40.7128° N, 74.0060° W
‘NYC isn’t a place, it’s a relationship. Your heart is always connected.’
Gems in this
Growing up in Tokyo, Eri Miyagi always felt like an outlier. So she set out to find her community, leading her to a life of design, creativity and good food in New York City.
Her quest for community has taken Eri everywhere from boarding school in Canada to high school in North Carolina, before eventually landing in NYC. When she was a teenager, her interest in a creative career led her to make a 7.00 am cold call to legendary Japanese designer Kenya Hara. He answered and offered her work. Since then, Eri has designed for Fortune 500 companies, luxury brands and most recently, herself. She launched her own design studio and co-founded Cabi Foods, a fun range of Japanese pantry staples. We caught up with Eri to chat about launching Cabi Foods, what it means to be a ‘third-culture kid’, and her favorite spots in her adopted home.
On finding your place in the world
Growing up in Tokyo, I was always an outlier. When I was 14, I felt like I truly didn't fit into the Japanese school system and convinced my parents to let me attend school internationally. I went to a boarding school in Canada for about a year, but that winter it rained for 60 days straight! I am a child of the sun so I began to look for alternative schools. During that time, my father met a teacher from North Carolina who taught at one of the oldest all girls’ schools in America, and she suggested I attend her school. It was a very progressive school with feminism at its core and a large international student population. I met many beautiful–souled people from the South and made friends with students from places like Germany and South Korea.
On choosing a career in design
During the winter semester of high school, we were required to find an internship in an industry we were interested in learning more about. I always wanted to be in the creative field and decided to cold call the office of Kenya Hara, the Art Director of MUJI in Tokyo. I called at 7.00 am Tokyo time, which was early enough that no one was in the office yet except Mr. Hara. He happened to answer the phone himself and said, ‘We don't usually hire high school students but what are the chances that I would answer your call? It’s meant to be. You should come here and learn’. And so I went!
On learning the discipline of design
As far back as I can remember, I was more comfortable expressing myself visually over any other means of communication. During this internship, I learned immensely about the discipline and practice of design. It evolved my ideas of visual expression into meditative processes. For example, we would work on stacks and stacks of papers –- redrawing a logo hundreds of times. The goal was to explore every option you could imagine through a stepped process. At the end, when you felt that your design was complete, you could look back at your hundreds of designs to see your evolution of thought.
On choosing NYC
After I finished high school in North Carolina, I set my sights on New York City for college. Although I loved the diversity of people that my high school had, I missed the energy of Tokyo. I’m an extrovert so I thrive in busier, bustling environments. NYC had the energy and diversity that I craved all in one place.
On creating community
I attended the Pratt Institute’s orientation week for international students and met many of the friends I still have today. We shared a similar experience of coming to NYC from somewhere in the world with an open mind of meeting new people and learning about each other.
‘Because you don’t feel like you fit in anywhere, you create your own culture to belong to.’
On the first place you discovered in NYC
Mike’s Coffee Shop in Clinton Hill is right next to Pratt, making it a popular spot for students to eat their hangover breakfasts. I didn’t grow up with diner food so I fell quickly for an egg, bacon and cheese sandwich on an English muffin. Apparently, Spike Lee also eats here because it's close to his studio.
On being a third-culture kid
I’m what they call a ‘third-culture kid’, which means I don’t feel like I belong to a specific culture because of my multinational upbringing. When you don’t feel like you fit into a particular culture, you create your own culture to belong to. My friends and I shared the experience of creating our own culture based on our childhood values, international schooling and new lives in NYC.
On being a true New Yorker
After graduating from school, I learned you have to be focused and sharp to survive in NYC, even in the way you walk. You gotta be like, ‘Excuse me!’...you know? Because the thing is, if you're not sharp, you’ll be taken advantage of by someone who is sharp. You have to stand up and be there for yourself in all aspects of your life if you live in this city. Sometimes it can be a bit like Mortal Kombat. It's always interesting who survives!
