Nichi Bei Bussan: Cultural gems add a Japanese aesthetic to a home

SAN JOSE — From a few small accents to large renovations, and at all price points, there are many ways to incorporate a Japanese aesthetic into your home. The Nichi Bei Weekly caught up with Arlene Damron, who owns Nichi Bei Bussan in San Jose’s Japantown, to get tips and insights on incorporating the Japanese look and feel into your home.

If you’re looking to add a few touches to your already-existing décor, Damron suggests looking around your home for inspiration: “First, consider common household items you may already have, and try putting a new spin on how they are used. For example, a chawan (rice bowl) could be used to hold ice cream, candy, a fancy soap, or your car keys. Noren, or Japanese curtains, are beautiful when hung in doorways, walls, or used as room dividers for added privacy. A large Japanese folding fan ($39.95) or groups of smaller fans ($2.95-$99.95) could be used to adorn walls.”Japanese

JAPANESE BEDDING — Bedrooms can be transformed with Nichi Bei Bussan’s special order tatami bed frames for twin beds ($375) up to king size beds ($565). A Japanese kakefuton, or comforter and shikibuton, a Japanese mattress, are also available for purchase on special order.

JAPANESE BEDDING — Bedrooms can be transformed with Nichi Bei Bussan’s special order tatami bed frames for twin beds ($375) up to king size beds ($565). A Japanese kakefuton, or comforter and shikibuton, a Japanese mattress, are also available for purchase on special order.

Traditional Japanese obi, or sashes, can add dramatic flair to the home when used as décor. Damron says, “There are many different ways to drape and display obi. Obi ($175) or fabric to make obi ($9.95-$14.95 a yard) can be framed as-is, or sewn into beautiful zabuton covers, futon, shower curtains, or drapes. Vintage obi can also serve as decorative table runners or sewn into unique placemats.” To learn more about the ways to transform the obi, Damron suggests reading “Design with Japanese Obi,” by Diane Wiltshire and Ann Wiltshire, which has excellent decorating tips ($17.95). Not comfortable doing the sewing on your own? The store has an on-site seamstress who can work with you to create a unique, personalized accent piece.

Looking for other ways to add color and texture to a blank wall? In addition to obi, another option is to take a vintage kimono or uchikake, a wedding kimono, and use it as a signature accent piece to hang on a wall ($225-plus). Japanese scrolls with hand-painted scenes can also be used as wall décor, and many are quite affordable ($7.95-plus). Byobu, or vintage hand-painted silk panels, are lovely when wall-hung or even free-standing (from $400).

For more significant interior renovations or to transform a room, Damron suggests looking at different Japanese textures and materials: “Portable rolls of tatami goza ($39.95) or traditional tatami mats ranging in size ($195-plus) can bring a unique aesthetic to the flooring of any room in your home.”

Bedrooms can be transformed with Nichi Bei Bussan’s special order tatami bed frames for twin beds ($375) up to king size beds ($565). A Japanese kakefuton, or comforter and shikibuton, a Japanese mattress, are also available for purchase on special order starting at $395. For kids’ rooms, nylon koi (12”-7’ in length) traditionally associated with Boys’ Day can provide decorative and modern touches of Japanese culture. Pillows can also spruce up a room almost instantly, from sobakawa (buckwheat) options ($31.95-$54.95) for the bedroom, to accent pillows with Japanese motif fabric for the living room couch.

HOME DECOR — A home can be transformed by adding a kotatsu, a Japanese low table with a stove underneath ($450), a zaisu, folding seat ($39.95-plus),  a kimono, shoji screens, or byobu (Japanese folding screens) screens (left). photos courtesy of Arlene Damron

HOME DECOR — A home can be transformed by adding a kotatsu, a Japanese low table with a stove underneath ($450), a zaisu, folding seat ($39.95-plus), a kimono, shoji screens, or byobu (Japanese folding screens) screens (left).
photos courtesy of Arlene Damron

Updating a living room or common area can be accomplished by adding a kotatsu, or Japanese low table with a heating element ($450), a zaisu, folding seat ($39.95-plus), or elegant natural and black-toned bamboo screens, called shoji ($129.95-plus).

If you’re not sure where to get started, Damron suggests doing some research to get better acquainted with all the wonderful options available to you: “These books are great references for those seeking to incorporate Japanese items into their décor: “Japanese Accents in Western Interiors” by Peggy Landers Rao and Jean Mahoney ($29.95), and “Things Japanese” by Nicholas Bornoff and Michael Freeman ($24.95).”

Nichi Bei Bussan: A Family Legacy, A Cultural Gem
While many are familiar with the Nichi Bei Bussan storefront in San Jose’s Japantown, there is a history and unique family legacy that goes back generations. Damron, the store’s current owner, explains the history behind the store and the legacy it has retained within generations of her family.

