“Kyoto?... I learned so many things . I’m still learning. I mean, we live in a city with so much culture and history at our fingertips. You learn to have so much respect towards craftsmanship and creativity... but another big thing is that you learn about human relationships.”

“Sara, can I tell you one more thing?” I glance over at my friend Kushi sitting at the twelve-seat counter. It’s 1:04 am and everyone else at the Kappo restaurant has already left. It’s just me, Kushi, Kuro-chan, the two chefs behind the counter, and three lovely bottles of shochu sitting in front of us. Honestly, I didn’t know if I wanted to hear what Kushi was going to say to me, since he had already told me that the way I hold my bowls and plates was weird and that I hold my chopsticks way too high... or was it too low? 

“Sure,tell me,” I say nervously, trying to sit up straight while adjusting everything around me. 

“You know, you should really take off your rings when you’re dining. They’re going to damage the nice ceramics.” … Okay, not as bad as I thought! I was expecting a worse blow. 

Masaya Kushino, also known as Kushi, is a friend, artist, fashion designer,and creative director. Was I bothered that he was so particular about my table manners? Not at all. That was one hundred percent Kushi, a soul who notices every single detail because he cares so deeply about beauty and culture. He wasn’t there to criticize— he genuinely wanted to help me raise my standards. 

Kushi is known for creating beautiful shoes and accessories that look more like extravagant sculptures than anything you’d expect to find in a store. Although he never formally studied shoe design, he started getting into fashion after being inspired by designers such as Maison Margiela, Alexander McQueen, and John Galliano.

Just like his role models, Kushi is all about going beyond imagination, yet simultaneously, he is someone who also values tradition, culture,nature, and human relationships. He often incorporates traditional.

Kyoto materials such as Nishijin-ori textiles and urushi lacquer into his work, but he doesn’t feel bound to using them in the classic Japanese fashion. In addition to his personal projects, Kushi has designed for well-known names such as Lady Gaga and AMBUSH. He is currently a designer with OAO, a Tokyo-based shoe brand founded on the concept of providing footwear that enhances your well-being and creativity. 

We chat with Kushi about his creations, the city of Kyoto, and his thoughts on what’s going on in the creative world. 

SARA: Okay, first off, can we talk about your background and inspiration? You grew up on Innoshima Island in Hiroshima, right? What did you do for fun on Innoshima?

KUSHI: When I was a child, my parents were out working a lot, so I spent a lot of time with my grandfather, who was really good with his hands. Looking back at photos of my childhood, I find a lot of photos with him, just chilling, making things on a boat... My grandfather could build an entire boat with his bare hands. He was really creative, so I feel like I learned a lot about “beauty” from him. 

SARA: Were you always into fashion? 

KUSHI: I was actually influenced by a cousin I often visited who lived in the city. He was stylish, and he would often tell me about fashion, what’s “in” and what’s not.  Also when I was in junior high school, I started visiting Onomichi on the mainland. I got into vintage, second-hand clothing. There was one shop which I would always go to where the shop staff taught me about fashion. That’s where I was introduced to Maison Margiela. I remember seeing a dress which had mold growing on it in his book. It was beautiful, but more importantly, it really showed me how the world of fashion is limitless. 

Back in those days, unisex clothing was huge. I wore brands like SUPER LOVERS, which is more womenswear. I would wear something like a cardigan underneath. Of course, you couldn’t buy that sort of thing on Innoshima, so I would buy them when I went to Fukuyama or Hiroshima.  In that era, people really started getting into vintage clothing: Levi’s, military-style clothing, things that youngsters like us could afford like 1000-yen t-shirts, etcetera. There were brands like Milk Boy and ABAHOUSE... I used to carry a Hysteric Glamor shopping bag to school.  

KURO: You were ahead of your time. 

KUSHI: No, I think I was just anti-“wearing the same things as other people”. Those Hysteric Glamor bags... Man, those were the days. It feels really nostalgic now. 

SARA: You’ve lived in Innoshima, Kyoto, and Milan, and no doubt you were greatly inspired by them. Can you tell me what kind of inspiration you received from each city?

KUSHI: I think Innoshima was all about nature and its power. I mean, nature is beautiful, but it’s also terrifying at the same time. When I was younger, I nearly drowned in the ocean, and that’s when I realized how scary it could be. The softness and darkness both inherent in nature is something to be felt, not seen. 

