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.

Farewell, Minowa-san

Hiromi passed very sad news to me this weekend. One of my ceramic artists, Minowa Yasuo, died of a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a kind of stroke which occurs when blood vessels near the surface of the brain burst. This type of stroke can affect people of any age, so it was completely unexpected. Before the stroke, Minowa-san was quite healthy.

Minowa-san and his wife were very kind and welcoming to Hiromi and to me. They often invited us to the workshop on the outskirts of Mashiko and served us English tea and Danish butter cookies as we talked about ceramics and unrelated trivialities.

Mrs. Minowa called Hiromi’s home while she was at work on Friday. Yesterday Hiromi talked to Mrs. Minowa by telephone to express sympathy… it turns out that Mr. Minowa died on September 2 and Mrs. Minowa called just after visiting family near Hiromi’s home.

During their conversation yesterday, Hiromi learned that Mr. Minowa had a son from his first marriage, and they hadn’t seen each other since both Minowa and his former wife remarried. That son moved to the US at some point to work, and somehow discovered one of my web sites, then found a way to contact his father in Mashiko. They had planned to meet again later this year, although it didn’t quite work out.

I’m not quite sure how to react yet. I have more of a personal connection with the Minowa family than other potters I buy from, so it came as a shock to me.

My cold seems to be better. I tried to take the weeekend easy, but somehow I didn’t sleep much better. I spent a lot of time playing with web code on Saturay, and enjoyed some cheap entertainment on Friday. This afternoon, I did a bit of work in my office, met with a customer, and then decided to make a simple dinner.

Grilled pear, caramelized onions and cabrales salad

Tamara Murphy’s restaurant in downtown Seattle, Brasa, gives a lot of space to cabrales cheese, particularly on their bar menu. At Brasa, cabrales is often paired with grapes, and this is perfectly sensible. The pungency of the cheese and the mild flavor and light sweetness of the fruit complement each other. I spotted some nice Bosc pears tonight and noticed a fair deal on cabrales cheese, so I chose to grill some pears and caramelize some onions, and serve these atop some red lettuce dressed with my signature yuzu dressing. A few toasted pine nuts scattered about add a bit of aromatic complexity.

Pear cabrales salad with caramelized onions and pine nuts

Potatoes au gratin with chives

I remembered I had a remaining stash of chives from a baked potato dinner a few days ago. I spotted some inexpensive Washington-grown Yukon Gold potatoes and decided I needed to give my mandoline a workout, so I made this gratin. I used half cream, half milk, a bit of salt, and a hint of garlic.

Potato gratin with chives

 

A little work, a little distraction

The day started off with a blast of heat and never quite cooled down.

I hit most of my planned tasks today, most of which were mundane: phone calls, a quick check on a customer of mine who had been out sick for a few days, packing internet orders, and making an Eastside delivery and a couple of follow-ups, and by the end of the day I handled a couple of less pressing things.

After everything I met up with Jennifer at Lake Union and went kayaking from Portage Bay to Gasworks park, then made a stop at Agua Verde for a margarita and something to nibble on. Service staff was a little distracted but the food was about the same level of quality that I remember from the last visit, a notch above standard Seattle-area Mexican restaurant fare but not dreamy. Oddly enough, both Jennifer and I had independently found ourselves eating tacos for lunch, so there was an element of redux to the whole event, but there’s not much that compares to paddling up some place for dinner.

It’s still a little too hot, even after 11 pm. I hope I can get some decent sleep tonight.

Hoteres 2005, Day 3

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.)

All promotions, all the time

For three days I was doing in-store demonstrations of the dragon beard candy... first in Bellevue, then I spent Saturday and Sunday in Beaverton during the Japan America Society's Japan Festival. With the help of a little bit of discounting on the part of Uwajimaya, and a more festive atmosphere, the Beaverton sales were pretty decent, and mostly justified the long drive and overnight hotel costs. It was nothing like the first weekend of sales at the Chinatown festival, but it sure didn't hurt.

I benefited also from the September publication of the Japanese translation of an article about my company and the product in Yuuyake Shinbun. A few people commented that they had read about the candy, though, as usual, many were unclear about their source. Someone even thought they had heard about it on TV. The most amusing thing was that I suddenly picked up the ability to talk about my product in machine-gun fashion (kikanjuu-no-you-ni) in simple Japanese... it was particularly challenging when I was trying to explain the price discounts that involved a lot of the number nine.

