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Jetlagged but jogging

jason

Somehow my body decided 5 am was the best time to get out of bed. I made some breakfast and then went jogging for a while at Greenlake around 6:30 in the morning. This is not a normal time of day for me to exercise… jogging I consider perfectly reasonable, but rarely is my body convinced to budge early enough to do any exercise that early in the morning. The big surprise was that I met a MSN colleague jogging in the opposite direction a couple of times.

I started the work to get a bank transfer out to my ceramics suppliers in Japan. It’s a little more frustrating than I was hoping, but I think I have everything in place for it to be completed by morning. Some of the bank information that makes transfers work more smoothly wasn’t provided by the suppliers, so I had to arrange some more complicated strategy to get it to them. Anyway, everything should be fine.

As for my other job, in the morning I filed my formal resignation notice. After that, I hurried through my performance document and I think I also did something useful, perhaps. I’m hoping I can maintain a little motivation.

Serving notice

jason

Every time I’ve returned from a long vacation to my job at Microsoft, I’ve struggled with a ton of unpleasant feelings and internal conflicts. Most of the time, I just worked to quiet my impulses to run away and then I’d be able to hold on 6 months or 12 months or more.

Since I was fully prepared for my departure from Microsoft this time, it wasn’t quite as painful to come back, but I did catch myself wincing as I opened the door to my office this morning. I also noticed myself jittering with nervous tension at lunchtime, after I had been at the office a few hours. Some kind of negative energy builds up as the hours pass, but at least I have something to look forward to, so the overall frustration level is low.

My manager asked me to draft my performance review, a request to which I didn’t quite know how to respond… I said I wasn’t terribly concerned about it, but then I thought better of it and said I could take care of it. Toward the end of the day we had our regularly scheduled one-on-one meeting for the first time since I told him I’d be taking some time off.

Of course, I readily told him that I was leaving, and then we talked a little bit about what I had been doing the last few weeks and showed him my business card. I think he was happy that I was choosing something adventurous rather than just taking the first job that came along… He almost sounded a little jealous.

In any event, I agreed to serve out another couple of weeks to finish one of the deliverables in one of my projects, so I have to live with a little more distraction before I can tend to my new life.

Most of the day was rather pleasant, because I was able to talk about my plans with everyone who knows how much I’ve wanted to move on for the last year and a half, and even get a few useful contacts. I’ll try to make the best of the next couple of weeks.

A very clean and busy final day

jason

Hectic, but productive… my last day in Tokyo involved checking out of an Ōmori hotel and rushing to a 10:30 am meeting with at the Shimbashi-area office of a Japanese soap company. Their most distinctive product is made with white cedar extract (also known as Japanese cypress) and Japanese charcoal. I also got to look at some of their other stuff, including a thick, soft soap that is made with soy milk, sesame or almond “tofu” and packaged in cute little containers that look like “oborodōfu” (soft tofu) and covered with a “wata” style paper top. They are still hand packaged, so production capacity is so limited that I probably can’t get any for 6 months.

After a couple of hours of conversation, I came away with wholesale rates and reasonable terms for modest orders. Mostly I’m happy with the terms, though I’ll probably revisit some requests for additional concessions when I have meaningful volume for them. On the airplane I ran some numbers so I can start thinking about some sales scenarios and maybe an initial order.

Before heading off to the airport I wanted to grab a little lunch, and a very aggressive staff at a Chinese restaurant near the JR Shimbashi station came outside to encourage me to eat at the restaurant whose menu I was eyeing. When I told them I don’t eat meat or fish in Japanese, they said “oh, ok, we can do a special order for you” in English. I went inside. I ended up with ma pao toufu made with meat after all… when they asked if it tasted ok, I said “actually, I don’t eat meat” and they said “oh, you should have told me you’re vegetarian.” Go figure. Anyway, they promptly replaced it and I had a nice side dish with chingensai (bok choy) and garlic.

Apparently this restaurant has recently changed ownership. I watched the woman who handled most of the order-taking chat with every customer and aggressively solicit feedback on the food… Many complained that the food was too sweet or “usui” (literally thin or more naturally translated as weak or bland). If they had the slightest of complaints she whisked away their food and arranged for a replacement. In my case, I specified at the beginning that I didn’t want sweet, and I ended up with pleasant, very simple food. I got the feeling, though, that the aggressive, overly accommodating customer interaction was more bewildering for their Japanese customers than it was satisfying… as

I arrived at Narita a little later than I had hoped, but that was because I wandered around slightly confused at Ōmori in search of the hotel and then, when I returned, I had some trouble finding the reservation window to buy a Narita Express ticket. Anyway, the day starts all over again when I arrive at home… It’ll be Monday morning when I arrive.

One of the natural consequences of the end of my trip was a slightly increased level of anxiety… Over the last few days, I have had tinges of worry: not doubts, exactly; just nervous energy and the predictable consequences of more carefully analyzing the risks and possible outcomes of decisions I have to make very soon… I still have confidence that I can carry everything out but I know there’s an awful lot of work ahead of me.

When I return home today, I’ll get some rest, but tomorrow I also have to make some final arrangements for my new life, and I have a lot of logistics trouble to worry about. I’m looking forward to figuring everything out.

Ceramics buying trip in Mashiko, and meeting the potters

jason

Today was my first purchase of note. I picked ceramic wares from three different artists at two different dealers. My original intent was to buy from four separate dealers, but time was getting tight.

I ended up buying a substantial amount of work from a Mr. Minowa, who is a 60-something potter who does beautiful gas-fired work using the classic Mashiko kaki-yu (persimmon glaze), but which depending on oxidation or reduction factors can take on a temmoku-like appearance, a red rainbow striated pattern, or sometimes a luster-like metallic appearance. Kaki-yu is an iron-based glaze but is very versatile in gas-fired work. I bought about 12 guinomi for drinking sake, a few sakazuki, which are lower, wider forms also for sake, various meoto-jawan (husband-wife sets for tea), and a good number of vases. Mr. Minowa came to the gallery to meet us and show us some additional work. He invited us to come and see his workshop after we finished our other business today.

