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.

Monday downtime

I did make a delivery and take care of some orders today, but I worked at a relatively slow pace today.

One of my wholesale customers called and dramatically increased their reorder size, so that makes me happy. They used to take a cautious 2 cases per order, but they bumped that up to 5 cases this time. It shows a lot of confidence in our ability to sell, and indicates they are more worried about running out of items than having too much of it.

I started building out my community site, MoriAwase.com, which I’m hoping will be a attractive forum to discuss contemporary Asian food, craft and lifestyles. Alas, it’s pretty skeletal now.

Dinner was very late… I had an egg sandwich on a soft Essential Bakery dinner roll, a little lettuce and provolone. It was already 11 pm.

So that's what "logistics nightmare" means

The last three days I've been struggling with my air freight service, Yamato Transport, as they've managed to royally mess up the shipment of my dragon beard candy. They failed to arrange service on June 30 because of China Airlines had some reluctance to handle food shipments to the U.S., and they didn't arrange a backup in time to ship that day, and didn't inform my supplier of the problem until the air cargo offices were closed for the day. July 1, of course, happened to be a public holiday in Hong Kong, and so I heard zero news from Yamato yesterday until evening, when my supplier and I started beating up the Yamato Hong Kong office by telephone and email. By 11 pm here, or about 3 pm Hong Kong time, Yamato had finally gotten some sort of arrangement, but they had been so slow to inform us about what was going on that we didn't trust them to complete the shipment successfully anymore.

Yamato, once they got arrangements confirmed, also neglected to follow my instructions to get the product here as directly as possible, instead trying to route the cargo through Los Angeles and truck it up to Seattle. Since Monday, July 5 is a public holiday in the United States, customs clearance would be unlikely to be complete until at least Wednesday. That means, if all went smoothly, the product would be in my hands on Friday, which is one day before the street fair where I'm debuting the product.

So last night, Dragon Rich, the dragon beard candy maker in Hong Kong, contacted their usual freight forwarder, Maersk, to seek another freight arrangement option in parallel, and by 3 AM Seattle time had made arrangements to transport to Vancouver, BC by air, most likely on Saturday morning Hong Kong time. It should only take four hours or so for the surface transport from Vancouver, so customs clearance on Monday or Tuesday should be the end point of the critical path instead of another two days of surface transport. My supplier's diligence about arranging an alternative was truly impressive and they took some financial risks on my behalf, which I really appreciate.

I dozed off a couple of times between 1 am and 3 am, but around 3:30 or so I was finally able to sleep after the marketing manager in Singapore had clarified the most important details. I got about 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep, but at least I have some confidence that my shipment will get here in time.

All of the advertisements were ready to go on Tuesday and some publicity was arranged. On Wednesday, the Northwest Asian Weekly asked me to bring them some other photos for a story they were running, so I went down there and took some product shots. The newspaper came out Thursday morning. It turns out the story is very similar to my press release, so it was kind of a funny experience reading it.

The week in review

The last couple of days I have alternately been craving sappari foods and the completely unhealthy. Yesterday I decided to try an experiment... I tried wrapping some soft, vacuum-packed yuba that I bought in Kyoto in October around some mochi with a little bit of nori for color, then fried them in some oil until golden. After I fried them, I set them in a bowl of kakejiru, which is basically seasoned dashi (japanese soup stock) with soy sauce and mirin in it.

The flavor was just about right, but I need to learn some tricks to keep the mochi from bursting the yuba and nori apart. The presentation left a little something to be desired. I tried using some toothpicks to hold everything together, but it wasn't quite enough. I might try using thinner cuts of kiri-mochi next time, and I might skip boiling the mochi first, just to see how it expands. I recall having some fried nori-wrapped natto in Japan, and some fried nori-wrapped yuba in a Chinese restaurant in Seattle, but I can't remember eating any of nori-wrapped fried mochi. The yuba seems to like being fried... the texture was really nice.

I had set out to take some photos of the results, but I wasn't quite happy with how everything looked when I finished, although I did appreciate the flavors. I'll try again someday.

For lunch today, I made a nice soba with a little bit of rolled yuba and some scallions. I also served the soba in my kakejiru, which I've had in the freezer for awhile. It didn't seem to suffer, though.

The last few days I've finally made some serious progress on my internet store, so next week sometime I expect to have some of my new products up on YuzuMura.com. I decided that I'm going to use an off-the-shelf solution that meets most of my needs; after I get it set up, I'll say goodbye to bCentral, which has worked for a basic shopping cart but doesn't meet my upcoming needs.

