Japanese Illustrator Kaori Watanabe on How Travel Informs Her Creative Process


The whimsical artist, also known as foxco, reflects on how her early travels shaped her perspective on life, and why she feels the most inspired when she’s on the road.

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“My biggest inspirations are traveling and fashion,” says Kaori Watanabe. The Tokyo-born illustrator’s cheerful, pop drawings have graced brands such as Ralph Lauren, Shiseido and Starbucks. She’s sketched her way around the world, her drawings serving as a record of the people she’s met, the things she’s seen, the details she’s noticed and the feelings she’s experienced.

Exploring from a young age

Kaori started to travel and draw at a young age. “We would go on family trips when I was little, but I started wanting to travel, or rather I started to get interested in seeing the world from a different scope, when I was a 6th grader in elementary school.”

But it was a homestay experience at an Australia farmhouse while in elementary school that cemented her wanderlust. Although she was confident of her social skills in Japan, she felt frustrated that her poor English skills made her shy, by her shyness caused and became determined to explore places outside of her comfort zone. Australia taught Kaori to challenge herself and question the “common sense” ideas that actually vary from country to country and culture to culture.

The artist also has a great fondness for Canada, where she lived during high school. She recounts an example of how the Canadian way of life influences her still. “In Japan everyone gets on the bus in a fixed and orderly line, but in Canada, they had a rough order like if there was a person with big luggage, they get on the bus first even when the person is young. I appreciated the easy-goingness…. I brought back that idea to Japan, and let a person with big luggage go first. Then another person in line started to help that person carry on the luggage. At that moment I realised the importance of trying something new.”

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Speaking of Canada... “The best trip I have been on is probably a trip to Banff,” says Kaori. “On the “Mountains in Banff the trees are asymmetrical as the side facing the northern winds are barren, while branches on the other side spread out gracefully. It was distorted and beautiful. When I saw the grandeur of that nature, I felt that beauty was not in appearance, but in the way you live.”

Seeking creative inspiration

Kaori’s Instagram account is a mix of her travels; whimsical fashion details; sketches of people and animals with flowing caftans and brightly colored handbags; and glimpses of nature. Travel is one of the driving forces of her art, and drawing is an integral part of the way she travels.

“I make illustrations of what happens every day during my trips. Sometimes I draw at restaurants, and other times, if I can get a brochure or a flyer, I draw on them, too. All in all, I like to draw at cafés or hotel lobbies and watch the people go by; they are my favorites,” she says.

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Taking on the streets of Paris

Her love for art and travel brought her to Paris during university, where she studied drawing and sculpture at the Pantheon-Sorbonne. She kept busy with plenty of assignments, but gained energy from the streets. “When I felt tired, I would go out to the city and sketch seemingly happy people drinking and chatting outside. I had so much fun doing this, and it feels like it all started from there, so Paris holds a special place in my heart.”

Another cultural difference became clear on a train in the French countryside. “During a train ride from Paris heading south, the train suddenly stopped. If this was the case in Japan, there would probably be transfers that sent us to our destinations, but that’s not how it was in France. I was told ‘that’s it for the day’ and the train just got stuck there. We got off and stayed one night in the city where the train had stopped. I was shocked, but no one was angry,” she laughs.

Indulging in her wanderlust

Kaori has continued to hit the road as often as she can, especially when life starts to feel predictable. She also makes it a point to record as much of it as she is able to. And her wandering provides not only subject matter, but also informs her craft.

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“I tend to draw, things that can’t be seen on Google Maps, and I draw by virtue of the people I meet and the inspiration I get from them. And that inspiration influences how I choose the brush and the colors I use when creating illustrations.”

Inspiration comes thick and fast on the road. And unlike normal days at home, while traveling, Kaori finds her enthusiasm can’t be contained. “I feel like going on trips gives me new ways of drawing or new ways of expressing myself. I always draw pictures in white margins, but when I go on a journey, I put everything in one sheet and make it like a diary because there are many things to cover.”