At another gallery, I bought out probably 75% of a show from a young potter name Mr. Akutsu, who was doing his first solo exhibition. He previously co-presented most of his work with his family. His work has about three or four motifs but tends toward earthy textures… sometimes a wood-like appearance, sometimes lighter colors, and sometimes a strong green glaze. A lot of his work is slab built, but of course his cups and bowl-like forms are wheel thrown. We talked to him a little bit and then made a lot of work for him and the staff by selecting more than a hundred pieces from the collection.

Hiromi and I were getting tremendously hungry by around 4:30, so while they were doing some initial packing and drawing up the long invoice, we walked across the street to get a bite to eat at a nearby Mashiko café. Everything at that café is served on Mashiko ware… almost everything is Wafuu (Japanese style) western food… we had a Japanese-style pasta dish with mushrooms and nori, a cheese-heavy “pizza” with little chunks of potato on top, and some salad in a beautifully rustic Mashiko plate with braided handles. Afterword we leapt for the yuzu-flavored desserts, a yuzu poundcake and yuzu cheesecake, served with lemon tea.

When we came back I made some additional selections for work from Mr. Yoshiaki Senda, which are pricy but very desirable pots made by combining multiple colored clays into floral or geometric patterns. The technical complexity of this work is truly amazing. In most cases, the pattern is visible on both the inside and outside of the form. I bought a relatively small amount of these pots because of budget constraints, but I think it will be easy to sell them.

We made some final logistics arrangements with the gallery owners and tried to find Mr. Minowa’s workshop, which is about 20 minutes from the center of Mashiko by car if you know where you’re going, or 40 minutes if you have never been there before. He comes to meet us at a nearby landmark after we call him, then leads us toward his home.

A windy dirt and gravel road leads off the main street to his home and workshop. He greets us and shows us around the outdoor parts of his workshop… He points us toward his mostly dormant noborigama (climbing kiln), his huge gas kiln, and his stash of clay. When we come inside he shows us his kickwheels and some unfired, bisqued and recently produced work. His wife, who had been representing him at the gallery, served us some black tea in English-style cups.

He then proceeds to show us some of his other pieces and tell us about the happy accidents and intentional manipulations that make up his work. My friend understands only a little of the Japanese terminology for ceramic materials and techniques, but occasionally when I volunteer an English technical term for the same thing Mr. Minowa seems to recognize when I get it right. Occasionally all of us are at a loss to communicate in a way that is meaningful to more than one of us, so we aren’t always sure what we understand…

We are forced by time constraints to depart his studio at about 8:45 pm, even then uncertain if we’ll get back to Tokyo in time for Hiromi to return her car to Yokohama and for me to get to the hotel near Shimbashi. Today was an incredible experience, though, as I had a chance to meet two of the potters whose work I had planned to buy since my last trip. I look forward to coming back here a few months from now and making another buy… This small purchase is more of a test to see what it takes to market handmade ceramics to an American audience… if it goes well, I’ll need to be buying on a larger scale than I could on this trip. If not so well, then I’ll need to be very good at acting as an import agent on the other stuff I’ve been investigating.

I’ve been an avid collector of Japanese ceramics for quite a long time, though, and this is really a labor of love for me. So even if it takes some time to develop an audience for these ceramics, I’ll keep investing in it. These things are too special to go unnoticed by US customers.

Hanami: Cherry blossom viewing

jason

Everything seemed to move in slow motion today, except my watch.

I got out of my hotel around 10:30, about 30 minutes after the official checkout time. Today the plan was to go meet some of Hiromi’s friends for a slightly premature hanami (cherry blossom viewing) in a park at Nakayama (Yokohama). I think we arrived about an hour and a half after our intended time, and we started preparing sandwiches to take with us to the park.

My contribution was roasting some red peppers and eggplant, then making roasted pepper, cheese and lettuce sandwiches, and some sandwiches made with briefly marinated eggplant and cheese. We arrived at the park around 2pm and snacked on various things, drank some aged 1988 Japanese sake (18% alcohol, caramel-like color, brandy-like flavor). Some drank “off time” beer, a recently introduced brand which has had its alcohol reduced by 40% compared to typical Japanese beer, or “happo-shu” which is a cheap beer-like drink produced in such a way that it once evaded various beer-related taxes.

The cherry blossoms in this park were probably at about 30% of their peak, but the weather was pleasant, and, as I experienced, the flowers are only an incidental aspect of the hanami experience.

After a couple of hours we cleaned up, and I gave a piggy-back ride to Sanae’s little girl Kyouka on the walk back to their home. We moved rather slowly, but Hiromi did some research to find hotel accommodations for tonight and tomorrow night; I’m going to Mashiko on a buying trip tomorrow and planned to stay overnight either in Utsunomiya or Mashiko. I also needed something for Sunday night close to Shimbashi or Toranomon, so that complicated things too. I should have figured all this stuff out on my own, but I really appreciate receiving help.

Actually we had planned to head off to Utsunomiya by car around 6 pm today, but we didn’t even get to the car until 10pm, so it’s going to be a long night, especially for Hiromi, who’s driving.

Jack's Cafe and cassis sorbet

jason

After exchanging a dozen or so email messages with my shipping vendor, a company that I’m meeting with on Monday, and a Taiwanese tea company, and a few others, I was able to contact a friend in San Francisco via MSN Messenger who may help me with sales and logistics a little bit. We talked a little bit about the Hong Kong confection I’m interested in.

          

There’s nothing in Japan untouched by foreign influence. This is perhaps even more true of Yokohama, as I was reminded today during the times that I was not focused on work.

Around lunchtime I walked over to World Porters near the Akarenga area in Yokohama, and I ended up eating at a sort of Indian-fusion type place. One of the Indian managers of the place came over and greeted me in English and took my order after the hostess up front seated me… Either my Japanese seemed hopeless when the hostess greeted me or they have a very involved manager. The food was elegantly presented and tasted good enough, but not terribly special; I think it suffered a little from being produced with a sort of factory/corporate restaurant mentality.

