A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.
We made a little trip to Mashiko on the weekend before coming back to Seattle.
We went, in part, so that I could replenish my ever-shrinking ceramics collection on YuzuMura.com. I was also looking for some new artists to consider for later in the year.
Minowa Yasuo passed away a couple years ago, so I haven't been able to buy anything he made for a long time. Besides, my original plan to sell my ceramics to galleries morphed into a mostly web-based sales model. My previous habit of buying a few remarkable pieces per artist doesn't work very well on the web, since the burden of photographing something I only have one or two examples of becomes rather exhausting. By next year, I expect I'll have fewer choices but a better ability to handle larger orders for them.
Large bowl by Akutsu Masato
During Golden Week, Mashiko has one of two annual pottery festivals, so many artists and production kilns were out showing off their wares. We made our way to my favorite galleries first, and we were pleased to stumble upon a show by Akutsu Masato and the rest of his family at Moegi. I hadn't done much advance planning on this trip, so it was a good coincidence... I discovered that I brought the wrong contact information for him anyway, so if it hadn't been for the show at Moegi I might not have been able to get hold of him.
Masato's father, who is incredibly charming, also had some very nice pieces at the family show, and Masato's mother's work is very compelling as well, so now I'm considering importing work from the whole family... While all three seem to work from a related palette, they each have very distinctive styles.
I also discovered some Minowa Yasuo pieces at one gallery, and I was so surprised by that that I ended up buying a number of pieces. It will become increasingly difficult to find anything else he made, so I took advantage of the opportunity.
Fortunately, the gallery was kind enough to extend me a reseller price, which means I'll be able to offer the new pieces at roughly the same price as similar items I still have in stock. I was expecting I'd have to dramatically raise prices on the new pieces, but it doesn't look like I'll have to.
One unfortunate side effect of my good fortune on this trip was that I didn't have time to meet up with Senda Yoshiaki, and I couldn't buy any of his pieces on this trip. I am almost completely out, so I really need to do something about that. I think I'll send Hiromi to Mashiko once before fall to remedy that.
I didn't buy a huge amount of ceramic pieces on this trip, but enough that it wasn't possible to transport things on my back... so I have to wait a few weeks before things arrive. I'm looking forward to it...
I remember there was a time when I enjoyed exploring the features of software even when I didn’t need to know a specific feature for any particular task or work I had ahead of me. In fact, I’d say that most of my life, “playing” with software has been a fairly important learning method for me, and made it possible for me to accomplish all sorts of things relatively easily that other folks I knew would have considered hopelessly complex.
I’m not sure when exactly my attitude changed… I know that at Microsoft, it shifted a bit. If a solution didn’t seem eminent and I had other things I should have been working on, I would give up on whatever esoteric solution I had in mind, stop tweaking and just move on. It was a necessary project management technique. If it wasn’t critical to the task, I’d just step away, regardless of how interesting the solution to my problem might have been.
As a business owner, I have slowly noticed an increasing drift toward impatience with software and with hardware idiosyncrasies. If something didn’t work as I expected, and it actually matters to me, I yell and scream and vent at my computer, which of course isn’t really listening. It provides a kind of stress relief.
I was doing some work with my online store over the last few days, uploading dozens of new products, including some really beautiful bamboo tea trays, some very stylish Yixing teaware, and some tea oil-based soaps and cosmetics. Unfortunately, some of the categories were getting unwieldy and confusing, as Hiromi rightly pointed out to me. Many of these problems are tough to solve without doing substantial code modifications to software that I didn’t even write, and I’m not that comfortable sacrificing a lot of time writing code for small benefits these days.
But I knew in the back of my mind that a feature to affect the display order of products within a particular category was supposed to be in the software. I knew how to adjust sort order of the categories themselves, but I never did quite figure out where in the UI this feature for sorting products within a category fell, though I had seen evidence of it in the database backend.