Unfortunately, I've been waiting for a new shipment of Dragon Beard Candy to arrive for most of the week... A comedy of errors with a new freight provider means that, even though the cargo arrived last weekend, it won't be able to be processed by my customs broker until Monday. Considering how little inventory is available on the store shelves of Uwajimaya stores, this is an irritating problem.

I've gotten a lot of walking in over the last week. Since I have been carless, I've been walking to Ballard to do various errands most days. That gives me a little more than an hour of low-intensity exercise... I should get myself jogging again, though.

My home is chaos

My apartment is now barely livable. After a series of new shipments, including the arrival of additional shipping supplies, and attempts at making passable photographs of products by turning my kitchen table into a makeshift studio, I barely have enough room to walk. I also have some gutted electronics in my living room, as I was trying to complete a low-cost upgrade to substitute for my briefly malfunctioning, and subsequently repaired, laptop computer. That upgrade process did not go smoothly, and the evidence of the trouble is right in

I started hunting for some low-cost storage and office space, but my choices are not enviable. The closest one is probably the best fit for my needs, though it might be a little small; the cheapest one has some unpleasant features, namely the proximity of a constantly humming transformer, and a lack of light in the section more practical for office space. Another one is more versatile but has a high total cost and is kind of out of the way; although reasonbly convenient to my home, it's convenient to nearly no one else in the city, located in northern Magnolia.

I'll try to nail down my solution for space next week, before I fly off to Hong Kong. I will go to Hong Kong to meet with my candy supplier and see their retail locations and their production facility. A couple of days later, I'll attend, and to some extent, participate in FoodEx 2005 in Tokyo. This trip will be pretty short, but I'll also try to cram in a visit to a yuzu farm in west Japan if I can arrange everything in time.

Last Sunday I managed to snag some sichuan pepper at the Beaverton Uwajimaya. After years of absence from the US market, this was a pleasant treat. I cooked some yu-tsai (na-no-hana) with ganmodoki and sichuan pepper, as well as some fresh peqin chilies. It was simple and had a pleasant numbing taste... Except for a dish I had back during the fall festival with a friend who somehow obtained some smuggled sichuan peppers, apparently from Canada, I haven't had a dish featuring sichuan pepper for years. I'm thinking of revisiting a dish my Chinese neighbor in Marburg, Germany used to make, which was basically thin sliced potatoes sauteed with sichuan pepper and a little salt.

I've had some bad luck with atsuage recently... this week marked my second recent attempt to make a stuffed atsuage that turned out to already have passed its prime. The expiration dates seemed fine, but the taste was strangely sour... two different stores, two different brands, two different disappointments. I was happier eating my eringii, carrot and greens filling.

Today in Beaverton I saw a familiar brand while doing a demo... Representatives from a company I met at FoodEx last year, Fuji Oil's Soyafarm, were demoing some tofu nuggets meant for the US market, and some fried reheatable yuba-wrapped edamame. I still prefer Soyafarm's soy milk yogurt and soy milk; that company had the nicest attempts at soy milk yogurt I have ever tested. But I would recommend with only the slightest of reservations the yuba-wrapped edamame. My only complaint is that they were a little salty, and maybe a little microwave-soggy. I don't know if there are ways around those defects; the salt might have been added for the demo purposes only, for all I know.

What am I doing right?

Yesterday I was surprised by a larger than usual number of internet orders for almost every product category I cover. I spent a good portion of the day taking care of them, although I also had a few other wholesale things to work on and a quick meeting, and some banking errands.

Today I got a smaller number of orders but fairly substantial ones. In the last couple of weeks my average internet sales per day seems to have nearly doubled. The strange thing is I haven’t really changed much, although about 6 weeks ago I increased my promotional budget on Google and Overture nee Yahoo Search Marketing. It had a noticeable but not completely direct impact. Only some of those customers seemed to have come from those ads anyway.

Someone ordered a bamboo tea tray only a few days after I put them online… I was really surprised because I did no promotion or even mention of it except in private places until after one had sold.

I don’t really know what I’ve done differently… It’s bewildering. I hope it’s a trend and not a fluke… And I better not stop whatever it is that caused whatever’s happening to happen…

An donuts

Now considered kind of quaint and old-fashioned, an donatsu or sweet azuki paste stuffed donuts were once a staple of Japanese-style bakeries. Increasingly, mushy, cloyingly sweet, preservative-laden versions sold at convenience stores have displaced the fresher incarnations of this sweet, but it’s worth indulging in when you find the real thing.

An Donuts

Andonatsu-ogura

I can’t think of anywhere in Seattle to buy a decent an donut. But I can make a fairly decent interpretation myself...

