Brazil’s Modern Remix

How do you make sense of diverse, dizzying São Paolo? Talk to the people who make the sushi, spray the graffiti, and build the giant watermelons.

Brazil’s Modern Remix

At the bar counter of Kinoshita, I hear cries of “Irashaimasen” (“Welcome,” in Japanese) from the kimono-clad hostess who greets customers at the sliding wooden door. The sushi men in front of me, all Japanese in appearance, slice colorful strips of fresh fish, press them into rectangles of rice, and lay them before eager diners. Everything around me tells me I am in Japan, but as soon as the chef, Tsuyoshi Murakami, appears with my next dish, the illusion is shattered. At rest, Murakami might look Japanese, but when he shakes his body like he is dancing the samba, gesticulates to mimic chopping off a fish head, and works himself into a lather over the most minute details of his cuisine, I am reminded I am not in Japan but Brazil. São Paulo, to be exact.

Though each piece of evidence is subtle, in total they are overwhelming. The sushi men whisper to each other in hushed Portuguese. Diners start their meal with a caipirinha. And if you look closely you can see the Brazilian inflections in Kinoshita’s otherwise very Japanese cuisine: a freshwater oyster you cannot find in Japan; a local momotaro tomato that tastes different from its Japanese counterpart; a composition of unagi (eel), foie gras, and crunchy green apple that you would never taste in Japan— or anywhere but Kinoshita.

As I bite into that unagi dish, Murakami expounds on the differences between Japan and Brazil. “Many chefs in Japan have small hearts,” he says, pounding his chest with his fist. Then, reaching below the counter, between his legs: “And small balls. They don’t want to share. They don’t want to open up. Things are different here. I didn’t have to spend 10 years sweeping the floor before I got to touch a grain of rice. I’ve been able to experiment with the foods, fruits, and tastes we have in Brazil.”

São Paulo is arguably the most important city in Latin America and decidedly the most important place in Brazil. Tourists from the United States and Europe might flock to Rio, but for Brazilians, São Paulo—where the country’s music, magnates, and money all come from—is the center of the universe. Yet it’s not an easy place to understand. The city’s vast population of 11 million (19 million if you include the surrounding area) makes it the most populous metropolis in the Southern Hemisphere. This huge concentration of people is spread over a flat landscape with few landmarks to orient a visitor. Seemingly interchangeable high-rises stretch in some directions as far as the eye can see. Wide avenidas, more like freeways than avenues, topped with overpasses and fenced in by banked walls, bisect the city center. Low-flying helicopters make you feel like you are in the middle of a gang war in East L.A., circa 1984. (The helicopters are actually used to shuttle around wealthy residents who want to avoid traffic jams.) São Paulo is all but impossible to take in as a whole, and so, after a few disorienting days, I realized that if I wanted to comprehend and enjoy this place, I would need to find a way into its chaos and complexity. Talking with Murakami as he dances around my plate, I discover my gateway. The Japanese are one of the ethnic groups—along with Chinese, Koreans, Lebanese, Germans, Italians, and Portuguese—that make São Paulo the most cosmopolitan city in South America. In fact, the city has the largest Japanese community in the world outside Japan. I have always thought that one of the surest ways to cut to the heart of a culture is to see what immigrants make of it—what they take on and what they discard, how a city changes them and how they change the city. I have been to Japan many times and know something about that culture. So I decide to trace the culture of Japanese Brazilians in São Paulo. I will eat their food, meet their artists, walk their streets, and hang out at their bars. Perhaps that will be a way to crack the code of the city its residents call Sampa. Murakami excuses himself and I watch him work the room. He greets a male customer with a welcoming whoop, kisses the lady beside him, talks with sweeping gestures and constant body contact—a tap on the arm, a reach for the hand, a slap on the back. In Japan, even today, children and parents, brothers and sisters still bow to each other instead of embracing. As I watch Murakami manifest the many angles of his Brazilianness, it is hard to imagine that I could have chosen two more contrasting cultures to explore.

