Artist Interview: Yuki

Artist Interview: Yuki

Artist Itoi Yuki's Joy of drawing turns into joyful things!

Written by Justine Dunn / April 9th, 2024 / Main Photo: Artist Itoi Yuki's drawing


As someone who is just as passionate about Japan as they are about puzzles, I’m always drawn to puzzle designs that feature elements or artwork inspired by Japanese culture.

When I first laid eyes on the ‘Big Restaurant’ puzzle I instantly recognized some of the foods as being distinctly part of modern Japanese cuisine. I soon discovered that the artist behind this wonderful and whimsical artwork was Japanese artist Itoi Yuki.

A quick sidenote: In Japan it is considered polite to refer to another by their last name along with the honorific suffix “san” (meaning Mr/Ms). So, throughout this article I’ll refer to the artist Itoi Yuki as “Itoi-san”.

Often when we think of Japanese cuisine, iconic dishes like sashimi and yakitori come to mind. So, I appreciate that Itoi-san chose to feature some less well-known (outside of Japan), but no less iconic Japanese dishes. I’m not sure if it was her intention, but all of the foods featured – parfait, omurice (omelette over rice), souffle pancake (fluffy style pancake), hamburger (meat patty with rice and vegetables), pizza, curry rice and spaghetti – they seem like comfort foods. Perhaps a treat or favourite meal to reward yourself or maybe just simply to evoke happiness? Either way I think these delicious looking dishes work well with the cute characters that fill the scene. By combining these ridiculously large dishes with an abundance of tiny characters getting up to all sorts of shenanigans, Itoi-san has created such a fun and fantastical world!


When Soon (founder of Soonness) asked if I’d like to interview Itoi-san I was immediately intrigued and excited. That is until Soon suggested the interview be conducted in Japanese… via video call! My excitement soon turned to apprehension. You see, I had studied Japanese language and Japanese culture at university. Although I was far from fluent in Japanese during my uni days, doing something like this wouldn’t have phased me too much. However, it had been a good couple of years since finishing uni and my Japanese skills had become rather rusty. The old adage of "use it or lose it" definitely rings true when it comes to languages. Thankfully since finishing uni I had been taking a weekly Japanese lesson so not all was lost. And my very kind Japanese teacher agreed to review and help me correct my interview questions.

After much procrastination I was finally ready for the interview. I was interested to know about Itoi-san’s background and decided to start by asking about her childhood.

Itoi-san grew up in Akiruno City in Tokyo prefecture. Despite its location, there are mountains and rivers in Akiruno making it a place that’s abundant with nature.

She even lived closer to a camp site than a convenience store. Japan is overflowing with convenience stores, so to not have one nearby suggests she must really have been in a remote location! She loved playing in nature but loved drawing and creating things just as much. And would often play outside with her cousins and create homemade boardgames like ‘sugoroku’ and play together (‘sugoroku’ is a type of Japanese board game, it can either be similar to snakes and ladders or there’s a version similar to backgammon). Her grandpa was also a creative person and was skilled at making many types of things. He would create various things for her and her cousins, like swings and basketball hoops. Itoi-san says she inherited her grandpa’s mentality for making things on her own. Drawing and creating things were activities that both felt fun and very familiar to her.

Drawing was something that she especially loved to do.

She was always drawing pictures at home and at school. She would create posters for her grandpa’s vegetable stall outside his house and would draw covers for her friends’ school notebooks. She also enjoyed recreating popular cartoon characters like Sailor Moon, Pokémon, Hello Kitty, and Disney. She says looking back, she was like a little illustrator.

Apart from her childhood and the place she grew up, I was interested to know what else inspires Itoi-san.

She tells me that she has always liked general goods and has been a collector of stationery items such as notepads and stickers from a young age.

Since her location made general goods stores hard to come by, she would instead swap items with friends and her cousins in order to add a variety of things to her collection. Even today she enjoys visiting general goods stores and feels a sense of excitement when she sees colourful and cute items.

When I asked Itoi-san to describe her art style she explained that although she creates various things such as illustrations, miscellaneous goods and picture books, they all share a commonality – the presence of ideas and discoveries. She creates colourful and narrative-rich pieces. This can certainly be seen in ‘Big Restaurant’ where a bustling and colourful scene comes to life before our very eyes. You can almost hear plates and cutlery clanging and exclamations of delight as patrons sample the over-sized, delicious food.

