PARIS – What matters at Christmas time is the spirit, right? For those yet to be convinced, a tiny Japanese pavilion in Paris offers to initiate Westerners to a 700-year-old gift-giving ritual known as Origata.
You could hardly be further from the push and shove of the holiday shopping season: the tiny wood-panelled cubicle in the city’s Latin Quarter is like a hybrid of concept store, art gallery and miniature temple.
Opened this month by Japanese businessman Takeshi Sato together with a young Frenchman, Joan Larroumec, the Miwa pavilion is billed as an exclusive members’ club, offering a gateway to Japanese high culture.
“It’s a business venture, but one that also aims to spread knowledge of traditional Japanese culture,” explained Larroumec. “It’s a window onto a side of Japan that is inaccessible to most people.”
Chief among these customs is the Origata gift ritual, rooted in traditional Shinto culture, which has been practised primarily for the Japanese imperial family since the 14th century.
“It all starts with a tea ceremony, using water exported from Japan,” Larroumec said.
“We listen to the person, to the meaning they want their gift to have, how they want the recipient to feel, and then there are a whole set of codes that determine the way we wrap it, the different paper, knots and folds.”
“The aim is to put meaning back into the art of giving.”
Except for the word “ori”, meaning to fold, Origata bears no relation to the paper-folding craft of origami.
Since the 14th century, Keishosai Ogasawara’s family have held the keys to the art as chiefs of protocol for the imperial family, handing down its codes generation to generation and – in recent years – sharing them with the public.
She travelled from Tokyo to witness the opening of the pavilion, which was ceremonially inaugurated by two Shinto priests.
– ‘Exact opposite of email’ –
“Origata is about putting your feelings into an object,” she explained, softly-spoken and clothed in a pale pink kimono. “The knot represents the bond between two people.”
“In a world of email and instant communication, this is the exact opposite,” added Larroumec.
In Japan, Sato’s firm Rightning specialises in running craft-based projects for the likes of Louis Vuitton, or telecoms giant Docomo, for whom he created a phone made of Japanese cypress, or hinoki, the wood used for temple-building.
For the Miwa project he drew on his contacts in traditional craft circles, from Ogasawara herself, to the artisans who built it from hinoki.
Ogasawara trained the two mistresses of ceremonies who will officiate at the pavilion — a basic three-week course, they admit, compared with the three to five years needed to perfect the art.
The organic washi paper used for the ceremony comes from a craftsman with the honorific Japanese title of “Living National treasure”, bestowed on one member of a generation for any given field.
The room’s central counter is made from a single slab of 300-year-old hinoki, without a single knot – “which means 16 generations of gardeners took turns to remove the young shoot from the tree,” said Larroumec.
A gift display table was recreated using plans salvaged from centuries-old Origata manuscripts.
A tiny steel and hinoki paper knife was made by a centuries-old samurai sword manufacturer.
The wood-panelled walls are covered with tiny cubicles concealing ritual objects or ones for sale.
“It all stems from the Japanese notion that perfection requires hundreds of imperceptible details,” said Larroumec.
Such refinement comes with a hefty price tag, though.
For an annual fee of 1,000 euros, members can book an Origata ceremony any time they like.
They can also purchase artefacts rarely seen outside Japan, from 3,000-year-old Jomon vases, to 19th-century kimonos worth up to 80,000 euros.
A fortnight after its launch, Miwa had signed up two dozen Japanese members, and a dozen French ones, all recruited in exclusive French-Japanese cultural circles in Paris. It aims for 100 members within a year.
“The membership fee might seem steep, but not when you consider people are getting access to collectors’ objects worth 20,000 to 80,000 euros,” explained Larroumec.
Among the Japanophiles Larroumec has approached is former president Jacques Chirac – a well-known admirer of the culture. He has yet to respond.