Kinoshita lies just west of the enormous Parque Ibirapuera, where São Paulo residents come to escape the crowds of the city center. The next day I explore the park, stopping at a vendor who hacks open a coconut and pours me a small bottle of água de coco. The hamlets to the west of the park—Vila Nova Conceição, Jardim Europa, and Jardim América—are São Paulo’s Beverly Hills, suburban-looking enclaves in the middle of the city. After walking a loop through the park’s palm trees and mini rain forests, I exit west into lanes of homes tucked behind walls and protected by private security guards. Then, rising above a street jammed with buses, I behold the Hotel Unique, an apparition in this nouveau-riche jungle.

Locals call it the watermelon slice because it is green and shaped like the bottom quarter of a circle that has been chopped off and set on edge, round side down, with two almost invisible thin metal walls bracing it on the sides. I head to the roof of the Unique to meet the building’s Japanese Brazilian architect, Ruy Ohtake.

Ohtake, dressed in a cream-colored linen sports jacket, glides into the open-air Skye bar and greets the manager—a stunning, six-foot-two woman—with a kiss on each cheek. He shakes my hand, sits down next to me, and says, “São Paulo is a brilliant mix of everything: architecture, cultures, people.” Then he leans in and whispers, “Take the woman in charge of this place. Her beauty comes from the mix.” I agree wholeheartedly. Eventually we move on from the women of São Paulo to the city itself, and I tell Ohtake that I am having difficulty getting a bead on it. “The reason this place is so hard to grasp,” he explains, “is that it’s thoroughly manmade. Rio has the sea and the hills to orient yourself by. Here we have only buildings and streets.” We survey the city from our perch. Green Parque Ibirapuera spreads out to the east, daunting walls of skyscrapers rise to the north and south, and low-rise European-style homes make up the neighborhood below. Ohtake’s creation stands out in this architectural cacophony, but somehow it works, even in the midst of McMansions and gated apartment complexes with such names as Villa Zurich.

I have to ask. Why the watermelon slice? “This bairro [neighborhood] has very strict height regulations,” Ohtake says. “I knew I couldn’t build over eight stories. That’s not very high.” He pauses. We look at the buildings around us, which all max out at the same height as our roof. “Architecture has to be a surprise. But how do you create surprise when you have only eight stories to work with?” He grabs my notebook, pulls out a pen, and starts to sketch. First a rectangle, with the verdict, “Boring.” Then he draws the rounded shape of the Unique and says, “When you use space this way, the void creates a drama.” He points to the area under the curve of the wall. “Normally you’d enter a building in the front, here,” he says pointing to the base of the circle. “But I wanted people to feel the tension, the surprise, by walking into the void and feeling how high it was. Eight stories of building doesn’t feel like much, but eight stories of empty space, below the curve of a building overhead, now that’s a dramatic space.”

Outside, while we examine the three-centimeter-thin walls that support the hotel, Ohtake tells me about the early days of the Unique. “When we were constructing this place, I’d take taxis to work,” he says. “I’d ask the drivers what they thought of the building. They had no idea who I was, but they told me it was spectacular. Even if they couldn’t say why, they got it.”

Though Ohtake’s mother was born in Japan, his father was Japanese Brazilian, and Ohtake grew up thoroughly enmeshed in Brazilian culture. “We were the only Japanese family in our neighborhood, Mooca,” he says, referring to a district just east of the city center that is traditionally Italian. “My parents wanted me to speak Portuguese, not Japanese. And I did. I think of myself as Brazilian.” As we wander around the Unique, taking in the building from different angles, I wonder how to classify Ohtake’s work. Though he studied under such canonical Brazilian modernists as Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa, and he was raised speaking Portuguese, Ohtake’s style, as expressed in the Unique and his other creations of the last decade, is not really Brazilian at all. His aesthetic feels to me more like that of the contemporary architects of Japan than like anyone else working now— or ever—in Brazil. The Unique immediately jumps out at you like a spaceship that has just touched down, which is exactly what Ohtake intended.

Immigrants from other groups, such as Lebanese, Germans, and Italians, often took on Portuguese names and could pass as thoroughly Brazilian after just a generation. But Japanese Brazilians, because of their appearance, have never had the same liberty to disappear into the masses. As much as the Japanese are embraced by mainstream culture—a Brazilian advertisement from the 1990s proclaimed patriotically, “Our Japanese are more creative than everyone else’s Japanese”—they will always be obvious immigrants. I can’t help but think that part of what equips Ohtake to surprise is that he remains, at least a little bit, an alien in this place. Despite his perfect Portuguese, his deep knowledge of São Paulo, and his eminent Brazilianness—the spirit that led him to build something that is so unusual yet accessible even to Sampa taxi drivers—Ohtake brings the fresh perspective of an outsider.