Finally, today, as I was doing some more manipulation of the categories on my web site, I found it. It allowed me to group things within somecategories slightly more intelligently, roughly in conceptual groups rather than by something more haphazard, like alphabetical order, or pageviews/popularity-based sorting. Years ago, I would likely have discovered this feature way before I actually would have needed it. I’m clearly not that excited about learning the intricacies of the features of my software anymore…
I felt rather stupid that I have been using the same software for about 5 months and never noticed it. Actually the effect is rather subtle, but it at least allows me to group things in an order that makes sense within my mind, instead of just an apparently random list of products.
Hiromi arrived safely, and somehow I arrived at the airport at exactly the right time, just as she had picked up her baggage. I think I was in the Seatac parking garage about 6 minutes.
We unpacked and inspected some ceramics she brought from Minowa Yasuo and Senda Yoshiaki, which I’ll put on YuzuMura tomorrow or at least within a few days, as I made quick work of photographing most of the pieces.
I cooked a simple lunch (did I mention how many tortillas and how much mango salsa I still have?) and then I took care of a couple of small office errands and a delivery to Uwajimaya. We made our way to La Medusa in Columbia City, where only a few weeks ago I enjoyed a nice meal, and we hoped to have an equally pleasant experience this time.
We were not disappointed. We had a small amount of overlap with what I last ate there, but this time we had a nice grilled cioppino salad with some soft Quillisascut cheese, greens and pine nuts, and a nice pasta with pickled fava beans and a fava bean cream sauce. I was particularly fond of the salad. The chickpea croquettes and fig and fennel pizza were as good as last time.
I guess my objective of posting photos from Hiromi’s Mashiko visit by Monday didn’t quite work out. But Hiromi managed to post a few photos on her blog.
She met with two of the artists I am selling on YuzuMura.com, including Senda Yoshiaki:
I’m a little sleepy today. Maybe I’ll go to bed at a reasonable hour… but not until I finish watching Rooftop Room Cat on AZN TV tonight. It may be a little predictable, but I find it somehow endearing…
I kept promising myself to photograph more ceramics for YuzuMura, but I’ve only been making small dents in the work… there’s just too much to keep up with. But I really need to do it, because there are still a hundred or so pieces in my inventory. So I’m slowly catching up...
Most of these are Senda’s work, but I got a few Akutsu and Minowa pieces also.
And I succeeded in taking photos of a dozen or so lamps, most of which will be on YuzuMura by tomorrow or so. These are all made in Thailand from sustainable or recycled woods.
Tonight’s dinner was a simple, potentially very bland soup made of a puree of mirepoix, some cannelini beans, and some broccoli. At the last minute, I added a splash of sesame oil and I snuck a little bit of chili oil from an olive-oil marinated piquin chili batch I made about a month or two ago, and it worked wonders.
The first time I bought items from Minowa-san, he gave both Hiromi and me a yunomi (teacup). Hiromi's was Minowa's signature niji-yu (rainbow glaze) which is actually the typical Mashiko kaki-yu (persimmon glaze) fired in a gas kiln. (I'll put up an example later). The one I received was a more temmoku-like (iron speckled) kaki-yu.
On this trip, I didn't buy that many pieces, but Minowa-san gave me a very nice coffee cup. This one has hints of blue in it, and the yunomi shows a little bit of a red appearance. Minowa-san says he doesn't plan to make any more coffee cups, so this was a nice surprise.
The yunomi has a little bit of what Minowa-san refers to as “yuzu no hada“ or yuzu skin. This means there is a noticeable texture around the iron bumps.
I really need to get a good lighting solution so I can finally put up my ceramics for sale on the yuzumura.com website. But this shot isn't too bad.
On Sunday I actually took most of the day "off", in the sense that I didn't have a business agenda until I started reading email at night.
During the day, I stopped at my pottery lab to try to pick up the last bits of work from this quarter. A couple of recently glaze pots were ready, but are nothing to write home about. A ceramic "train" that I made was still on the greenware shelves, waiting to be bisque-fired. I suppose it will be ready next week. I don't plan to take the class this summer due to the demands of my business interests and, to be honest, due to the fact that I enjoy taking advantage of summer weekends, whether that means running to meet customers, networking, or jogging in the good weather.
In the afternoon, I met with a friend who had expressed some interest in promoting soaps from Japan. We chatted about different things and then I decided to stop by my grandparents' house. Along the way, I bought some stuffed figs from Fran's Chocolates in old Bellevue.
