One way of showcasing your country to the world is to open a cultural hub. A place to nurture a deeper understanding and appreciation of your nation in the international community, a focus of enrichment to communicate your countless charms to the rest of the world. That's what Japan have done with a trio of hubs across three continents, one in Los Angeles, one in Sao Paulo and one on Kensington High Street. Turn right out of the tube station... M&S, H&M, Japan House.
Each hub features an exhibition space, a multi-purpose space with theater facilities, a retail space, food and drink, books, online connectivity, and a cafe space. The project merges together these functions, and the activities they enable, to introduce a variety of themes, in detail and with substance: the future of tradition, the passion of popular culture, the power of advanced technology, and the diverse appeal of Japanese food. Activities are designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, including those with no previous interest in Japan.
Japan House isn't a new building, rather a beautifully-converted shop. Until recently it was a Gap, and if you go way back, the corner of Derry & Toms. What it reminded me of was a small Apple store - open plan, tables of product, white and black decor, and a sleek spiral staircase corkscrewing down the centre. It's free to enter. The doorman is unfailingly polite. The counter immediately inside the entrance sells matcha tea. You'd expect nothing less.
Beyond the caff (and the comfy chairs), the rear half of the ground floor forms the shop. It's stocked not with Hello Kitty t-shirts but a curated collection of design-led manufactured goods (or as the Japanese call it, monozukuri). Everything oozes practicality and style. Goodies include bronze sake bowls, jointed wooden hangers, plaited bamboo boxes, kitchen graters and rainbow crayons. One manufacturer has brought over a complete set of accessories made from brown paper, including shoes, purses and handbags. If money is tighter, target the tenugui - a set of colourful multipurpose cloths.
Another focus is art, the inaugural exhibitor being architect Sou Fujimoto. Upstairs, as a kind of window display, he's stuck various household objects on plinths and called it 'Architecture is Everywhere'. A handful of Pringles ("layering hills is architecture"). A skew pile of matchboxes ("separating and connecting"). An upside-down glass ashtray ("a cave turned into architecture"). An upturned kitchen scourer ("people live in nooks and crannies"). It's all appallingly pretentious and yet somehow, as serendipitous inspiration goes, rather great.
A lot more of Sou's models are in the proper gallery downstairs. Some are just sugar lumps with leaves on, or slanting multi-coloured glass bricks, or interwoven paper strips, and hardly practical. But other ideas have been worked up into potential buildings, like a spiral library or a web of rising staircases, and his tower of petal-like apartments destined for Montpelier looks amazing. Light and delicate, and uncommonly creative, you have until 5th August to peruse the assembled mini-structures.
Also downstairs is a small library where you can read up on cherry blossom, cities and historic art. On the top floor is a proper sit-down restaurant, named after its chef Shimuzu Akira. And at the back of the ground floor is a very small travel centre, with free transport maps and travel brochures, assuming your visit to Japan House has inspired you to visit the real thing. It certainly won't have put you off.