Brazil’s first immigrants from Japan arrived in 1908, farmers hired by coffee plantation owners in desperate need of laborers after the end of slavery. Later, many migrated to São Paulo and settled in the immigrant ghetto of Liberdade. In the past couple of decades, as Japanese immigrants prospered, many moved from Liberdade to the tonier precincts of the city.

Their customs and cuisine followed. But even as the culture has dispersed, Liberdade, despite its old-fashioned appearance and dwindling number of Japanese residents, remains the focal point of the community. It is where people shop, congregate, and reminisce. After talking with Ohtake, I head there to meet someone who has never left the neighborhood.

Titi Freak, aka Hamilton Yokota, is sipping a tall beer at tiny Bar Kintaro in Liberdade when I join him for a drink. The proprietor, a short Japanese lady who is speaking with a couple of Brazilian beer drinkers across from her, sits behind mounds of deep-fried fish and chicken and an assortment of room-temperature Japanese bar snacks called otoshi. Almost all the Japanese restaurants and bars in Liberdade are, according to Japanese custom, closed off to passersby, located down corridors, behind big doors, and secluded from the street. Kintaro, though, is Brazilian style—open to the neighborhood, with two stools at the head of the bar that stand on the edge of the sidewalk. As Titi bites into a small, crunchy manjuba fish, he explains that the two sons of the proprietor are Japanese Brazilian sumo wrestlers who have competed professionally in Japan. Titi wears a felt baseball cap, and his eyes are framed by thick black glasses. Liberdade is not just his home, it is also his primary canvas. Titi is a graffiti artist, and most of his work is located in the blocks surrounding Kintaro.

For the visitor to São Paulo the volume of graffiti is shocking. And it is not just at eye level. Decaying downtown high-rises are covered in giant, crude letters in the most improbable places, far from any windows or adjoining buildings. This same style of lettering decorates almost every inch of surface in some downtown districts. And then there are the artists, most notably Os Gêmeos (the Twins), a graffiti team from the bairro of Cambuci who have been the subject of a Tate Modern exhibit. Titi explains that street artists in Sampa are of two stripes: grafiteiros, known for their distinctive, artful, and labor-intensive murals; and pixadores, who make it their mission to gain access to places no human is meant to go, somehow scaling tall buildings, rappelling down to remote overpasses, and marking the tall curves of tunnels and the scaffolding of bridges. Titi, who is friends with members of pixador groups, has work for sale at galleries in Brazil, Europe, Japan, and the United States.

I ask him why he works mostly in Liberdade. “You paint where you come from,” he says. “This is where I grew up. It’s where I live now. I know every bar, restaurant, and boteco [pub] on these streets. And I know that my work fits into this place.”

Titi’s street art in Liberdade is now almost all commissioned, or done on property that has been abandoned or neglected. On the day we meet, he’s scheduled to paint the iron facade of a sake bar called Bueno, also run by ex–sumo wrestlers. But the weather is humid with occasional rain. Titi does not want his work to be streaked and ruined, so he waits out the weather at Kintaro. After another beer, we walk the streets of Liberdade and he shows me some of his work. His latest murals depict enormous, undulating, Japanese-style fish. The rough outline looks like a koi, a kind of carp, but the details dissolve into abstractions: cascades of bright pink, whirlpools of texture that look like clouds or elaborate fish scales. Some of these eightto ten-meter-long fish wrap around corners of buildings, others swim straight along the street. Liberdade isn’t otherwise a vibrant place—most of the buildings’ paint schemes are long faded by the sun—so Titi’s creations jump out like a school of tropical fish colonizing the bairro. Titi has taken a traditional symbol of Japan—koi—and combined it with a São Paulo street sensibility and some very Brazilian bursts of color. The work is an intensely local kind of art that is attuned to the blocks, contours, and consciousness of this neighborhood, where Japanese immigrants first established themselves.