Afterward, I finally got around to buying a business card holder. My temporary solution of using an envelope was a little embarrassing. The one I picked up was black and gray leather and, in the realm of Japanese department stores, sold for a reasonable price.

At “Cake Mania” I had a nice yuzu cheesecake with a green tea flavored bundt-shaped cake around the filling. It was even decorated with broken green tea leaves and a little gold leaf. I drank a “maccha float”, which was maccha tea with cream (or possibly ice cream) blended like a shake.

I had a little snack after going back to the hotel to do some more work. Hiromi was planning to meet me around 10pm tonight, so I didn’t actually leave the hotel until almost that time, and we met in Sakuragicho.

We walked around in search of a late dinner, but all of the corporate owned options near Sakuragicho were already past their last order time, if open at all. After a long walk in fairly cold winds, we ended up at a place near the Oosanbashi pier named “Jack’s Café”, which was still open at 10pm and seemed to have a few potentially vegetarian items.

Entering Jack’s Café is a completely surreal experience. The interior transports you to Chicago to some 1930s Bohemian old-school café, apparently run by a middle aged woman who bought a better stereo system and decorated with some dried flowers. Lounge-style jazz standards are playing at a comfortable volume. A few cheesecakes, puddings, and cakes are shown in a small rectangular display case near the entrance. The menu could be found in a place run by Seattle or Chicago hipsters: a vaguely Indian spicy potato dish, cold tofu dish with lots of strip cut nori and a soy-based dressing, a semi-Japanese spaghetti dish with various mushrooms and asparagus, and a tomato-based spaghetti dish similarly adorned. I worked around the unexpected pieces of bacon. Although we didn’t have anything to drink, the menu offers coffee with sambuca, a negroni cocktail, and other interesting concoctions.

After dinner I had a cold crepe served over whipped cream and adorned with ribbons of cassis sorbet. Hiromi had a pumpkin pudding with a caramelized sugar sauce, possibly with a hint of Japanese black sugar. The food was all surprisingly decent for a late night haunt, and reasonably priced. I doubt the evening could have ended on a more satisfying note.

Charcoal man sober, dinner in Yokohama

jason

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Michiko and I had made arrangements to speak with Takeshi-san again today to arrange for some product samples that he had promised while slightly intoxicated. In the morning he was pleasant but a little different in demeanor than the previous day, and so we weren’t sure what kind of quantities would be acceptable to ask for.

Actually, he did get in touch with a couple of his colleagues, one representative of the company that does the actual manufacturing for the charcoal pellets for growing plants, and one from the soap company. So he was attempting to be helpful, but we started to feel a little uncomfortable with him for various reasons that are hard to articulate.

We spend the afternoon chasing down the Japan office of the freight company that I had opened an account with in Seattle. They were raising all sorts of issues that I had been assured would not be a problem by the Seattle office, and a sales representative came to meet us in the afternoon in Ginza. He was worried because we have multiple suppliers for ceramics all inexperienced in export, and none of them wanted the slight complication of preparing export documentation. I got a quote for an approximate quantity of ceramics that I expect to ship, and an agreement for the carrier to act as the exporter of record for the relatively small initial order. I was trying to avoid export agents for the ceramics products because they always get a substantial percentage of the transaction for relatively little work; in this case, I was tracking down the suppliers by myself, so they would be doing little more than document preparation… in fact, just document assembly. Anyway, I was relieved that something which sounded like it could have become extremely complicated was resolved quickly and inexpensively.

Lunch was at an Indian set-meal type place and was decent… fresh-tasting, pleasant, inexpensive.

I met Hiromi for dinner and we ate close to her home at Torafuku, a well-funded three-unit restaurant in some recently remodeled building near the station. The food was good enough that very few people were smoking, even at 9pm. We had a fresh tofu dish with three “flavors” of tofu including one with yuzu and one which was actually gomadofu (sesame tofu). We had some freshly-skimmed yuba. We had yasai no sumibi-yaki, charcoal grilled vegetables. We also had some takenoko (bamboo shoot) rice. We drank tea and I had a glass of yuzu-infused sake (for me) and Hiromi had a kabosu drink with sprite (kabosu is a citrus fruit which, like lime, is typically used unripe) and presumably some Japanese shochu (a neutral spirit). The meal was all very sappari… no flavors were very strong, but the natural flavors of each of the ingredients were highlighted. I’ve probably had more impressively sappari dishes, but overall it was fairly pleasant food.

Tomorrow I have little on my calendar, so I’ll just take care of sending some email and doing a little research.

Coincidental charcoal and old friends

jason

The last time I saw my friend Sakurako, who was an exchange student while I attended my first year of school at DePauw University, was just before Christmas in 1998 when I visited Japan for the first time. I have been in touch with her occasionally by email, but she had been hard to reach recently. She actually lives in Hyogo prefecture near Osaka, and I had the good fortune to get an email message from her on Monday. She said it would be a little hard to meet in Osaka on Tuesday because she was preparing for a business trip to Tokyo, but since I happened to be going back to Tokyo anyway, we made arrangements for lunch today.

My friend Michiko and I already had a plan to go to some wholesale markets today, so actually I just adjusted the plan so that the three of us would meet for lunch. Anyway, I was happy to see Sakurako after so many years.

The wholesale area Michiko and I went to afterward seemed to be focused on apparel, and it was too late to get much out of going to the area in Tokyo famous for restaurant supply shops, so we abandoned the effort and went to Ginza.

And then, the most unexpected chain of events happened. After looking around at some ceramics and house wares at Mitsukoshi department store, we ran into someone with a display area on the same floor selling all sorts of Japanese charcoal (sumi or bincho) products. Michiko started asking him some questions and told him about my trading company. He’s actually the owner of the small company that has various charcoal products on display at the department store, and he sort of tours different Mitsukoshi locations to show off his products. (I’ll call him Takeshi-san for convenience here, but it’s not his real name). Takeshi-san invited us to join him for a coffee break, and we actually got some wholesale prices after I showed him my cost structures and estimated retail customer requirements.