In 1902, Shojiro Tatsuno, an immigrant from Nagano, Japan, opened Nichi Bei Bussan at 621 Dupont St., (later renamed Grant Avenue) in San Francisco. He sought a new life in America, arriving unable to speak English. He worked as a houseboy for eight or nine years and learned English. Working with American suppliers, Tatsuno opened a shop where he outfitted newly arriving kimono-clad Japanese with Western-style clothing.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Executive Order 9066 mandating the forced removal of Japanese Americans on the West Coast to concentration camps, Tatsuno’s storefront closed. His son, Dave, co-managed the cooperative department store in the Topaz (Central Utah) concentration camp.

Business resumed in 1946 when the family home was raised and the garage was expanded to create a store. The name was changed to “N.B. Department Store,” which was seemingly “less ethnic,” during a time of high tension towards Japanese Americans, says Damron. The store moved several times in San Francisco’s Japantown during city urban renewal projects.

Arlene Damron’s father, Dave Tatsuno, took over the store at that point. Damron noted, “Dad moved the business and family to San Jose, opening in July, 1948 following the sudden death of our eldest brother Sheldon, during a routine tonsillectomy. Following his service in the U.S. Army, Dad’s brother, Masateru (Tut) successfully managed the San Francisco store — an iconic Japantown institution — which closed in 1996 with his passing.”

The business returned to the original Nichi Bei Bussan name in 1973. When asked how the store’s inventory has changed through the years, Damron explains, “Merchandise evolved in response to our customers’ needs, from silk top hats, high-button shoes, and detachable collars for shirts (circa 1902), to NB department store ‘name brands,’ including Arrow, Pendleton, MacGregor, Ship ‘n Shore, Carter’s, Simplicity patterns, Maidenform and Jockey underwear, Hanes and Berkshire nylons, Cannon sheets and towels, Levi’s and Dickies (in short sizes for Japanese farmers, notes Damron), yarns, fabrics, Buster Brown children’s shoes, and some kimonos and giftware to our current iteration as a Japanese department store.”

Nichi Bei Bussan Today
Today, Nichi Bei Bussan offers kimono and accessories, Japanese giftware, martial art supplies, Asian-motif fabrics and patterns, futons, tatami beds and mats, cultural books, T-shirts, Nichi Bei Bussan-sewn aloha shirts, kapogi aprons, kimono tops, and custom-sewn futon, happi coats, noren, supplies for origami, mizuhiki and temari (stitched thread balls made with rice hulls). Nichi Bei Bussan’s monthly temari workshop has been ongoing for more than 25 years.

The store is also part museum, having collected many artifacts over time. Some of these historic items include: a 1911 San Francisco Japanese newspaper ad showing a silk top hat and shoes, an ad with detailed artwork and the original metal-engraved woodblock that printed it, a Nichi Bei Bussan $5 gift certificate redeemed 28 years after it was issued, handwritten customer registries (circa 1939-1940 during the Pan-Pacific Exposition at San Francisco’s Treasure Island), 1960s-era tabi priced at $1.79 ($29.95 currently), and posters from “Dave Tatsuno…Movies and Memories,” a KTEH documentary about Damron’s father. Finally, and perhaps most valuable to Damron, “These Amazing Shadows,” a 2011 documentary about the Library of Congress’ film archives and the importance of film preservation, which included her father’s film “Topaz,” the only unauthorized private film ever made in an American concentration camp during World War II. “Topaz” was accepted into the registry in 1996.
 
One-of-a-Kind Items and Vintage ‘Cherishables’
Perhaps what makes Nichi Bei Bussan so unique and so valuable to the community is the selection of one-of-a-kind Japanese vintage and consignment items. Damron said, “We began accepting consignments of kimono and accessories, dishes, dolls, and more over 16 years ago. We have acquired items from customers, families, and community nonprofits like the (San Jose) Buddhist Church, Wesley United Methodist Church and Yu-Ai Kai. These items enable our customers to purchase one-of-a-kind, often no longer made, ‘cherishables.’ It’s re-purposing and recycling at its best; it’s appropriate that a vintage store also sells vintage items.”

When asked what the first consignment items were, Damron responded with fondness, “A custom-made complete kendo bogu set was our first consignment, followed by a full-size hina matsuri Girl’s Day doll set.”

While many may prefer “cherishables” to be used only on special occasions, due to their value or fine quality, Damron feels differently: “People should use their ‘cherishables,’ or items we often think are ‘too nice’ for everyday use. It is the ultimate “mo-tai-nai” (wasteful) that these beautiful items, which were created with great skill and craftsmanship, are not used. After all, there might be a Loma Prieta, a Katrina, a Super(storm) Sandy…and all might be lost. Instead, Damron suggests, “Don’t “dai-ji” (take care of) your cherished items for the wrong reasons.

Let them be used and let your children, families and loved ones enjoy using your cherishables with you.”

*Note: prices and price ranges listed above are for items that can be purchased at the store.

Nichi Bei Bussan is located at 140 Jackson St. in San Jose’s Japantown, and can be reached at (408) 294-8048 or nbstore.com.

Nichi Bei Bussan hours of operation: Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Open on festival Sundays, including Nikkei Matsuri and Obon and Sundays in December prior to Christmas from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Open Obon practice nights until 7:15.

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