“I get like 300 images,” she says. “And I'm just swiping. This is good, this is not good. It’s very manual.” And as she swipes Miyagi is searching for new pieces to feature in her store, 696 NYC.
696 is a place for carefully curated ceramics, vessels, and objects by selected Japanese craftsmen and designers. Every piece it stocks is painstakingly tracked down by Miyagi — a Japanese-native who lives in New York — via her friends who visit the craft fares in Japan's countryside communities.
Miyagi founded 696 when she noticed there was a lot of interest and demand for high-quality Japanese goods in New York. “As soon as people see pieces are from Japan or handmade in Japan they’re interested, but they don't actually know how it's made or where in the country it comes from,” she explains.
Alongside helping more people to discover and understand the work of Japanese craftsmen, the 696 brand was founded with a mission to help people “appreciate the daily act of gathering around a table.”
Thinking back to her childhood, Miyagi recalls how special it felt to gather for dinners with family. Now she believes the ritual of gathering for meals at home is becoming more prominent in the lives of millennials and Gen Zers who are setting up homes. But often what’s missing is the connection between us and the objects we share our mealtimes with.
“You forget that when you're eating meals, those plates actually come from the ground,” explains Miyagi. “I feel like you really don't have that connection between the clay that people dig and then bring onto their wheel and make these products.”
And through telling the stories of the craftspeople who make the ceramics 696 sells Miyagi is hoping to help build a connection between her customers and the products, as well as creating opportunities to make mealtimes feel special and unique.
“When a meal is on a handcrafted plate people get more excited about what they're eating,” she explains. “They feel curious about where the plates are from, where the ingredients are from and what you're cooking. It becomes a conversation.”
Miyagi curates the pieces 696 sells specifically from countryside communities outside of Japan’s big cities. Many of these communities have rich histories of craft-making and their own unique ways of making pottery, tableware, and cookware. “Craftsmen in [the town of] Arita practice Arita pottery, and Gifu is famous for hand-making knives,” explains Miyagi. “Each part of the country has a specific style.”
However, many of these countryside communities are struggling with depopulation as younger generations move to the bigger cities. “Everyone is moving to Tokyo or Osaka and as the countryside empties out, the culture gets lost,” she says.
"Everyone is moving to Tokyo or Osaka and as the countryside empties out, the culture gets lost."
“Having people to stay in these communities and practice these skills is something that I really want to support. They're artists, they go into their studio, sit down for 15 hours a day just to make their products.”
The types of pieces Miyagi likes to curate are inspired by a book called The Beauty of Everyday Things. In the book, writer Soetsu Yanagi explains that objects are our constant companions at home and they should be made with care and built to last, treated with respect and even affection.
Miyagi seeks pieces that are natural, simple, sturdy, and importantly can change with us over time. “You can appreciate the changing of the faces of the pieces [we curate],” she says. “Sometimes whatever you're using looks or ages with you and I think that's pretty important. As you grow, you like them more, you feel more connected.”
At 696, you’ll find beautiful handmade pieces ranging from plates and bowls to pots, knives, and drinkware. And for Miyagi, every piece is curated to tell a story, “I want people to appreciate the pieces, to understand the passion that’s poured into making them,” she explains. “Without these stories and understanding, there’s no connection.”