Jason Truesdell : Pursuing My Passions

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.

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Short trip to Mashiko

jason

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

Akutsu Masato large bowl

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...

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A Little Respite in Gunma-ken

jason

We departed Japan on Sunday, but not without a valuable trip to Takaragawa Onsen, a hot spring ryoukan in Gunma prefecture.

After a quick lunch at a Meguro-station cafe on Saturday, Hiromi drove us through a mysterious maze of toll highways about three or four hours, but I managed to sleep through about two hours of road time, oblivious to my surroundings. Only when traveling internationally do I seem to magically acquire the ability to fall asleep anywhere, anytime.

For me, a stay in a ryokan is an opportunity for an extravagant simple meal, but it also offers an ideal bathing experience…

We stopped briefly at a highway service area for a snack, and after resting a bit upon arrival, we made a quick trip to the rotenburo (outdoor hot springs bath). This hotel’s rotenburo is one of the largest konyoku-buro (mixed baths). Although in other konyoku-buro, people generally enter the onsen naked, people at this onsen are advised to cover themselves with a towel (men with a tiny towel, women with a larger towel), as one sign indicated, so that “nobody has to be embarrassed” using the konyoku-buro.

We didn’t feel comfortable really photographing the baths themselves, of course, but here’s what we found along the way…

Lukewarm spring water

Nuruisen

The irouri as ashtray

Irouri-ashtray

In old Japanese houses, people sat around the irouri to share dinner and discuss the day’s business. For the contemporary onsen-goer, it seems to be a destination for an ippuku (rest, but actually a euphemism for a smoking break).

Tengu

Copper tengu

This hall is filled with tengu and tanuki, mystical creatures with exaggerated body parts.

In the ryokan eating area

Jasonatryokan

After soaking a bit we sat down to dinner. In this particular ryokan, most floors have two or three eating areas, at least in the steerage class, although in the most expensive rooms they serve fancier meals in the room.

Shokuzen-shu

Shokuzenshu

The apertif seemed to be some sort of shiso-based shochu infusion, heavily sweetened and only lightly alcoholic.

Kinoko sumibi-yaki

Kinoko no sumibi-yaki

Sumibi-yaki, char-grilled foods, seemed to be the theme of our stay. For a spring meal, the selections we were offered were surprisingly full of various “wild” mushrooms, but we had some fresh spring bamboo shoots as well.

Mmm-flames

Each table has a small shichirin, or clay grill, placed atop a concrete trivet with a wooden base to buffer against heat damage to the table.

Note to us

Ryokan-notetous

Each diner receives a note describing tonight’s menu. You can see from the “yamame” (small fish) and “joushuugyuu” (local beef) items that this is Hiromi’s menu.

Mame

Mame, slightly savory

A rare sweet-savory bean side dish, apparently typical for this area. Most of Japan prefers beans as a dessert, but this dish is prepared with enough salt to make it a pleasant side dish for a savory meal.

Maitake no itame-ni

Maitake-itameni

Several standard side dishes, such as ohitashi (blanched vegetables), pickled vegetables (nozawana, for example), and other obligatory ryokan fare, such as nabemono, were also featured. I had a cold dish with a kind of abura-age in clear soup, as well.

Sleepy Hiromi

Hiromi sleepy

After the meal, Hiromi became a bit sleepy.

On the banks of the river

Onthebanksoftheriver

We somehow managed to fall asleep around 9 in the evening, but the next morning, we awoke to this view outside our room’s window.

The bridge to the hot springs

Takaragawa bridge

We took advantage of the hot springs once more in the morning… a bit of snow started falling upon us while we were bathing.

Breakfast

Asagohan-takaragawa

Breakfast included miso soup, salad, bamboo leaf-wrapped nattou (fermented soybeans), more of the sweet-savory local beans, yogurt, an orange segment, and a soft-boiled egg, as well as some pickles and nori, not pictured.

Grilled potatoes, green beans and carrots

Youfu sukiyaki

This marks the first time I’ve been served ketchup at a ryokan, but my breakfast featured a sort of Western-themed sukiyaki, in lots of butter, meant to be dipped in ketchup.

Shake no sumibiyaki

Shake-sumibi

Salmon for Hiromi. We had a lot of fire at our table.

Breakfast window view

Breakfast snow

From our seats at breakfast, we could see the tall winter accumulation of snow that hadn’t yet sublimated or melted.

Display hearth

Display irouri

I’m guessing this irouri, not terribly well ventilated, doesn’t get much use in practice.

Goodbye!

Takara onsen

We had to rush back to Narita airport, where we met Hiromi’s parents one last time, and started the long journey back home.

