602-608 S Jackson St
Seattle, WA 98104
Mon - Sat 11 - 6pm
Sun - 12-5

814 E Roy
Seattle, WA 98102
Tue - Fri 12 - 7pm
Sat 11 - 7pm
Sun 12 - 6pm
Closed Mondays
which translates from Japanese as "artist's workspace," is an artisan gallery featuring Japanese and Northwest fine crafts. KOBO specializes in both traditional and contemporary works, offering a selection of objects and functional forms in clay, fiber, metal, wood, bamboo, textile, and paper. KOBO also exhibits the work of small studio artisans from the U.S. and abroad who share a similar affinity with Japanese folk arts and contemporary design.

     KOBO Capitol Hill first opened its doors in 1995 featuring the work of small studio artisans of Japan and the functional work of Northwest artists. Exhibits are scheduled 6 times each year showing carefully selected examples of fine craftsmanship and design. There is a desire for a quality of life that is defined not by the accumulation of things but rather a paring down to the essentials. In a world of limited natural resources we hope to provide a hint of inspiration, respite and a reminder of the human hands that go into making the things we surround ourselves with.

     KOBO at Higo is our second shop and gallery space, located in Seattle's historic Japantown, in the International District. KOBO occupies the former home of Higo Variety Store, which was run by the Murakami family continuously for 75 years. Binko Chiong-Bisbee and John Bisbee, an architect who has worked in Tokyo, New York and Seattle finally realized a dream to expand KOBO into a larger space. Exhibits featuring art, craft and design are scheduled 6 times a year. KOBO at Higo also showcases furniture, textiles, works on paper and photography. An event space is used for performances, special events and larger exhibitions. KOBO at Higo maintains much of the flavor of the old variety store by utilizing its vintage fixtures, including 1930s glass cases recently unearthed from the Higo storeroom. Uncovered treasures include classic tin toys, an electric train set and antique Japanese paintings, all of which will be on display in the refurbished space. A museum wall display is also being planned to tell the history of Higo in Japantown.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A small piece of Japantown preserved
Memories of fading era live in historical district


Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Savoring the delights of Japantown and the hands-on Kubota Gardens

Friday, October 6, 2006
Cultural anthropologist tells Japantown's bittersweet history through candy

Saturday, January 14, 2006
Go to Kobo at Higo for the artisan goods and leave with a history lesson

Monday, December 13, 2004
Old store yielding treasures from past

In the dingy, cluttered storeroom that housed the inventory for Higo Variety Store for more than 70 years, Paul Murakami tried to reach a top shelf by standing on what he thought was a wood cabinet with stuff piled on top. "You might want to get off of there," John Bisbee advised him. "I think you're standing on a glass display case." He was right. The antique fixture, trimmed in oak, was layered with newspapers from July 30, 1933. Atop the newspapers were two landscape paintings set within sturdy wood frames and imported from Japan, dating back to who knows when. Inside the display case was a box of well-preserved ladies' hats, probably from the 1930s, individually priced at $1.50.

Higo was a five-and-dime store that long ago helped coin the concept of Seattle's Japantown. For generations, Higo both serviced the Chinatown International District and gave character to it, its mothball smell notwithstanding. The Murakami family closed Higo in June 2003, but its treasures keep giving. Bisbee and his wife, who opened a Japanese folk-art and Northwest-crafts gallery in the 3,600-square-foot space last month, plan to devote a wall in their shop to artifacts from Higo and the Murakami family, thus carrying on their legacy.

"I feel like we are doing a form of urban archaeology," said Bisbee, who with Murakami has been sifting through the physical remains of Higo's past.

Last week, Bisbee found a Japanese cracker-tin canister on a bottom shelf. The grime he got on his blue dress shirt while removing it was a fair sacrifice for the graphic that graced the front of the canister ?and the model wood train hidden inside. Another big find recently was a silk-screened poster from a "Madame Butterfly" performance at the Seattle Opera House, probably from the 1960s.

Sanzo Murakami ran Higo on South Weller Street before moving it in 1932 into a building he constructed at Sixth Avenue South and South Jackson Street, a block from Japantown's hub. Like other Japanese-American business owners, he was forced to board up his shop while his family lived in an internment camp during World War II. He died shortly after returning home, but his wife and children restarted the business. "That business was one of the few able to revive itself after World War II," said Ron Chew, executive director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum. "We're really fortunate to have had such continuity in business by one family, back before World War II. All this stuff that they meticulously stored away reveals that past." The Murakami family lived in a small apartment connected to the store, using the building's boiler room as a place to bathe and launder. The museum is caring for several heirlooms on loan from the family, including a pair of Japanese mannequins that used to be in Higo's front window, as well as a pistol, flashlight and binoculars, complete with Seattle police inventory tags, that had been confiscated before internment but later returned.

