipment) to race to their next assignment.
A duvet that’s just the right weight
Forget tog number (though 13.5, in case you ask): a good duvet is defined only by its weight. We like our goose feathers comfortably compressing in December, airy and light in August and dressed all year round in well-starched white Egyptian cotton bedlinen with a 1,500 thread count.
A helicopter in São Paulo and Seoul
Two of our favourite cities for work and play suffer from some of the worst traffic congestion on the planet.
Being permanently late and rearranging a schedule when you’re stuck in gridlocked traffic is enough to burst blood vessels, but a good way to beat this is to take to the skies and go by helicopter. What might require a little more work in advance (“Can we have permission to land on your helipad at 09.45?”) will save hours of time once there. And it’s the best way to take in the magnificent cityscapes too.
A set of beautiful door handles and knobs
First impressions still count for a lot. When house hunting, a modernist bungalow might be a let-down for a prospective buyer when reaching for the door and finding a chubby knob that’s out of place.
Head to Italy’s Olivari and British hardware manufacturer izé. Together they have elevated the mundane door handle to an object of good design.
Start a collection
There’s something curiously life-affirming about collecting things. We don’t mean hoarding with reckless abandon but becoming an amateur specialist in something particular and building a small legacy over time. Collecting something has never been easier thanks to the internet. And yet it’s a tradition that is dying. From pre-war matchboxes and Danish teak peppermills to Japanese ceramics and Moomin memorabilia, trawl markets – real and virtual – and proudly put them on display.
Carefully pruned wisteria on the front of your house
Surely the loveliest way for spring to announce itself is walking out of the house into a forest of lilac petals and floral notes in early April. Be the envy of your neighbours by coaxing wisteria to fold round your railings and balcony. And then appreciate the shade its leaves will bring come summer.
A perfect kitchen
Leave it to the practically minded Swiss to engineer a kitchen able to outlast its owner (and probably their offspring too). Based in the canton of Thurgau, Forster builds each unit from scratch out of steel, with well thought-out partitions, recessed handles and sharp right angles (we are already taking measurements to slot one into our Zürich pied-à-terre). On the counter, we’ll leave room for Naoto Fukasawa’s equally efficient designs from his Plus Minus Zero collection that includes a compact coffee maker, fryer and a toaster for whipping up lazy Sunday breakfasts.
Being connected and contactable 24/7 is all very well, but one day a month there’s nothing better than turning off the BlackBerry, closing the laptop, unplugging the TV and totally disconnecting. Call it recharging your own batteries.
Arita-yaki curry and rice plates
Enjoyed in Japan since the early 1900s, hearty Japanese curry rice (pronounced karēraisu) is a less spicy version of its original Indian counterpart. Made with onions, carrots and potatoes, it is cooked using a mild “Japanised” curry powder. Traditionally made with steamed rice, it is served on an oval plate that has decorative partitions indicating a section for the rice and for the curry sauce. This version from ceramic manufacturer Shobido Honten is called Paprika and comes with the tidy addition of a spoon rest.
A (deliberately) slow train journey
Rail operators in Europe continue to tout the latest high-speed links to move the time-pressed from A to B. We applaud these efforts but sometimes feel a little nostalgic about boarding an express to be greeted with carriages that resemble a hermetically sealed Airbus.
Hats off, then, to Spain’s Transcantábrico for running a leisurely service complete with sleeper cars, wood-panelled salons, grand chairs and windows that open so passengers can enjoy the best part of the journey – the view. We are happy to unwind with a glass of Rioja in the bar car and admire the verdant countryside, limestone cliffs and Cantabrian Sea at a comfortable 65 km/h.
A glass of Sancerre rosé
Wherever possible, summer days should include a glass of chilled rosé on a terrace, preferably overlooking the sea. Order a case of André Neveu’s Sancerre rosé, the star Pinot Noir rosé producer of the Loire Valley. Pour into some Skruf glassware and enjoy with a summer salad.
A salty early morning dip
If you’re fortunate to have a beach on your doorstep, nothing beats starting the day in fifth gear with a good, bracing dunk.