We did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and then he said that we should meet for dinner to talk about things a little more. I have very little time before I leave Japan and I had plans for tomorrow, so he cleared his calendar for tonight and I made a last-minute cancellation with Hiromi. (Hiromi wasn’t very happy, but she told me I should have the meeting). We arranged to meet about an hour and a half later.

He took us to a sushi place nearby where he has apparently enough of a regular that he has a reserved bottle of imo-shochu (sweet potato vodka) on hand. He arranged for some vegetarian options for sushi, which were all very sappari and very different from vegetarian attempts at sushi I’ve seen at US Japanese restaurants… the rice was seasoned substantially more subtly and even with simple pickle maki zushi the flavor was very carefully considered.

We talked a lot about prices, product details, and so on, after a reasonable amount of small talk. Michiko actually did most of the talking, as I had a difficult time following Takeshi’s Japanese. I’m sure it was very standard, but somehow I couldn’t keep up… maybe the presence of another Japanese who seemed to have sufficient translation skills made him avoid dumbing-down what he wanted to say, and made me a little more brain-dead. Anyway, he said he would work with me as long as Michiko gets some percentage; he said that he felt she was very trustworthy.

Actually after dinner he extended the discussion to a little more drinking at a somewhat exclusive-looking jazz bar (Michiko and I had simple iced oolong tea and he continued drinking); most of the clients are salary men and are entertained by a single waitress sitting between them. I think we’re the only table without such entertainment (not appropriate in mixed company) and also the one table where the bar’s owner came and spent a substantial amount of time talking to Takeshi and occasionally to us. He spoke in a very familiar way to the staff of both places we visited.

He was generous to what for me are unusual extremes… he even paid for our train tickets home and he accompanied me as far as we were continuing in the same direction. Anyway, tomorrow we’re expected to go and meet him at the department store again to arrange for delivery of some product samples.

Osaka diversion

jason

Sachi and I planned to meet briefly after work today, so I checked out and left my baggage with the hotel. I went to Osaka during the daytime, mostly wandering around Umeda without much of a real objective, even as a tourist. A Korean import/export company representative whom I had hoped to meet in Osaka still hasn’t responded to a mail I sent last week, so I didn’t have much of a business agenda anyway.

I ended up eating at an Italian place for lunch where they had a conspicuous sign in Japanese saying they could cater to customers with allergies, which I took as a sign that my vegetarian habit could be indulged. It turns out that the Japanese mushroom pizza that I ordered doesn’t have anything non-vegetarian in it anyway, and the salad and bread weren’t anything to worry about either. The food was simple and pleasant, though basically unmemorable.

My favorite thing to do when in shopping districts is observing the foods being hawked in department store basements (depa-chika). This proved the most interesting part of the day. I can’t say there were many differences from department stores anywhere else in Japan, but one stand specialized entirely in “curry bread”, in this case a slightly fancier, fresher version of a long-lived staple of Japanese bakeries. The department store experience is somehow a little more welcoming than in Tokyo… somehow the heavy Kansai accents and gravelly voices of the men and warmer, less formal sound of the women hawking various wares makes the energy of the place seem more sincere. Or maybe I’m imagining all of that.

Somewhere I stopped for a maccha-white chocolate cake and maccha ole.

Unfortunately, my friend Sachi got stuck with some overtime work today so our hopes to meet for an hour or so before I ran off to the airport were dashed. After finding the cafe where she suggested we could meet if she was able to escape, I searched for something more substantial, and finally found an Indian/Pakistani restaurant near the station which I hadn’t noticed in previous wandering. The place was completely devoid of customers, but I had one of the nicest palak paneer (or saag paneer) dishes I’ve yet tasted in Japan.

I arrived just about midnight at my dodgy hotel in Yokohama. The room is incredibly small… I think there are never more than 12 inches of space to put my feet. It’s noisy, my cell phone doesn’t seem to stay connected longer than 45 seconds, so completing plans with a friend I’m meeting tomorrow has become complicated… and I am incredibly sleepy and now a little irritable, but I guess it’s just a place to sleep.

Touring Wakayama

jason

The lack of sleep caught up with me. I got out of bed around 5am again only to realize that the only motivation for that was to turn off the alarm clock on my cell phone, which was reprising yesterday’s schedule. I slept another 3 hours or so.

After that I exchanged several email messages with various companies, though I wasn’t able to read a few price sheets that I had asked for since I was unable to open PDF or Word attachments on the hotel business center computers. I guess I’ll look at them Tuesday night or Wednesday sometime.

My major accomplishment as a tourist today was walking through the rain up to Wakayama castle. The grounds for the castle are about 20 minutes from my hotel on foot, and it takes another 10 minutes or so to climb the hill. Inside the castle, the reconstructed interior features institutional tile flooring and various exhibits of historical relics. Most of the artifacts on display are the usual military attire, weaponry and old maps. Usually I look forward to seeing some pottery in such venues, but in this case, there wasn’t much to see; just some roof tiles and the like.

Sachi had previously planned to go to a piano concert which was, unfortunately, sold out, so I didn’t meet her until after I had a small meal at a barely occupied chain izakaya called Iroha, located near my hotel. At Iroha, I had a stone bowl bibimbap, some mochi-mochi-camembert-potato-age, edamame, and some yuzu-infused shochu.

Of course, Sachi was hungry after the concert, so I ended up joining her for a second meal at a more interesting place that she knows. We had some rice croquettes with various seasonings, and some salad-stuffed raw spring rolls with a sort of Caesar dressing, age-dashi-doufu, and a little dessert. The dessert is called Nostradamus, and we ordered it solely because of the name; we didn’t know what was in it until we ordered. It was basically a parfait composed of various ingredients that Japanese expect in parfaits, served with a sparkler and a little bowl of diffusing dry ice in water, intended for a fog effect.

