Jason Truesdell : Pursuing My Passions

A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.

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Short trip to Mashiko

jason

We made a little trip to Mashiko on the weekend before coming back to Seattle.

We went, in part, so that I could replenish my ever-shrinking ceramics collection on YuzuMura.com. I was also looking for some new artists to consider for later in the year.

Minowa Yasuo passed away a couple years ago, so I haven't been able to buy anything he made for a long time. Besides, my original plan to sell my ceramics to galleries morphed into a mostly web-based sales model. My previous habit of buying a few remarkable pieces per artist doesn't work very well on the web, since the burden of photographing something I only have one or two examples of becomes rather exhausting. By next year, I expect I'll have fewer choices but a better ability to handle larger orders for them.

Large bowl by Akutsu Masato

Akutsu Masato large bowl

During Golden Week, Mashiko has one of two annual pottery festivals, so many artists and production kilns were out showing off their wares. We made our way to my favorite galleries first, and we were pleased to stumble upon a show by Akutsu Masato and the rest of his family at Moegi. I hadn't done much advance planning on this trip, so it was a good coincidence... I discovered that I brought the wrong contact information for him anyway, so if it hadn't been for the show at Moegi I might not have been able to get hold of him.

Masato's father, who is incredibly charming, also had some very nice pieces at the family show, and Masato's mother's work is very compelling as well, so now I'm considering importing work from the whole family... While all three seem to work from a related palette, they each have very distinctive styles.

I also discovered some Minowa Yasuo pieces at one gallery, and I was so surprised by that that I ended up buying a number of pieces. It will become increasingly difficult to find anything else he made, so I took advantage of the opportunity.

Fortunately, the gallery was kind enough to extend me a reseller price, which means I'll be able to offer the new pieces at roughly the same price as similar items I still have in stock. I was expecting I'd have to dramatically raise prices on the new pieces, but it doesn't look like I'll have to.

One unfortunate side effect of my good fortune on this trip was that I didn't have time to meet up with Senda Yoshiaki, and I couldn't buy any of his pieces on this trip. I am almost completely out, so I really need to do something about that. I think I'll send Hiromi to Mashiko once before fall to remedy that.

I didn't buy a huge amount of ceramic pieces on this trip, but enough that it wasn't possible to transport things on my back... so I have to wait a few weeks before things arrive. I'm looking forward to it...

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Introducing MoriAwase.com and the debut of my "other" blog

jason

Pursuing My Passions has always been focused on my life after Microsoft, about indulging my passions for good food, contemporary Asian craft, and travel while somehow trying to build a business around those obsessions. But except for the occasional comment on a restaurant here an there, I haven’t spent much time looking outward at what other people are doing.

I wanted to build a bit of a community focused on changing contemporary Asian lifestyles, as well as on food, crafts, and design. Of course, with my ever-increasingly insane schedule, I never put the necessary amount of time into the project. But I’ve decided I will bite off a little at a time, much like I did originally with this blog… and for now, I’ve decided to create a blog wholly focused on an assortment of such things, rather than just on what I’m up to myself.

The first couple of entries on that blog are now up on MoriAwase.com. If you have any sort of enthusiasm for rustic-contemporary Asian craft, contemporary Asian art and design, for Asian cuisine and travel, please take a look, and consider signing up to participate in the MoriAwase.com Forums.

Pursuing My Passions will continue, focused mostly on what I’m cooking, where I’m traveling, and what I’m doing with my business, as it always has… MoriAwase will be a bit more focused on the world around me, and perhaps more traditionally blog-like with links to interesting content outside of my narrow little sphere.

Seattle Sakura

jason

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

jason

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

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

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

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

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

Lukewarm spring water

Nuruisen

The irouri as ashtray

Irouri-ashtray

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

Tengu

Copper tengu

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

In the ryokan eating area

Jasonatryokan

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

Shokuzen-shu

Shokuzenshu

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

Kinoko sumibi-yaki

Kinoko no sumibi-yaki

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

Mmm-flames

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

Note to us

Ryokan-notetous

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

Mame

Mame, slightly savory

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

Maitake no itame-ni

Maitake-itameni

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

Sleepy Hiromi

Hiromi sleepy

After the meal, Hiromi became a bit sleepy.

On the banks of the river

Onthebanksoftheriver

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

The bridge to the hot springs

Takaragawa bridge

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

Breakfast

Asagohan-takaragawa

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

Grilled potatoes, green beans and carrots

Youfu sukiyaki

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

Shake no sumibiyaki

Shake-sumibi

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

Breakfast window view

Breakfast snow

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

Display hearth

Display irouri

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

Goodbye!

Takara onsen

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

Some indulgences, part 2, Tokyo, March 2006

jason

Hassaku Orange

Hassaku orange

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

Matcha madeleine

Matcha-madeleine

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

Matcha cake

Matcha poundcake

This matcha dessert was more of a pound cake style.

