How a young designer couple finds inspiration on a small Japanese island

Yakushima, Japan – After several years spent living and working in some of North America’s most desirable cities, including Portland and San Francisco, Yoshiko and Eric decided to move to Japan. But rather than opting for Tokyo, they chose Yakushima ­– a subtropical island off the southern coast of Kyushu. Attracted by the relaxed vibe and entrepreneurial spirit of the island, and Yoshiko’s family history in the area, the pair have found here a simpler, slower life, allowing for more time to pursue the things that matter to them most – family, friends and creative freedom.

What brought you to Yakushima?
ERIC VIVIAN: After five years in San Francisco our first daughter Miyako was born. We had been thinking about moving to Japan for a little while, and having a child made us crave somewhere a little simpler to call home. So we thought, ‘why not Yakushima?’ Yoshiko’s dad grew up here and after retiring he and his wife moved back. Having family close by would be a huge help, and at the same time we could be close to the island’s awesome nature.

YOSHIKO SHIMONO: Raising our child in a big city didn’t make sense to us anymore. Hustling, taking her to daycare, rushing to work, working really hard, rushing to pick her up again, and then feed her and put her to bed. I was like, ‘what are we doing this for?’ I wanted to have more time for her. I wanted a more flexible schedule.

EV: Yakushima seemed a great place to relax a little bit, to experiment and try out new things. It would allow us to focus on our own creative projects. We didn't want to be someone’s employees anymore. We had visited Yakushima a few times, but it still felt a little risky. You don’t get the vibe right away. We didn’t know what we were getting into. Eventually we moved, two years ago.

What made you crave a simpler life?
EV: Our life was really hectic. Trying to juggle work demands and childcare was quite challenging. I also started to feel weighed down by all our possessions. When you have the space you just fill it up. Before we moved here we had a big clearing out. We had to learn how to get rid of stuff. It felt so good to see it leave the house – we pretty much sold everything.
YS: Instead of owning a lot, we just wanted to have quality things. If you’re surrounded by things you love, you take better care of them and they will last longer.

Can you describe what your work life looks like?
EV: We have a studio together. This year we had a lot of graphic design projects and I’ve been doing most of the design work. Yoshiko does a lot of strategy and project management. My Japanese is pretty basic, so she has to write all the emails [laughs]. We’re also spending our creative energy on doing our own products. We want to build a guesthouse – we want to build a place for our friends and other visitors to stay.

Have you succeeded in having a more flexible schedule?
YS: Yes, definitely. Life is less stressful. It’s a much healthier environment for me in that sense.
EV: With setting up our own creative business we are more in charge of our time. It allows me to go surfing when there are waves, and if I feel like going for a run I just do it.

Do you have many Japanese clients?
EV: When we first moved here I was still working for clients in the United States. Now we have a network here in Yakushima, so we mainly work for businesses based on the island. A lot of our friends here are trying to do their own thing. You kind of have to – there are no jobs here. It has been great having direct access to the people that own these businesses. You’re not dealing with a big corporate structure.

In the city there’s an immediate response to everything while here you need to learn to go with the flow

Do you feel there is more freedom to experiment?
EV: I think so. I have the opportunity to try new things. You just have to create your own fun things to do. Here, if we want something like that we have to make it ourselves. I started VJing for a friend of mine, who is a DJ and throws regular parties. It’s something I had never done before, but it’s really fun.
YS: It’s such a small community, but there is a lot going on. People are really good at creating their own events. There’s a great DIY spirit.

How easy did you find it to connect with the local community?
YS: I felt it was easier than in San Francisco.
EV: I wasn’t really pounding the pavement to find design work. It just all happened very organically, which was cool. For example, the first time I went surfing here one of the locals started chatting to me. His English was really good, and he had been a sushi chef in Los Angeles for a while. He told me he was doing a new restaurant, and I explained that I had just moved here and that I was a designer. I gave him my business card, and two months later he asked me to do the logo and signage for his restaurant. We just connected and we had a lot in common. Now it is one of the best restaurants in town and has become such a hub for the community. We’re getting a lot of work through that network. And he has also become one of our best friends.

It sounds like there’s quite a big creative scene on the island.
YS: The Fukushima earthquake prompted a lot of people to rethink their lives. People moved to Yakushima because they were looking for clean water, they wanted to move away from the city with their kids. There are some people who grew up and have always lived here, but there are quite a few who have lived all over the place and travelled the world. They’ve been exposed to urban life and want to bring some of that creative culture to the island.

Do you feel you can bring something new to the area?
EV: The experience of working in Portland and San Francisco is certainly a plus. I think clients like that about us. However, you can’t just transplant a trend from the city to here. I think it’s more about our approach or our thinking that is a little bit more contemporary.
YS: We can bring a new perspective to the island. Our clients sometimes don’t know how to utilise the branding we’ve created for their own business. If we can do a good job we can lead by example. It might allow us to attract more customers and hopefully the local economy will benefit as well.

How does living here affect your creativity?
EV: The thing I’m getting better at is to not overthink things. Before I would always revise and question my work. Maybe it is because there are not so many eyes on it here. I just do what feels good and put it out there. It’s fun to get into launch mode faster.
YS: We try not to spend too much time on upfront strategy and research – not to overanalyse. That often brings the best result. Mostly we work directly with business owners so we just brainstorm together. The process is a lot simpler.

I can imagine this direct way of working is quite rewarding.
YS: It’s nice, but the downside is not everybody knows what design is all about either.
EV: A marketing director who’s had all this training is totally different to somebody who just wants to open a restaurant or something. They’ve never thought about their target audience or things like that. We do a lot of client education and they appreciate that too.

What have you found most challenging about living in Yakushima?
YS: In the city there’s an immediate response to everything. You’re used to instant gratification. Here you need to learn to go with the flow.
EV: Weather on a subtropical island can be extreme – this is the rainiest place in Japan. I never had to put up storm windows for a typhoon before, for example.

What are your plans for the future?
YS: We want to get the guesthouse going and use our creativity for our own products. We hope to inspire others and show that there’s an alternative way of living.
Another idea is to create a new guidebook for Yakushima in English, or maybe even bilingual. Since Japan has a big souvenir culture, we also want to create souvenirs made from local ingredients or materials.
EV: Yakushima has a slow, quiet way of life. It’s easy to get lazy. It’s important to keep yourself motivated and just keep going [laughs].

This piece was originally featured in City Quitters. You can purchase a copy here.

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