A handsome clutch of desk accessories
Investment desk accessories are often overlooked for cheaper offerings from run of the mill stationery firms. For precious, beautiful, weighty staplers, pencil pots and Post-it holders in chrome or gold that are heirlooms in the making, turn to El Casco. The Spanish firm started life as a revolver company in the 1920s before turning the skills of its workforce to stationery. Complete your desktop with an unending supply of miniature bulldog clips – one of life’s simple, perfect designs and an indispensable solution for keeping loose papers in place.
Bunaco lamps for intimate lighting
Founded half a century ago in the forest-rich northern Aomori region of Japan, Bunaco creates contemporary design products using local buna (beechwood). The technique it uses is to slice Aomori beechwood into strips of 1mm, which are then carefully coiled together to create a natural, organic shape. And its lamps are among the most prized of the company’s products: the light emitted through the organic curves of the membrane-thin wood is always warm and soft, with a reddish glow, and the best antidote to harsh strip lighting.
A set of enamel cookware
Elegant enamel cookware is having a moment and the finest we could find comes from the 400-year-old Austrian family business Riess. We currently have our eye on its range of steel and enamel Aromapots. Designed by Dottings, these stackable pots sport lids that double as trivets after cooking, are machine washable and come in a tasteful range of pastel colours.
An often-overlooked, distant cousin of the classic G&T sundowner is the Gin Buck: gin, ginger beer and fresh lime over ice. It’s all about the quality of the ingredients and we’d point you to the small San Franciscan gin producer No. 209 paired with Belvoir organic ginger beer.
A pen and jotter at the ready
Save yourself the embarrassment of scratching a Biro on your hand in public to get the ink running – or of jotting down important notes on old receipts – by carrying a Faber-Castell fountain pen and Delfonics notepad about your person. Choose the former for its perfect weight ink flow and well-designed grip-pad, and adore the latter for the absorbent paper stock and handy size.
A picnic from The Sydney Picnic Co.
To experience a proper picnic, head to Sydney Picnic Co. Run by husband-and-wife team Simon and Natalie Thomas, their menu only uses seasonal produce and can be tailored to demand.
There’s not a plastic cup or container in sight – each picnic basket comes with bamboo cutlery, crockery and boxes decorated with a handwritten tag describing each dish. Choose food such as lamb, cumin and mint kefthedes with tzatziki from the Mediterranean menu or roast chicken with strozzapreti pasta, bacon, green peas, mint and spinach with wholegrain mustard dressing from the Brit picnic.
A traditional Korean hanok
As anyone who has experienced a Seoul winter will know, it is bitterly cold. When the icy winds blow, the cosiest place to be is inside a hanok, a traditional courtyard house, with underfloor ondol heating. They are designed to work well in the hot summer too, with a wide wood-floored hall to keep the house cool.
Korea’s rapid modernisation has not been kind to traditional architecture and hanok are in short supply these days. If you do manage to get your hands on one, Jo Jeong-gu of Guga Architects has made renovation and hanok-inspired new builds his speciality. His sensitive refurbishments elegantly dispel the myth that hanok are impractical for modern living.
Abbey hair wax
Many a male editor at Monocle entrusts his up-do, wave, brush-back and perfect part to Shiseido’s Uno hair wax range – usually the royal blue with navy lid version. A visit to the private cutting room at Abbey hair salon in Aoyama, however, has changed the line-up in our medicine cabinets. While Uno is still good because it offers a travel size, we’ve become mildly dependent on the scent, hold and texture of Abbey’s cream/wax combo. It’s a bit far to travel for monthly touch-ups and re-stocking but occasionally that’s what bureaux are for.
Sally is our Midori House housekeeper and in six short months she has become indispensable. Beyond keeping things spic-and-span (telling off “cereal” offenders who leave dirty bowls on display) she makes the finest chicken adobo for lunch and has a sixth sense, emerging from the kitchen with freshly baked brownies when the going gets tough during production week. She cares for the office and team like it’s her home and does a mean batch of cookies.
ANA’s signature kabosu drink
There are many days when Japanese carrier ANA’s slightly schmaltzy theme tune invades our quieter moments and then it’s hard to delete. With the introduction of a special kabosu drink on board many of their flights we now find our mouths watering for a glass of their zesty juice when we’re feeling home-sick for Japan or simply parched. A close relative of the yuzu, kabosu are a bit sweeter than limes and are destined for greater beverage and culinary fame.
