John Hein’s first time out of the USA and Canada was just last June when he traveled to Milan, Italy for a modeling job. So, when he found out Tokyo would be his new residence for a few months, saying he was thrilled would be an understatement. He wasn’t really sure what to expect though and his knowledge of Japan came mostly from movies and one Haruki Murakami book (naturally). He was prepared for “Lost in Translation”, “Enter the Void” and “My Giant” but what Hein ended up with was exposure to a fascinating culture, a lot of rice balls, some unique modeling jobs and a serious yearning to go back.
Why did you go to Japan and how did you feel when you found out you were going?
I went to Japan because I have blonde hair and blue eyes. Tokyo is the one city I’ve always wanted to visit more than any other in my entire life. It was some of the best news I’ve ever received.
How long were you there?
10 incredible Nigiri-fueled weeks.
What wowed you the most when you arrived?
There’s a level of respect that the Japanese have for each other that is really admirable. They also respect rules a lot, which I really never got used to. For example, people wait in a single-file line to cross the street and won’t walk until they have the green light. Compared to NYC, where I long jump between cabs three feet apart, it was difficult getting used to.
Typical day for you?
6:00AM Rise 6:15AM Look at Internet to see what happened in America the day before 6:19AM Realize I am having way more fun than America is having 6:30AM Put my face on 7:00AM Travel to job 7:30AM Arrive at job, drink three cups of coffee and eat 17 Nigiri (rice balls) for breakfast 8:00AM Make faces at camera. Tell jokes no one understands. Hand gesture a lot 12:00PM Eat bento box 4:00PM Leave job 5:00PM Castings begin. Ride in van with booker who drives me to castings and translates for me 8:00PM Finish casting, eat sushi, explore Tokyo.
How does modeling differ in Japan?
It’s weird, but not in a bad way. Quite the opposite actually. The jobs just weren’t jobs that I probably would do in America or Europe. Numerous times for a magazine editorial, I was in a tux, getting married to a Russian girl.
How does fashion and style sense differ?
Tokyo street fashion is on another level from what we do in America. There’s one area of the city called Harajuku, where it seems like Halloween sometimes. A lot of youth dress in what I would perceive as a costume in NYC; girls clad with human-sized doll outfits, green hair, 6-inch platform Chuck Taylor’s and a bomber jacket just walking amongst a sea of charcoal suit wearing salesmen. While anyone dressed like that on the subway here [NYC] looks totally try-hard, the Japanese do it so effortlessly.
Craziest photo-shoot you did while in Japan?
I did the in-store posters for Gu, a line of Uniqlo. I arrived and was put into prosthetic alien ears and a wig and covered with silver glitter. I was stoked.
How were you able to adapt to the language barrier?
It was difficult to overcome in some instances, but I learned a few simple Japanese phrases that made it easier. The fashion industry also has a higher amount of English-speaking people than most.
What did you miss most about home?
Peanut butter and Sriracha.
Craziest food you tasted?
I had the incredible pleasure of eating at Sukiyabashi Jiro. It’s a three Michelin star restaurant located in the subway station of Ginza, Tokyo. There’s a documentary called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” about the restaurant and its highly disciplined executive chef.
The meal was 20 courses and lasted 25 minutes. I basically ate one of everything in the ocean. Watching the 86-year-old chef and his still apprenticing son work was awe-inspiring. Their level of respect and dedication to their craft is on another level. I feel very privileged to have had a chance to eat there.
There are a lot of models that travel to Japan for few months for work. How does the community adapt to that?
It’s an interesting phenomenon. Japan is not a very diverse place as almost 99% of the population is ethnic Japanese. (Thank you Wikipedia!). So, when a bunch of tall, pale Europeans and Americans are all moving there and in groups together, it looks rather out of place. But, nearly everyone I came across was super nice and strangely helpful. I think that kindness and respect is just part of the culture. I had someone take ten minutes and go the opposite direction of where he was walking in order to lead me to my destination. Not used to that.
Why do you think Tokyo is such a hot fashion city?
Appearance is very important in Tokyo. In general, their population is more sharply dressed than New Yorkers. The businessmen there even wear suits that aren’t two sizes too large, if you can believe that. Making a good impression seems to be an important matter in Tokyo. When it comes to the fashion world, things get incredibly creative and the quality of materials and craftsmanship can be unparalleled.
If you had a Japanese name, what would it be?
アメリカカラ空想少年 (“America’s Fancy Boy”)
Instagram: @johnhein Twitter: @heinjohn
Interview and story by Talia Fabrizio.