In the evening I tried to follow up with some outstanding concerns I have related to my project to import a Hong Kong sweet. I've mentioned the candy here before... the big secret that I haven't mentioned is what it's called... it's called dragon beard candy, and it's made with thousands of strands of pulled sugar and maltose. In fact, it normally only has a 15-30 minute lifespan after it's made. The version I found is high quality, beautifully packaged, and has a reasonable shelf-life. I will be the first, or at least one of the first, people to import this into the United States. Work related to this ended up keeping me later than I planned.
Today I met with a couple of banks. Alas, in spite of all of my running around a month or so ago in attempt to pick a bank, I still didn't pick one. I must do that this week. I made an appointment to talk with one of them a little bit more tomorrow.
By the end of workday (by the standards of the alternate universe that is the 9-6 world) I had made a bunch of appointments for the rest of the week. I'm meeting with a friend of a friend tomorrow who can introduce me to some people I should be talking to. I'm having dinner later midweek with Patrick, whom I've mentioned recently. Thursday, I'm meeting with a candidate to help me out for sales of dragon beard candy, meeting a friend visiting from China, and having a conversation with a manager at a local specialty supermarket. I'm also having dinner with a tech entrepreneur, Tony, whom I've mentioned before, mostly to catch up on things. One of these evenings I think I'm meeting with an acquaintance of mine from back in the day when I worked at the Northwest Asian Weekly. I should have Wednesday morning open to run errands.
In any event, this will be a busy week. One thing I learned at Microsoft was that busy doesn't always mean productive... I think, though, that everything I'm planning to do this week is valuable in one way or another. Everything looks like progress, so far.
This afternoon I completed a sale of ceramics to Azuma Gallery, a Pioneer Square gallery which carries prints, screens, and ceramics. It's my first sale of note, so I'm very happy. To the best of my knowledge, it's also the first venue where the work will be seen by an American audience. The two artists whose work Azuma Gallery has bought are Minowa Yasuo, who does gas-fired work, and Akutsu Masato, a 27-year old whose work combines rural, organic textures with a surprisingly modern feel.
Minowa Yasuo's kaki-yu (Persimmon glaze) pots, which are gas-fired, sometimes have a tenmoku-like appearance, and sometimes a striated rainbow reddish pattern, which can be matte or have a metallic luster, sometimes even on the same pot, depending on the clay body and the kiln atmosphere. The results are pretty striking, and although Minowa can control the basic "tenmoku" vs "niji" effect, no two pots are exactly alike.
Akutsu Masato's work has a lot of youthful energy and has four main textural motifs, a "doro" or rough clay look, a tetsu-yu brownish, wood-like brush pattern, a white sandy texture often adorned with sgrafitto or sometimes rough, evocative stained three-dimensional contrasting textures, and a gyokuro-yu glossy dark green glaze which references more typical Mashiko or Kasama ware.
If you happen to be in Seattle anytime soon, please stop in and take a look at Azuma Gallery, located at 530 1st Ave. S., and ask about the work of Yasuo Minowa and Masato Akutsu (the order used in this case is the customary US given name followed by family name).
Later in the day, I met up with Kaoru, a friend of mine who works for a community college program north of Seattle, and we had a little dinner at Djan's, a Thai restaurant in a little house in Wallingford. We had a nice, simple meal with cold spring rolls, green papaya salad, an eggplant dish, and a not-very-spicy red curry with tofu. We skipped the "fusion" or "specialty" dishes since none of those appeared to be vegetarian friendly. The best thing about that place is the careful, but simple presentation, and the feeling that you're really eating in someone's house. The dishes that we had would probably be easily obtainable at any kind of Thai restaurant, but overall I would say it was a pleasant, unpretentious dining experience with a little more attention to detail than the average Thai restaurant.
We stopped at Masalisa in Ballard, a tea shop which transforms into a sake place on weekend nights. At first I was inclined to order some kind of nomi-yasui sake, but in the end both of us decided to try their "sake smoothies", one with strawberries, and the other with matcha. These were interesting concoctions, reminiscent of amazake except for the icy texture.