I think this was like a sixth sense, especially for people back in the day. When there wasn’t as much information floating around, you had to use your own sense to determine if your environment was safe or not. I think nowadays, living in this information-overloaded world, we rely on our cellphones or other people’s information and we don’t use our minds and bodies. It’s like we have a hard disc inserted into us.

SARA: What did you learn in Kyoto? 

KUSHI: Kyoto? I learned so many things . I’m still learning.  I mean, we live in a city with so much culture and history at our fingertips.  You learn to have so much respect towards craftsmanship and creativity... but another big thing is that you learn about human relationships. 

SARA: Human relationships? Have your relationships changed?

KUSHI: I think I’ve made many mistakes. I think when you’re younger, you always want to appear greater and bigger than you really are, especially coming from the countryside, I didn’t want people to take advantage of me. Therefore, rather than listening to people’s stories or opinions, it was all about trying to get my own stories out, just talking about myself. I often talked about things as if I were an expert. For example, I thought one way to connect with other people was to have something in common, so I always talked about Kyoto like I knew everything about it. However, I learned that people here in Kyoto don’t connect like that. I learned that people know when you’re trying too hard, or not being genuine. 

SARA: What about Milan? 

KUSHI: Milan is where I went to fashion school. At school, I learned how to conduct myself professionally and how to present my work in an effective way. Interestingly enough, Milan is where I learned about the beauty of Japanese culture. I just remembered... There was this one moment that really moved me and changed my views on Japan. I was told to go do research for a school project, but I was always so bad at that. I couldn’t use a computer properly. I decided to visit a book store to look at some books instead. That’s when I came across a book on the avant-garde Japanese ikebana artist Nakagawa Yukio. He had created a world I’d never seen before. I remember seeing his work and being really proud I was Japanese. Sometimes you can’t see the beauty of your own culture until you go somewhere else. I didn’t notice the beauty of Japanese culture until I stepped outside. When I started living in Milan, I was re-reminded about the beauty and greatness of Japanese design.

SARA: That reminds me— I really enjoyed the talk session you did with the ceramist Raku-san. 

KUSHI: Thank you. 

SARA: Why did you decide to work with a Raku ware artist? 

KUSHI: First off, I have a lot of respect for Raku and its history. Creating just one bowl involves the history of the art be combined with the soul and dedication of the craftsman. So much depth and energy goes into it that the exterior becomes beautiful. I also saw some similarities between Raku and my work. For example, the colors of Raku bowls are usually red and black, and I use a similar palette. Also, Raku is something that you feel with your hands, and my shoes are something you feel with your feet. They both serve an important purpose. 

SARA: In recent years, a lot of big brands have been collaborating with Kyoto craftsman and artists. What must these brands be careful of, or what should they respect so that the essence of Kyoto isn’t lost? 

KUSHI: In regards to this topic, there are a few things I’ve been thinking about. I think in other countries, there are lots of conversations about “cultural appropriation”, but the idea of cultural appropriation doesn’t really exist here in Japan. So, I think what’s important is making sure they aren’t being taken advantage of by big, powerful brands or names, or being led to produce something that just caters to someone else’s view of what Kyoto or Japan is. Craftsmen and artists need to take the initiative to stand up for their craft and make sure they are getting a fair deal. They need to take pride in their work. I think this responsibility also lies with the people trying to connect and produce these collaborations. 

SARA: Do you think these Kyoto craftsman and artists aren’t well protected? 

KUSHI: These collaborations are often one-offs. And I’m not just talking globally, because it happens with big-shot brands in Tokyo as well. For a fleeting moment there’s some hype about “so-and-so brand collaborated with a craftsman in Kyoto” or “some well-known person did some design direction”, they do some kind of promotion, and then that’s it. The craftsman gets some money for it and it’s over. I feel like they are just getting taken advantage of. It’s not like the big brands really care about what happens to these craftsmen in the future. People talk about how wonderful and amazing Kyoto culture is, how wonderful and amazing Kyoto craftsmanship is, but after the one-time collaboration they don’t continue their relationship. They just leave these craftsmen to fend for themselves and don’t take responsibility. 

SARA: What are the pros and cons of being an artist based in Kyoto? 

KUSHI: Cons? I don’t think there are any. There isn’t one negative thing I can think of. 

