Foodways

Masterpiece In A Mug: Japanese Latte Art Will Perk You Up

Clovers? Hearts? That's small fries, guys. It's time you met The Cat:

Cat i i
Courtesy of Kazuki Yamamoto
Cat
Courtesy of Kazuki Yamamoto

That 3-D creation is the work of Japanese latte artist Kazuki Yamamoto. The 26-year-old resident of Osaka creates ephemeral works of art in espresso and foam.

Anime Character
Courtesy of Kazuki Yamamoto

From whimsical monsters crafted from milk froth ...

The happiest blob
Courtesy of Kazuki Yamamoto

... to adorable homages to favorite childhood cartoon characters ...

The cast of Charlie Brown i i
Courtesy of Kazuki Yamamoto
The cast of Charlie Brown
Courtesy of Kazuki Yamamoto

Yamamoto's art makes you regret the need to consume the canvas.

Yamamoto has made a name for himself on Twitter, where more than 82,000 followers receive daily tweets with images of his latest creations. But he's hardly the only latte artist to emerge from Japan.

Einstein
Courtesy of Kohei Matsuno

That caffeinated Einstein, for instance, is the work of Yamamoto's friend Kohei Matsuno, a 23-year-old originally from Osaka who now works at a café in Tokyo. (He's on Twitter, too.) Matsuno's subject matter varies widely — from anime characters to Lady Gaga. He also takes customer requests.

"I like coffee, but I also like to surprise people," Matsuno, who also goes by the name Mattsun, tells The Salt. (NPR's Yuki Noguchi kindly translated for us.) "I like to choose things that seem improbable to find in coffee art."

Monkey
Courtesy of Kohei Matsuno

Lately, Matsuno has started recreating famous works of art — like this take on Edvard Munch's The Scream.

Edvard Munch's "The Scream"
Courtesy of Kohei Matsuno

A toothpick and spoon are Matsuno's primary tools in creating such fine details. The milk and foam parts go on first, then he uses toothpicks to add "shading" with espresso. The whole process, he says, takes about three to five minutes. Yes, that means the beverage isn't always piping hot when it reaches drinkers' lips, but hey, they say you've got to suffer for your art.

Sure, we have latte artists in the U.S., too, but from what Matsuno tells us, it seems to be more common in Japan. So why bother to craft a masterpiece in a mug when it's just going to disappear down someone's gullet?

I put the question to noted design philosopher Leonard Koren, who has written about Japanese aesthetics. He pointed me to two Japanese concepts — wabi-sabi and mono-no-aware — both of which hold, in part, that "many things are beautiful precisely because they are short-lived and fragile," Koren told me via email.

"For example, the Japanese love the cherry blossom metaphor," he writes. "Because cherry trees blossom for only a week or two every year, when they do blossom, there is the emotional poignancy of knowing that it is only a temporary state of affairs."

"If you can memorialize cherry blossoms in poetry—which the Japanese do," says Koren, "why not do the same for latte foam?"

Harry Potter
Courtesy of Kazuki Yamamoto

It's not a bad approach to life when you think about it — always seeing the potential for magic in the mundane.


Big hat tip to Rebecca Subbiah, who blogs at Chow and Chatter, for introducing us to these two artists.

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