Kohei Okura
Kohei Okura


Kohei Okura

K5 PR Director / Kontext Editor

La Casa “Tokyo”
The color of the city of the people

Kohei Okura, PR Director of K5, has traveled the world, taking on challenges along the way and letting his senses of the moment guide him. His latest challenge is set in Kabutocho, Tokyo: how to unravel and uncover the context of the area and add color and a sense of connection back into the community. We asked Okura about his past experiences and what led him here today.

●Where are you from?
I was born in Kita-ku, Tokyo, and grew up in Kunitachi City until I was 10 years old. After that, I moved to Yokohama City because my parents were building a house there.

●What was life at school like?
I was involved in sports all throughout high school. Up until we moved to Yokohama, I was playing baseball and tennis. In the 5th grade of elementary school, a friend in the neighborhood invited me to play basketball. I was captain of my high school club, and my junior high and high school years were all about basketball. I had a sense of fulfillment that I had already done all the sports I wanted to do, so when I got to university I decided to try something new.

●What were your interests outside of sports?
Architecture. After graduating from high school, I went on to study architecture at Tokyo Metropolitan University in Hachioji to devote myself to architectural design.

●When did you first become interested in design and architecture?
I think I naturally fell in love with design and architecture. Once I stopped doing high school club activities I began to spend more time reading design and architecture magazines. I think I was lucky because I was always good at math and physics, so I was able to get into college. But I guess my interest also stems from the fact that my grandfather was a carpenter.

●Did moving to Yokohama have any impact on you when you were in elementary school?
When we moved, it meant that I wouldn’t be able to see my friends anymore. Also, I loved Kunitachi City. So when my parents told me, I cried because I didn’t want to move. But after a few days, I got to see the blueprints for the new house and I found myself thinking, “I wonder what color this part will be?” I was so engrossed in the floor plans and design that I couldn’t wait to move in. I would spend most days just thinking about moving! Looking back on it now, I think I was interested in architecture from the moment I saw the blueprints of the house in Yokohama.

●What type of architecture were you interested in?
When I was preparing for college, I liked large-scale architecture. It was the time when Tadao Ando completed the Awaji Yumebutai on Naoshima Island. Also, I had seen the Tate Modern in magazines, a museum that had been built into a renovated power station along the Thames River in London. I was so fascinated by the way that they changed such a large space and how they would use the building like a stage set to create an emotional impact.

●Do you think you found your drive to study architecture in Yokohama?
There was a hotel adjacent to Queen’s Square in Minato Mirai. The moment my family and I entered the lobby of the then Pan Pacific Hotel Yokohama (now the Yokohama Bay Hotel Tokyu), I was struck by the overwhelmingly different space and realized for the first time the existence of architects. After that, I focussed on passing the entrance examination for the architecture department.

●Did you commute to college from your parents’ home?
Yes, I did.. From Yokohama to Hachioji, a little over an hour each way. I really wanted to live on my own, but for some reason, I didn’t, and instead, I went to college listening to Daft Punk and The Chemical Brothers, admiring the people and scenery, all whilst thinking how far away it was! I spent those days focused on studying to become an architect.

●What did you do for part-time work?
I was a waiter for four years at a French restaurant and banquet room in the Pan Pacific Hotel Yokohama, the place that also inspired me to become an architect.

●What exactly did you do in college?
I spent my time doing line drawings by hand and also by CAD, making models, and sleeping in the university’s design office. For example, if I was assigned to build a house in Karuizawa, I would actually go there, take in the atmosphere, understand the backbone of the town, and the height of the surrounding buildings, and incorporate that information into my design.

●And when you finished your course, did you immediately look for a job in the industry?
Actually, I didn’t. In my fourth year of college, I had more opportunities to get involved with people outside of the university. For example, I was actively involved in a project renovating an elementary school in Oita Prefecture and I also interned at an interior design company. It made me wonder if I could have the same passion for something as the craftsmen who actually built things and who would pour 100% of their energy into it. But I felt a little bit different and so instead, my interest shifted towards connecting finished spaces with the people. And so, at the age of 22, I decided to shift directions and began looking into advertising and public relations.