Some indulgences, part 2, Tokyo, March 2006

jason

Hassaku Orange

Hassaku orange

A somewhat dry-fleshed, thick-skinned orange, possibly from Ehime prefecture, popular for its sappari or refreshing taste. It’s a bit bitter and perhaps a bit similar to a Seville orange.

Matcha madeleine

Matcha-madeleine

Not quite shaped like a traditional madeleine, this was a conceptual sample from one of my green tea suppliers made with a madeleine-style batter.

Matcha cake

Matcha poundcake

This matcha dessert was more of a pound cake style.

Zundamochi and Ayamemochi

Zunda-mochi

Zundamochi are daifuku made with edamame paste. They’d probably be more impressive in cross-section, but we were hungry already. We found them at Mura-kara-machi-kara-kan.

Smoked egg

Smokedegg

One of our smoked eggs, before peeling. We ate the smoked eggs for breakfast in the hotel.

Okayu

Okayu

A few years ago a chain of okayu restaurants sprouted up around Tokyo, even offering brown rice and multigrain versions. With modest 200–300 calorie portions and optional add-ins, the restaurants are popular with women in their 20s and 30s. There are no unaccompanied men in most of these, and I was one of perhaps two in the restaurant. Hiromi had the yuba and greens okayu in the foreground, which had 5 grains; mine was a brown rice okayu with fried onions and greens, with an add-on onsen tamago (soft-boiled egg).

Kabocha mushi cake

Kabochamushi

I’ve forgotten what they called it, but this is essentially a steamed cake with chunks of kabocha, and ever so slightly sweet. It’s actually in the “yum-cha” or dim-sum part of the okayu shop’s menu, rather than their dessert section.

Annin-doufu

Annindoufu

Almond “tofu”, a flavored gelled dessert.

Sakura ice cream

Sakura ice

Cherry-blossom ice cream, from an old-school kissaten near Meguro-station that serves average quality vacuum-pot coffee and various sandwich-like nibbles. The ice cream appears to be a lightly-flavored cherry ice cream served on a cherry leaf and topped with shiozuke, or salt-pickled cherry blossom. This one wasn’t terribly salty, so they may have rinsed it first.

The dangers of Yurakucho

jason

For people who appreciate food and would like to take a bit of Japan home with them, Yurakucho (Yuurakuchou) is a dangerous place. It’s home to the regional food specialty shop Mura-kara Machi-kara Kan, which features fresh and packaged foods from all over the country, as well as alcoholic drinks, and Hokkaido Dosanko Plaza, which features lots of treats from Hokkaido. A short walk from here will take you to another shop that focuses on all things Okinawan.

If you’re easily tempted, it might be best to avert your eyes as you walk by these shops.

Yuurakuchou-shopping

We left with soba karintou (buckwheat sweet crackers), haru yutari karintou (a wheat snack), black sugar peanut crunch, a shiso drink base, yomogi senbe (mugwort-flavored crackers), Hokkaido Tokaji wine caramels, Hokkaido hascup caramels, Hokkaido’s famous raisin butter cookie sandwiches (not from the most sought-after brand, but still quite tasty), murasaki-imo senbe or purple sweet potato senbe from Okinawa, another purple sweet potato snack also from Okinawa, some yuzu-flavored konpeito (hard candy), shiikuwasaa kokutou (Okinawan citron flavored black sugar), shiikuwasaa Calpis, some snackable salted konbu (kelp), kiritampo (rolls of mochigome toasted sort of rotisserie style, often used in nabemono or hotpot meals) from Akita, some heart-shaped cookies, umi-budou (sea grapes) from Okinawa, smoked eggs, yuzu-miso, yuzu kanten, yuzu-sake, ume-shidzuku (chewy Japanese apricot kanten candies) and two bottles of yuzu juice. Hiromi also picked up some drinking yogurt from the Hokkaido shop flavored with hascup berries, but we drank that before even getting back to the hotel.

Most of these items found their way into our luggage, but the Hokkaido raisin butter sandwiches have long since disappeared, because, of course, they are so perishable and we couldn’t possibly keep them…

For the most part, these shops carry items that are not widely distributed even inside Japan, so if you want to suprise someone with a little gift with minimal probability they will find the same thing in their local Asian market, this is the place to go.

FoodEx 2006, Days 3 and 4

jason

I got a late start on both Thursday and Friday, but considering the pain my knees are causing me right now, it was probably for the better. Although I’ve been waking up reasonably early, we sometimes don’t leave the hotel until fairly late, and our relatively long distance from Meguro station means that it takes about 15–20 minutes just to get started on the long journey to Makuhari Messe in Chiba.

