Bonjour Tokyo or Kon’nichiwa Paris?

By Mariachiara Ficarelli

The Japanese teahouse Toraya, found on a side street close to Place de La Concorde, is not cheap. You do not need to look at the prices on the menu to know this. The way the shop displays its sweets makes it obvious enough.

Wagashi, traditional Japanese sweets created with a sticky rice base, are placed in displays in the floor-to-ceiling windows of the storefront. They are molded into flowers and come in a palette of baby colors. Each one of these tiny, edible delights is placed on its own ceramic plate. The plate matches the color of the sweet it carries to the exact shade.

The sweets rival the lavish presentation of tartes aux fruits frais and bonbons found in the window exhibits of Sebastien Gaudard’s Patisserie des Martyrs. The wagashi are so sumptuous in their design that they could find a home alongside the jeweled accessories in Paris’s high-end designer boutiques.

While a delight to the eyes, the treats are not a delight to the wallet. A single sweet costs €5.50. Nevertheless, Toraya has found its niche market. The “bobos”- bourgeoisie bohemians- of Paris inhabit the sleek, wood paneled interior. Embracing a chic cosmopolitan lifestyle, these young, and upper class Parisians flock to teahouses such as Toraya.

Yet, the French embrace of Japanese culture is not new or exclusive to the “bobos”. The Japanese presence in Paris extends far beyond hip teahouses. Since the early 17th century, France and Japan have been engaged in a strong cultural trade. Monet, Degas, and Gauguin took inspiration from Japanese art, creating a new art style: Japonisme.

This century old Japanese presence pervades the city of Paris. A photography book on Japan lies hidden in a stack of books sold by one of the Bouquinistes along the banks of the Seine. Kimonos hang on a rack in the Kilo Shop, a thrift store in Saint-Germain.

There is no need to break a thrifty, university student budget at Toraya in order to find a piece of Japan in Paris.

 A second hand photography book on Japan. Photo by Mariachiara Ficarelli. 

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