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Masanao Hirayama

Finding the perfect apartment in Tokyo can be tricky. There are several reasons for this. First, there is the city itself. Take Paris, where Baron Haussmann, alongside Napoleon III, transformed the city in the 19th century and imposed strict aesthetic rules on all buildings: the height, the dimensions of the balconies and windows. With such homogeneous architecture and urbanism, the Parisian landscape embodies the city itself, more than its inhabitants or what the city has to offer. Tokyo, however, has no such thing as a typical Tokyo landscape. Skyscrapers? Neon lights? There may once have been a Tokyo-ness to Blade Runner in 1982, but skyscrapers are now in every city. Tokyo is divided into 24 wards, and the landscape changes dramatically from place to place, street to street. The architecture is extremely varied, all buildings are different, and there is no consistent aesthetic. For better or worse, this is the typical Tokyo mix. This is why it’s so difficult to find a room in Tokyo: there’s no reference point like Haussmann buildings, so you could keep on searching for the perfect apartment forever.

There’s also the unique relationship between the public and private realms in Japan. Still to this day, sentō (public baths) are widely used, and there’s a far greater number than in any other country. Eating out alone every day is socially normal and very affordable. This might show that people in Tokyo don’t confine themselves to a simple small-room apartment—the city becomes an extension of their house, yet it still offers a sense of intimacy. Within this landscape, I met with the artist Masanao Hirayama; his signature line drawings are immediately recognisable, made in an attempt to escape his own consciousness and move closer to the abstract. He makes live, large-scale mural interventions in galleries and restaurants and contributes to zines and books—including a cookbook by the Danish chef Frederik Bille Brahe, All the Stuff We Cooked, published by Apartamento last year. Masanao is planning on moving house—at least that’s what I thought, judging by the emptiness of his place when I visited him. But he told me that he’d actually been living this way for a long time. This may be the Tokyo way of life, and lack of space isn’t the only explanation.

Apartamento Magazine - Masanao Hirayama

A friend of mine told me your house was empty, but I didn’t expect it to be this empty. Just a few cardboard boxes, a low white table, and computers.

I don’t really collect things these days. I used to buy a lot of art books and fanzines, but not anymore. It’s all in that white cardboard box up there on the shelf.

So not only do you have limited stuff, but it looks unusually neat because you put your stuff up there.

Yes, it does look neat. A while ago I had a cat, so I hung this simple shelf on the wall and put all my stuff up there. But I liked the feeling of having nothing on the floor, so I’ve kept it the same even though the cat isn’t here anymore. Actually, there is one thing I’m collecting now. Toilet paper tubes. When I go to different countries, I bring them back with me. I haven’t been able to collect more recently though because of Covid-19.

Do they differ from country to country?

The shape is usually cylindrical, but some have a thicker core, some are made from recycled paper, some have colourful patterns on them. In Japan, some of them even have a stamp that says ‘thank you’. It’s interesting to observe the differences.

Who does it say ‘thank you’ to? Is it ‘thank you’ for using it until the end?

Who knows. Anyway, I try not to have too many things these days. It’s just the way this room is: without much stuff.

Apartamento Magazine - Masanao Hirayama

It’s been a while since I’ve been to Ikenoue, where you live now, but it’s a nice area. There’s an art gallery called Quiet Noise, a unique clothing store called Min-Nano, a good local restaurant, a bistro.

That’s right. I like it because it’s close to Shibuya and the neighbourhood itself is quiet, but I’m looking for a bigger place to live with my partner.

Have you found a good place?

It’s been difficult. I think I’ve visited about 20 different places. Although it sounds like a nightmare, I’m actually enjoying it. I have the excuse to visit different places, places that I don’t know and want to explore.

Do you walk around the area surrounding the property, as well as viewing it?

It may sound strange, but I’d rather go for a walk than look at properties. When we found a nice place in Katase-Enoshima, we went for a walk first. The place was only five minutes away from station and the beach was nearby. The neighbourhood is really nice. So we decided to have a look around before looking at the property. I told my partner, ‘This is good. Let’s give them a call’. But they said the property was already taken. I didn’t even get a chance to look at the room, I just went on a walk. This happens to me all the time.

It’s usually the other way around. Normally, you call for a viewing and then visit the property. Where else have you seen?

I also went to the east side of Tokyo, to an area called Kiyosumi Shirakawa, a family residential area called Futako-Tamagawa, Kajigaya in Kawasaki, and Sangenjaya.

Apartamento Magazine - Masanao Hirayama

As you mention these locations, it doesn’t seem like you’re choosing a place to live with good access or a downtown atmosphere. What are you looking for in a home? What are the must-have conditions?

It has to be quiet, and a place with good  sunlight is also a priority for us. We went to see one apartment in Nakameguro, a very convenient place near Shibuya. The room was big and the neighbourhood is chill, but the only thing is that the windows were so small. I thought it wasn’t right and gave up.

What’s the ideal environment for you?

Close to the sea, close to the mountains, but not too far from the city, with supermarkets and pharmacies near the house. But of course there is no such thing as a perfect place, so I try to find a good one. But even when I do, there are still places that look better, so I just keep searching.

I see, interior and exterior. When I was looking at this room, I was thinking that you don’t actually need to put everything inside—especially in Tokyo, where houses are tiny. I remember a famous architect saying that it’s not simply about inside and outside; from the point of view of the earth, the place where we live in is always interior.

It’s a nice idea. The Japanese essayist Jun Miura also said that he uses the library near his house as if it were his own bookshelf. It’s the same for me. That’s why I don’t need so many things in my apartment. For example, I see the nearby set-meal restaurant as my kitchen, and so on.