Thursday I met up with a the Japan forum manager from eGullet and spent most of the time in the international section, where I found most of the products I was most interested in importing were from companies I’ve seen in the last two years. My favorite discovery was a special gochujang from a medium-sized Korean producer, though I’m a bit afraid I’ll be beaten to the opportunity after they exhibit later this year at some big food trade shows in the US.

The most rapidly spreading single ingredient this year seems to be salted cherry blossoms and pickled cherry leaves, represented by all sorts of Japanese companies either as an ingredient or as a part of a packaged food, and exhibited by Chinese suppliers as well. If I hadn’t attended FoodEx for the last three years, I might haved assumed that presence was seasonally-driven, but I never saw such a presence of the ingredient in previous shows. In Japan it’s mostly used for sweets such as the classic sakura-mochi, but some companies even incorporated it into nattou or other savory foods.

Okinawa-based companies had, for the last two years, run a retailer-targeted booth that showed all sorts of Okinawan packaged foods, which probably explains the three or four Okinawa-themed gift shops I’ve run into since Tuesday without really trying. Now, most of the Okinawa presence this year seemed to be booths from specific companies, such as a company that produces a deep sea water-based soda drink and various bottled Okinawan fruit juices in hip packaging.

In the international foods section, I didn’t notice as much in the way of organic food products as I had in the Japanese area, but a Korean company had a huge assortment of organic products that, if I were comfortable importing refrigerated containers of products, I’d be very excited to bring in to the U.S. Right now, though, I don’t have the facilities or the distribution network to make that work very well.

Thursday night I met with the CEO/President of a Japanese tea company that produces incredible hand-tied flower ties primarily for wedding and banquet markets, but increasingly for the gift market as well. I first talked to her last year at the Hoteres trade show, and she wanted to make sure we met up before I left Japan this time. I think I’d really like to bring their products in to the U.S., because they are particularly innovative in the domain of flower teas, with unlikely shapes and some unusual designs of their more conventional tied teas.

Friday I had to fight with some heavy winds that caused train delays going toward Chiba… we caught a train that didn’t depart until about 80 minutes after its scheduled time, or about 30 minutes after we entered the train. It moved at half speed to avoid being derailed, and took more than an hour to arrive, about 30 minutes longer than normal… So I was expecting to be at the show around 1:30 on Friday, but didn’t arrive until 3:15, for a bit more than the last hour.

Fortunately, that was just enough to see the sections that I had previously neglected, mostly in the Taiwan section. Hiromi also got a chance to check out the shochu section, but of course, we both left relatively unaffected. For me, the most interesting shochu was a 3–year aged brandy-like shochu, but Hiromi was partial to a kind of imo-jochu that she discovered, and we talked with that company a bit, even though shochu is more complicated to import than I’m willing to handle right now. It never hurts to have an interesting supplier contact, though.

I’m off to restore my body in Gunma-ken tonight. Hiromi’s driving about three hours and I’m probably going to fall asleep in the car…

Hoteres 2006, Day 2

jason

In a break from the pattern I set a couple of years ago, I went to the Hoteres show on the second day of the FoodEx/Hoteres pair of trade shows; in past years, I usually went on day 3.

Hoteres focuses mostly on restaurant and hospitality industry needs, and this includes equipment, smallwares, guest amenity products, spa and bath, and foodservice products such as frozen pastry doughs for all of those fancy-looking bakeries all over Japan.

I missed most of it while touring the rest of the floor, but apparently some sort of Japanese national barista championship was going on in the food demo stage this afternoon. I managed to catch one contestant show off his skills producing Seattle-style latte foam patterns, a simple pulled shot, and a signature drink/dessert that I’d be tempted to attempt myself. His signature drink was, like most drinks that move beyond the basic latte/straight espresso/con panna pattern, more dessert than coffee, but instead of producing a dessert masquerading as coffee he embraced the idea that a barista could produce a savvy, elegant dessert. Within a strict time limit, he made a whipped cream flavored with chocolate and maybe some espresso, which he piped into a rose shape, then  placed in a wide serving cup. He created an infusion of orange peel and milk, simmered briefly, then he whipped an egg or two with some sugar. He produced maybe four shots of espresso which he combined with the strained orange-infused milk with perhaps a bit of chocolate sauce, and he worked the milk into his egg-sugar mixture, creating a kind of liquid custard. He carefully poured the custard into the cup, enabling his whipped cream rose to survived the violent heat of his custard.