We stayed past our welcome at the restaurant and Sachi dropped me off at my hotel, making arrangements to meet briefly tomorrow before I head to the airport.

Hiromi called me and we chatted a little bit about my trip and about our plans for the next few days.

The Big Buddha: Off to Wakayama and Nara

jason

Awakened by about four alarm clocks after a short night’s sleep, I found my way to Haneda airport. My confusion transferring at Shinagawa meant that I only had a minute or so to spare when trying to transfer to the express Keikyu line. I ended up eating far too much for breakfast at the airport, but I managed to sleep a bit on the airplane.

Of course, somehow my brain wasn’t working entirely correctly when I told my friend I’d be leaving at 7:30 and arriving at 9:30. It’s actually only an hour flight to Kansai airport from Haneda, and although I did know this, somehow I confused myself into thinking I was scheduled to arrive at 9:30. Anyway, when I arrived, I called my friend Sachi, who was surprised that I had arrived hour earlier than she expected. I apologized for being confused. She came at the originally planned time; I waited in an airport Starbucks.

Sachi had arranged to have a couple of her 50-something coworkers drive us to Nara in a big van. When stopping at a rest area, she said, “don’t you think they look like yakuza?” Actually their faces are very rough-looking and they speak with thick Kansai accents, and if you looked at them from across the room you would probably not imagine it was a good idea to pick a fight with them. But they are very gentle, pleasant folks.

This was the first time I’ve been to Nara, so I took various pictures of deer at Nara park, parts of the Daibutsu (big Buddha) temple.

This is a group whose priorities I can appreciate. At the rest stop, we ate tai-yaki (fish-shaped waffles with bean paste in the middle), and Sachi picked up a cake to share in the car. We arrived in Nara not terribly long thereafter, and, after walking around a bit, they started plotting lunch. We did manage to feed “kiza-senbe” to various deer at the park, then walk around the Daibutsu, before actually committing to lunch, which was at an udon/soba/donburi-focused place targeting tourists. Sachi even made a second order for herself after a craving for curry rice overcame her. Within minutes after lunch, we were already eating again; from a street vendor, Sachi bought four sticks of dango (rice dumplings) seasoned with a lightly sweetened soy sauce and divided the spoils. It wasn’t 5 minutes after that when she had us buying freshly-made senbe (crispy rice crackers) with various seasonings.

We visited the 5-storied pagoda nearby, and then headed back to the car. Sachi made a destination stop at a shop which apparently has some of the nicest Warabi-mochi (a sticky, soft Japanese sweet rolled in toasted soybean flour) around; her companions bought obscene numbers of boxes of them. I would have bought some myself but they only stay fresh for a couple of days and I won’t be back in Tokyo to share with others until late Tuesday night.

On four hours of sleep I tended to nod off in the car on the way to Wakayama, and I wasn’t the only one. Sachi was driving on this leg, but her colleagues fell asleep in the back seat soon after digging into the warabi-mochi. I was seriously drowsy; I fell asleep before even getting a chance to try them.  Fortunately, I did get a chance to taste them when we arrived in Wakayama; Sachi and her colleagues stopped to give some to some Thai friends of theirs in town. When Sachi’s friend was curious about the contents of a plastic bag in one of the Thai women’s basket, she claimed to have “etchi no video” (dirty videos) and was going out on a date… This opened the door for him to make a dirty joke after the woman reluctantly tried the warabi mochi, as she commented that she doesn’t like to eat soft things. Apparently they already know each other pretty well, or this is just a regional variation on acceptable behavior, as I’ve rarely seen this kind of interaction between men and women I know in the Tokyo area.

The food didn’t stop. We ended up at a popular local family restaurant, a few notches above the Japanese version of Denny’s, less than an hour after this stop, and we had a private room to celebrate Sachi’s coworker’s birthday.

The vegetarian or almost-vegetarian items included some dengaku-nasu (grilled eggplant with a sweetened miso topping), tofu salad, daikon salad, inari-zushi, and some egg white tempura. They also ordered a few things for the pescevorous. We shared half a fancy strawberry birthday cake from a local French-style cake shop. I probably shouldn’t have eaten so much today, but there was always something there…

If Sachi eats like this everyday, it doesn’t show on her waistline. While not rail-thin, she’s reasonably slim. I suppose her secret is that she keeps on sharing a substantial person of whatever she’s eating with whoever else happens to be around.

When I came back to the hotel I had a complication due to unavailability of a usable internet connection in my room; when my friend called last week to ask if I can connect to the internet in the room, they said, oh, yes, you just plug in and you’ll be fine. Apparently that means you can disconnect the phone and dialup to your usual Japanese internet service providers; I’ve gotten spoiled by in-room broadband, and I don’t have access to the convenient Microsoft dialup system on my new company’s laptop. The hotel tried troubleshooting for an hour or so before we mutually realized this was a communication problem rather than a technical problem. I tried mimicking the settings on the lobby computer and taking advantage of the wireless network down there, but apparently nobody knows how to log in. I found the WEP key in the registry but was stumped by the PPPOE password. After a while, I gave up and did what I could do with Hotmail and the horrible web-based email interface that my provider for yuzutrade.com offers.

On dinner parties and not traveling light

jason

Saturday, March 20, 2004

This morning I packed up my larger suitcase, which is now full of product samples and related pamphlets, in preparation for an early Sunday departure to Kansai airport. I think there’s a little bit of clothing somewhere in there as well. Actually I have little desire to carry this overweight suitcase with me, so I made arrangements to deposit it at the Yokohama area hotel where I’ll be staying on my return.

The hotel in Yokohama is near Bashamichi, where Hiromi and I wandered around last Saturday. It’s a little dodgy… although it’s a full service hotel, it’s at the low end of the scale; a sign at the front door advertises short-term rates for those who might need a room for a few hours in the afternoon. The lobby lounge is occupied entirely by Russian guests who must have discovered the place in a guidebook. My friend Hiromi found the place online, but it doesn’t offer the usual amenities, like a credit-card secured reservation over the telephone, so I also made advance payment on the room for next week while checking my baggage.

