Design NORI, squares of seaweed (nori in Japanese) carefully crafted into intricate and beautiful designs, have been gaining attention both in Japan and overseas. Currently featured in KATAGAMI STYLE, a 19th century Japanese stencil artwork exhibition being held at the Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum in Tokyo until May 27, they’re going for 840 yen (10 USD) a piece and are currently sold out, the museum unable to keep up with a flood of inquiries.

How did this ‘designer seaweed’ come into being? We visited the Umino Seaweed Shop in Ibaraki Prefecture and spoke with creator Umino Hiroyuki (32) to find out.

RocketNews24: First, could you tell us about Umino Seaweed Shop?
Hiroyuki: This business was originally started by my grandfather, who moved here from Miyagi Prefecture. My father succeeded him and is currently president. As for myself, I moved back here from Tokyo 3 years ago so that I could take over.

RocketNews24: What do you sell?
Hiroyuki: All sorts of seaweed, especially wakame. We don’t sell online. Mostly wholesale, some retail. Of course you can buy at this location also.

RocketNews24: Why did you develop ‘Design NORI’?
Hiroyuki: Japanese people are eating less seaweed than before and I wanted to do something about the decline in demand, make some waves in a positive way. I wanted people to know how interesting and appealing seaweed is, not to mention delicious.

RocketNews24: What kind of seaweed do you use for ‘Design NORI’?
Hiroyuki: We use seaweed from the Sanriku area of Miyagi (the northwestern coast of Japan’s main island). This seaweed is thick, has luster, and is very delicious. It doesn’t stick and it enhances other ingredients. Thin seaweed is too weak to be used for Design NORI.

RocketNews24: What do you do with the leftover seaweed clippings from the laser cutter?
Hiroyuki: We’re thinking of selling them as separate sets, or else as furikake (dry toppings that you sprinkle over rice). We don’t want to waste anything!

RocketNews24: We heard that Design Nori is created using laser cutting. Do you do that here in-store?
Hiroyuki: No. We started out working with foreign advertising agency I&S BBDO, but currently we’re outsourcing elsewhere. Also, the production process is similar to manual labor, so the cost is high.

RocketNews24: Would it be possible to see the production process?
Hiroyuki: Sorry, but where we make it and other details are top secret (laughs). This isn’t likely to change in the future. We’re using some special laser cutting technology. I can’t say anything more specific, though.

RocketNews24: Are there ever errors in production?
Hiroyuki: The material breaks if the designs are too fine, so we cut until as far as we can and then stop.

RocketNews24: Would it be possible for us to order ‘Design NORI’?
Hiroyuki: Currently, all of our sales are by order only, and this can only be done at the KATAGAMI STYLE exhibition.

RocketNews24: You don’t have any e-commerce or online stores, correct?
Hiroyuki: Correct. But we do have up-to-date information on Facebook, so you should check that out.

RocketNews24: From which country are you getting the most inquiries?
Hiroyuki: Surprisingly, a majority of the inquiries are from overseas, especially Europe. I think the news spread from Asia first. We won Best of Show for Design Lotus at Adfest in Thailand. It may have taken off from there.

RocketNews24: Did you imagine the response would be this big?
Hiroyuki: I never imagined. It’s a real surprise.

RocketNews24: So, ‘Design NORI’ is hot domestically and abroad. What would you like to see happen from here?
Hiroyuki: I hope a lot of different people will eat it! Accordingly, the foremost thing we need to focus on is lowering the cost. Then I’d like to be able to produce it on a large scale, the sooner the better.

Despite speaking with us for over an hour, Mr. Umino’s smile never wavered. Another thing: it seems that there’s no accurate word in other parts of the world for ‘nori’. Some call it “seaweed paper”, others, “seaweed”. Mr. Umino hopes that people will settle on using “nori”, and that the Japanese term will spread throughout the world.

[ Read in Japanese ]