The usual assortment of espresso machines, ovens, gas ranges, automatic sushi-making and gyoza-filling machines took up a fair percentage of floor space in the equipment show halls. Hiromi noticed a vendor producing a machine that automatically measures and serves portions of rice into a bowl for donburi-mono, which sounds preposterously unhelpful unless, of course, you happen to run a donburi shop that has huge lunch crowds and want to shave off several seconds per customer to squeeze in as many people as possible without over– or under-portioning.

My favorite fryer company from two years ago was back this year, demonstrating their clever “Clean Fryer” system that filters out liquids and debris into a collection tank at the bottom of the machine. Instead of creating a clogged grease trap, restaurants just need to empty out the slightly dirty wastewater that gets collected below. The gimmicky demo I saw two years ago featured ice cubes and other potentially explosive foods dropped into the fryer without disastrous after-effects; the water gets absorbed by their filtration system, rather than creating a burst of pressurized steam erupting through a batch of hot oil. The wastewater collection area is apparently stable enough to sustain life, as this year’s demonstration gimmick featured tenkasu-fed goldfish swimming obliviously in the glass-walled collection tank.

I’m sure it’s useful for oden-making companies, but I was a little surprised to see a machine that automatically and precisely peels boiled eggs…

For the Japanese spa market, the most amusing product I saw was a variation of the classic “Ashiyu onsen”, or hot spring foot bath. The typical ashiyu onsen is just a small publicly-accessible covered bath that people can take advantage of to get a bit of a respite in a hot spring town. The product we saw was basically a foot bath with a picnic table mounted over the bath, and bench seating… you can imagine a small outdoor restaurant serving simple foods as people relax with their bare feet warmed by hot water, perhaps operating deep into the winter.

The coolest piece of equipment I saw this year was all gimmick, but potentially interesting as a foundation for a franchisable business concept that would give Cold Stone a run for its money: the teppan ice cream maker. The idea is modeled after a teppan, or teppan-yaki grill, but meant to produce cold foods. A shop would use the machine to make made-to-order ice cream, sorbet, and so on, with a -30°C chilled plate, enabling completely custom, made-to-order custom frozen treats. The operator pours sweetened liquids (a gelato or ice cream base, or sorbet base), and can add fresh fruit or other items at the customer’s request, and scrape everything together teppan-yaki style to produce a scoopable, lickable treat. I think it would translate readily to the U.S. market, even if nobody gets the reference to that style of cooking, just because it’s so dramatic to watch ice cream made before the customer’s eyes in just a few seconds.

I didn’t spend as much time as I usually do in the smallwares section, since my knees have been giving me a lot of trouble, but with my current business objectives, I’m thinking any substantial mass-produced ceramicware that I might import won’t be possible to kick off until next year, at the earliest. I’d love to offer some more stylish wafuu ceramics and lacquerware than the larger U.S. importers are doing, but I’m going to continue to keep these kinds of companies in my back pocket rather than invest a lot in buying inventory from them right now.

As I had originally planned for today, I met with a company that makes some really cool hand-tied flower teas, mostly for the hotel and gift markets in Japan, designed in Japan and made by Chinese tea companies. They’ve moved beyond the already innovative flower teas I saw last year that have different stages of expansion, and now have some novel shapes such as ducks, fish, and stars. It may sound a little funny, but the effects can be quite visually stunning to watch.

Tomorrow I’m going back to FoodEx for Day 3, but I have another late night ahead because of another vendor meeting, so I may not get as far as posting photos I’ve taken outside of the trade shows.

FoodEx 2006, Day 1

jason

After three years attending the same insanely large trade show it would be easy to become a bit jaded… in fact, it’s surprising how little changes from year to year, but the event is still somehow exciting.

One of my goals for this trip was to find some artisanal soy sauce, vinegar, ponzu and tsuyu, hopefully to bundle as some sort of gift package for YuzuMura and then perhaps to offer as a limited-time-only kind of product through my retail client base. Hiromi also steered me toward some specialty udon and soba makers, which I’ve tended to ignore on previous trips, in spite of a personal affinity for such items. I found a fair amount of regional vendors offering products that fit this bill, and I’m hoping one of the companies I met today will work out.

We saw some interesting seasoned nori products from a Japanese company that might be another limited edition product or possibly worth test marketing at higher end retail venues. I know of an insane number of Korean companies doing this, but we found a rare Japanese maker of these products with choices of cute or rustic-gifty packaging, depending on the target customer.

