I just arrived this morning... the last few days in Japan were somewhat busy, and though I started writing entries in my web journal a few times, I got distracted by other things. I will start to fill in the blanks tomorrow, if I can spare a few moments.
A few weeks ago at Bellevue’s Aki Matsuri event, I met a photographer whose work I think I had seen at Azuma Gallery at some point, but I hadn’t ever committed his name to memory. He has done a number of shoots in Japan, producing some very nice images that manage to evoke Japan without being too conventional or contrived.
I was a little sleepless when I met him, and I rambled on and on a bit, but I suggested I might be able to offer some of his work on YuzuMura.com. Over the last few weeks, we worked out some details, and I got started uploading some of them… I have a lot more work to do…
Thursday I visited the Seattle Gift Center and met with one of the space leasing coordinators. The Seattle Gift Center is basically a wholesale market where a lot of regional buyers for retail shops come in search of the latest and greatest gift items. The leasing guy suggested I meet with one of the vendors who focuses on food products, but, since Monday and Tuesday are the normal days for showrooms to be open, nobody was there to talk to. I did run into a couple of other interesting people while I was there, but anyway, Monday or Tuesday I should go back and try to meet with one of the sales people there. I might be able to find someone to represent my candy there or I might learn something else useful.
I've been struggling with my work taking over my living space, so I've started to spend more time thinking about leasing some commercial space. Also I really think it would be helpful to show off my products in a space that shows them off to the best advantage. My revenue situation doesn't entirely suit doing this and it was something that I was planning to do in the more distant future, but I barely feel like I live at home right now and it's increasingly uncomfortable. Anyway, I took a look at various retail spaces, including two in the International District, one in the Convention Center downtown, and a few in the Wallingford and Fremont areas.
Part of the week I spent talking with some other small retailers, though these often weren't so much sales calls as harmless discussions and occasional market research. I learned about a few other places I should talk to, and I'll be exploiting some of that information this week. I spent a little time meeting with another Japanese newspaper and I think I'll be stepping up my publicity efforts a bit this week.
I spent some time most days, when I wasn't otherwise out and about, working on my web code, and I'm finally down to the last few work items to make it functional. I think I can nail it down in a couple of days and then I'll get ready to walk the Seattle Gift Show.
Saturday I woke up early in the morning and drove to Beaverton, Oregon, to do sampling at the Uwajimaya there. I think the audience there was a little less adventurous about even tasting the candy, but the sales conversion ratio seemed to be ok... pretty much in line with our Bellevue experience, maybe slightly better. My last sale was actually to a woman who was just fascinated by the video; I had already put away my samples, so she bought a single tube “just to try it.“ I wonder if there's something to be said for not giving samples away and focusing just on telling the product story...
Afterward, I chatted with some Hawaiian folks peddling kaki-gouri (shaved ice) out in front of Uwajimaya and relieved my dehydration with a guava shaved ice that had a little ice cream and coarse anko (sweet azuki bean paste) on the bottom.
I drove around looking fruitlessly for parking in Portland's Chinatown in the early evening... some downtown events, including the Bite of Portland and some outdoor concerts in Chinatown made parking downtown pretty much out of the question, and I didn't have a specific enough agenda to justify paying for parking. I finally drove across the bridge to have dinner at a decent Mexican restaurant I tried to eat at a couple of trips ago, but had worse luck with seating at that time due to a recent favorable review. I had a nice tamale dish with a nice simple side vegetable dish.
Saturday was kind of an all-day work effort, so I barely moved this morning except to do a little housework. I made pancakes for breakfast and made a makeshift dorayaki intended for an afternoon snack... In the afternoon I made okonomiyaki for the second or third time this week, this time with kimchi and cheese. I ducked out to work on some of the web project at Vivace's in the afternoon, which I've done more than once this week... today I made a small dent, but the work on this step required more thought on UI than I expected so the progress was slower than I had hoped. I haven't done much exercise this week, so after a few hours away I came back to go jogging around Greenlake. I made a simple pasta dish with fresh green beans in a tomato cream sauce and chopped basil, adorned with good parmesan acquired from a new Wallingford specialty food shop started by an Amazon.com refugee.
I'm not sure how productive I was this week, but I rarely had a moment when I was able to slow down and relax... I was running all over...
I’ve been plotting upgrading my blog to use Community Server instead of DotText, but I found that making Community Server behave like my DotText system is a little bit more time consuming than I had expected… Oh well… I promise not to be silence for too long.
Today I got some samples of a possible new product that I’m very excited about. I think it will be a good compliment to some of the green tea stuff I’m doing for Three Tree tea. It will take a few weeks to work out, perhaps. But there’s something else I might do at the same time… stay tuned.
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.
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.
My friend’s hopes of driving to Nikko are dashed by reports of poor road conditions, so she makes inquiries about things one can do in sleepy Nasu-shiobara. We snap a few photos around a pedestrian bridge that crosses a river bordered by snow-covered rocks. We visit a museum and mostly see various artifacts chosen to demonstrate that famous poets have stopped in town here before. I pick up some udon which have bits of yuzu zest embedded in the noodles, which I’ll cook while staying in a weekly apartment in Tokyo.
We drive to a soba/udon shop recommended by the tourist information center and have handmade soba in soup, served with freshly made yuba, and rustically cut udon in soup, served with mountain vegetable tempura. We also order some soba-gakki, after I describe it to my friend based on the one time I tasted a not-very-similar version of it in Saru-ga-kyou.