Sunday morning, after realizing I had no more yeast left, I abandoned the idea of making anpan, the baked bread stuffed with the same kind of red bean paste. I did, however, have eggs, baking powder, and milk, so I put together a cake-like dough, incorporating a bit of melted butter and sugar. The dough was slightly sticky, but solid enough to allow for wrapping the dough around the filling.

The day before I had prepared some ogura-an, sweetened, coarsely mashed cooked azuki beans. I broke the usual convention of using about 50% sugar in the bean paste, preferring to use just enough sugar to taste the sweetness. I probably used no more than 25% sugar.

The main challenge is to make the outer layer thin enough that the dough can cook through, and almost all of them turned out just fine. After frying, I tossed the balls with some granulated sugar to add some textural contrast and an initial hit of sweetness.

We made a couple of lattes and indulged in a late breakfast.

Fresh from the fryer, our homemade an donuts were a totally different experience than I’ve even been able to have in Japan, since those are almost always sold after they have cooled down to room temperature. A tiny hint of crispness as we bit into each piece yielded to a soft cake texture, followed by the warm, sweet bean center.

Ways to bewilder telemarketing droids

Ring. Fumble. Where is my cell phone? Ring. Fumble. Aha. Ring. Hello?

Jason Truesdell, Yuzu Trading Company... Hello?

"Hello?"

Yuzu Trading Company, how can I help you?

"May I speak with the owner?"

What do you need?

"Hello? This is [unintelligible] with Domain Names and [blah blah blah]. Can I get your fax number to send you a packet of information [unintelligible]?"

No.

"What?"

No.

"Uh... I ..."

No, I already have information on domain names. Thanks. I don't need anymore. Especially sent to my fax number, I think silently.

"Well, I just [unintelligible] mrpfhfmphf."

No, thank you. (Click)

 

Granted, I have some sympathy for people making cold calls... I've been there, done that. It's no fun. But the last thing I want, when on the receiving end of such calls, is to give implicit permission to send even more marketing material that I don't want. Especially when it's the in the first semi-intelligible utterance in the conversation.

I have this instinct that makes me immediately suspicious when I receive a call and the person on the other end of the line doesn't respond like a normal person... if they say hello before I do, or if there's a second or two of supernatural silence before a clicking sound, I just know it's a marketing droid and I immediately activate my "fight or flight" defenses.

However, I've had those defenses successfully disarmed, at least long enough to listen to the key message.

It just takes a little more effort. Not that I want more marketing calls, but just as an example...

Ring... Ring...

Jason Truesdell, Yuzu Trading Company...

"Hi Jason, I was just looking at YuzuMura.com... It's a beautiful site. You have some really interesting products I've never seen anywhere else."

Flattery will get you 15 seconds of my attention... "Is this a customer?" I wonder? Oh! Thank you, I say.

"I know you're busy... I'm with [name omitted] publishing company that produces a number of books, some of which cover Asian art and travel topics... Would you be interested in taking a look?"

Oh, it's a marketing call after all. But wait, she actually knows something about my business, and has something potentially relevant to offer.

Well, I'm certainly willing to take a look... On my web site I really need books that have a coffee-table format, or otherwise have a production style that would be appropriate for the gift market. At the moment, I have some hurdles with books because my storefront's software has some issues with shipping calculations using multiple shipping methods, but it's certainly something I've been considering...

"Yes, that's pretty much all we produce. Would you be interested in..." (the conversation continues)

 

To be fair, I haven't yet ordered from that second company yet, either, but I have a positive impression of the company, and the salesperson put me at ease. She appeared to take a serious look at my business, even if it only means she spent 30 seconds skimming through the text and photos on the top page of my online shop. She tried to offer me something she thought would be compatible with my business.

Not everything works out instantly, but guess which company I'm likely to call back when I need something they offer?

Gifts from Minowa-san

The first time I bought items from Minowa-san, he gave both Hiromi and me a yunomi (teacup). Hiromi's was Minowa's signature niji-yu (rainbow glaze) which is actually the typical Mashiko kaki-yu (persimmon glaze) fired in a gas kiln. (I'll put up an example later). The one I received was a more temmoku-like (iron speckled) kaki-yu.

On this trip, I didn't buy that many pieces, but Minowa-san gave me a very nice coffee cup. This one has hints of blue in it, and the yunomi shows a little bit of a red appearance. Minowa-san says he doesn't plan to make any more coffee cups, so this was a nice surprise.

The yunomi has a little bit of what Minowa-san refers to as “yuzu no hada“ or yuzu skin. This means there is a noticeable texture around the iron bumps.