We had lunch at a little kissaten-style place nearby which has dozens of varieties of tea and a few interesting tea beverages, but we’re in a bit of a rush, so we order only a couple of simple dishes (a Japanese style dish called omu-raisu, which is an omelet with seasoned rice, in this case made with various mushrooms; a spaghetti arrabiata, described in Japanese as an “angry Italian” dish; soup and salad) and then we move on.

Afterward, we meet Hiromi’s friends, both named Sanae, and go shopping in preparation for nabe dinner party. Nabe is the kind of dish that is nearly always ignored by U.S. Japanese restaurants; it’s a very rustic, humble, communal one-pot meal that is for Japanese in winter what outdoor grilling is for Americans in the summer, except, perhaps, without the heroic grill-meister bravado.

In this case, we were having a miso-seasoned nabe filled with various mushrooms, tofu, a kind of translucent noodle, and greens, with a little bit of kiri-tampo (toasted mochi).

I contributed by making a hijiki (black, noodle-like seaweed) dish with renkon (lotus roots), carrots, and sora-mame (fava beans), and a little dessert of oboro-doufu (very soft, custardy tofu) with boiled sweetened azuki beans and a ginger syrup.

The Sanae whose home we were visiting has a 5-year old boy and an approximately 2-year-old girl. The girl was a bit of a fan of the renkon in the hijiki dish and said “daikon choudai” (please give me some daikon) to her mother a couple of times… she hasn’t quite learned the word renkon yet. Another one of Sanae’s friends also made use of the blanched renkon and carrots I had leftover by pan-frying them in a little butter with a sprinkling of salt, making an elegant and simple appetizer or drink accompaniment.

Everyone was fairly sleepy after dinner and I was one of three people who dozed off occasionally near the couch. I need every bit of rest I can get, as I only have time for about four hours of sleep tonight.

Bewitched in Japan

jason

Today I didn’t feel very productive, but I did get my account with Yamato Transport established and I got a confirmation on an appointment with a soap company I’m very interested in buying from.

Other than that, I sent out a few inquiries and replied to a few other messages. My major accomplishment was taking care of a couple of loads of laundry and initiating some packing; tomorrow I need to move some of my belongings to a temporary storage place; lugging my larger suitcase, now full of product samples and literature, to Osaka for a few days starting Sunday, is not my idea of fun..

Lunch was leftover baguette from breakfast, with lettuce and some relatively cheap (for Japan) Brie. Actually I really wish I wasn’t closer to department stores than to a known grocery store, because for one thing department store foods start out more expensive, and they tend to offer more western foods.

I’m perfectly capable of cooking with Japanese ingredients, but collecting them at department stores is often far more expensive than I’d like. Of course, somehow, everything that I cook here tastes more Japanese than European or American, but I think that’s mostly a matter of scale. I decorate small plates of vegetables with a little cheese… or I cook one medium potato, one carrot, and half an onion, using whatever seasoning is convenient, and I serve it to two people as one of three simple dishes, rather than buying a mess of potatoes, a bunch of carrots, and a ton of onions and garlic and turning it into a huge mass of home fries or Bratkartoffel.

Dinner was, in fact, such a potato dish, plus a dish of seasoned soybeans, blanched greens and half an onion, and a sample of udon from the FoodEx show I have been refrigerating since last week. The udon were unusual because they are made with sato-imo (small taro-like roots) and yamaimo (a starchy tuber). The udon noodles are quite nice; the included tsuyu, or dipping sauce, is overly sweet, even though the packaging recommends using the tsuyu as is, undiluted. We switch to a bottled tsuyu that Hiromi bought last week, which was much less cloying.

The afternoon was fairly cold and windy, although out my window everything appeared sunny and pleasant. I went out for tea in the afternoon, walking as quickly as possible to escape the weather. Apparently someone else had the same idea... I noticed a woman who had fallen asleep in one of the comfortable chairs, oblivious to a half-consumed latte.

Tonight after dinner I had the surreal experience of watching on TV a Japanese reprisal of “Bewitched,” this time set in 2004 Japan, but with the same basic storyline. This episode is when the Japanese equivalent of Darren inevitably discovers that his daughter has magical powers, around the time that he brings his ad agency boss and some clients to his unbelievably large Japanese condo. It’s amusing to see this very sixties-style show re-enacted with 2004 Japanese fashion sensibilities, but fortunately, the mother-in-law with the funky hairstyle is dutifully preserved.

Japanese-Indian, French pastries, and comfort food

jason

I spent most of the day writing email messages to various companies, and responding to a couple of incoming messages. I occasionally took short breaks to finish reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s book, It must have been something I ate. I actually read more than half of it on the airplane ride over to Japan, but I’ve only been reading a chapter here and there since I hit the ground. I usually enjoy reading about other foodies’ adventures and idiosyncrasies. Of course, I can’t believe he wrote an article about espresso without visiting Vivace’s in Seattle; David Schomer’s obsession with the technical minutiae of the ideal espresso would have been the perfect supplement to Steingarten’s haphazard experimental efforts.

The weather was a little less pleasant today, so I didn’t really look forward to stepping out for lunch. I ducked into a little “curry-ya-san” that is slightly more Indian than the usual Japanese roux-thickened interpretations but still catering to mainstream Japanese tastes. I had a dish of dal, some ambiguous vegetable curry with potatoes and disintegrated greens, an egg, and pickles with a little rice and nan. Everything was sort of the quality that you would expect from a buffet in an Indian restaurant in the U.S., by which I mean edible and more pleasant than the average fast food chain but not particularly special.

In the early evening I wandered around and found a café in Lumine that was offering a mille feuille pastry with strawberries and a custard cream, so I stopped there and had a 600 yen serving of the cake and a 400 yen espresso.

My friend offered to make a vegetarian version of nikujaga, which is normally a beef and potato stew a la japonaise, for dinner tonight, so this is the first day I’m neither cooking nor am I eating restaurant fare for dinner. With a limited kitchen, a one-pot meal is a pretty good idea, and it’s a little cold today, so it was comforting.