●Did the change of heart cause you any hesitation?
Actually, I had taken a leave of absence for about six months before graduating from college. I was struggling with my career path, so I spent a month exploring Paris and London in order to grasp something I knew was there, but couldn’t see. I traveled alone to see as much of the cityscape and architectural spaces as possible. Thanks to that trip, I discovered the ingenuity and sense of how to utilize existing architectural spaces to make them interesting. And this convinced me to pursue a career in advertising and public relations. By that time, I felt I had realized that my dream of becoming an architect was no longer there…

"You should quit your corporate job and go see the world together! "

●So that was the drive that made you pursue a career in PR?
At that time, I heard a rumor that the Ecole Française de l’Attaché de Presse in France, a university for training the press, was opening a school in Japan, so I decided to study public relations and PR there.

●What can one learn there?
The school had a full range of internship programs and they would also invite people active in the field of advertising and PR as lecturers. Being able to listen to their real voices and experiences, and visiting advertising agencies, PR companies, and auditing firms really helped me to gain a variety of hands-on experience. I was also able to do internships at different agencies.

●Did you learn about the best way to work in an agency?
I imagined it would be a press-type job where I would have to deal with the media, but I was assigned to the sales section where I had to plan and get budgets! It was very strict in some ways, but all of the senior staff were nice people whom I enjoyed working with. I still have a relationship with them to this day. Still, I had to quit when I was 29 years old!

●Why did you quit?
I got married when I turned 29, and my wife told me that if we were going to get married, You should quit your corporate job and go see the world together! She was a Canadian high school graduate, and she admired the fact that her friends around her were taking a gap year to freely roam the world. I decided to take the plunge and leave the company just as I was about to turn 30. However, since the company had taken such good care of me, I had to carefully hand over my work so that I wouldn’t cause them stress, and that took me almost 10 months…… At 29 years old, I was a little older than most, but I became a backpacker!

●Which country did you go to first?
We went to Canada to visit my wife’s friend. We decided to spend Christmas together in Canada and from there, start our trip. I thought that I would have a chance to visit the U.S. when I was older, so I skipped it and went straight to Mexico.

●Latin America!
Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. I entered from Mexico, but the local people running the food stalls didn’t speak English at all, so I couldn’t understand what kind of food they were serving! I decided to go to Guatemala because I had a feeling that I could better learn Spanish there.

I think my view of life changed as I wondered how many people in the world were able to live so freely.

●And did you manage to learn Spanish there?
We stayed in a town called Antigua and were able to take private lessons for two months. But, then it turned out that I had to stop my trip there…

●Why did you stop traveling?
Just as my Spanish had begun to improve I was thinking about heading south, but I happened to pass by a house with the sign “SE RENTA (for rent)” and decided to go inside just to “take a look”. The house had two gardens, a rooftop terrace, four rooms, a living room, and a kitchen. It was an older-style house but it made me wonder, “could this be it?” And so I used all my remaining travel funds to open a guesthouse! That was the reason we stopped traveling and we ended up staying in Guatemala for six years. We never imagined that we would be able to do this by ourselves.

●That’s bold!
I think I was lucky. At the time, Airbnb was in its infancy in Europe and the United States. At the time, there weren’t many people running guesthouses in Antigua, so we built a room, registered it with Airbnb, and started running a four-room guesthouse.

●What was life like as a guest house owner and operator?
The guesthouse gradually became more and more popular, but it still wasn’t that busy compared to Tokyo, so we lived our lives at our own pace. We were open to the public and advertised in English so it was interesting to have guests from all over the world, from Europe and America to India and Turkey. The kitchen was also open to guests, so we would often share each other’s native dishes. I became focused on interacting and learning from our guests.

●Are there any customers who left a lasting impression on you?
Well, there’s the guy who had sunk two ships! He was laughing and saying that he had sunk a private ship that cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. Twice. It seems that ports in Guatemala are a big part of the voyage through Latin America. I was shocked every day by guests who would cruise in ships by themselves. Actually, I think my view of life changed as I wondered how many people in the world were able to live so freely.

●Did you stay in that guesthouse for the entire six years?
Once the guesthouse had settled down a little, we decided to open a restaurant in our second year. It was a restaurant in the center of town, seating about 25 people.

●Was it a Japanese restaurant?
We advertised it as Japanese home-style cooking. I guess you could call it oriental cuisine. In other countries, Japanese food is usually sushi or ramen, but what we actually eat at home in Japan is more like a fusion. Curry, fried rice, gyoza, pork stew, oyakodon, and many other dishes from the Orient. I wanted to express and show people that this is the kind of food that Japanese families actually eat. My wife’s family runs a sushi restaurant and she loves to cook, and I was a waiter at a hotel for four years, so it was quite easy for us to manage the restaurant as a couple.

●Sounds like you were keeping very busy!
Yes, the restaurant kept us busy! I worked from lunch to dinner and before I knew it, six years had just flown past. I even adopted a dog because we planned to live there forever.

