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Bottling hipness: Japan ponders the true meaning of Portland

September 24,2016 | By The Economist
LANETTE FIDRYCH knew that people in Portland, Oregon, were obsessed with the tacky carpet at the city’s airport. Enraptured hipsters snap up everything from mousepads to underpants emblazoned with its dated 1980s design. But she had no idea that the carpet was almost as well known in Japan. When she landed in Tokyo carrying a water bottle bearing the same pattern, she was stopped by a dozen strangers on the street who, recognising the carpet, asked if she was from Portland. On hearing that she was, they went on to list the restaurants in Portland they most wanted to visit or the beers from Oregon they most liked.

In America, Portland is shorthand for trendiness run amok. In Japan, it is simply trendy. Ms Fidrych is the founder of Cycle Dog, a company which sells dog collars, leads and other paraphernalia made from recycled bicycle parts (the collars all have bottle openers attached). She was visiting Tokyo to participate in the third annual “Portland Popup”, at which Tokyoites can buy goods from Portland and learn about Portland’s way of life. Speeches this year included “Creative Entrepreneurs of Portland” and “What Tokyo Can Learn from Portland”. Yokohama and Osaka also hold similar events annually. Cycle Dog’s kit sells well at these shindigs, Ms Fidrych says.

Oshuushu, a popular Japanese blog, is dedicated entirely to beers from Oregon. The PDX Taproom opened less than a year ago in Tokyo’s fashionable Shibuya district (Portland’s airport code is PDX). The bar serves beer from Oregon only and has a small square of the famous carpet on the wall. Many eateries in Portland, rather than expanding in America, have decided to leap across the Pacific. Blue Star Donuts, which serves delicacies with names like Blueberry Bourbon Basil and Cointreau Creme Brulee, will soon have seven stores in Japan compared with six in America.

Teruo Kurosaki, author of a Japanese-language guidebook, “True Portland: Unofficial Guide for Creative People”, says Japanese are interested in Portland not just because of its nifty gadgets or funky food, but because of its “future vision”—a combination of individualism, enterprise and greenery. For those who chafe at Japan’s stale economy and hidebound culture, the image of young creative types, knitting old inner tubes into dog collars before cracking open a local brew, holds great allure.

Japan’s political leaders are even getting in on the act. The mayors of several small Japanese cities, which face gradual extinction if young people cannot be persuaded to stay instead of moving to Tokyo or Osaka, have been visiting Portland in search of ideas. Mitsuhiro Yamazaki, who works in Portland’s planning and development agency, has been invited to sprinkle some Portland magic over Aridagawa, a shrinking Japanese town, in part by redesigning a rural creche in a bid to persuade young women not to move away. He has not yet chosen a pattern for the carpet.

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