Afterward we drive around somewhat aimlessly, and stop in a gift shop and find ourselves attracted to some kuromame daifuku with zunda filling (black beans mixed with mochi, and filled with sweetened paste of mung beans, and some black bean cocoa, which we buy and take along with us. I am nearly convinced that the dried niga-uri (goya, or bitter melon) chips are worth trying by the salesperson, who says they are easy to eat, but I don’t buy.
My friend convinces me to order “cream soda,” an ice cream float made with an aggressively green-colored soda which is flavored similarly to the vanilla soda known as cream soda in the US but apparently with extra esther of wood rosin. At least the vanilla ice cream was nice…
We go back to the hotel and my jetlag catches up with me… I sleep, though I have no idea if my friend does the same or not, for about an hour. We decide to head to the outdoor hot springs pools again after learning we just missed by a few minutes the chance to use one of the private ones… but nobody else is down there, as it’s the start of the dinner hour. The view of the snow-covered rocks in the river is probably more compelling anyway.
Dinner is a typically elaborate spread of mostly simple foods that you would expect to find in a Japanese ryokan, and I get some special treatment to accommodate my vegetarian habit. Dengaku nasu, and some unusual cross between yuba and tofu that the woman serving us couldn’t quite explain, and some nice jelly covering crisp fresh shredded vegetables, and a pot of yu-doufu are all nice; there’s also chawan-mushi (savory egg custard), and some dried persimmon stuffed with candied yuzu peel.
I end up eating so much I barely touch the rice. The half hour in the hot spring makes it hard to concentrate on anything, and sleep seems inevitable…
I just got a delivery of some nifty fortune cookies, dipped in matcha-flavored white chocolate, made by Chocolati of Seattle for YuzuMura.com.
I got them just before something I had planned for this evening, so I don’t have any decent photos… though Hiromi threatened to post some badly out-of-focus and imprecisely-hued photos on her blog.
The most carefully done meal of the day was breakfast… I used up the very last of my leftover seeded baguette to make french toast with five spice powder. I think I’m out of ordinary cinnamon…
When I was younger my father used to mix up the egg and milk and cinnamon in the same bowl and soak supermarket mushy sliced bread in the batter. I grew up loving that stuff, but now I pretty much make french toast exclusively to use up dry bread. Accordingly, I first place thick slices of dry bread into a bowl with milk to soak briefly, then I flip, coat with beaten egg, and start “toasting” in a buttered pan. I add some cinnamon or, well, aged pantry five spice powder.
Around 4pm I ate veggie pho at the Thanh Bros. neighboring Chocolati. By that time I definitely needed something. I never got around to eating anything more dinner-like.
I launched an updated home page for YuzuMura.com today… this has kept me up late a few nights, even though it wasn’t always the home page itself I was working on. I’m always skittish about sending out marketing-ish email, but I haven’t sent a thing in two months and so much was changed that it would probably be irresponsible not to say anything.
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 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.
I like piadina, the lard-enhanced soft, cracker-like flatbread of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. But I don’t use a lot of pork lard in my vegetarian kitchen. On the other hand, the toasted ghee I made last week stands in just fine; in German clarified butter is actually known as Butterschmalz, and other kinds of rendered fats are known as (Animal-)schmalz. So I always thought it would work as a fair alternative if I decided to make a piadina- or crespelle-like flatbread at home. The ingredients are functionally equivalent, though the flavors are certainly not the same. It's definitely a respectable fat.
I wasn’t really trying to make something particularly Italian, though; I just wanted a nice thin crispy-soft flatbread. Given my tendency to cook vaguely Indian food over the last few days, I actually thought something with the nuttiness of chapati would actually be nice, but I wanted something closer to the texture of piadina to hold up to my filling. So I balanced the two concepts by using a 50–50 ratio of whole wheat to white flour, as would be fairly typical for chapati, I blended in my toasted ghee, then added some water until I had a stiff dough.
My lentil cravings haven’t quite disappeared, but I didn’t want something as dense as my koftas, so this time I made a big lentil-potato pancake. I incorporated parboiled potatoes into a spiced ground lentil mixture. I made patties and cooked them in a substantial amount of oil. I browned it on both sides. The patty took a fair amount of time to cook, along the lines of a Rösti, but had a nice texture, flavor and color. Even with the lengthy cooking time, I’d definitely recommend finely grinding lentils for this kind of application rather than using cooked lentils.
I placed this lentil-potato “patty” between two layers of the flatbread with some sliced tomatoes, sweet onions, and raclette cheese.
I served this with a signature salad of mine, mixed greens with a yuzu-honey vinaigrette.
In the morning I made buttermilk waffles with some Hawaiian coconut syrup I got at the Beaverton Uwajimaya. It’s full of saturated and trans fats and has a very nice coconut flavor. It doesn’t look like it would photograph well when plated, so I didn’t try.
I got a late start doing business-like things. I should have worked harder today, but Monday seems to be the one day I give myself the luxury of working a little slowly… But I didn’t come home to make dinner until about 8pm, so I ate fairly late. But I sent off oustanding orders.
My car’s brakes have been making disturbing noises recently, so I am afraid I’ll have to get them checked… another irritating expenditure.