The movement of people between Japan and Brazil has not always been one-way. In recent decades, when Japan’s economy boomed, large numbers of Japanese Brazilians emigrated back to Japan to find better-paying work. Near the end of my time in São Paulo, I talk to one of these reverse immigrants, Naoki Otake, who has since returned to Brazil. We meet on the fancy side of town. He is the Japanese Brazilian architect of Kinoshita and of a new restaurant, Clos de Tapas, down the street. His point of reference for the two restaurants is Japanese teahouse architecture, called sukiya, which dictates large, open spaces unencumbered by internal walls and integrated with the natural world around them. Otake grew up in Brazil but spent three years living at a Tenrikyo temple in Japan and building traditional sukiya-style houses in Tokyo. “My experience in Japan was very different from the majority of Japanese Brazilians over there,” he tells me as we drink cocktails at the upper-level bar in Clos de Tapas. “I spoke Japanese. I could learn from the culture. I was an immigrant, of course, but not a total outsider.” Most Brazilian-born immigrants to Japan, called dekasegi, speak little or no Japanese, and they find, on arrival, that they do not fit in at all. “It can be a very strange experience,” Otake tells me. “People grow up here thinking they’re Japanese, and then when they go to Japan, all they want to do is speak Portuguese, dance samba, and hang out with other dekasegi.”

We walk down a spiral staircase to the main dining room of Clos de Tapas. He chooses a table at the front, and we look out the high windows Otake incorporated into his design to connect the restaurant’s interior and exterior spaces. Back in the kitchen is another Japanese Brazilian, Ligia Karazawa, one half of the culinary team behind Clos de Tapas. At the range next to her is her husband and co-chef, Raúl Jiménez, who hails from Madrid. Jiménez and Karazawa met while working at some of Spain’s best restaurants.

Up to now the cultural fusion I have experienced has been binary— Japan meets Brazil. Architect Naoki Otake and chef Tsuyoshi Murakami both went to Japan in search of inspiration and instruction, then came back to make something new in Brazil. For chef Karazawa, though, a Japanese Brazilian who came of age as São Paulo was prospering and opening wider to the world, the choice wasn’t simply Japan or Brazil. She chose Spain, because it is the global home of a new kind of cooking and she liked the versatility of tapas.

Karazawa and Jiménez apply Spanish techniques to the Brazilian and Japanese Brazilian tastes, products, and dishes of São Paulo, adding another layer to the cultural mix. Local soft-shell crab sits on a bed of what looks like paella but turns out to be rice-shaped pasta. On the side of the bowl there’s a light dusting of farofa, toasted manioc flour, a traditional Brazilian accompaniment to rice. A small seared piece of tilapia comes with wakame (seaweed) and a sauce made of chlorophyll and cacao beans. A square of foie gras swims in tucupi—a traditional brew made from manioc—decorated with the vivid green leaves of the jambu, a plant from the Amazon basin.

When a city is becoming more cosmopolitan, there is always the danger that its new culture can become generic—that you could come to São Paulo and order sushi that tastes delicious. And identical to what you would get in Tokyo. Or New York. The true test is whether the city can create something unique that stands apart in a globalized world. Karazawa and Jiménez’s meal argues that it can. The menu is playful, slightly Spanish, slightly Japanese, but completely São Paulo. At the end of the meal, what looks like a perfect baby coconut arrives at our table. The waiter takes a small metal hammer and cracks open each of our “coconuts,” which turn out to be sweet coconut sorbet dusted with powdered chocolate. It’s a surprise, like a watermelon-slice hotel, or unagi mixed with green apple, or Technicolor koi swimming down the block. Those surprises are what have defined São Paulo for me. They’re not simply about bringing in a foreign influence and seeing how it plays out in Brazil. Two, three, sometimes a dozen cultures move with and against each other in this city, producing a vibrant hybrid that’s much more than just the sum of its parts. A

Photographs by João Canziani.

I write about the worlds of Brooklyn firemen, Yemeni jihadis, Chinese internet vigilantes, Malagasy river guides, and Barcelona private eyes—anyone whose story moves me. A year before 9/11, I began producing a television documentary and reporting a book about a group of elite rescue firemen in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse, published by Henry Holt, follows ten years in the life of their company, from the high of knocking down a wall of flames to the low of losing a brother.