A good set of hands
We’ll take the cosy pyjamas at a shiatsu massage session rather than all that oil and mess you get elsewhere any time. Shiatsu may not always be the most soothing or relaxing experience but it does a very good job of correcting all the kinks that come from falling asleep against the window shade before take-off, hauling bags out of overhead bins and too many nights spent in too many different beds (you know what we mean). In London we like the military-trained mitts of Oban-san and in Tokyo we think they still do it best at the Park Hyatt.
Finding your groove and sticking to it
The path to true physical fitness is about looking beyond the sweaty, huffy-puffy bit and creating a total experience. It may not work for everyone but a small breakfast of toast, jam and a flat white is a good way to start. If you can add a soundtrack even better. Not to be overly graphic but a Toto toilet with all its functions is also a pleasant addition to the morning routine as well. Add to the mix good work-out kit (shoes by Asics, T-shirts from James Perse, socks by Tabio and shorts by Descente), a Polar heart monitor and wristwatch and an enjoyable circuit to run along or around for 40 minutes and you should be the picture of health. Find a place to take the sun and scan the headlines after and you’ll be smarter too.
From afar, the steel and teak furniture from Swedish manufacturer Grythyttan is elegant but somewhat mysterious (no surprise, as the company barely exports). From across the terrace it looks lean while somehow reassuringly solid (there’s no danger of it blowing away in a summer storm). And from the moment you ease yourself into one of the chairs you’ll instantly recognise that it’s not the simplicity of the design that is so appealing so much as the gentle bounce afforded by the sturdy steel manufacturing process. With so much garden furniture looking like the living room has moved poolside, Grythyttan is pitch perfect for balcony, pavement café and lakeside jetty.
A trusty podengo
More sporty than a Jack Russell and marginally more handsome, the podengo (or a pair) is the ideal dog for life in the city or even in the air. Small enough to fit in the cabin of most commercial aircraft (providing they’re open-minded about their pet policies and you’ve got a Porter pouch that’s podengo approved), these little field marshalls from Portugal are attentive, clean and so squat that they’re still under the radar.
A rain chain
Rain chain sounds so much better than gutter, doesn’t it? The very efficient and more attractive older sibling of the vertical gutter, chains (or kusari doi) were first used in Japanese temples. Their task was to direct rainwater from roofs to barrels on the ground, where it was collected and then used. Today they’re making a comeback. Go for a simple copper link chain and have your rainwater drain into a small channel that naturally irrigates your garden.
A seaside village
A town set amidst the rolling countryside is fine and the views might be unbeatable in a tiny village high up in the mountains of the Valais region of Switzerland, but if we could choose just one place to own a small townhouse we’d have to go for a small seaside village mixing the best elements we’ve found in Italy, Greece, France, Japan and England. Give us a uniform colour palette of multi-storey houses. Throw out the grid and follow the jagged lines of the coast and cliff-face behind. Leave room for plenty of squares both big and small. Make sure the harbour is a working one and is bustling with fishermen in chubby wooden boats, coast guard crew in crisp uniforms, tenders stocking up for Fedships anchored off the coast and RIB taxi-boats whisking day-trippers to hidden coves along the coast. Life should happen around the table and our little village should be open all hours, all year round. And no, Ryanair will not have landing rights.
A shave at hair salon Ono
We’re on a mission to have a barber in every port and if possible, we’d like him (or her) to be Japanese and trained at hair salon Ono. With its retro signage and vintage vitrines stocked with wonderful tonics, Ono is an institution in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi that now rivals Sky – our other favourite barber. Just as tricolore barber posts are starting to vanish in many cities, there seems to be a revival in learning how to shape and shave the perfect beard and tend to stray whiskers in Japan. No matter how bad your day starts, 30 minutes in a chair at Ono will restore some of the missing spring in your step.
An invitation to a calçotada feast
Calçots are long, white spring onions that grow in the Catalan region of Spain and are the main ingredient in a hands-on, messy, rural banquet – or calçotada – which takes place between October and April. Large numbers of calçots are charred on a barbecue and delivered to the table. The outer layer is stripped and the white onion inside is dipped into homemade Romesco sauce (red peppers and almonds), then eaten. All this is done with family, friends, rolled-up sleeves and lots of wine. It’s a great celebration – just don’t wear white.