Other Higo relics, discovered during the store's waning days or after it closed, include kimonos, fabric, sewing patterns, Japanese flags that pre-date World War II, delicate paper-and-bamboo lanterns and musical instruments. In the final years leading up to Higo's closure, Masa Murakami, the last of Sanzo's four children, ran the store with her friend Esther Matsuda. Paul Murakami, who visits his 85-year-old aunt at an assisted-living facility in the district, is helping make sure that Higo lives on even though the store has not.

"We looked long and hard for a tenant that not only would fit the space but also respect the sense of family and community that was so much a part of Higo," he said. Through a mutual friend, Paul Murakami met Bisbee and his wife, Binko Chiong-Bisbee, who had run Kobo for nine years on Capitol Hill and were looking to expand into a second location. "We were very deliberate in choosing Kobo," Murakami said. "It met our urgent desire to maintain Higo and, in a sense, resurrect the idea of Japantown."

Chiong-Bisbee said she considers it a stewardship, so much that the couple has named the new gallery Kobo at Higo. Respect is paid just past the entrance, too, where that same antique glass case now displays about 400 matchbooks from all over the world, a collection from the travels of Masa and her sister, Aya, who died in 1999. Behind that case is another display with two wooden tricycles from a previous era, one painted like a duck and the other a bunny, the $1.49 price etched upon the red seat.

It is as if the Bisbees inherited and inhabit a time capsule. One relic they found is a residential and business directory of Japanese Americans in the Pacific Northwest from the 1950s. The couple plans to photocopy the pages and display them at Kobo so customers can find long-gone relatives. "People from all walks of life had so much connection to Higo Variety Store," Chiong-Bisbee said. "Even those who used to come into Higo to buy cigarettes or detergent are coming into our shop and enjoying the transition, pleased to see that the past is still here and not being forgotten."

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com

Saturday, December 4, 2004
Retail Notebook: Kobo at Higo is a peaceful marriage of past, present

When the Murakami family finally closed the Higo Variety Store after 75 years in business in the International District, they weren't sure what the future would hold for the space that housed the Japanese five-and-dime. Today, the South Jackson Street building is home to the second location for Kobo, a Seattle-based artisan gallery that specializes in Japanese imports and is beginning to feature history alongside its pottery. The couple has spent months unearthing the dust-blurred relics left by the Murakami family, who ran Higo for 75 years. These artifacts, including a matchbook collection belonging to Masa and Aya Murakami, the widely traveled former owners, are now proudly displayed in glass cases alongside lacquered wares and delicate wooden trays.

"Japanese design is in the details," said Bisbee, an American-born architect who has worked in both Japan and Seattle. As part of the historical bent of the renovated store, he and his wife have conserved as many of the dime-store fixtures as possible, using paint and elbow grease to refashion the old into renewed elegance. "It was important to me that every one of those were polished," he continued, pointing out the luminous brass fixtures on the newly painted black display cases. "Together, these details create harmony." Tokyo native Chiong-Bisbee has juxtaposed the goods for sale, such as finely carved wooden trays, in front of original 1930s glass cases full of archaic items definitely not for consumption, such as Children's Hickory Garters ("patent rubber clasps saves darning!") and a carton of Shinola wax liquid.

For Jerry Arai, an avid connoisseur of Japanese art objects, a trip to the International District usually involves lunch at a Japanese place and perhaps perusing the stores to add to his collection. "I use the International District a lot," said Arai, an architect who worked on the neighboring Uwajimaya project -- a giant retail store that sells Asian goods of all kinds. "I just like Japanese food, and it is the best place to get it." Kobo, however, is targeted at people who know what they want as well as people who came just for the history, but may also have their wallets on them. The owners are versed in Japanese craftsmanship and see community outreach and education as a vital part of their success. "We want customers to ask questions, and to think about what went into the making of what we sell," Bisbee said.