The best thing about the festival itself was that someone had set up a stand to serve freshly-made tai-yaki, which are a Japanese answer to waffles shaped like fish... snapper... they were offered stuffed with anko or with custard cream. They were so good. I haven't had fresh tai-yaki since....well... March, when I was in Japan plotting my escape from Microsoft. I couldn't help myself. When I took a little break, I ate at the restaurant neighboring Uwajimaya called Sambi, where I had a little set meal with pretty good vegetable croquettes (yasai korokke) and other things which were perhaps less exciting. Actually both before and after I ordered I saw two staff members taking breaks who turned out to be eating the same thing, so it must have been a worthwhile choice.

I tried to be adventurous and find a hip place to get a small late dinner Saturday night, but when I arrived at the first place I was interested in, it was closed for a private wedding reception. I ended up at an unremarkable but cheap pasta-focused spot and had some manicotti in a heavy marinara sauce. I tried wandering around looking for a low key place to get a drink and possibly socialize, but I made the mistake of going to the Portland equivalent of Pioneer Square, not knowing any better, and it was all noisy places for people far younger and more drunk than I am or wanted to be... so I just wandered back to the hotel.

“Dinner“ on the way home was a little sad... I ate an entire bag of “saya bean“ baked snacks, had a little blackberry kefir, and a bottle of gogo no koucha (milky bottled tea), snacking while driving. I got home late enough that real food wasn't worth the energy. I am feeling a little heavier in the last week or two, so I think I need to get myself back to exercising more regularly and eating less excessively and less irregularly.

Mrmph... Software

I remember there was a time when I enjoyed exploring the features of software even when I didn’t need to know a specific feature for any particular task or work I had ahead of me. In fact, I’d say that most of my life, “playing” with software has been a fairly important learning method for me, and made it possible for me to accomplish all sorts of things relatively easily that other folks I knew would have considered hopelessly complex.

I’m not sure when exactly my attitude changed… I know that at Microsoft, it shifted a bit. If a solution didn’t seem eminent and I had other things I should have been working on, I would give up on whatever esoteric solution I had in mind, stop tweaking and just move on. It was a necessary project management technique. If it wasn’t critical to the task, I’d just step away, regardless of how interesting the solution to my problem might have been.

As a business owner, I have slowly noticed an increasing drift toward impatience with software and with hardware idiosyncrasies. If something didn’t work as I expected, and it actually matters to me, I yell and scream and vent at my computer, which of course isn’t really listening. It provides a kind of stress relief.

I was doing some work with my online store over the last few days, uploading dozens of new products, including some really beautiful bamboo tea trays, some very stylish Yixing teaware, and some tea oil-based soaps and cosmetics. Unfortunately, some of the categories were getting unwieldy and confusing, as Hiromi rightly pointed out to me. Many of these problems are tough to solve without doing substantial code modifications to software that I didn’t even write, and I’m not that comfortable sacrificing a lot of time writing code for small benefits these days.

But I knew in the back of my mind that a feature to affect the display order of products within a particular category was supposed to be in the software. I knew how to adjust sort order of the categories themselves, but I never did quite figure out where in the UI this feature for sorting products within a category fell, though I had seen evidence of it in the database backend.

Finally, today, as I was doing some more manipulation of the categories on my web site, I found it. It allowed me to group things within some categories slightly more intelligently, roughly in conceptual groups rather than by something more haphazard, like alphabetical order, or pageviews/popularity-based sorting. Years ago, I would likely have discovered this feature way before I actually would have needed it. I’m clearly not that excited about learning the intricacies of the features of my software anymore…

I felt rather stupid that I have been using the same software for about 5 months and never noticed it. Actually the effect is rather subtle, but it at least allows me to group things in an order that makes sense within my mind, instead of just an apparently random list of products.

Failure to inspect

Apparently the FDA has provided no notice of the inspection results, nor even evidence that they have completed the inspection. Supposedly, they have a legal obligation to inspect the cargo within three business days of filing notice of sampling, and they filed that notice on Friday. By the end of the day today, there was no new information, so I'm not sure what kind of recourse might be available.

In any event, the net effect is that I still don't have my shipment, and I'm paying about $30/day for storage as a side effect of the FDA failing to complete their obligation.

I'm hoping to have some news tomorrow, but I'm in a position of no particular power over the situation.

On the bright side, I met with a company that inquired about my candy for wholesale purchases and the meeting went pretty well. Yesterday Eugene dropped by with some tea samples, so I  also brought this company some samples of the tea to try.

