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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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.

Compliments in Japan

jason

One of the things I learned in high school German class was never, ever to accept a compliment. The proper response is denial; graciously accepting someone's praise in Germany is hopelessly gauche.

Fortunately, a similar aesthetic regarding compliments prevails in Japan, as this Japan Times article suggests. So even my first time in Japan, around 1998, I was habitually denying the overwrought compliments offered on my truly atrocious Japanese. Anyone I know whose Japanese skills are actually worthy of praise ceases directly hearing even a word of such, unless they are particularly tired and sloppy and making mistakes. Such people are offered praise (or bewilderment) through intermediaries.

Unlike Germany, however, it seems to be far more common for Japanese to lavish praise on people, so the skills in deflecting compliments require somewhat faster reflexes.

It is somewhat news to me, though, that I would need to be cautious about group contexts when offering compliments to people close to me... But since Americans can be insulted by insincere compliments, I suppose the same risk would be present in U.S. situations; offering an insincere compliment to someone you know in a mixed group might be taken particularly badly. I think that the most sincere direct compliment in Japan is when someone is saying that they like something about you (I like your hair when it is longer) or something that you have done (is it ok if I eat more of this?), rather than offering general praise (your Japanese is good, etc.)

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

 

Arrived, partially recovered

jason

Over the holiday weekend I had the good fortune to be nearly unreachable, except via my prepaid Japanese cell phone, as I attempted to recover from jetlag in the hot springs of Hanamaki in Iwate prefecture, not far from Morioka. Monday was also a national holiday in Japan, so this was something of an international three day weekend... not completely work free, as I was always on the lookout for something interesting to import, and found lots of nifty stuff, but it was relaxing enough and helped me get enough sleep to be reasonably productive for the rest of the trip.

Alas, it meant also that I was blissfully unaware of some problems with some logistics issues with a few things that are being moved around right now, and I also discovered another couple of minor and major fire drills unrelated to products, but almost all of those were resolved in a few hours last night after I arrived in my weekly rental apartment in Shinjuku.

I need to take off to meet with a supplier... When I return, I'll talk about what I ate the last few days...

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.

On dinner parties and not traveling light

jason

Saturday, March 20, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japanese-Indian, French pastries, and comfort food

jason

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

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

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

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

Eating Italian in Japan; where else?

jason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kamakura and a day of serious snacking

jason

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

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

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

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

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

Slacking in Yokohama and Omote-Sando

jason

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

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

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

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

Hoteres, Day 2: Nifty equipment and ceramics

jason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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