We had some critical comments on our last piece about beautiful – but not quite eco-conscious – PET bottle design in Japan! You were very right, beloved reader. Nevertheless, we still feel compelled to introduce you to just a few exceptional packages, which at least allude to flowers, fruits… or bottles resembling bamboo. Imitating is a recurring phenomenon in Japanese packaging design. So today, PingMag exposes you to some of the original packaging these imitations are derived from and the fascinating forms they’ve taken on since.
Written by Bianca Beuttel
We have to stress this: Nature and its connotations play a key role in Japanese aesthetics. Imitation per se isn’t disapproved of here; the difference provides a degree of abstraction. If you remember the example of the package looking like a Morning Glory, you realise its concept: It acts as a flower while remaining nothing else than packaging. It’s skillful craft and amazing creativity evoke imagination.
Unquestionably, among the most amazing examples are those made of natural materials such as bamboo, straw or wood. Many are collected in the famous How to Wrap Five More Eggs by Hideyuki Oka. He bemoans the disappearing of these packages – and admittedly, we couldn’t find the prominent egg wrapping depicted on the book’s cover. However, keep an eye out at department store food markets, at The Garden – or rely on coincidence. We purchased the example below at a temporary stall at Tokyo’s Iidabashi station:
Simplicity And Functionality
The intriguing nature of these packages is their simplicity, functionality, and beauty! Hideyuki Oka characterizes them as packaging born out of necessity meant to preserve food and make it easily portable, made of whatever material found at hand in the rural areas of their origin.
… and the unwrapped “sasa-dango:” The green colour of the dumplings derives from yomogi (mugwort) mixed into the dough.
The leaves are used as they are, from the tip to the stalk. Only a single thread of straw ties up each piece! A second try is impossible… Oka explains further: “Such packages were not products of contemplation, nor yet of theory. They assumed their shapes over years and years of unconscious use and experimentation.”
Some of these traditional packages are limited to seasons, for example mizu-yokan, soft azuki bean jelly, filled in a bamboo tube – a delicacy in hot sweaty summers!
Then we have bamboo:
Bamboo is naturally divided into sections and here it ingeniously functions as the mould and the container for the jelly as well. Efficient! Amazing! Perfect!
But to temper the delight: There is an extra tool required to make the yokan slip out of its container. This involves additional effort:
In contrast, the plastic replica is easier to open:
This fake bamboo package has a clever built-in air escape. Nevertheless, it lacks its model’s beauty and is not recyclable.
This chimaki sushi is as carefully enveloped in cellophane as it is wrapped into bamboo grass leaves. Traditional Japanese packaging requires manual labour. An effort that makes it rare or rather expensive.
Once upon in the countryside, farmers started selling lunch sets to train travellers passing by: They prepared onigiri, rice balls, with pickled radish and wrapped them in bamboo sheaths. Whether fact or fiction – today’s lunch sets still refer to this origin.
No wonder the bamboo sheath has become a symbol for unadorned rustic freshness. It not only transfers its aroma to the rice inside, but also its natural, i.e. unaltered, trustworthy charm.
The replica today:
In order to benefit from this and increase efficiency, the today’s bamboo sheath’s texture is often simply printed on the wrapper. See for the lunch box (below) offering mackerel sushi, which is – according to its long but poetic product name – grilled on Wakasa beach and delivered by Michiko.
What a delicious dish! But all these sealed bags appear counterproductive to the intended impression of natural freshness. Furthermore, it contradicts the concept of Japanese packaging design, which celebrates the moment of unwrapping.
On The Surface
Today, as symbols of convenience, cleanness and control, all kinds of plastics may be closer at hand than any other material. However, they lack beauty and warmth. To compensate, many packages borrow from nature and traditional craft.
Those polystyrene trays are cladded with fake wood hold fish or meat for an every day meal. Though often regarded as poor imitation, it illustrates the Japanese need to enrich even ordinary things with a pleasant touch. These trays disguise their actual material quite well– but also suspiciously conceal their impact on the environment.
Pictured above is the most common way natto (fermented soybeans) is packaged nowadays in Japan – in a bowl of polystyrene foam. Since the healthy natto is pretty popular, it leaves us with an enormous pile of polystyrene waste. One slight glimmer of hope are the re-useable ‘Eco Style Cup Noodles’ cups we recently showed you…
Straw as natural packaging? It can be described as natto’s ‘processing’ packaging: Natto is made from steamed soybeans fermented with a culture of Bacillus subtilis natto – which is naturally found in rice straw.
Despite natto being still available in these straw packages, a method to produce a starter culture in the laboratory replaces this natural process and therefore makes other packaging materials possible. Still, it doesn’t have to be necessarily polystyrene foam*
This special natto comes from the Kujigawa area in Ibaraki. Its wrapper is folded into a boat to remind us of ferryboats crossing the river. How romantic! And although the outer wrapper is made of paper imitating wood texture, the natto inside is wrapped in the shaving of natural wood.
Actually, a triangular shape makes convincing sense: It causes a change of direction so that the shaving is wrapped around every edge:
This unique natto is wrapped in a thin wood shaving too. Similar to the bamboo grass, this is another method to add aroma. Note: These delicate interactions between the wrapped and the wrapper define the unique irreplacable quality of natural materials. To appeal to all our senses!
Original Vs. Imitation – Together!
At first, this food souvenir from Nagano prefecture combines a mixture of odd choices: From the picture on the right, you may not be sure whether the cord handle is real or fake. It is not only a combination of both, but also features an eco-conscious element: Reed!
Pay attention to the bowl. It was covered by a foil picturing a basket woven from split bamboo – another traditional packaging emphasising rustic simplicity. [See a natural one we already showed you.]
Bamboo, like reed, is a fast growers. It can be composted and return to crop-soil-cycle – and both materials were used for the bowl. Also, grown on the shore or riverbanks, reed doesn’t compete for acreage with the food crop – as do plants grown for biodiesel. As an alternative to plastics worth keeping in mind.
Bonus: Imitation Serving As Indication
Avocado ripeness “indicator:” Seen at a COOP supermarket in Tokyo.
Sometimes, the imitation becomes a clever and helpful trick itself: The label (left) reflects the skin colour of a ripe, ready-to-eat avocado. Through the cut-out you can compare it directly with the current colour of the fruit. Nifty!
Astounding, isn’t it? We so want to see many more creative ideas that give nature an intelligent twist for our environmental-conscious century!