●So what made you decide to return to Japan?
I wanted to challenge myself and see what type of change I could make in developed countries. Through our two businesses, the guesthouse and restaurant, I was able to do everything I wanted to do. But now I wanted to visit New York, Paris, and Hamburg and see what different challenges could arise in a place much more developed. My wife went on to Argentina and visited much less developed countries for a year to find our next challenge. Of course, during that time we also visited Tokyo.

Tokyo seemed to have the freshest wind blowing.

●So why is it that you chose Tokyo?
All of the cities were attractive, but Tokyo seemed to have the freshest wind blowing, and as someone who had been out of the country for six years, it looked really exciting to me.

●What was the difference you felt between New York and Tokyo?
I thought Tokyo had a strong sense of cultural mixing. Both in clothing and cuisine. For example, there are a lot of nice French restaurants in New York, but whether it is French or Italian or anything else, you can find a lot of world-class food in Tokyo. I feel that Tokyo can quickly accept and incorporate various cultures from around the world, interpret them in its own way, and transmit that back to the rest of the world. So, I rented an Airbnb room in Minami-Aoyama when I temporarily returned to Japan for a visit. I went to COMMUNE (*1) almost every day, and that is how I learned about TOBACCO STAND (*2). The Omotesando area has streets lined with luxury brands, so having something like COMMUNE there, a somewhat chaotic space, made for an interesting mix of people that all mingled together in this space. I was really attracted by this concept and it moved me.

A community space in Omotesando that used to house Midori-so Omotesando, Freedom University, food stalls, and more. It closed in 2021.
Tobacco shop and coffee stand located at the entrance of COMMUNE. It sold cigarettes from all over the world and also closed in 2021.

●Did you find this mixing of cultures and slight chaos as inspiration for a new challenge?
I was in Paris for a month but that feeling of mixing and adapting was missing. France has a long history but in a way, Paris is Paris, for better or worse. I think that’s part of what makes it so cool and so successful as a tourist destination. But it didn’t feel challenging to me, so I chose Tokyo as my base.

●What have you been doing since you returned to Tokyo?
After returning to Japan at the end of 2017, I thought for a while about what I was going to do, and I decided to rent a room in Sendagaya, which is located quite close to COMMUNE. I think it helped inspire me to start my own company.

●What kind of company did you start?
It’s a ginger syrup brand. When I was opening the restaurant in Guatemala, I was looking for a drink that would be a signature drink for the restaurant, and I learned that there is a lot of ginger in Guatemala, which is located at an altitude of 1,500 meters. But in Guatemala, ginger ale is mass-produced in plastic bottles, so I decided to make ginger syrup.

●Was that ginger syrup popular in Guatemala?
It became so popular that customers would come to the shop just to buy ginger ale. I thought that this idea could be done easily in Tokyo, so I started manufacturing and selling ginger syrup. With no experience in Japan, I searched for bottles, found a factory, and went to Kochi to find ginger farmers. We developed products and started to market them, and that was our first job!

●You were at the Farmer’s Market in Aoyama (*3), weren’t you?
At first, I was stocked in different markets, but after becoming a regular at TOBACCO STAND, I was introduced to the management team of the Farmers Market and they let me open a stall. Gradually I was asked to join the management team, where my experience in advertising and public relations came in handy. I was tasked with bringing in corporate projects to the Farmers Market and to COMMUNE.

※3 Aoyama Farmers Market
A market that is held every weekend in front of the United Nations University in Aoyama.

●Are there any events that left a lasting impression on you?
At the time (2019), I was into craft gin and raised my hand to do a craft gin event, albeit a small one, at the Farmers Market. I thought it would be a good idea to focus on the agriculture and raw materials side of gin. So I went to Hiroshima to interview farmers of juniper berry forests, the raw material of gin and turned the knowledge I gained there into an experience at the venue. I think we were able to attract a good number of visitors while also getting the word out to the media through announcements.

It just felt like a place that was made by a group of friendly people, who wanted to create something different from all the other conventional hotels.

●And this process led you down the path towards your current role at K5?
I am not sure if it was because of this or not, but my relationship with Kabutocho began when I was approached by Matsui of Media Surf, who asked me to be in charge of PR for the opening of K5.

●What was your initial impression of Kabutocho?
I used to work nearby in areas such as Ginza and Shiodome, but I was completely unaware of the area at first. I didn’t have much of an impression at all, I only had an overall gray image of the area. At the time, K5 was still in a state where nothing had been built, but the building itself was tasteful, reminiscent of Barney’s New York. It had geometric patterns that must have been popular at the time, giving it a solid gray impression, just as I had studied when I was in college!