The functionality that should be inside the house can also exist on the outside; that’s what I mean about choosing the environment as well. Are there any apartments you don’t like?

It’s a matter of detail, but I don’t like kitchens with no storage, with only a sink and a stove.

Why is that?

You need space to store pans and other utensils, don’t you? But if the kitchen is only designed to look beautiful as it is, then I don’t think it’s design anymore.

Apartamento Magazine - Masanao Hirayama

I see. It’s useless design.

I also don’t like baths with a gap between the wall and the tub, like clawfoot baths. It looks like the floor will end up soaking wet. All in all, maybe I don’t like ‘designer’ flats.

A famous art director, Kaoru Kasai, once said that there are many things in the world that are ruined because of designers.

I think about that all the time. I can do it better than them. In short, I often wish they could’ve just given us information or advice. Of course, that’s not enough to make the world beautiful. We need a little bit more, right?

Like when you go to the supermarket, what you find tasty isn’t written with a colourful pen or a fancy font, but written with a Sharpie and calligraphy, something like ‘2 for a mackerel’.

It’s easy to understand and it always looks tasty.

What are you addicted to these days?

Going out to eat yakisoba.

Mural, Ostras Pedrin, Madrid, 2019

Yakisoba? Not soba.

Yes, I drive for about two hours to Utsunomiya in Gunma Prefecture and eat yakisoba there and come back. The yakisoba restaurant I visited recently, called Ando, was really, really good. Look at these pictures.

Noodles, cabbage, and sauce. It’s very simple, isn’t it?

The shop is also very austere and has a timeless feel. Look at the menu, only this.

Large, medium, small. It’s a pleasantly simple menu.

It’s just the right amount of sourness and it’s delicious. The noodles are thick and you can’t make them at home. Talking about it now, it occurs to me that I like simple things. Both in terms of spatial thinking and taste preferences.

Apartamento Magazine - Masanao Hirayama

It’s not so much that you’re frugal, it’s more that you look at things from a flat perspective: what’s good is good. For example, whether it’s a designer-brand T-shirt or a Haynes pack of T-shirts, they’re both high-quality products.

I think it would be a shame if you didn’t know the taste of a restaurant like Ando; a French degustation menu that costs 200€ is delicious, but so is a 3€ yakisoba. There are many things you can’t judge from only one perspective.

I think everyone is re-thinking the value of things because of Covid-19. Rather than living in a highrise luxury apartment, people around me have started renting a moderate house as a second home in the countryside. It’s kind of  similar to rediscovering the taste of yakisoba.

It’s important to follow your instinctive feeling. For example, where I live is actually small but has amazing sunlight at least half of the day. You know what, it’s nice to be in the sun. This is an instinctive feeling. Nobody has taught me that a place with sunlight is more comfortable than a place with no sunlight.

I think there are connections between instinctive feelings and your artwork.

Something that people are subconsciously looking for?

For example, what you see on Instagram, and thumbnails of Youtube content—everyone wants to say something loud. But I don’t think your artwork conveys anything at all. But things that come naturally to us are pleasant and give us a chance to think about the thing itself.

I’m not even good at coming up with titles. I always wish I didn’t have to have a title for each of my artworks, but if there’s nothing there, people won’t know which one is which. That’s why I used to just number them. I’ve always thought it would be nice to have a cool title though. Recently, I’ve been taking the titles of famous paintings from the past and drawing the paintings. So I’m working the other way around. It’s like looking for inspiration from words.

Apartamento Magazine - Masanao Hirayama
All the Stuff We Cooked - 49 Recipes by Frederik Bille Brahe
Apartamento Magazine - Masanao Hirayama
All the Stuff We Cooked - 49 Recipes by Frederik Bille Brahe
Apartamento Magazine - Masanao Hirayama
All the Stuff We Cooked - 49 Recipes by Frederik Bille Brahe
Apartamento Magazine - Masanao Hirayama
All the Stuff We Cooked - 49 Recipes by Frederik Bille Brahe

See, that’s your style, isn’t it? How you pick up things around you. You never go too far.

I tend to be inspired by things around the neighbourhood or where I’ve been. As you can see, there isn’t much in my house, and I’m not interested in making artwork that I haven’t seen or touched.

Or when you’re out for a walk, like the other day in Katase-Enoshima?

Yes. Though I never sketch on the spot when I’m walking; I usually take photos or take notes of conversations that I hear.

On the other hand, when I’m sitting at my desk all day, researching on my computer for exciting ideas, I don’t find anything significant. It’s really frustrating.

When you say you’re looking for something, you have to put in the keywords by yourself, and there’s only so far you can go. I would say just to look around.

I think this way of thinking is what makes your artwork so unique. Is there a boundary between doodle and art?

When it comes to contemporary art, for example, context and explanation are important, but whether it’s a doodle or something intentional, I think it’s all the same when you take away the ‘explanation’. In the end, it’s all about individual taste. In the past, I used to think about originality, individuality: ‘What makes me, me? How can I be different from others?’ I was always thinking about style, like: ‘What can I do that’s different from others?’ But then I thought that if you look around the world, you’ll find people doing the same things that I’m thinking about, so I decided to do the opposite. When I had my solo exhibition at NADiff Gallery, I invited lots of people and asked them to draw tulip flowers, and I did the same. I even made a book out of all the drawings. I want to let other people intervene more and more, to the point where I don’t know if the work is mine or not.

Apartamento Magazine - Masanao Hirayama
8443, 2019
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