Welcome to Liberdade, the world’s biggest Japantown that’s in Brazil

Tamara Hinson finds out why the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo has such strong Japanese ties

Thursday 26 September 2019 12:52
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East meets Latin America at the Japanese market in Sao Paulo
East meets Latin America at the Japanese market in Sao Paulo

I’m sitting in a beautiful, wood-clad building, watching a lady slide long-stemmed blooms into a vase while explaining the basics of Japanese flower arranging. The lady might look Japanese, but she’s Brazilian, descended from migrants who swapped East Asia for South America in the early 1900s. The workshop is one of many events organised by Japan House, an institute run by the Japanese government and designed to provide an insight into Japanese culture.

This building in Sao Paulo, created by the architect behind Tokyo’s Olympic stadium, is clad in Japanese wood, and interior walls are lined with Japanese washi paper. On a first floor patio, above the palm tree-lined Paulista Avenue – the city’s main artery – there’s a tiny bamboo forest, and on the ground floor, near Japan House’s café, a library filled with books which visitors are invited to borrow. The beautifully-curated gift shop is a treasure trove of Japan’s best bits – woodblock prints, origami kits and Japanese tableware.

Although there are Japan Houses in other countries, Sao Paulo’s has the strongest ties with Japan. Marcelo Araujo, its president, tells me that he has regular meetings with Japan’s consulate general in Sao Paulo and that it’s the only city with connections to every Japanese prefecture. “Some thought that the Japan House should be in the Liberdade neighbourhood,” admits Araujo. “But Paulista Avenue is the city’s heart, and this place is for everyone.”

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