SARA: Have you ever felt that being based in Tokyo would allow you to make more connections or make it easier to network with other creatives and brands? 

KUSHI: I think it really depends on what you make. For me, I don’t want to go out and meet many people. I don’t dislike Tokyo, but whenever I go I feel like I get exhausted by everyone’s energy. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but people in Tokyo are constantly hustling. It’s “I do this and that,” “I’m this person” over and over. I feel like people are constantly trying to go out and network rather than really focusing on their creativity. I think Tokyo being the center of Japan’s business world makes this somewhat necessary because it’s just how things move there, but it doesn’t match my flow. Kyoto, now... Kyoto is great, isn’t it? It’s so comfortable. 

SARA: Yeah, Kyoto is great. 

KURO: I think a lot of people look at Kyoto as an ideal city to live in. I think it has a really nice balance. Maybe for now, it’s better for me to be in Kyoto.

KUSHI: So, like, I want people to visit Kyoto, but not too many! (laughs) I feel like it might be exhausting if it was overpopulated. 

KURO: Sara and I talk about this often when we go on our runs. We want it to remain authentic. 

KUSHI: I thought about this now as we were talking, but I don’t like it when “Kyoto” is overused for branding purposes, when people use “Kyoto” to fit their brand. It doesn’t feel right. Like how “Zen” is used for marketing purposes these days. 

KURO: And that’s not really Zen.

KUSHI: Exactly. It’s really forced. I just get tired when I see this. I feel like big brands and companies are just using Kyoto so they can get ahead now. 

SARA: Thank you. This is something I need to think about more as well. 

KUSHI: In the end, Kyoto is easy to brand. It’s easy to market. But it becomes problematic when it’s just used for its image and the true meaning is lost. Sadly, I think that meaning and essence isn’t conveyed in many of these collaborations.  

Going back to the example of Zen... I see this a lot with things like skincare brands. They use terms like “the Zen philosophy” or “the Zen mind” to sell their products, but they aren’t actually teaching people about Zen or its philosophy. It’s all about the image.

SARA: Speaking of Kyoto and fashion... Do you think there is a fashion scene in Kyoto? 

KUSHI: I don’t really think about Kyoto fashion or look at people here in that way. For example, in Tokyo, people often judge someone by what they are wearing. They use fashion as a communication tool. I think people here don’t really talk about what others are wearing. 

KURO: Yeah, they don’t really. I’ve been in the fashion industry for twenty years, but I still feel awkward when people ask me about what I’m wearing.  

KUSHI: Maybe they are talking about it behind people’s backs, but in general... I don’t think people are talking about what people are wearing in Kyoto. 

KURO: Yeah, you’re right. I guess in a way, people are looking at what’s on the inside, not the outside. 

SARA: How would you describe the beauty of Kyoto? Or, what’s beautiful about Kyoto? 

KUSHI: There are a few things, but coming from my background growing up in nature, when I think of “Kyoto beauty” I think about the four distinctive seasons. Kyoto is a place where you can really sense the passage of time. I grew up in an environment like Innoshima where you only really have how the sun rises or how the moon shines... I think in Kyoto this sense is amplified. You can feel the difference in the seasons by looking at nature all around you.

SARA: Whether it’s about being borderless or promoting mixed cultures, you always have a message or theme you explore in your work. Do you have an idea you want to explore next? 


KUSHI: I do, I do. It’s the relationship between humans and nature. “Nature is a powerful force you can never compete against.” I know this, but at the same time I want to challenge myself to create something that could go against nature, or will be perceived as just as beautiful and credible. I think wanting to pit ourselves against nature is just so human... Thinking we are greater than we are. 

SARA: Lastly, you mentioned to me a few weeks back that you want to become a writer. What kind of stories would you like to tell? 

KUSHI: I want to share what I feel and have felt. I’ve met so many wonderful people in my lifetime, I’ve felt and developed so many emotions, and I want to share them with others. My life is unique. I mean, everyone’s life is unique. I have lived a pretty colorful life. My family background is so interesting. I want the stories to include elements of culture, sex, and passion, so it might be an unusual combination, but life is all about the beauty of different element comings together. 

I still need time to really find the right words to tell my story, but... I know it’s coming. 

Words: Sara Aiko
Photos: Sara Aiko