I spent most of my time in the Japanese section of the hall today, taking advantage of Hiromi’s presence to extract more information than I have historically been able to do at this show, and I tried to look at the products with a slightly more opportunity-conscious eye than I have previously done. Of course my eyes were always open at previous shows, but this time I have a better picture of what’s possible in the U.S. market thanks to a fair amount of customer interaction and the benefits of a couple of years of experience. I’d say I have a better understanding of what products can work in the US at price points typical in Japan compared to my first two visits to this annual show.

I met with a couple of my contacts from a Japanese tea company and a “functional foods” ingredient company that I previously worked with to try to get yuzu products for the U.S. market, which continues to be a challenge due to supplier capacity problems. I’m looking for alternate suppliers of Japan-produced matcha as my client’s matcha-focused business grows, and hopefully a few sources of very high quality organically-grown and estate-grown teas.

In a lot of Seattle coffee shops, the owners are increasinlgy demanding organically-grown teas even if it means relying on expensively priced low-grade teas from ubiquitious companies that I shall not name. If you know tea well you know at least one brand of miserably hard to drink organically-grown tea with solid name recognition. Chances are that’s one of the companies I’m thinking of… and I’m rather tired of that kind of expensive mediocrity. I’ve talked with a couple of Japanse tea companies to see if I can find some better options, and I probably have at least one promising candidate for good green tea.

My jetlag is still pretty powerful and I’m not sure I can hold on much longer, but I’ll write a bit more tomorrow on FoodEx. I should be at the Hospitality-focused trade show, Hoteres, most of Wednesday.

Tokyo FoodEx 2005, Day 4

jason

On the last day at FoodEx I followed up with a couple of companies I had some interest in, and then I made a few other discoveries.

I can’t say that there was one product I would absolutely have to have this time, but I found several that I’m quite interested in and I think I’ll try to work something out with a few of the companies I ran into.

Because it was the end of the show for me, I spent more time cruising the non-Asian booths, and I found a suitably gimmicky nightclub drink product from an Austrian company. The product comes in metal tubes, in either alcoholic “cocktails” or non-alcoholic “energy drinks.” The taste of the cranberry-flavored “Wodka” cocktail isn’t quite my style, but the overall concept seems very clever and suitable for clubs trying to get some sort of attention. I chatted in German with one of the company representatives for a little while, and realized how sloppy my German is these days.

Actually one thing I’m happy about is that I think I’ve found some items with reasonable shelf-life at modest costs which still have decent style and interesting origin stories. Some nice cookies from Malaysia, some nicely-packaged sauces from Thailand, and various other things that seem to have good market potential without steering too far from my company vision.

By 4:10 pm most exhibitors started packing everything and departing. I was surprised that the 4:30 finishing time really meant “no later than 4:30”. Of course the trains were completely insane for the next couple of hours… I sat in a pastry shop for about an hour and I still couldn’t get a seat on the train from Makuhari station.

For dinner Hiromi and I stopped at a restaurant I really enjoyed a few years ago called Yuuan in Nishi-Shinjuku. It was still good food, but not quite the transcendent experience I remember from last time I was there. We had a nice “white sesame oil” nabe with very soft tofu and various spring vegetables, a simple tomato appetizer, and a pumpkin croquette, and some mountain vegetable tempura. The last time I was there they had their own house-infused liqueurs but these were apparently absent this time.

Hoteres 2005, Day 3

jason

I tried to compress seeing all of the Tokyo Hotel, Restaurant and Catering show into one day this year. It was quite similar to last year, but I did find some excellent suppliers of Japanese tableware for restaurant and gift markets… some very stylish bamboo tokkuri from a couple of makers, some nice contemporary nurimono (lacquerware), and some Singapore-made furnace glass tableware well suited for trendy Asian restaurants.

Nothing too exciting in the equipment arena this year; maybe I saw everything imaginable last year. The really cool “clean fryer” I saw last year was apparently absent and I didn’t see anything that was totally new to me, save a variation of the self-shaking wok which featured a corkscrew stirring mechanism.

One company showed off a nifty line of teas produced in China, containing hand-tied teas with flowers that “bloom” as the tea leaves expand; the product is nearing a launch in Japan. The teas are all about the drama of the flowers revealing themselves; the exhibition design had them presented in wine glasses or glass teapots. I’ll get some samples when their packaging design is ready to go next month. It seems like a clever concept, though I think they are targeting about a $2.50–3.00 retail price per bundle (essentially one pot), so that may be a very narrow market in the U.S. In Japan, they are targeting the bridal and banquet markets.

I’ve been facing a little bit of pain in my legs and back the last couple of days… when I left for Hong Kong I swapped out my worn-out custom orthotics for the standard ones in my usually comfy Ecco loafers, and I think my feet aren’t happy about the sudden change.