Their stores, say the owners, create an opportunity for them to stay connected to Japan, where they lived for five years before moving to Seattle. But the new location has also woven them into the social fabric of the remnants of the now defunct Japantown, or Nihonmachi, which was emptied and destroyed by the forced internment of the Japanese Americans during World War II. "When we were renovating, we had so many volunteers from the community, including Murakami family members, neighbors, and former customers," Bisbee said. "The store had been here for so long that we couldn't have erased it if we wanted to, and our obligation is to identify and preserve the elements of history that make the place unique." The cause for the demise of the once-vibrant Japantown is hinted at in the store by an old postcard, postmarked from Honolulu on May 18, 1968, sent by former owner Masa Murakami, who retired two years ago when she reached her mid-80s. "Went to Pearl Harbor and saw SS Arizona partially above water ... very rusty," reads the lilting scrawl. "We saw a film of that fateful day. ... It was an interesting and emotional experience." For the Murakami family, Kobo at Higo carries on the family legacy. "I'm trying to do everything in my power to help them be successful," said Paul Murakami, Masa Murakami's nephew. "We are flattered that they are going to such lengths to preserve something that has been so important to our family and this community."

Jan Johnson, owner of the Panama Hotel just around the corner from Kobo at Higo, thinks that educating the public about the area's history is just the point. Johnson said she purchased the Panama Hotel, which houses the United States' oldest Japanese bathhouse, because she didn't want to see it destroyed. Her efforts in preserving all of the items left by Japanese families led to a shipment of 37 trunks that went to Los Angeles to form part of the "America's Concentration Camps" exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum. Now, Johnson's hotel has made the list of top U.S. hotels in National Geographic's September issue, something which she says is gradually bringing the business. Kobo, the Panama Hotel and Uwajimaya are forming the business side of a cultural renovation that some hope will bring renewed interest to the long-neglected International District. Kip Tokuda, chairman of the Nikkei Heritage Association in Washington, said, "The community has become re-energized into a sense of urgency, caused in part by the aging of our parents, whose histories must be preserved." 

KOBO Opening Marks a Revival of Seattle's Japantown

(Seattle, WA) - Seattle's historic Japantown is experiencing a renaissance, thanks in part to KOBO, opening in the heart of the once-thriving neighborhood known as Nihonmachi. The 3600-square-foot shop will occupy the former home of Higo Variety Store, established by the Sanzo Murakami family 75 years ago. KOBO translates from Japanese as 'artist's workspace' and features fine crafts from Japan and the Northwest, alongside the works of artists with an affinity for Japanese design. The artisan gallery will celebrate with a preview party, open to the public, Friday, November 19 from 5:00 - 9:00 pm.

KOBO at Higo will be the second shop for wife-and-husband team Binko Chiong-Bisbee and John Bisbee. Bisbee, who is also an architect with Arai Jackson Ellison Murakami, says, "We are honored to have an opportunity to be a part of this community and look forward to helping to create the next chapter of Japantown. Rarely as community members are we able to have a significant impact on the fabric of the city. In the case of the Higo Variety Store, KOBO is able to carry on the tradition of showcasing Japanese-inspired arts and in our own modest way contributing to bringing back a vitality to the neighborhood."

Higo spokesperson and nephew Paul Murakami says, "Binko and John are putting incredible effort into integrating the history of the family, Higo, and Japantown into every aspect of KOBO. They have brought new energy not only to the store itself, but to the building and to the neighborhood. They have the spirit and talent to bring new life to a place that is special to our family, and the community, as well."

Chiong-Bisbee has a personal connection with the Japantown community. Her mother was a Japanese-American who, like the Murakami family, was interned during World War II. Born in Tokyo, Chiong-Bisbee moved to Seattle and as a child, remembers frequenting the shops in Japantown with her mother. "John and I feel that this melding of two Japanese businesses--the history of Higo and the artistry of KOBO--was meant to happen," says Chiong-Bisbee. "Our seven-year-old daughter, Aya, has the same name as Sanzo Murakami's eldest daughter (today she would be 90) ... it's an unusual and significant coincidence."

KOBO at Higo is currently being developed as retail and gallery space with eventual plans for a tearoom and event space. It will maintain much of the flavor of the old variety store by utilizing its vintage fixtures, including 1930s glass cases recently unearthed from the Higo storeroom. The store clean up also uncovered treasures such as classic tin toys, an electric train set and antique Japanese paintings, all of which will be on display in the refurbished space. There will also be a mini museum commemorating pre and post-World War II Higo memorabilia.

A major remodel is slated for completion by Spring 2005. In the interim, KOBO will be open throughout the holidays, beginning November 19, and will highlight special events including live music every Saturday throughout December.

In celebration of the opening of the second KOBO in the International District, KOBO on Capitol Hill will be featuring a special store/gallery-wide sale from November 1 - 12. For the upcoming holidays, both locations will feature a large selection of gift giving ideas and an exhibition of new work by KOBO artists.