I really need to get a good lighting solution so I can finally put up my ceramics for sale on the yuzumura.com website. But this shot isn't too bad.

Mashiko yunomi and coffee cup, Minowa Yasuo

Dinner and a movie: a date with myself

Friday I finished work at my survival gig late, as I had been trying to partially make up for time lost Tuesday, when the ice made car travel to the Eastside ill-advised. Fortunately, I finally got everything I had planned for the week done.

I was a little worried because one of the projects I’ve been working on, which was messy and complex when I started working on it, has been a real bear to clean up, and every inch of progress was fraught with new complications. Now things are almost pretty, and I can move on to other work.

Anyway, I felt this urge to do something interesting, and it was a little late to start cooking, so I went to a downtown-ish restaurant hoping to have some interesting nibbles. Suffice to say the experience was unremarkable; the interior was pretty, but the cocktail I drank had a top note much like the aftertaste of an artificial sweetener, the little appetizer that I ate was forgettable, and the only redeeming feature of the meal was a simple but reasonably well-executed dish with green beans and tofu. The front of house staff were pleasant even though I probably looked excessively serious and maybe even slightly dour when I arrived.

I left the restaurant slightly poorer and smelling loudly of garlic.

Initially, I thought I’d just go home after that, but I had a sudden urge to see a film. So I was turning my evening into half a date… the kind without a partner in crime… it might be pathetic if I were a more sympathetic character.

I didn’t do any advance research, but I settled on Babel, which I think I had heard a bit about on Ebert & Roeper sans Ebert last weekend.

For a Friday night, the film was Somewhat lightly attended. I suspect the whole parallel timelines thing is a hard sell for “date night.” Some of the online reviews I’ve seen since watching the film complain it is a poor variation on Crash, but I think that’s a bit myopic… The device of parallel timelines with scripted coincidences has been used in movies like the 1989 Mystery Train and the Tarantino “tributes” to that style, such as Four Rooms. It’s not like Crash invented that device. Crash and Babel are similar only in the sense that they are melodramatic rather than quirky in style.

Compared to Crash, Babel’s premise is far less heavy-handed, though perhaps similarly didactic. It is built on vignettes illustrating alienation, inhumanity, self-centeredness (both sympathetic and not), and occasionally, sacrifice.

The premise of the film, apparently, is that small tragedies needn’t explode into fiascos if we would, in the heat of the moment, stop a moment and listen to each other, rather than just reacting with some kind of misguided self-preservation impulse and escalating the small misunderstandings that result from our hasty judgments. That’s a complex premise, which might in itself be a weakness, but it would be unfair to the film to oversimplify the message. This isn’t some sort of goofy “if we all just communicate better we’ll achieve world peace” hippy idealism.

None of the tragedies in the film would be less tragic with less miscommunication, but perhaps such tragedies would not become such fiascos. And that’s essentially the message… Like most films with a message, the success or failure of the film is how much it draws you in and connects you with the characters. On that regard, it’s a successful film. It’s hard to build two complex characters into a film, and it’s amazing to build no fewer than 4 fully developed, evolving personalities into a film.

The most impressive achievement of this film is its sensitive portrayal of universal conflicts set in several complex cultural contexts, without devolving into some caricature of those cultures. Two preteen boys in Morocco play out predictable sibling rivalries, and do exactly what you’d expect them to do when handed a gun… and their behavior is not some canned stereotype of a Moroccan family, but a believable portrayal of the dynamic relationships between people in circumstances that escalate from ordinary to extreme.

Chieko illustrates classic coming-of-age dramas in the context of urban alienation, a handicap, and a complex family story. She’s starved for affection, detached from the world and yet wishes for nothing more but to be a part of it, and simultaneously suffers from feelings of guilt related to her mother’s suicide. She acts out in nearly tragic ways and yet is treated with great sympathy.

The scenes in Mexico are simultaneously unlikely and believable portrayal of a rural, poor family, and the implicit trust the children have for their caretaker even when she’s exercising terribly poor judgment, is fascinating and full of contradiction.

Brad Pitt’s character as a loving but somehow fatefully inadequate husband is more complex than at first glance, and avoids the trap of dwelling on the troubles in their relationship while still completely integrating that backstory into every gesture the two characters make.

It might be a bit overblown to tie together all of terrorism, sibling rivalry, the trials of coming of age, immigration, marriage troubles, the emotionally unavailable father dynamic, racism and fear of Islam.