In the morning and early afternoon, I chatted with Patrick at Vivace's, an ex-Microsoft guy I've previously referred to indirectly, who contacted me after reading my web journal. We drank too much coffee and talked about various ways we might be able to work together. I was a bit surprised that our conversation shifted into discusssion about my ambition to do a little cafe/restaurant, as I have hinted at before, and there's a distinct possibility that this may be feasible sooner than I had previously calculated. He also has some useful connections that might make it possible for me to study cooking under some chefs in the Kyoto area. In any event, we'll keep on talking over the coming weeks.
Taking care of this gallery sale has occupied most of my time the last few days, but everything is almost finished, so I'll report more tomorrow.
I made an appointment to meet with another ex-Microsoftee whose background has a few other interesting parallels with mine; he moved on to create a consulting company, and he has hopped back and forth between the Seattle area and Japan for the last few years.
Yesterday I got in touch with Tony, my uncle, and talked shop a bit. He had been in L.A. recently doing some work on a department store catalog. I also talked to Eugene, the green tea importer, and he pointed me in the right direction at Uwajimaya, and we talked about a couple of other ideas. I called up another Tony, a serial entrepreneur who is half Japanese and half German I met at a Starbucks a couple of years ago, and after talking a bit we made some plans to meet up and catch up over food.
The convoluted schedule of the last couple of days has left me eating irregularly, not jogging at all, and covered with newsprint stains from sorting through hundreds of ceramics pieces, but it's been pretty energizing.
Most of the morning I spent sorting samples of ceramics to show to a gallery owner in Pioneer Square. I had to run to the office supply store to get some labels so that I wouldn't lose track of which item is which, and I got another big box to make it easier to carry things around.
I finished everything by afternoon, though I didn't have a proper lunch. I nibbled a little bit, and got something small at Essential Bakery before my appointment.
Everything went reasonably well, so I've got to pack up a few other things from Akutsu-san and Senda-san (see my earlier post about the Mashiko buying trip for more details) and make a few revisions to my pricing schedule, then come back tomorrow to show the rest.
I made a few phone calls after returning and made a simple dinner. Unfortunately, I was so hungry when I got home I didn't gather the required gumption to go running. I'll try to wake up early and make up for that...
I registered for the street fair that takes place in the International District July 10/11. I plan to show off the Dragon Beard candy and the ceramics from Japan. Hopefully they will do well, but more importantly, it's a good venue to get some attention.
Before dropping off my check and space application, I made a stop at the office of the newspaper where I once worked, and chatted with my former publisher a bit about what I'm up to. I also talked about some rates for an ad campaign with their ad sales manager.
The last pottery class of the quarter is actually a potluck, with some cleanup, and, for those with some glazing or decoration to do, the last chance to finish that up. The only thing I had unfinished was a little ceramic train which still needs to be bisque fired before I can glaze it, so mostly I was chatting.
Before running off to pottery class, I prepared my contribution to the potluck, which is a slight variation of something I brought to a party a month or so ago. I basically put shredded filo dough, coated with butter, into a mini-muffin pan; in this case I filled the centers with chopped asparagus, orange bell peppers, caramelized onions, a little bit of sweet pepadew peppers, and some cave-aged gruyere and pine nuts. It sounds more elaborate than it is; I put everything together fairly quickly, especially compared to last time I made them. Actually this time I also made a non-dairy version using olive oil instead of butter and hummus instead of cheese, since one or two people in class have some dairy issues.
I also showed off a few pieces of work from the potters that I bought from in Mashiko... Minowa Yasuo, Akutsu Masato, and Senda Yoshiaki. Most items went over pretty well... I guess the next question is how well they will go over with audiences less familiar with the value of handmade pottery.
On Sunday we had a raku firing, and I had three pieces in the load. Nothing terribly exciting, but they did turn out pretty nicely. I also picked up a couple of plates and a tea bowl I had recently glazed.
I needed to get one final business license completed yesterday for the City of Seattle, so I made my way downtown and paid yet another fee. Actually, the City of Seattle license costs about three times as much as the state license that I arranged a couple of months ago. The only fee more expensive is the LLC registration with the state, which I believe is just a one-time event unless I neglect to file timely reports on the management structure.
