A Design For (Slow) Life

Back to Contents of Issue: March 2004

She's called Japan's Martha Stewart, but Harumi Kurihara is her own homemaker.

by Tony McNicol

JAPAN'S MOST FAMOUS HOUSEWIFE, 56-year-old Harumi Kurihara, is at once a cookbook writer, restaurateur and TV chef. When we first meet, she hands me a slice of chocolate cake on one of her own "Harumi, K" plates while wearing one of the over 100 aprons she has designed during her career. Indeed, most of the objects in her central Tokyo house have her name on them.

Her living room is bright and airy, with long windows overlooking an immaculately tended garden. And the breakfast bar in the middle of her spacious kitchen (with its muted pastel decor) frequently graces the pages of her quarterly magazine, Suteki Recipe (lovely recipes).

Sound familiar? Like her famous (and potentially infamous) American counterpart, Martha Stewart, Kurihara has become one of Japan's best-known style gurus over the last 20 years -- albeit one with far fewer legal worries than Ms. Stewart. Tens of millions of her cookbooks and style magazines have pride of place on kitchen shelves from Okinawa to Hokkaido. She has built her business by serving up a seductive lifestyle prepackaged for emulation by her fans -- everything from her aprons to her frequent gourmet trips abroad to that neat little measuring spoon you can use as a serving spoon too.

This year's slogan for Kurihara's chain of shops is "slow life." But it's hard to imagine Kurihara living the slow life with an expanding cookery, publishing and interior design empire to run.

"Yes, I'm busy," she concedes. "But I don't look busy, do I? Even when you are busy, you've got to have fun with your work and daily life. I make myself little presents -- maybe a little plate I like, or a little cup. Just something to give myself a little pleasure."

With a modesty that may reveal more about the character of her Japanese audiences, Kurihara recounts the essence of her appeal. "It's what I always say at my special events: 'Look for a low level of happiness, not [something] too high,'" she says. "There are lots of little happinesses to be found in everyday life."

Clearly it's a message that resonates in recession-addled Japan, where less often seems best. But in fact, Kurihara started dishing up her design for the slow life two decades ago, at the height of the bubble economy.

After her marriage to TV announcer Reiji Kurihara, she spent the first years of their life together looking after their house and two children. Her husband, she says, seeing her home alone much of the time while he was busy with work, advised her to "go out and learn about society and the world."

She took his advice and in 1989, after a series of small cookbooks and work behind the scenes on TV cooking programs, she published Gochisousama Kikitakute ("I want to hear you say delicious"), a book filled with Kurihara's own recipes displayed on tableware from her home.

"The thing that was the most fun for me was making food for my family in my own plates and dishes. I guess it was easy for people to see that I was trying to put across my lifestyle as well as my cooking."

Struggling against publishers who wanted a trendier and more colorful design, Kurihara held her ground and insisted on the subdued tone. "I think I would have given up on cooking if the book hadn't sold," she now admits. But sell it did, and readers wrote tens of thousands of letters asking where they could find the plates and dishes in its pages. 14 years later, Kurihara is planning a party to celebrate the sale of the book's millionth copy.

The book was followed with more recipe books and her Suteki Recipe quarterly, which sells around 300,000 copies each month. Kurihara now has 22 shops and five restaurants in Japan. And as with Stewart, her fans are fanatical.

"They want to know everything about my life," she says, attributing her appeal to being "energetic, not too beautiful and looking as if I am having fun. I take care to be honest about what I write, and I don't introduce [my readers] to anything I can't make myself. Everything in my magazines is from my life."

Log on to Kurihara's Web site and you learn where she cuts her hair and where she does her grocery shopping. And should she let slip which particular kind of perfume she uses, it will likely sell out from shops all over Japan. Her company is constantly bombarded with presents of food and drink from devoted fans, and she receives around 10,000 letters from her magazine readers each month.

Yukari Oguri, a 28-year-old office worker from Nagoya, was given one of Kurihara's cookbooks as a wedding present. "She looks like she is the sort of person who can put people around her at ease," Oguri says. "And you can see that her family is important to her. She's not just a chef [to me], but a wonderful person, too."

Kurihara's appeal strikes a nostalgic chord in many of her fans, echoing the back-to-basics ethos of today's commercially successful homemaker-CEOs. "Lots of her recipes use traditional techniques and ingredients," Oguri continues. "That's special. Not many people cook that way these days -- especially people from my generation."

Midori Otake is a professor of Lifestyle Science at Tokyo Gakugei University. She links Kurihara's popularity to a change in the way homemaking skills are taught in the home -- or rather, not taught. Whereas young women once learned to cook from their mothers, says Otake, today they are more likely to learn from cookbooks or the media, emulating famous chefs like Kurihara.

Kurihara's business is built around her family. Her husband Reiji is now the president of her company Yutori no Kukan ("a space to relax"). Her 24-year-old son, Shinpei, helps manage her chain of shops and restaurants. According to Shinpei, the company is planning to open up another 10 shops and restaurants across the country over the next three years. These will include more Harumi, K shops, which sell only goods designed by Kurihara herself. Kurihara's first recipe book in English will go on sale in the UK, North America and Australia later this year.

Much of Kurihara's business relies on deals with kitchen goods and food manufacturers. Even the microwave in her kitchen has her name embossed on its corner -- the mark of her customized design. One of Kurihara's more unusual claims to fame is the discovery of a way to make a dessert out of mirin (a vinegar-like Japanese condiment). The method involves boiling down significant amounts of the substance, which may explain Kurihara's frequent appearances in one mirin manufacturer's advertisements. She has also had deals with Nissan and Proctor and Gamble, among others.

Kurihara and her fans aren't the only ones searching for the slow life. The idea is closely related to the international "slow food" movement (www.slowfood.com), which originated in Italy in the 80s. The self-defined philosophy is described as "a movement for the protection of the right to taste," and a protest against "fast," pre-processed and mass-produced food.

The lifestyle obviously has a powerful attraction for Kurihara's hundreds of thousands of readers. It's all about paying attention to the little things, she says, and the pleasure they provide. Kurihara sees a shift towards such pleasures in the aftermath of Japan's lock-step march to affluence during the bubble economy. "Maybe, just a little, people have started appreciating the importance of enjoying your life and making your own individual lifestyle."

Though her magazines are packed with tips on products for her readers to buy, Kurihara insists the slow life movement -- and the appeal of her company -- is not about consumption. "Actually, I don't have anything I want [to buy]," she says. "Dishes or accessories or whatever." To illustrate her real priorities, she opens up one of her cookery books and points at a recipe. "Everyone makes potato croquettes in the same way. But, you know, I wondered if they wouldn't be nicer if they were smaller and round -- so that they wouldn't fill you up so much.'"

For a woman who has sold millions of books and magazines during her relatively short career, smaller things can build great empires.     @

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