Mexico’s beauty glow

Yucatán, much like Mexico in its entirety, is not exactly a paradise. But in the midst of dust, corruption, rubble on the roadside and crumbling buildings, its splendour is revealed in a subtle way: in the warmth of the Mexicans, the breathtaking coastline, the colourful murals, the melodious jungle sounds at dawn, the scent of the earth after the rain and the enchanting sight of tiny chapels adorned with glitter, bathed in the soft glow of twinkling Christmas lights (all year long). You can see it the craftsmanship too: art that seems naïve and yet finds its way into the hearts of aesthetes like myself. It becomes clear on the streets where, in the midst of the everyday aspects of life things - such as the weathered paint on building facades, freshly hung laundry or accidentally placed objects - are assembled into perfect compositions. This artistic essence even radiates from the packaging of a matchbox, subtly pleasing to the eye when placed on a shelf at a petrol station.

Mexican design sanctuaries

Then there are the upmarket design havens such as Tulum, which is known for its boutique hotels and beach clubs. Here you can stroll barefoot through concept stores intertwined with yoga studios and perfume boutiques and admire unique handicrafts that are not limited to Mexico. In these enclaves, the essence of "the "fine art of living" is palpable - a treasure to be stumbled upon like a golden coin in the middle of an unfinished path. Despite the stark contrast to the national average income of 6,000 pesos a month, these places sever the link to harsh reality with surgical precision. But even knowing this, you can't help but be captivated by their ethereal allure.

You walk over hand-woven carpets and immerse yourself in new vistas. Your senses are stimulated as you touch, breathe in and explore. Oblivious to the sudden downpour that turns the banana leaves in the courtyard into makeshift gutters, you continue exploring (thankful that your child is peacefully napping off the jet lag). Finally, you convince the staff to dismantle the display case and plant the foliage so you can take a piece of this aesthetic sanctuary home with you.

Japanese design echoes in Mexico

As an enthusiastic admirer of Japan, I have also discovered familiar echoes in Mexico. From the fondness for handmade goods to the use of natural materials such as wood, straw, wool, clay and paper, the resonance is unmistakable. The appreciation for asymmetry, eclecticism, rigour and imperfection reinforces this connection. Even the unexpected colour harmonies evoke the spirit of Japanese kimonos and ukiyo-e woodblock prints (to learn more on how woodblock prints inspire designers go here). The underlying essence remains unchanged, merely taking on a different guise, but occasionally reflecting Japan with astonishing accuracy. Just think of the framed straw sculptures or the woven images reminiscent of Japanese tatami mats that I discovered and captured in the Mexico.

Viva la Japona

The basis of co-operation between Japan and Mexico dates back to 1888, when Japan and Mexico (then 'New Spain') established official diplomatic relations with the signing of the 'Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation'. Remarkably, this treaty was Japan's first 'equal' diplomatic agreement with a foreign nation. Consequently, cultural exchange was a natural development alongside trade. This facilitated the introduction of Japanese screens in Mexico, known in Spanish as biombo derived from the Portuguese and Spanish transliteration of the Japanese term for screen or byōbu (you'll learn more about this in a moment!).

But let's be honest: on the surface, it may be difficult to find many similarities between Japanese and Mexican culture. On closer inspection, however, they intermingle and intertwine in unexpected ways, revealing that there is more Japan in Mexico than one might initially realise ...

Studio IMA

Studio IMA is an exemplary space - a design studio and gallery - dedicated to sourcing high quality furniture, decorative items and artwork produced by local and international talent, including Japanese artists and designers. Few years ago Studio IMA in cooperation with Anniversary magazine, during the art week in Mexico City, curated an exhibition that staged a meaningful dialogue between Japanese and Mexican culture. The exhibition effectively blurred the origins of the objects on display and revealed a fascinating homogeneity. The exhibition description highlights how the characteristic elements of the Japanese aesthetic, characterised by an appreciation of ephemeral beauty, imperfection and sometimes decay, are seamlessly fused with the Mexican aesthetic, which celebrates impermanence, rusticity and the natural world. This fusion beautifully illustrates the concept of a common background, as mentioned earlier.

Casa Wabi

Casa Wabi, an impressive architectural marvel on the Pacific coast, just 30 minutes from Puerto Escondido airport in Oaxaca, was designed by the renowned Mexican artist Bosco Sodi, known for his elegant vertical sculptures. This visionary project was brought to life by the esteemed Japanese architecture and lighting virtuoso Tadao Ando. However, Casa Wabi goes beyond its physical structure and embodies a profound concept that aims to promote cultural harmony between Japan and Mexico. Through the exchange of contemporary art between local communities in Puerto Escondido, Mexico City and Tokyo, Casa Wabi, or rather Fundación Casa Wabi, serves as a dynamic bridge between these two rich and diverse cultures.

The name Casa Wabi is in fact inspired by the Japanese aesthetic philosophy of Wabi-Sabi, which celebrates beauty and harmony in simplicity and imperfection. Sodi was introduced to wabi-sabi by his mother, which was his first encounter with Japan — a country he was to visit frequently thereafter. It was during one of his visits to Tokyo that he first encountered the work of Tadao Ando. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Roberto Behar & tea pavilions

It all began with film director Roberto Behar's deep admiration for Japanese tea pavilions. Having practised the tea ceremony himself for more than 30 years, he now passes on this ancient art to his fellow Mexicans in the tea pavilions he helped to build in Mexico City. Behar's journey began when he stumbled across a book about the tea ceremony while travelling through America in the 1980s. Intrigued, he spent eight years meticulously collecting materials from all over Mexico to recreate the design of a Taian pavilion depicted in the book. Working with experienced Mexican craftsmen, Behar realised his vision and created Bosen-an. From 1987, Behar honed the intricacies of the tea ceremony under the tutelage of Higurashi Soho, a respected teacher of the Urasenke school who was teaching in Mexico at the time.

Ryo Kan & Little Tokyo

The Ryo Kan, a unique hotel in the Cuauhtémoc district of Mexico City, is located in a neighbourhood affectionately known as … Little Tokyo. This area became a centre of Japanese culture following a wave of immigration after the Second World War.

True to its ethos, the Ryo Kan seamlessly blends local Mexican raw materials with Japanese design elements. The hotel's architecture is inspired by origami art, while the interiors feature tatami mats and fusuma sliding doors in rooms named after Japanese numbers (in keeping with Japanese superstition, there is no room numbered 4, as shichi also means death). Guests can wrap themselves in traditional yukata robes and relax in onsen baths on the terrace. Ryo Kan also offers meditation sessions with gongs and authentic tea ceremonies. Little Tokyo, with its numerous restaurants and bars such as Emilia Restaurante, Rokai Ramen and Hiyoko, makes the Japanese experience even more intense. In essence, Ryo Kan epitomises Japan in a Mexican context.

Wooden teapot from Fernando Laposse.