Shibuya’s Tomigaya neighborhood is undoubtedly one of the capital’s buzziest areas choc-a-bloc with cool cafés, restaurants, bookstores and bars. Namechecked by pretty much every style magazine in the world, it has become a refuge for hipsters and aficionados of taste. Add to this list the very pretty and Insta-friendly JAU (Japan Australia United) store which opened a few years back on a quiet residential street away from the central hub of Tomigaya. Run by the very affable Sonny Mai, it has quickly become a hub for expat Aussies and those with a penchant for Australian design. Tokyo’s only Australian design store, JAU packs its little space with the coolest and most elegant designs that the country has to offer. 

Mai, who trained and has a background in engineering and specifically as a software architect, first came to Japan around five years ago. He essentially eloped after seeing Sigur Ros play at Fuji Rock. Quitting his job in Australia, he decided to prolong his stay here and thought more about how he could fuse his passion for Japan, Australia and design.

“When I was living in Australia, I got my own apartment after graduating and I wanted to deck it out nicely, so I did a lot of research on design blogs and came across a lot of Australian designers,” says Mai. “I was actually surprised at the amount of creative talent in Australia at the time. I thought that probably most of the things I’d buy would be Scandinavian or Japanese. I really like Japanese design. At that time, I ended up bookmarking a lot of these Australian designers. I bought some things but not a lot because it was still quite expensive. When I moved to Japan and during my time here, I thought about how to merge my love of both countries together.”

With JAU, Mai showcases some of the best designs and brands to come out of Australia. When most people think of Aussie products, they naturally think of luxury cosmetics brand Aesop, which has launched its way to global success. Mai, on the other hand, sees a lot more potential coming from his homeland and insists on dispelling the preconceived notions that come hand in hand with being labeled as Australian.

“Our country isn’t just about nature and kangaroos and the beaches,” he says. “We have sophisticated design too. Australia hasn’t managed to get its own platform on the world stage yet, although our designs have become more popular in the US and some parts of Europe recently.” 

He explains that Australian culture revolves around chatting, getting to know one another and creating a relaxed atmosphere, which is why JAU has become a meeting place for regular customers who want to talk with the staff about the designs on offer and the narratives behind the designers and brands. Visitors are greeted with complimentary coffee and wine and can stay for as long as they like and engage with the staff and other customers. With a series of popups planned for this year at Takashimaya in Nihonbashi, Hankyu in Osaka and in Isetan, which already stock JAU products, Mai is pleasantly surprised at the speed of success. He is also plotting projects with renowned Japanese fashion brand Urban Research and is enthused about the recognition the store is receiving. 

When asked about the aesthetics involved in Australian design, he explains: “Australia doesn’t really have its own aesthetic, mainly because it’s a mix of aesthetics due to it being a very multicultural country. So, the design influences there come from a lot of different places in the world, which makes it unique. But it’s also a bit more playful and relaxed, which sometimes challenges conventional design. Australia is also very far away from other countries, so you’re really limited by resources. The manufacturing scene there isn’t as big as other countries. To make the best of what you have, you have to push the boundaries.”