Afterward I took care of a minor errand, and went to the Pioneer Square area's First Thursday “Art Walk” event, during which most galleries are open a few extra hours. My acquaintance Dave's photo show was opening. He's also a software guy who escaped corporate drudgery; in his case, he does a mix of freelance coding and things like his photography. The show was pretty nice... a lot of captures of surprising contrasts in lighting and color on dilapidated military buildings and other abandoned industrial totems, sometimes with unconventional framing. It looked like his work was selling at a pretty good clip, also.
I also visited a Japanese art-focused gallery where another acquaintance of mine works. I didn't actually expect her to be there but we chatted a bit and I re-introduced myself to her manager. This may turn out to have been a smart thing to do, because the owner is interested in expanding her line a bit and would like to see if any of the ceramics I brought over match her taste. I will try to show off the stuff mid-next-week.
This afternoon I met with Kazue, who just came back from Japan, to talk about the Hong Kong sweet and to give her a chance to sample it.
The weather is pretty hot outside, so I've been jogging again the last few days. My endurance is getting better... I'm averaging about 5 miles a run. I just hope it doesn't ruin my knee.
Tonight's dinner was a simple pizza with fresh heirloom tomatoes, basil, garlic, mozzarella, and parmesan. Earlier in the week I made some gnocchi with tomato cream sauce and basil chiffonade, which turned out pretty nicely. The first hints of decent tomatoes, apparently only at Sosio's produce in the Pike Place Market, have been sneaking into my cuisine. Another surprise was some early peaches that had a great texture and flavor; I snuck a couple into a rhubarb-peach sorbet I made on Tuesday.
Wednesday I finished up the body of a ceramic train series (engine, cargo, and a third car with windows) at the pottery lab. Assuming the wheels don't break, it looks like it will turn out nicely; the only trouble is that pottery class ends very soon and I won't have time to glaze them because next Monday is the last class. There's no way they'll be bisqued in time.
I need to busily photograph and inventory my ceramics shipment. 9 boxes, around 130 kilos, and hundreds of pieces to sort through...
It's hard to tell right now but I think everything arrived intact. One of the boxes seemed a little overstuffed, but everything else seemed like it was packed by a potter.
Today I just want to make a dent in my web application for the online store, and in the morning tomorrow I need to run a few errands... finally commit to some continuous lighting solution and take care of some other small things.
On the night of my last day at Microsoft, April 15, I didn't really start working until I got home. I had to finish up a business proposal to one of the companies I want to work with, and there was a lot more work left than I remembered. I was up until about 3 AM focusing on that.
Saturday and Sunday I jogged in incredibly good weather around Greenlake... I also made some plates at pottery lab on Sunday.
Today I went to the North Seattle branch of Puget Sound Blood Center for the first time. I've usually donated at the Bellevue location, which was across the street from my old apartment, or at the mobile donation bus that came to Microsoft every couple of months.
I also had to go bank hunting. I have been operating from my personal account, and that's very confusing and also not good to do since I'm organized as an LLC. I wish I had this figured out 6 weeks ago... talking to banks and trying to make sense of their fee structures, especially when my stuff will involve international wire transfers and so on, is not the most entertaining part of this job.
Actually, I did start developing a lead for one or two products I want to sell when I stopped to get some tea. It would be small volume but potentially a good thing.
In the late afternoon I went back to Redmond to do my exit interview with an HR person. I played nicely... and turned in my cardkey, parking pass, corporate card and all of that stuff.
Somehow I had a series of disasters at pottery class tonight... I guess my hands weren't steady enough or something... I kept on ruining simple cylinders. At least I was able to finish up some pots that I had started last week.
After years of working a well-paid, challenging, and ostensibly prestigious job which was often interesting, occasionally satisfying, but rarely fulfilling, I’ve decided to move on.
I have three obsessions that I’ve indulged outside of work for the last 7 years or so. One is an uncompromising passion for cooking and eating good food. Another is a love of travel. And third is a wallet-thinning habit of collecting Japanese and Korean ceramics and craftwork. Beyond that, I have a long-neglected impulse to write and create, which, most likely due to excessive comfort over these 7 years, rather than inadequate time, I have mostly failed to pursue and develop.