Tomorrow I think I’ll just spend the whole day at FoodEx, where I’d like to follow up on some things that I looked at previously.

One item that I received a small sample of turned out to be more interesting than I initially gave it credit for. It’s a wheat-free and soy-free “soy sauce” that tastes very similar to the real thing. It’s apparently meant to satisfy a particularly narrow range of folks allergic to wheat or soy proteins. It’s made with compressed sesame seeds, barley and salt instead of soy beans, wheat and salt. I used it in tonight’s dinner and it worked quite well; it had a pleasant taste, and was functionally equivalent to soy sauce as a seasoning. I should find out if the manufacturer is willing to export it. It wasn’t made by the usual soy sauce suspects (Kikkoman, Yamasa, etc.)

FoodEx 2005, Day 2: The Japanese section, and business dinner

jason

I managed to get a little misdirected on the train this morning, but I wasn’t the only one confused by the ambiguities of the Keiyo-sen; a Japanese couple opposite me was equally bewildered to be moving nowhere closer to Kaihin-makuhari station. I think I had this problem once last year, so I should know better, but it was comforting to know it was easy to be confused.

The other couple turned out to be running a wine importing company, so we chatted a little bit about our businesses and exchanged business cards. They seem to mostly sell German and French wines, at wholesale and in a little retail shop.

Since I focused on the Japan section today, I got to see that in fact the Japanese specialty food trade doesn’t change nearly as rapidly as I had previously thought. In spite of an apparently neverending stream of variations of bottled drinks, most of what I saw this year was, in one form or another, in last year’s show also. But I did see some good stuff, including a vinegar manufacturer and some nice foods from Hokkaido. I was kind of interested in a sea vegetable called “umi-budou” (sea grapes) which have a unique briny taste; alas, they don’t travel well. Some of the local producers of foods might have some potential with high end venues in the U.S., though sometimes the packaging isn’t quite hip enough to reach a mainstream audience.

I think I’ve still only seen about two-thirds of the show, but I hit most of the areas of interest to my company; I’d love to spend a little time looking at some of the European products, just out of professional, and culinary, curiosity. But tomorrow I think I’ll spend a full day at Hoteres and decide how to divide up my Friday thereafter.

A representative from the trading company that’s helping me source yuzu products took me out to dinner with a business acquaintance of his and invited Hiromi along. We had a nice fully vegetarian meal at a restaurant near Tokyo station. My contact’s wife was actually vegetarian, but he said she has unfortunately passed away… Anyway, with a day advance notice, that restaurant can make everything vegetarian. We had a kind of omakase menu, featuring some regional varietal of thin leek blanched and dressed in a mustard-miso based dressing; some hiya-yakko style gomadoufu; a little tounyuu nabe (soy milk hot pot) which had some yomogi (mugwort)-seasoned konnyaku and Japanese leeks. Some boiled glutinous rice, almost fermented like South Indian idli, served as a bed for a nimono of spring bamboo shoots garnished with a cooked cherry blossom. We had some nice parcels of yuba fried in a dough made from soybeans, accompanied by tara no me (a kind of wild mountain vegetable common in springtime) tempura; these were simply offered with salt for dipping. We had some sakura udon, house-made udon colored with crushed cherry blossoms, in a vegetarian kakejiru (soup base). And finally we had a bit of rose-infused ice cream.

Along the way we tried some imo-jochu (Japanese sweet potato vodka), regular grain-based shochu, and two kinds of cold sake. Mr. Hiba indicated that he prefers to have a variety of drinks to taste during a meal… It’s a good thing I don’t drink heavily or this could have been very treacherous.

I’m a little sleepy, and I’m up a little late, but I hope to make some good use of time at the Hoteres show tomorrow.

FoodEx 2005, Day 1

jason

I spent most of the day in the international section of FoodEx, mostly because that’s the hall where I entered. I wanted to briefly say hi to my dragon beard candy supplier, and I also had a meeting planned with a yuzu juice supplier in the afternoon, who planned to meet me in the international hall.

A few companies I ran into had products quite compatible with my vision, so I spent a little extra time talking to a few of them. Among them, I met a Hong Kong based supplier of certified organic teas from China, which also seemed to have an excellent packaging design team. The woman who manages their business said that she spends a lot of time finding the teas and might only take one of the many selections of tea from a particular farm. I found a Malaysian-based producer of beautifully packaged moon cakes, very contemporary and hip looking, and fairly nice quality; the same company makes some nicely packaged European/Asian style cookies and cakes that have some crossover appeal. Another interesting concept was a Singapore-based old-school cafe with a contemporary interior design, and a signature toast spread that’s a sweet custard base flavored with a Singaporean herb. Most of those companies have products that would fit in beautifully in upscale supermarkets; they wouldn’t have an appeal limited to a first-generation immigrant audience. At the same time, the prices should be a little more compatible with the needs of these types of markets than my ultra-high-end candy.

