Manami Sasaki: The Japanese Artist Who Makes Art on Toasts

This post was first uploaded on T: The New York Times Style Magazine on 24 June 2020.

The Tokyo-based artist Manami Sasaki starts her day by crafting elaborate artworks on her breakfast toasts. Pictured here is Sasaki’s “Shiro Tsubaki” toast, of which can be translated to “White Camelia”.

For the longest of time, artists are known to embrace isolation as a means to manifest creativity. Some took coveted residency in foreign lands, while others braved isolation in harsh climates. And at an unusual period when museums and galleries are closed, art fairs and exhibitions are cancelled, artists and creatives are finding new ways and adapting to new mediums to unleash their creativity.

In Japan, a conceptual artist is leveraging on the additional time spent in isolation to create art with an unorthodox, but edible medium: her breakfast toasts. 

“Now that I am working from home, I find myself having more time to spare. Rather than waking up late and procrastinating, I decided to cultivate a habit of getting up early and creating edible toast art,” says the Tokyo-based artist Manami Sasaki. Spending two hours a day to create her masterpieces in her kitchen-turned-studio, Sasaki, who is a designer by trade, would snap a picture of her breakfast, upload it on her Instagram (@sasamana1204) and promptly consume her creation. “It takes less than 30 seconds to eat them.”

Clockwise from top left: Sasaki’s “Karensansui” toast; a side profile of the “Blueberry Gradation” toast; the “Kintsugi” toast; the “Blueberry Gradation” toast.

A quick scan of Sasaki’s toast art on her Instagram page would unveil a recurring singular theme: traditional Japanese culture. Many of her creations are inspired by Japan’s centuries-old traditions and other cultural influences, as well as designs from notable Japanese designers. For Sasaki, her toast art has become the perfect tool to introduce a slice of Japanese culture to her burgeoning pool of Instagram followers from all around the world.  

On the “Kintsugi” toast, Sasaki pays homage to the traditional kintsugi technique of mending broken ceramics with gold seams. But instead of ceramics, Sasaki’s base is, well, a toast. On its surface, she spreads a layer of sour cream, tears it slightly, ‘mends’ the fractures with edible golden leaf, and eventually draws a fine pattern with ketchup. In doing so, the essence of kintsugi — a form of art but also a Japanese philosophy that encapsulates the feel-good affirmations of how our scars make us unique — rings apparent. Such a revelation perhaps would resonate more than ever in these perplexing times.

Meanwhile on the “Karesansui” toast, the Japanese artist transformed the slice of bread into a Japanese zen rock garden that features a stylised landscape with stone and moss features. Once again, a thick layer of sour cream is spread onto the toast’s surface, where Sasaki then rakes it with a fork to imitate the swirling sands (that symbolise ripples of water in a Japanese rock garden). Crushed macadamia nuts and walnuts then coalesce to form the prominent rock features in the garden. Right underneath them, a small speckle of matcha powder is used to resemble green moss. Like the real-life Japanese zen rock gardens that dotted the landscape of several Japanese temples, Sasaki’s toast rendering is build on simplicity and an attention to detail. All these make it a work of austere beauty.   

“It does take a lot of time and effort to create these toasts. If it’s not my favourite subject matter, my heart breaks. If I’m heartbroken, my breakfast time will be a disappointment too,” says Sasaki on her dedication to whip up the elaborate toast creations in the morning. “I’m determined to avoid it.” 

There are artists who predominantly gather inspiration from their pre-pandemic daily interactions, and are now struggling with creating art in isolation. And then there are those who view the extra isolation as a coveted situation to fuel their work. Sasaki seems to belong in the latter. Her immersion in using toast as a creative medium, she admits, is unsurprising. 

“Getting in touch with the opinions and feelings of various people is very important for developing one’s values. I don’t get that much interaction because of the isolation,” she says. “But on the other hand, there have been new graces. Artists often find it important to produce works in any environment. This changing environment is an opportunity to create new things. I think we should all do with what we can.” 