●How did it feel when K5 finally opened?
I had lots of different feelings about it, but I felt that this was a place in Tokyo that we could be proud of; a place where we could present the future of Tokyo to the world. Above all, it just felt like a place that was made by a group of friendly people, who wanted to create something different from all the other conventional hotels.

●What were some of the things you had to do before the space was opened?
Back then, we did what was called media relations. I would listen to the thoughts and design concepts of the three founders and other members of K5 and put them into press releases that would then be sent out. The experience of working with Taisuke Nakamuro of ‘muroffice’, a senior member of the PR industry, is something that I’ll never forget.

●What did you do after K5 was opened?
The birth of K5 was a big story in Japan and abroad, and we received a lot of inquiries and requests for interviews on a daily basis. Every day flew by as we provided information, responded to interviews, and confirmed articles. However, Corona happened soon after the opening.

●Were there any difficulties you experienced in your job that was caused by the Corona outbreak?
The presence and content power of K5, including the design of the building itself, was truly amazing, and we were able to write articles of incredible quality and quantity. However, it was a bittersweet situation where we could not see the outcome and reaction to these articles. In fact, the hotel was completely closed from April. For someone, whose role is to convey and share information, I felt as if the significance and results of the project had been taken away.

●Are you able to see those outcomes now?
Finally, after about two years, I am gradually beginning to see some results. Sometimes the front desk at the hotel will ask customers what brought them there. When I hear someone say “I saw it in an architectural magazine” or “I read about it”, I feel a deep sense of reward.

I would like to continue to unravel the context that runs deep within peoples’ thoughts and feelings and communicate that to the greater society.

●In that sense, has there been any change in your impression of the city that you once described as gray?
The hotel opened with the primary goal of revitalizing Kabutocho, and six months down the track another five or so shops opened up in the area. I think the flow of people and the overall color of the area have changed. I heard real estate agents and people in the neighborhood say “it didn’t use to be a place for weekends or to come and enjoy cake, coffee, or lunch,” so I felt that it has changed a lot in the six months between February to August of 2020.

●What is your experience working with “Kontext” as a media outlet that is similar to K5 in its efforts to revitalize the city?
The more I get to know everyone through interviews, the more I realize that the attraction of a city is its people. I think this is a very good initiative from both a PR and a personal perspective.

●What’s your next goal?
We have an ongoing project where we try to communicate and educate people about Kabutocho. As a part of that, I am in charge of editing and managing the progress of “Kontext,” and I find it very rewarding to highlight the background and context of the people who naturally gather here, and to convey this to the world. I feel that the context of a place is usually composed of its history and of peoples’ thoughts and feelings. I would like to continue to focus on these two elements in my various projects, and in particular, I would like to continue to unravel the context that runs deep within peoples’ thoughts and feelings and communicate that to the greater society.

●I look forward to seeing what kind of context you will pick up from being on the cutting edge of Tokyo.
The hotel led me to architecture, and then to running my own guesthouse and restaurant. Looking back on it now, it feels very strange that the trajectory of my life has been condensed into K5. It was the starting point to which I should return, or in Spanish, ‘casa’, which means home, family, or hometown. I think I’m very lucky, but I also feel that the number of enjoyable places throughout Tokyo and Japan will increase as a result of this kind of urban development, and that will benefit everyone.

Kohei Okura

Kohei Okura

Born in Tokyo in 1982, he is the president of KIIIRO Inc. As a student in Yokohama, he encountered a hotel building that inspired him to become an architect, but he changed his focus to advertising and PR when he was a senior in college. After working for a PR agency for almost five years, he left the agency when he turned 30 to begin a backpacking journey. During his six years in Guatemala, he opened a guesthouse “Casa Menta Antigua” and a restaurant “Origami Organic + Oriental”, and after traveling extensively, he returned to Japan. Based in Tokyo, he is in charge of PR for “K5” and is constantly taking on new challenges in the fields of architecture, design, hotels, and urban development.

Text : Jun Kuramoto

Photo : Naoto Date

Interview : Jun Kuramoto

Kohei Okura

K5 PR Director / Kontext Editor

Shun Hishiya

caveman - Chef Associate

Interesting people in Kabutocho

caveman – Chef Associate Shun Hishiya
I am wondering what kind of roots he has as a chef and what kind of culture inspired him to create his original cuisine.