On where you find creative inspiration in the city
In general, I love The Noguchi Museum and I also get ideas and inspiration from walking through a farmer’s market or jogging around the city. I love seeing the details of the city — like a shop sign or a hair clip someone is wearing on the subway.
‘I love seeing the details of the city — like a shop sign or a hair clip someone is wearing on the subway.’
On your relationship with NYC
NYC isn’t a place, it's a relationship. If you leave, you’re breaking up with the city instead of just moving away. And just like a breakup, you miss the person more than the details of the relationship. That’s NYC. Your heart is always connected to this place.
On your newest venture
My business partner and I wanted to share the experience and taste of traditional Japanese home cooking with everyone. I’ve found that when I’m trying to cook different cuisines, I always end up buying so many spices and condiments that I only use once or twice for a specific dish. We wanted to give everyone the ability to create the flavor complexity that’s in Japanese dishes without the hassle. Right now, we’re launching with three sauces: Sweet Yuzu Vinegar; Zesty Sansho Peppercorn Miso; and Umami Dashi Soy Sauce; that can be used as an entire dressing or final touch to a home meal.
On naming and visualizing Cabi
Every Japanese condiment has a base of koji, which is mold or bacteria. We originally thought the name ‘Mold’ could work but worried that people would be grossed out by a ‘mold’ sauce. Instead, we went with ‘Cabi’ which means mold in Japanese. Then, traditional Japanese design is amazingly crafted with precise, well-measured details and open, white space. Although it’s a beautiful design approach, it can often feel unapproachable and cold. I wanted Cabi’s branding to be relatable and warm — just like a home-cooked meal.
On what drives you to travel
Food and history are big parts of what inspires me to travel. For example, I would love to visit Pompeii because of its history and how quickly it developed as a culture. I find it fascinating that when Pompeii was fully developed, Japan was still in its hunter-gatherer Jōmon era. How can these places be so different developmentally at the same time in history? That’s what I love to learn about when I travel.
‘Traveling grounds me; it gives me a perspective on my place in the world.’
On gaining perspective through travel
Travel makes you more humble. Over and over again. As designers, we exist in a bubble. We are serving certain types of people in a community that has particular views and goals. Sometimes it can be hard to expose yourself to different views and life experiences. Traveling grounds me; it gives me a perspective on my place in the world.
On the word ‘authentic’
Authentic is such a weird word. What is authentic to me might be different to you. Like tacos al pastor were created by Lebanese immigrants when they migrated to Mexico, did you know that? As the world gets smaller and cultures are shared and overlap — what is authentic to a place?
On the best places to eat and drink with friends
I have a few recommendations for this: Tonchin for the best Japanese appetizers and ramen in town, Birds of a Feather for casual, no-fuss Chinese with a large group. If you want a dinner spot with a good playlist, go to Kings Co Imperial. You can have the best pre-dinner drinks at The Bowery Hotel or The Long Island Bar. For a fun late night, there's a divey bowling bar called The Gutter. In my opinion, The Four Horsemen in Williamsburg is hands down the best restaurant in New York. It’s hard to get a reservation here, so on the weekend I suggest going in the late afternoon to see if you can pop in. Then Rucola is a nice and homey restaurant on a quiet street in Brooklyn, by my apartment. I love sitting inside in the winter and outside in the summer when the weather is nice in the evening.
‘I honestly love the burnt taste of bodega coffee. Not sure if this is a very good recommendation but it’s my truth!’
On where to find the best coffee
I just love bodega coffee, especially in the winter. I honestly love the burnt taste of bodega coffee. Not sure if this is a very good recommendation but it’s my truth!
On a window or an aisle seat
Window. I love to see the place I’m traveling to from a bird’s eye view.
On a song that best represents NYC for you
‘Empire State of Mind’ [by Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys]. I know that’s everyone’s answer but it was released the year I moved to NYC so it feels very personal.
On NYC in one word