My goal over the next few years is to explore each of these passions with an eye for making a reasonable living doing the things I love the most.
This is a life-altering transformation. My job at Microsoft, working as a test lead in software internationalization, has allowed me to live comfortably while I regularly invested at least 20% of my income. Now, for the first time in years, I expect many months during which I’ll be slowly eating away at my reserves.
My plan for the next year is to take advantage of my safety net while taking a lot of personal risks. I've established a small business entity focused on importing foods, gifts, and other things that I am excited about.
I’ll travel, but with the objective of generating some kind of return from each trip, either in a financial sense or in the sense of personal growth. I'll be exploiting my ceramics obsession by buying ceramics and craftwork, but with the intent of using my eye to bring back items that could be introduced to the U.S. market for resale. I’ll also at least occasionally be working in restaurants as a cook and waiter and whatever else will teach me what it will take to make a successful business serving food. I expect that I’ll create some opportunities to write and to create again. Within a few years I intend to have established enough of a network to be ready to start a small café/restaurant, and on the way, I will focus on building up my import/export business.
This journal is the document of my transformation.
At least once a week, I’ll be telling part of my story. I intend to be pathologically honest, but I promise to do my best to avoid sentimentality, wistfulness, or excessive self-indulgence. I don’t promise to be authoritative, profound, or even important. But I do promise, more than anything else, to live.
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.
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.
For a day which I had originally written off as an R&R day, I was incredibly productive.
Somehow Japanese style domestic travel usually means going to be early… Especially if one soaks in a hot springs bath for more than 30 minutes a day. It sort of makes sleep an inevitable event shortly after dinner, unless one has unusual willpower. It also tends to result in early rising… I think I was fully conscious and rested shortly by around 6am this morning. We showered, had breakfast, and packed up, and were on the road by around 9am.
Hiromi had planned a day in Mashiko. For her, it was the first time to visit; I’m kind of a veteran by now, with today being about the fifth or sixth visit for me; ever since my second trip here I’ve led whoever was traveling with me to all my favorite shops.
I managed to abuse my friend as an unpaid interpreter, and did some basic negotiations for ordering pottery under wholesale terms from several of the resellers of pottery in town. I took a ton of photos of things I am interested in buying, and I’ll need to come back here in a week or two so that I can finalize my purchasing decisions, after I’ve arranged for freight forwarding services. I’ll be able to offer some really beautiful pots from some young potters, as well as some impressive but more anonymous pots from the big production studio in town, Yokoyama.
Mashiko ware has incredible variety of styles, mostly because it has a relatively young history as a pottery center; Shoji Hamada basically led the way to the village, encouraging a couple of generations of potters to settle here relatively unconstrained by pervasive traditions common to the legendary kilns (Arita/Imari, Seto, Hagi, Bizen, and so on). There’s a lot more experimentation, influence by foreign potters who found the area more welcoming than most, and the durable legacy of Shoji Hamada’s and Murota Gen’s philosophy of soulfully-created craft ware.
We were encouraged to try Yokoyama’s new café atop the school where they offer wheel-throwing, slab-building and decorating lessons. I had taken a lesson here about a year and a half ago with another friend of mine, and it was the first time to attempt the very humbling wheel-throwing process. I still have evidence of this attempt, and although I still have limited throwing skills after over a year of practice, I’m slightly embarrassed by this “early work.”
I had a mushroom pilaf, which was actually surprisingly tasty, considering how meager my other dining experiences in Mashiko have been up until now. We also shared a sampler of cakes… green tea chiffon cake, chocolate gateau, pumpkin flan (kabocha purin), a maple syrup scone, and pot du crème or panna cotta.
For dinner, we stopped at a rest stop along the highway and I ate two oyaki (pan toasted buns filled with vegetables), and a stick of battered fried small potatoes served with a packet of mayonnaise. Not haute cuisine, but filling enough.
After a long drive back to Tokyo, I settle into the weekly-rental apartment and start to think about how to best make use of a free Monday before the FoodEx show.