Left: A toast art inspired by the “Ogura Hyakunin Isshu”, a classical Japanese anthology of 100 Japanese waka poem made by 100 poets. Right: Another toast inspired by the work of an Ukiyo-e ( a type of 17th–19th Japanese art that depicts subjects from everyday life) art master, Utagawa Toyokuni.

From the confines of her bedroom in her apartment in Tokyo, Sasaki answered T’s Artist’s Questionnaire below.

What is your day like? How much do you sleep, and what’s your work schedule?

These days, I sleep late at 1am and wake early at 5am. I fall asleep quickly, so it doesn’t matter how little sleep I get. On days when I’m concentrating on my work, I don’t sleep. Of course, I sleep a lot when I’m tired. I’m a designer by day. When I’m done with my design work in the day, I make art at night.

How many hours of creative work do you think you do in a day?

I spend about eight hours a day working. And even when I’m taking a bath, I’m still thinking about a certain creative concept or how to brush up on my work. I read books to do the latter. I devote a lot of time to being creative. When I’m tired, I just don’t think about it.

What’s the first piece of toast art you ever made?

I mixed blueberry jam with chocolate and painted a cherry tree. I made it just in time for the cherry blossoms to fall. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Japanese haven’t had the chance to see the cherry blossoms this year. I hope, next year we’ll all be able to see them with smiles on our faces.

What do you do when you’re procrastinating?

I like to do things immediately; procrastination prevents me from focusing on the things that matter. There are times when I just can’t help but be lazy. To revive my motivation, I exercise rigorously.

The designer and toast artist, Manami Sasaki.

How often do you talk to other artists?

I often call my friends from art college. I also like attending artist talks and social events. We often talk about recent news and our everyday happenings in our conversations. It’s not always about art. While it may not seem like it, I’m always looking for new inspiration or new perspectives from these conversations.

When you start a new piece, where do you begin?

I begin with the emotions I feel in my daily life — joy, sadness and frustration. These emotions are all things that I hold dear because they are evidence of a shaken sense of my value. 

What music do you play when you’re making art?

It’s usually silent. I’m so focused that I can’t hear the song either way. 

How do you know when you’re done a piece?

Too much tweaking can smirch the message, so I’ll try to stop it at just the right place. But this is really hard to do … I tend to overdo it.

Is there a meal you eat on repeat when you’re working?

Something sweet. I like chocolate and cream puffs.

If you have windows, what do they look out on?

I was born and raised in Tokyo. Tokyo is a big city with a lot of buildings. I don’t get to see much natural scenery from my windows, but I do admire them. So, whenever I have the time, I’d hike to the mountains or visit the sea to refresh myself. I think it would be nice if I could see the view of nature from my window.

What do you bulk buy with most frequency?

I buy yoghurt in bulk. I have a weak stomach, so I get sick when I eat food that is very flavourful or oily. 

What’s your worst habit?

Eating sweets, and I want to do something about it. It’s going to make me fat and cost me money in the long run.

What embarrasses you?

I often make unintentional mistakes and I want to be careful about that. Sometimes, when I go out and take my shoes off I realise that I have come home in a stranger’s shoes. I won’t realise it until the next day.

What are you reading?

When I have time, I read a wide range of novels, essays, design books, and news articles. My all-time favourite book is “The Sense of Wonder” by Rachel Carson, and my favourite Japanese novelist is Maha Harada.

What’s your favourite artwork by someone else?

I admire the American artist James Turell. On the island of Naoshima, Japan, also known as the Island of Art, there is a piece of his work that I’d always remember and recommend. It’s called, “Backside of the Moon”. I saw this work close to six years ago, but it is still an important work that enhances my sensitivity. It is dynamic, delicate, and gently appeals to the viewer’s heart.\

Photos Featured, Courtesy of Manami Sasaki

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