I wanted to know how she felt when she was asked to feature one of her artworks on a Soonness puzzle. She told me that creating a puzzle was something she had always wanted to do, so naturally this made her happy. She showed me one of the picture books she had created called ‘Chibi Story World’ featuring many of her whimsical artworks. For the collaboration Soon asked Itoi-san to choose an image from ‘Chibi Story World’ that she would like to have turned into the puzzle… I think you can guess which one she ended up choosing! Itoi-san told me how excited she was that one of the scenes from her picture book was going to be turned into a puzzle! 

I wanted to know a little more about the ‘Big Restaurant’ artwork. It started out as one of the scenes of the ‘Chibi Story World’ picture book. There isn’t really any super deep or philosophical meaning hidden within the artwork, just simply Itoi-san’s desire to create a place filled with over-sized, comfort food that would make her happy. And she achieved this with ‘Big Restaurant’, all of the cute and delicious-looking dishes certainly create a feeling of joy.

‘Big Restaurant’ was definitely a wonderful choice for a puzzle. Not only is it such a fun image, but when it comes to the intricacies of what makes for an enjoyable puzzling experience there’s a good mix of small, interesting details along with larger and easier to do elements. However, looking at some of the other fantastic scenes from the ‘Chibi Story World’ picture book I can imagine it must have been a tough decision choosing! Itoi-san showed me some of the other scenes from the book including a cute school playground scene which I thought was quite nostalgic. She also showed me a colourful underwater scene featuring mermaids and lots of cute details. I told her that I thought a colourful underwater scene would also make for a fun and popular puzzle image if she were ever to create another puzzle… hint hint!

So when it came to the collaboration process, it sounds like it was smooth sailing. Itoi-san explained how Soon was there to answer all her questions and guided her through the process from start to finish. According to Itoi-san, the collaboration helped her to feel more confident in her own work. She also told me how touched she was when Soon attended her solo exhibition while visiting Japan and they were able to meet in person!

I was curious if she had put together her own copy of the ‘Big Restaurant’ puzzle. According to Itoi-san, her mother took the lead since she puzzles often, and she ended up becoming the puzzler’s assistant instead! Apparently, her mother enjoys puzzling nature scenes that include a lot of greenery and trees, so I’m sure ‘Big Restaurant’ would have appealed to her too. However, Itoi-san found it quite a challenging image to piece together, but still a lot of fun!

Since completing the puzzle collaboration with Soonness I was interested to know what other projects she had been working on. It seems Itoi-san had been quite busy with making various items, drawing magazine covers and also writing picture books. She also told me about a pop-up shop she held where she sold her original items and also sold signed copies of the ‘Big Restaurant’ puzzle. Apparently, the puzzles were a hit as they ended up selling out! I knew things like model kits were popular in Japan, but I had no idea that puzzles were also quite popular (something I would discover on my next trip to Japan!). When I asked her about it, she told me that bookstores in Japan often had a puzzle corner. And when it comes to puzzle images, all sorts of designs are available, including Disney characters and nature images - designs to appeal to both children and adults.

When it comes to the future, I wanted to know if Itoi-san had any goals or dreams. She surprised me by telling me how she would love to be able to create a picture in the sky…

She explained that she wanted to make a balloon style kite featuring one of her original characters which would float in the sky.

She would also love to hold an exhibition outside in a park (where the kite of course could be displayed) instead of an indoor gallery. Based on her many wonderful ideas that Itoi-san has already turned into reality, I have no doubt that we’ll one day soon be seeing a colourful character floating over Tokyo!   

Funnily enough as I’m finishing up writing this article, I’m actually travelling around Japan with my husband! Although we haven’t yet discovered any secret forest clearings with a giant-food festival taking place, we have managed to indulge in a few of the iconic dishes featured in ‘Big Restaurant’. So far between the two of us we’ve consumed many delicious and cheesy pizzas (my favourite is the “Quattro Formaggi” – four cheese pizza served with honey drizzled on top), a few curries with rice (both Japanese and Indian styles), a variety of spaghetti dishes (although tomato sauce is the classic) and a very fancy parfait (only one?! I’m working hard to rectify this!). Before the end of our trip I’m definitely aiming to add souffle pancakes to the list.

I was also thinking that if Itoi-san were to ever create a ‘Big Restaurant 2’, then perhaps she might consider adding “purin” (pudding) as one of the giant comfort foods. After seeing this dessert sold in many convenience stores and cafes here (and also sampling more than my fair share), it occurred to me just how popular and iconic this wobbly and delicious treat is here in Japan! 


Get to know the Author: Justine Dunn

Justine (aka Jigsaw Jubie) is a puzzle enthusiast, content creator, and a graphic designer based in Sydney, Australia. She has always been interested in puzzles, even as a kid. But it wasn't until early 2020 that her interest started turning into a full-blown obsession!

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