In true spy movie style, I met my graphic designer just before 11am at her dentist's office in Fremont, where she passed me some CDs containing the new, post-summer-festival advertisements for the dragon beard candy. After my other little meeting I ran the CDs to two of the newspapers that are running the ads.

In the evening, Jennifer, Amelia and I met to join in at the Cascade Cycle Club's Tour de France event at Magnusson Park. It was a quintessentially American experience... on a nice, sunny evening,  come to a lovely park with a thousand other people, and watch TV. We were too lazy to wait in the long line for the food there, so we ran off to the nearby Pagliacci and waited at an alternate venue, apparently for a shorter duration than we would have otherwise, and then came back with a large verde. We watched a few taped-delayed crashes but mostly spent the time chatting... after a brief visit to the overly warm auditorium where we saw another, slightly overlapped tape delay, I got tired early and came home.

Shipping woes, mustard greens jiaozi

I have been frustrated for the last few days with some shipping issues… it reminds me of my very first dragon beard candy shipment, when the competence to book the cargo seemed to fail my shipping vendor, which at that time was Yamato transport.

This time was more of a comedy of errors and miscommunications: between my supplier and myself, between my supplier and a new freight company, and between that freight company and me. I didn’t always know when some problem was still unresolved because of some slow responses.

Fortunately, these appear to be resolved and the shipment is supposed to be on its way. Aside from irritating my customers, the only big remaining risk is the usual risk of customs clearance and FDA delays. If I’m lucky, everything will be ready by Monday, but if I’m not, it could take another 4 days of “fax and wait.”

In the meantime, dinner has been uninspired. Most of the week I made things that I’ve recently cooked variations of. Tonight was my first stroke of creative energy.

I like the tangy bite of mustard greens. They don’t require a lot of intervention; on most occasions I just cook them with a little olive oil and a splash of vinegar, salted to taste. Because such simple preparations work so well, I rarely push the envelope with mustard greens, but I wanted to do something more.

I massaged a bit of coarse salt into the leaves, let them sit a bit, and rinsed them. This technique hinders further shrinkage of the greens after cooking, which was important because I was turning them into a stuffing. I chopped the leaves fairly finely, and did the same thing with some mung bean sprouts. Afterward, I added some momen tofu (momen-doufu), some grated ginger, and some salt.

Karashina-tofu

Karashi-na Gyouza

I turned the filling into gyoza, or potstickers. I used my big, not terribly evenly-heating cast-iron pan. After cooking them in oil on two sides, I added some katakuriko mixed with water and covered the pan for several minutes, which contributes a nice crispiness and some aesthetic advantages.

Karashina gyoza

Mustard greens mellow out quite a bit in such an application, but contribute a nice pungency… next time I might sneak a bit of vinegar into the dumplings. I was hesitant to do so because I remember so many of my least favorite dumpling-eating experiences in Beijing were sour… but it might work well here.

Oh, a pronounceable domain name

After trying painfully to spell out my domain name to someone who was interviewing me last night at a fun geek-friendly event called Ignite Seattle, I realized repeating the spelling of blog.jagaimo.com to everyone I meet could become painful.

Personally, I like the name Jagaimo, and anyone who knows even a little Japanese has little problem recalling or spelling the name, but it certainly doesn't "roll off the tongue" for most English-speakers. So I finally caved in and registered PursuingMyPassions.com, which should require far less explanation. Ironically, it's a longer name, but it's certainly quicker to communicate... at least to the average English speaker.

Sometimes I wish I had a last name that people tend to spell correctly... Alas, I'm not so blessed, so this is a good alternative.

I'm inclined to continue to use blog.jagaimo.com and just forward all requests for PursuingMyPassions.com here, but I'm toying with the idea of going the opposite direction and sending everyone to the new domain name.

I'm certainly no marketing genius. What do you think  should do?

Seattle Sakura

Sakura-branch

A weekend ago we made a trek to Washington Park Arboretum to do Seattle-style cherry-blossom viewing. That means completely devoid of public drunkenness, which would of course be de rigeur in Japan… Seattle style cherry-blossom viewing involves a moderately brisk trek across a large, uncrowded park, perhaps after a dose of coffee.

Sakura-bunch

Seattle’s cherry blossoms tend to be a bit earlier than  most of Japan, but April 4 is sort of the officially appreciated day for cherry-blossom viewing, so my sluggishness in posting these works out to have a slightly commemorative effect.

shidare-zakura

Now, if only we had a little blanket, a lot of shochu, some cold snacks, and no laws against drinking in public parks, we might have a complete hanami experience…

A Little Respite in Gunma-ken

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.

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