Kaori briefly moved to London in 2019, but returned to Japan once COVID-19 hit. And she can’t wait to get back to traveling. “In my illustrations, of course I have my favorite motifs, but I always look for something different, like new motifs, and seek new kinds of expressions. I want to remain an explorer.”



Japanese Artist Kaori Watanabe Shares Her Post-Pandemic Travel Bucket List


While the pandemic has allowed the illustrator to explore more of Japan, she’s raring to take to the skies again someday soon – with trips to Taiwan, Hawaii, Portugal and London at the top of the agenda.

COVID-19 threw a wrench in the works for Kaori Watanabe, along with everyone else. The illustrator, who also uses the name “Foxco” for her art, had just moved to London in the fall of 2019 to continue to pursue her freelance illustration career. But with the uncertainty of the pandemic, and borders closing everywhere, 2020 brought her back to Japan after just a few months.

Life comes to a standstill

Work-related projects in Hong Kong and Paris were canceled or postponed as travel ground to a halt. “When I didn’t know what to draw (before), I would go on trips and then I would naturally get inspired to draw something; and I had the right balance there. But that’s not how it works right now due to COVID-19, and it has become difficult to get out to places,” says Kaori.

In the first half of 2020, the artist needed to seek inspiration from things nearby. “Recently, I was on workation in Nagano with my two dogs for about two months and found out that they are very good at finding and catching insects and small animals. I didn’t see them doing that in Tokyo, so when I saw how much fun they were having despite the change in environment, I realised I needed to pull myself together.

Seeing her home anew

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Even though she sorely misses international travel, being “stuck” in Japan has also presented opportunities. “If we didn't have COVID-19, I wouldn’t have looked into going on domestic trips as much as I am right now.”

The onsen (hot spring) resort town of Hakone was the first place she headed to when Japan’s State of Emergency was lifted. “I relaxed all day at a ryokan (Japanese-style inn),” recalls Kaori. “I love onsen, and I like relaxing in the open-air baths and vacantly looking far out into the scenery or at the birds.”

Kaori shares that staying at ryokan feels more friendly and relaxing than staying at hotels, “as if you’re staying at your trusted friend’s place”. She prefers to stay in ryokans whenever she travels in Japan, and revels in the experience of sleeping on futons on a tatami floor; having locally sourced meals served in the room; and then dipping into the hot bath to unwind.

Another favorite place in Japan is Mie Prefecture. Kaori recommends visiting the venerable Ise Shrine. “When I was there walking along, I felt the subtle smell of wood along with the beautiful river flowing down. I walked through that sound and the peaceful forest as well,” recalls Kaori. “It is one of my favorite places in Japan.”

Travels on the horizon

What’s on the agenda when travel opens up more? Kaori’s list is long, with friends, relaxation and exploration all on the itinerary.

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“Two of my best friends live in Taiwan, and I used to visit them every summer. I wasn’t able to visit them last year, and I know I can’t visit them this year either, so I want to go to Taiwan when I get to travel abroad,” she shares. “Part of me also wants to go to Hawaii and just have fun at the beach. I know I did get tired because of COVID-19,” she admits. “I probably would just want to lie down by the shore and relax.”

She’s also dreaming of places that she’d love to draw, and notes that when she’s looking for destinations to find inspiration, she often decides based on color. After coming across some advertisements for Portugal recently, it put the European country at the top of her list. “I haven’t been there yet, but I thought the colors were beautifully vivid.”

Can you be homesick for a home that you only lived in for a few months? It seems to be the case with Kaori. “I have friends here and there in the world, and one of my friends who is also an illustrator FaceTimed me from London. I saw the double-decker bus in her background and also heard the crowd of people talking. And I thought, I want to fly to London so bad!”

So when the pandemic is over, where is she off to?

“My first stop will be London. Actually, some of my belongings are still there because the pandemic forced me to rush home.”



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