As last year, official policy prohibits me taking photos during the food show, but I may get some packaging shots online from samples in the next day or two.

I met with a yuzu juice company I’ve been trying to get prices out of for the last 6 months or so. It sounds like it might be a bit of a problem to get the exact configuration I need from them until summer or so, when some new factory equipment is coming online. However, I now have a source should I need, say, 5000 or 10,000 liters of yuzu juice in bulk packaging. The main problem is that it will need to transport such an item in a refrigerated container, which would preclude any consolidation. And the pricing isn’t really that pleasant to look at for anything shy of 15,000 liters (which is nearly a full container load). So I might have to hold off on yuzu juice and related products until they can supply their shelf-stable products this summer.

It turns out, though, that they would be able to custom manufacture some salad dressing recipes and other related products I’ve been investigating, and they can also supply other useful Japanese fruit commodities made from kabosu, daidai, shikuuwaasaa, and so on. They even can provide me with pure yuzu oil, which is even higher grade than most cosmetics are using. So, although I’m not thrilled with the cost, I’m happy I can finally answer customer requests for yuzu products.

Tomorrow I’ll be at FoodEx again, and I will probably take all of Thursday at Hoteres.

Just before FoodEx

jason

So I thought I’d do some… er… research before FoodEx, and I thought it would be very important to know how these two cakes taste.

They came from the patisserie Gerard Mulot in the basement of Shinjuku’s Takashimaya.

Cake 017-150w Chocolate from Gerard Mulot

I can report that both surpassed my expectations. The caramel and apricot tart or flan on the left was pushing the envelope on the caramelization, just to the point where the caramelization could go no further without disaster striking. and was surprisingly light on the sugar. (As the homeless culinary appreciation sensei in Tampopo explained, French cuisine is a constant battle with burns). The other cake featured two layers of chocolate ganache or mousse atop a small layer of chocolate sponge cake, covered with the intense chocolate you can see in the photo. It was seriously chocolate… minimal sweetness, very complex. I just wish I could get this in Seattle.

While I was at it I picked up some yuzu candy and yuzu seeds, and tried some tonyu gelato. Lunch involved some ordinary respectable pizza margherita and kinoko cream soup.

I also chatted with someone else in the department store who works for a rising specialty food company in Yamagata, and she put me in touch with their head office. I may have the chance to meet with them before leaving town. This company makes some really nice products with various fruits; it clearly focuses on a domestic audience, but might have some potential in upscale New York and San Francisco supermarkets or department store shops if the wholesale price is right.

Kyoto Weekend

jason
In front of Kyoto station
Hiromi and I departed to Kyoto Saturday morning... it was a trip full of amazingly close calls. We arrived at the Haneda airport just in time, after missing a connection. We had a few other complications involving catching buses, trains, and even the airplane back... Hiromi went to retrieve some items from a locker in Osaka station, which she had trouble finding because we turned out to be on the wrong side of the station. Already on a tight return schedule, I further messed things up when Hiromi and I were readjusting the two pieces of luggage, camera, and two shopping bags we were carrying back to Tokyo. Somehow, a strap on my backpack or maybe Hiromi's camera bag caught my eyeglass frame as I was removing heavy things from my body inside the train... My eyeglasses popped off my face, slid across the train car floor, and landed in the gap between the train and the platform, essentially unreachable to the most dexterous and skinny of human bodies. The station attendants suggested we wait for the train to depart before retrieving the items, and we lost about 10 minutes between trains, missing a monorail connection, and again arriving just in time for the return flight.

As for the trip itself, it was both pleasant and reasonably productive. We stopped at a yuzen fabric dye and painted fabric decoration workshop, and chatted with the someone who makes pillows, purses, and other fabric-based crafts. Although I suppose these items would be quite expensive if imported in the US, I like the work and would like to try to find a way to make it possible to bring into the US.

The labor involves traditional dying and decoration processes but the look would fit in with contemporary lifestyles. Hiromi bought a purse (pictured here) that has a pretty interesting cut and looks pretty good when worn...

