Japan continues to fascinate the French

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Letter From Paris | Tokyo on the Seine

Van Gogh collected and painted imitations of Japanese woodblock prints. Baudelaire gave them to his friends. Monet painted his wife in a kimono. A popular cafe and concert hall called Le Divan Japonais — the Japanese Divan — was decorated in a Japanese style and immortalized in a poster by Toulouse-Lautrec. France’s fixation with things Japanese became so intense in the 19th century that the French gave it a name: “Japonisme.”

Japan continues to fascinate the French, and after a while, you begin to see Japan almost everywhere you go in Paris. The spa Cinq Mondes near the Opera features “kobido,” a natural skin-lifting ritual once reserved for geishas. The Henri Le Roux chocolate shop makes a pea-green Yuzu Macha bar. Galerie Sentou, a design and furniture store, sells Noguchi lamps. Every Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris now seems to have a Japanese touch; some bistros, like L’Office, have even imported Japanese chefs. The Paris runways have come under the same spell. Just one example: Kim Jones, Louis Vuitton’s men’s-wear style director, has combined classic tailoring with kimono silks. Meanwhile, the high-fashion concept store Colette just unveiled “Bento,” a jewelry collection inspired by rice, jasmine flowers and wasabi beans.

And every other week seems to bring a new Japan-focused museum exhibition to Paris. The current one, which opened on July 3 at the Musee Guimet, is dedicated to the ceramics, lacquerware and calligraphy of Rosanjin Kitaoji, an early-20th-century pioneer of the art of the table.

It’s possible, in fact, to build an entire Japanese-themed Paris itinerary. It would start at Wada, which from the outside looks like one of the dozens of mediocre Japanese restaurants in this city. It’s not. A narrow storefront on a dead-zone street near the Arc de Triomphe, it has been the exclusive domain of Hideo Yamaguchi for the last 17 years. At age 70, Yamaguchi is owner, buyer, chef and waiter for his 20-seat restaurant. His sushi is ragged-looking. No matter. He is a master at choosing, not cutting, his fish. His specialty dish is a delicate salmon perfumed in sake — a secret recipe created by his mother. On the night I dined there, the place was mostly empty, except for a father and son and two of France’s most famous food critics.

Paris doesn’t have a “Little Japan,” but it does have the rue Sainte-Anne. A small street in a boring part of the First and Second Arrondissements, at first glance it looks like a strip of inexpensive Japanese restaurants with fast service and uneven quality. Look hard enough, however, and you can eat authentic Japanese fare made with the freshest of French ingredients here. One place is Kunitoraya, whose two outlets on rue Villedo just off the rue Sainte-Anne make the best hot and cold udon noodles in town. The pared-down version looks like a long, narrow New York loft with one wall in red brick and an open kitchen in the back; the other, more upscale version with a more ambitious (and expensive) tasting menu, sits in what was once a traditional Parisian bistro.Buy popular Michael Kors Crossbody Bags and get free shipping with $99 purchase.

After lunch, Cool Japan on the rue Sainte-Anne is worth a look for its selection of tableware (especially the blue and white ramen bowls), kimonos and long, narrow two-sided scarves made from old kimonos. Stop in down the street at Bukiya and hope that Ryohei Tamura, who enjoys dressing in costume, is on duty. The shop is great for easy-packing “tenugui” (traditional Japanese dish towels), bamboo-scented candles and patterned flip-flops.

A hidden gem on the street is the grocery section of the Juji-Ya fast food restaurant. You have to know it’s there. You head to the back and up a staircase to find yourself in a small room with dried seaweed, sake, plum and yuzu liqueurs, noodles-in-a-cup, even powdered green tea to bring back to your hotel room. Two cupboards offer an assortment of tableware, including a pint-size teapot in pink porcelain for 11 euros.

For fine Japanese art, sculpture and pottery, head to the Mingei Arts Gallery on rue Visconti in the Saint-Germain-des-Pres area. Even if the gallery is closed, if its co-owner Philippe Boudin is there, he will invite you in. It is worth a visit if only to descend down the steps and enter a series of 16th-century caves that have been turned into exhibition space.

Another more upscale part of town with several boutiques offering Japanese goods is the rue Francois Miron area in the Marais. Sensitive et Fils sells items from several Asian countries, including Japanese kimonos, handbags, hair ornaments, ceramic tiles, pottery and postcards with reproductions of Japanese advertising labels. Check out the earrings with dangling origami cranes. When you enter Kimonoya on the nearby rue du Pont-Louis-Philippe, the strong scent of white Syringa lilac flowers greets you. Here you will find cotton and silk kimonos, and Paris’s most elegant selection of tableware and textiles. Some of the handkerchiefs have been framed and hung.


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