Coincidental charcoal and old friends

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.