Our first night in Kyoto was a kind of multicourse meal involving fresh yuba, skimmed by hand from the surface of thick soy milk. We had yuba in various preparations, yubadoufu, and other pleasant things. The entire meal was pleasantly sappari, although we decided to tempt fate and order a sort of spring roll made with yuba as the skin and what turned out to be typically Japanese processed cheese inside. This was pleasant, though if I did this back home I think I'd probably be using some camembert or raclette cheeses.

We met up with Sachi, who visited me in Seattle during Golden Week, Sunday afternoon, but not before a breakfast that included a soy milk warabi-mochi. Warabi-mochi are a chewy confection which I think are actually made with kuzu (arrowroot) starch. Hiromi discovered the shop in a guidebook, and when we arrived, we realized it should have been in Fremont, were we in Seattle and if the King County Health Department didn't have an aversion to pets in restaurants. The shop was actually mostly selling dog toys and baked items for dogs, and the cafe was just there as a diversion for their customers. We had two orders of Warabi-mochi, and some Japanese interpretations of the Korean drinks soo jeong-gwa (persimmon punch with cinnamon and ginger) and yuja-cha (yuzu tea). The rest of the short menu was multiethnic and rarely Japanese. The soymilk smoothed out the texture of the warabi mochi and what we had were much creamier than the typical confection by the same name... I suppose that might be meaningless to most folks who don't spend a lot of time eating Japanese sweets, but it's the best I can do to describe it... Our dish was adorned with a maple leaf and dressed with kuromitsu (black sugar honey syrup) and kinako (toasted soybean powder).

With Sachiko, of course, we spent most of our time walking across the Kumo-gawa river toward Gion, eating nibbles at other Japanese confectioners and senbe-makers. We even sampled some usu-jio umeboshi that are typically sold for something approaching JPY 300 each (a shy $3). She had to head off within a couple of hours due to a fairly long train ride back to her home in Wakayama, and, I think, trying to match the schedule of her friends that she had visited Arashi-yama with earlier in the day.

After wandering around in search of an exciting dinner option, we backtracked to Gion and picked a restaurant where we had more tofu and yuba dishes, in addition to some stuffed Kyoto eggplant (almost Italian), grilled mushrooms with butter, salt, pepper and garlic), and some salt-roasted ginnan nuts. We had a nigori-sake (unfiltered) which was slightly effervescent, and some excellent pickled daikon served with a little grated ginger. 

Monday, we made a pilgrimage to Del Cook, in Nose, a rustic area in the north end of Osaka. We were perhaps too focused on eating and enjoying the view to take any photos of the food, but it suffices to say that everything was as beautifully presented as the rest of the scenery. We had the fancier of the two available lunch courses, and mine was altered to be suitable for a vegetarian. We started with a small bowl of chopped persimmons served, in my case, with unsweetened yogurt, some black sesame seeds, and, I think, ginnan or similar nuts. A little coarse salt provided a little contrast to the light sweetness. 

We had a creamy gobo (burdock root) soup with a little bit of milk foam, served in cute little cups and small spoons, providing a bit of an espresso machiatto deception. Some naturally leavened breads made by Del himself provided a nice accompaniment, which we soon devoured and of which we declined an offer for a second serving. The next course was a baby organic leaf salad, served with some charcoal grilled fish for Hiromi, and some similarly prepared Kyoto-sized eggplant halves in my case. Hiromi also had a course of risotto and grilled hotate (scallops), and mine was a similar risotto and some grilled matsutake mushrooms which had been hand gathered by an older woman who operates a similarly rustic Japanese restaurant next door.

Before dessert we had something of a palate cleanser course of black currant sorbet and finely chopped pears in a light syrup. A rustic apple tart was accompanied by chestnut ice cream.

After our lunch, we were able to stop in Del's kitchen and chat a bit. There was no dinner meal planned for the evening, so he was able to talk with more leisure than otherwise, although it was clear he was exhausted. He also gave us a sample of some very nice yuzu mascarpone sorbet which went out on the dessert plates of those in the second seating.

Hiromi and I took a little walk with Del and his dogs, meeting the neighboring restaurant's ducks and walking past a backyard garden. We had a beautiful view of the Nose valley facing down the hill. One of the dogs jumped into a reservoir and swam a bit, then delighted in shaking off the water as close to his human companions as possible. As we returned to the restaurant to gather our things and settle our bill, we saw the obaasan (granny, respectfully) who runs the neighboring restaurant ride up on a motorcycle after apparently running some errands. Del says that she's been known to dive for abalone herself and share the bounty with his restaurant.

Jason, Del & one of the assistant chefs de dog

The neighbor ducks

Nose valley

 

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.

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.

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.