Outside of the world of this film, it’s clear that policial forces that create hysteria around terrorism have other causes beyond poor communication; in that case, anyway, communication problems are a result, rather than a cause, of the execution of a tragic political agenda. And I wouldn’t buy that poor communication is the underlying cause of most of the other social problems examined in the film; it’s merely a catalyst of further alienation and inhumanity.

But perhaps that is the key theme… this film is not pretending to articulate a solution for all of the problems of  contemporary world politics, interpersonal relationships, and everything else, but perhaps a small examination of one of the fuels of human tragedy.

The acting is almost without exception above par, even the otherwise rarely nuanced Brad Pitt. It’s not a great movie, but it’s certainly a good one. I know that the end-of-year release is calculated primarily to extend the film’s theatrical life on hopes of the “Oscar effect”, but if it does win for cinematography, director, or a supporting acting role, it wouldn’t be undeserved.

(Trailer)

Out-of-town visitors

This week ended up being relatively unproductive when it came to work, because I needed to prepare for visitors and run various errands. On Thursday, I had two visitors from Japan and one from Victoria, BC.

Hiromi came in on Thursday morning and I picked her up at the airport. We were hoping to take a look at tulips up in the La Conner area, but the early spring weather this year had forced all of the growers to top their tulips a little early this year, so we ended up relaxing on the beach at Golden Gardens in Ballard, then having a little iced tea at Masalisa.

I had a conference call with one of my suppliers around 7pm. It was encouraging. I'll need to make some changes in my plan with that product and revise my sales objectives, but actually they are going to be more conservative than before, and that makes me feel a little better about the project because I don't have to take risks quite as substantial as I had expected.

Sachi and her Canadian friend, Sandra, arrived via the Victoria Clipper a little after 8:30, and cleared customs a little shy of 9pm. We made our way to La Spiga restaurant on Broadway and ordered Crescioni and Piadina in addition to various pasta choices. I had a pretty nice asparagus tortelli with a lemon butter sauce. We stopped at Dilletante and shared a single piece of cake between the four of us.

Friday, we played tourist all day and into the night. I took everyone to breakfast at Cafe Besalu in Ballard, we stopped at Archie McPhee and at the Ballard Locks, and we headed over to West Seattle for some postcard photography opportunities at the fishing pier and at Alki beach. We ate a little lunch at a tiny restaurant on 8th & King in the International District, Szechuan Noodle Bowl. I ordered their cold seaweed dish, a little braised bamboo shoot dish, and green onion pancakes. Two of us ordered vegetable dumplings in la-yu and soy sauce, and two ordered a vegetable udon dish in soup.

Afterword, we made a stop at Pacific Place mall, and then walked over to the Pike Place market to get vegetables and other things for dinner. We did a little gift shopping, and then briefly visited Vivace's for coffee and tea. We also made a quick run to Fran's chocolates at University Village.

Finally, we came to my place and tried unsuccessfully to get Japanese natural oak charcoal to burn in a tiny tabletop grill called a “shichirin“. This was the first time I have actually tried to use the shichirin so it was a little more trouble than I expected. I had gotten one of my potato pizzas done while my guests were fighting with the shichirin, and finally we gave up on it. I was asked to re-warm the potato pizza, which on a baking stone turned out to be a bad idea because there would have been no way to quickly bring the oven temperature down to a “warming“ temperature. and I managed to char the previously flawless but cold pizza. I them promptly managed to drop a slippery and unfortunately too flexibly plastic bottle of oil into the sink and it splashed back on to Sachi's clothing. I don't think I've ever had so many things go wrong in one meal. We did manage to eat grilled vegetables and my guests had shrimp, scallops and squid also; I just used my indoor grill pan and a cast iron skillet to stand in for the finicky oak charcoal. It didn't occur to me until far too late that I probably could have used my small “konro“ (like a gas camping stove) to ignite the charcoal.

We also had some nice yuzu ice cream and a kona coffee sorbet that I made, and dipped into a quince infused liqueur that I had started back at the end of January. Except for the comedy of errors, the food was mostly pretty good.

We finished the evening by going up the escalator in the Space Needle during the last open hour, and taking in the cityscape. Sachi and Sandra went back this morning, and Hiromi is here until the 4th.

Earlier in the week I finally got my car detailed by Fremont Auto Detail, which seems like a bit of an indulgence for someone without any consequential revenue but was very worth it... my car had been looking very sad especially on the interior. I also took care of getting some shelving I need to handle the ceramics boxes that will be coming from Japan later in May. I didn't do much that was actually useful for my business except for creating some price lists. I have another visitor to entertain from the 4th through the 7th, and then I'll get back into the swing of things.

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