Consumed: The Japan Brand
For Yuka and Kaz Morihata, the business of selling towels is close to home
There is little separation between work and play for Yuka and Kaz Morihata, owners of Morihata International Ltd. Co., a wholesale business and retail shop in the Spring Garden section selling products that marry traditional Japanese craftsmanship with modern design. The couple, who met as undergrads at the Rhode Island School of Design, now live with their 3-year-old son in a loft apartment above the eponymous store that they opened in fall 2010. (The wholesale business has been around since 2005.) "We use every product we sell," says Yuka. "You have to test it yourself to be confident other people are going to love it."
Consumed by: The Yoshii towels they've exclusively repped since they were introduced to the American market in 2008 are woven cotton on one side and terry cloth on the other. They're made in Imabari, which is about a 10-hour drive from Tokyo, where Kaz and Yuka grew up. This region has been producing high-end towels for more than a century and is the birthplace of the certification of Towel Sommelier.
Yoshii towels are stacked on a bench and hung on pegs in the Morihatas' pine-plank-lined bathroom — towels that arrive at the store with a slight imperfection are sent upstairs. With every year of use, the family becomes more attached. "The longer we live with them," Yuka says, "the easier they are to explain to our customers."
Different Strokes: "In the U.S., five-star hotels give you thick, terry-cloth bath towels and call that luxury," says Yuka. "Here, bigger is better. Thicker is better." The Morihatas used to use Ralph Lauren towels. "They were awful," says Yuka. "They got rougher with each washing." Yoshii towels have the heft of a dish towel and their dimensions are small by American standards. These differences make the towels a hard sell — until people hold them up to their cheeks.
Refreshed by Design: The couple discovered Yoshii at a Manhattan exhibit and trade fair called Japan Brand. According to the manufacturer's description of its process, the cotton is treated better than a bride-to-be on her spa day. The threads are "puffed," "massaged," "combed," and bleached, all gently and without chemicals.
"The techniques are amazing, but they needed a good designer to elevate the product," says Yuka. "Because the Japan Brand effort was government-funded, they could finally afford one." Textile designer Maho Ukai adopted the visual language of men's button-down shirts — stripes, tricolor chambray, and polka dot.
"Japanese-ness": Yuka came to the United States at age 15 and returned to Tokyo at 30. "During those years," she says, "I felt I was missing something." When she came back to the United States to join Kaz, she knew she didn't want to continue in architecture and interior design. "I had learned about so many traditional techniques, and some were dying," she says. "I thought maybe I can help import them."
The towels evoke the quality of the "Japanese-ness" she has an eye for, but finds difficult to define. "It's something that — if you really look closely or start using the product — you can tell it's rooted in Japan," she says. "Like the towels: They don't look Japanese, but once you start using them, you can tell they're different. There's so much care taken with the details."