Best Last Minute Gifts, May 2005

It’s nearly impossible to keep your hands off the merchandise at Tortoise. About the size of a tansu chest, the shop is devoted to shibui, the Japanese idea of peerless beauty. The ceramics, textiles, metal objects, and woodwork here, made with an abiding reverence for ancient methods and tools—and the keen eye that handwork develops—are new yet timeless, simple yet complex. The designs belong to no particular ism. Take the store’s mascot, a little copper and tin wasabi grater in the shape of (what else?) a tortoise. A smithy taps out each razor-sharp tooth to form an irregular pattern, says co-owner Keiko Shinomoto, “because the rougher surface makes grating easier and faster and produces the fibrous texture that brings out flavor.” A Kyoto-made tea leaf container, lined with pewter, is hand-soldered so perfectly that the cylindrical lid drifts down on its own over the canister, ingeniously forcing out air to form a vacuum seal. A wappa cup, a small tumbler coiled from 250-year-old vertical-grained cedar, is practically weightless but insulates hot and cold as efficiently as any space-age foil. Shinomoto and her husband, Taku, who designs furniture and co-owns the shop, travel to their native country four times a year, searching for things, she says, “that already have a long history and will last a long time.”