Eating Italian in Japan; where else?

jason

Today I met with a representative from a company that makes yuzu drink “marmalades” in Korea and we talked for a couple of hours about products and selling strategies. Actually I can get customized labels and even packaging, so that will be beneficial. Prices seemed ok, but I don’t have much to compare against.

It turns out I can also get a customized drink product created to my specifications, and if I can do that, I could introduce a product very compatible with my company name and pretty distinctive in the US market. I thought this was pretty cool. The turnaround time could be pretty fast: one or two months.

This representative took me to a Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki place opposite Starbucks in an area on the west side of Shinjuku station, and we had a simple lunch followed by coffee. I had appreciated our previous conversation at FoodEx but actually this discussion made me more likely to work with his company, since they seem to have more options for product development than I expected and pricing could be quite reasonable.

I contacted Yamato Transport’s Seattle office by telephone and talked with them about their shipping logistics services and pricing. They should be able to provide pretty simple support for my ceramics shipments from Mashiko, so that made me happy. They can of course also do shipments from Hong Kong, Taipei and Korea.

Today I also got responses from almost all of the companies that I have been waiting on, including the Taiwanese tea company and the soap company. So now I just need to meet with the companies I can see while still in Japan, make a few more logistics arrangements and I can go back well-armed with a product line and a lot of samples for demonstration. I’ll also go back to Mashiko to make a few small orders. I guess the next step is sales… That’s the scary part for me…

I tried to find a way to reach a couple of companies I expect to be dealing with in the US but was reduced to using their online feedback forms. I don’t expect much to come out of that, but I’ll have a better chance of getting to the buyers when I can go and knock on their doors back home.

For dinner I went to La Manina, an Italian restaurant on the top of Takashimaya in the area south of Shinjuku station. It’s very corporate and large and dramatic, but has pretty decent food, so I’ve been there on several business trips in Japan. I broke one of my own rules and we ordered some tomato-based appetizer in March… and we had pizza with pesto Genovese and mozzarella, and nice gnocchi with a gorgonzola sauce. After dinner I had a limoncello digestif and my friend ordered flaming Sambuca anisette with a few coffee beans floating on top.

Building my supplier network and logistics

jason

I had some return contact from some of my favorite potential suppliers today, so that was gratifying. I also sent some inquiries out to some freight and web hosting companies since I’ll need to have some solution for transporting products and I need a better solution than I have now for the web retail presence I’ll be establishing. I have one meeting scheduled for tomorrow with a company that mostly deals in Korean beverage products (yuzu tea, ginger tea, date tea and so on); the representative is someone I encountered at FoodEx.

This weekend I want to go to Osaka and Wakayama, so today I finally bought plane tickets and hotel vouchers. I haven’t dealt with making my own domestic travel reservations without the assistance of Japanese friends before, so I realized how little I remember from the trip reservation conversation drills I had in Japanese classes in 1995. I guess I have to learn sometime…

In Machida, we were lucky enough to get seats at Ume no Hana, a tofu restaurant at the top of the Lumine department store there. They had told us there would be a 30 minute wait, but we were offered seats before we could finish calling another restaurant to find out if we had a prayer of getting in there.

The food was pretty nice… freshly made yuba and tofu nabe, various small nibbles, and all the elegance you’d expect… nice clean, refreshing flavors, very fresh foods, nothing overwhelming, nothing under-seasoned, beautiful presentation. They also made vegetarian substitutions for me where possible (dashijiru and a single piece of shrimp being minor exceptions). Restaurants that make substitutions are somewhat unusual in Japan, unlike the hyper-accommodating US world which will sometimes over-accommodate to the point of disastrous culinary results. So I was pretty happy when I got mostly what I asked for with good food quality. Some of the drinks that they do there are interesting, though some are a little sweet; we tried a few different things and shared tastes.

Tomorrow I need to call Yamato Transport in Seattle and try to set up a meeting or two in Osaka so I feel like I’m getting some business value out of that side trip.

OK, time to do some real work

jason

I tried to sort through piles of brochures and business cards today and I sent out a few follow-up inquiries to some companies that I have the most interest in. I think I got far less done than I should have, but it was at least an acceptable start. I have piles of companies to contact in order to establish an initial relationship.

For dinner, I picked up some “u no hana”, also known as “okara” and mixed with some onions, water, oil, and an egg to prepare a kind of okara burger/croquette type thing with some expensive brie and I also made a little salad with an improvised Japanese-ish dressing. One of the things I probably should have figured out a week ago is where the nearest grocery store is, as I keep on doing my vegetable and grocery shopping at Odakyu and Keio department stores, which is far from the most cost-effective solution to my dinner requirements.

Late at night, I realized a friend of mine who stayed in Seattle was on MSN Messenger, so I invited her join another friend of mine with whom I had already made plans. The three of us knew each other in Seattle, and in spite of relative proximity, they haven’t seen each other for about a year.

Kamakura and a day of serious snacking

jason

I got a bit of a late start today, even though I woke up at a reasonable hour.

Around 11am Hiromi drove us to Kamakura. After finding parking, we headed to a place that serves purple sweet potato soft ice cream. We ended up noshing at various streetside vendors… some over-salted senbei (rice crackers), and dorayaki with sweet potato paste in the middle (sort of a stuffed pancake).

Sometime around 3pm we stopped and had a sort of baked rice (kamameshi); mine was made with bamboo shoots. Normally the place we went to is a drinking spot, but we came for the food. It turns out to have pretty nice food. The regulars there all buy whole bottles of shochu (actually Korean soju), whiskey, or other spirits, and they keep the bottles on a shelf labeled, each bottle carefully labeled with the customer’s name.

We stopped at one temple toward the south end of Kamakura and took some photos, and saw some early cherry blossoms and other blooming trees. We also briefly visited one side of the temple leading from the station.

Since we did a lot of snacking and had a late lunch, we weren’t hungry at any normal dinner. Later in the evening we went to an izakaya for a late dinner in Nishi-Shinjuku. We ordered a bitter melon dish made with eggs and tofu, a pretty spicy tofu salad, some “fuki” tempura, and some fried nattou and yamaimo wrapped in nori, and a not very sappari mozuku. We both ordered pomegranate sours, and Hiromi ordered a umeboshi sour and I had a lime one. The pomegranate sour was nice. I’d definitely repeat the nattou dish… it seems like a great dish to confound people with at parties.

Slacking in Yokohama and Omote-Sando

jason

I suppose I could say I took the day off today. Hiromi and I went to a crepe shop in Omote-sando which is famous for its soba (buckwheat) crepes. I ate most of a carrot soup, and I ordered a buckwheat crepe with fresh fava beans, various vegetables, an egg, and a relatively young gruyere. She ordered one with an aged soft chevre topped with mixed greens and walnuts. For dessert, we ordered a buckwheat crepe with rhubarb-orange jam. We also ordered coffee. She had a “Bretagne Irish Coffee”, an espresso drink served with some caramel liqueur and a little cream. I had espresso with calvados.

Afterward, we headed off to Yokohama and wandered around the Daisambashi (大桟橋) pier, which is sort of a boardwalk jutting out into the bay. It’s an international port, but also doubles as a place for parents to bring their small children to play, and functions as a date spot for an uncountable number of couples. On the way there from the station, we see a few quirky little restaurants, the storefront of a vacationing reflexologist, and a couple of stores that sell hemp products or various other things that might appeal to twenty-somethings.

Basha-michi road, nearby, features a red brick building called Akarenga (which, not coincidentally, means "red brick building", if I am not mistaken) that is filled with various shops and chain stores, and is so shopping-mall-like inside that I would probably see it as a destination of last resort if I were back home, but it’s kind of interesting to see how stuff is being sold (and bought) here. Some of the shops are hipper than the usual shopping-mall fare. It kind of strikes me as similar to University Village in Seattle.

We stopped at a department store for some grocery items for dinner. I picked up some mushrooms which are similar to cauliflower-mushrooms, a little bunch of spinach, some already-grilled-tofu, and some things for breakfast. For dinner I cooked the remaining bit of penne with a sauce of butter, garlic, pine nuts, the grilled tofu, spinach, the mushrooms, and some of the tsuyu from yesterday’s noodles, then topped with some pecorino romano. The mushrooms turned out to be a little fragile and shouldn’t have been cooked more than a few seconds. The sauce was pleasant enough, but as I’ve come to expect from the pans I have in my rental kitchen, I couldn’t heat it through again in the uneven fry pan quickly enough to avoid slightly overcooking the pasta.

Hoteres, Day 2: Nifty equipment and ceramics

jason

I decided after all to go back to the Hoteres show, which turns out to have been a good idea. I found a lot of suppliers of ceramics mostly focusing on restaurant clients, one of which can also serve as an export agent for products from a potter I like in Takayama. Beyond that, I found the company behind an extra nifty cedar soap line, which is the same product that my friend Hiromi told me she uses religiously for her face. I also found another producer of a similar product, and a company that markets private label soaps to spas and hot springs and hotels in Japan, including a yuzu soap, a green tea soap that unlike Elizabeth Arden’s hyped product actually smells like green tea, and several “massage soaps” which include some kind of exfoliating ingredient.

In the “interesting kitchen equipment” category, the coolest thing I saw was a fryer which is promoted as a “clean fryer.” In a floor demonstration, one of the promoters asked an audience member to pour a glass of water directly into the hot oil, which was frying some tonkatsu or croquettes or something similar, with her hand directly above the oil. When she poured the water in, it simply disappeared; this was followed with someone tossing in an ice cube. The water, according to the demonstrator, had simply moved to the bottom of the fryer.

Another interesting machine was a countertop device that produces nigiri-sushi shaped rice in precise portions. In a similar vein, there was an automatic gyouza stuffer for countertop use. There were a couple of interesting conveyer-belt products which looked surprisingly elegant; two of them didn’t even have obviously moving belts.

I talked to one small company that manufactures oshibori wetting, disinfecting and warming countertop machines. Oshibori are wet napkins used in Japan usually instead of paper napkins, and are kind of an alternative to running off to a washroom to clean one’s hands before a meal. After the president told me everything he thought I could understand, he introduced me to his secretary, who is also his daughter. She used to study in New Zealand and had a kind of New Zealand Japanese accent. Apparently they are trying to sell a version of this in Hawaii later this year, and I suggested if they have a 110 volt version, it’s worth exploring the West Coast of the US in general, and to please let me know when it’s going to be released.

During these four days, it’s been kind of amusing how many people comment on my company name (Yuzu Trading Co. LLC). It seems to instantly establish some rapport, since it’s obvious to them I’m influenced by Japan; referring to Yuzu in my company name strikes some folks as surprising, leading them to think of me as not your usual run-of-the-mill gaijin.

I left the show around 3pm and came back to my apartment. I managed to sort through most of the papers I’ve accumulated over the last few days, organized by their relative importance to me (products I’m very interested in, products I was attracted to, companies that might be good sources if someone comes to me looking for something in particular, and companies which I don’t think I have much likelihood of being useful for me). I still have to sort through at least several dozen business cards I’ve received as well.

Tonight I cooked some of the yuzu-flavored udon I picked up last weekend in Nasu-Shiobara. I made a couple of simple side dishes… I have some leftover nanohana (canola greens or rapeseed greens), garlic stems, and one eringi from a few days ago. So I just blanched the nanohana in lightly salted water and served it with a drizzling of a white tamari sample I got from FoodEx. I also sauteed the garlic stems and browned the eringi, seasoned with some salt and the white tamari, then topped with some toasted pine nuts and pecorino romano cheese. The yuzu udon I just boiled and served cool with some store-bought noodle dipping sauce. The yuzu flavor isn’t very strong, but is at least noticeable and pleasant.