Zundamochi and Ayamemochi

Zunda-mochi

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

Smoked egg

Smokedegg

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

Okayu

Okayu

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

Kabocha mushi cake

Kabochamushi

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

Annin-doufu

Annindoufu

Almond “tofu”, a flavored gelled dessert.

Sakura ice cream

Sakura ice

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

The dangers of Yurakucho

jason

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

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

Yuurakuchou-shopping

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

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

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

FoodEx 2006, Days 3 and 4

jason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoteres 2006, Day 2

jason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FoodEx 2006, Day 1

jason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Departure

jason

One of the things that distinguishes Tokyo from Seattle is the amount of attention that people pay to each other’s feet. In Seattle, it’s perfectly acceptable to wear a pair of sneakers that you picked up at a rummage sale or flea market 5 years ago, even if they have clearly worn out their welcome, in polite company.

I don’t wear tennis shoes or sneakers save the pair of running shoes I use when exercising, but I’ve been walking around wearing some very sad, past-their-prime shoes that not only have lost most of their structural integrity, but have a small yet noticeable circle of damaged leather at one of the toes on the upper. I had planned to replace the shoes for about 5 months or so, but I moved from being a bit too low on resources to take care of such things until they were actual emergencies, to being completely overwhelmed by an insane schedule, and it just became impossible.

But I decided I didn’t want to wear such sad shoes on my Japan trip, partially because my knees aren’t very happy right now and I’ll be walking constantly next week, and partly because I don’t want to have kawaisou na kutsu (sad shoes, roughly… but please don’t reuse the Japanese term without a heavy dose of irony attached). On my first trip to Japan I realized having holey socks was more than a little embarrassing, and I’m sure that it can’t be much better to wear sad shoes.

In order to avoid pity and amused glances, I made a quick last minute stop to replace now decrepit everyday pair of shoes.

I started wearing Ecco shoes after a knee injury a few years ago. I’ve run into other people that wore exactly the same model of shoe and they were fiercely loyal… one man had about four pair that he had accumulated over time, because he didn’t want to go to replace them and find out that he could no longer get the same shoe. I, too, have bought about two pairs of the shoes, but I didn’t feel a need to hoard them… Alas, after today, I somewhat wish I had… the new variants of that model now cut against my ankle unpleasantly, and I ended up switching to a slightly less convenient laced shoe instead of the loafer-like design I had before, solely to avoid the miseries of excessive friction.

At least my feet won’t be an embarrassment.

Side trips to Doe Bay, Baker hot springs, and last Sunday's dinner

jason

Hiromi and I made a rather sluggishly paced trip out of town Monday morning, owing to some morning errands. We had vaguely planned to head toward the Olympics, but a last minute decision sent us toward Orcas Island instead, which we reached rather late due to a full afternoon ferry.

We ended up in rustic accommodations at Doe Bay Resort, which has a couple of heavily chlorinated tubs filled with water from a hot spring, facing a nice bay view. Originally we thought this would be a short stopover on the way to some forest spring, but I had forgotten about the pace of island life… it’s defined by long, occasionally severely delayed ferry commutes, and particularly in the San Juans, long stretches of windy road. The weather improved as we approached Shaw Island, but the day started out rather gloomy. Once we arrived, we made our way to the resort, took a quick dip in the hot spring tubs, and then set out in search of a late dinner, even after a day full of small snacks…

We ended up at a forgettable but serviceable Caribbean-themed restaurant full of locals, which apparently switches to a no-service fast-food-style order at the counter and pray they find you when your order is ready model after peak dinner hours. The host looked at us smugly and said there was no waiting list or probability of indoor seating but we were welcome to order and pre-pay. We had some overly browned but still edible corn fritters and some pasta, and a curried avocado dish. It was kind of hippie food with Seattle mid-range restaurant prices. The drink, whatever it was, helped. 

Just beyond AnacortesHiromi surveys the view from on board the ferryShaw Island guardian seagull

We managed to get a healthy amount of sleep, and made another trip to the hot springs and took a nice little walk before checking out. We had a very nice, simple brunch with baked eggs and baguette, a provolone sandwich, and some very nice apricot pie at Rose’s Bakery.

Once off the island, we made our way toward Mount Baker, by way of Concrete. The Baker Lake area has an easily hikeable sulfurous hot spring, which is actually fairly lukewarm. The main challenge was passing through a heavily rutted logging road. The volcanic ash in the spring seems easily disturbed, so you can end up with a small accumulation of coarse ash particles when getting out, but it didn’t bother us.

On our way out, we noticed these nifty not-quite-ripe salmonberries, which I haven’t seen much of since I was younger. Blackberries were everywhere, though nowhere near ready. We also passed a few wild blueberry plants and Northwest red huckleberries, already growing berries, but not yet at the peak of ripeness.

Salmonberries

I think I was too sleepy to post dinner from the day before we departed, but Hiromi and I cooperated on dinner. I usually do most of the cooking, but she did the majority of the work today. She prepared the avocado and shiitake gratin, an eggplant raita (which is noticeably lacking in fresh cilantro on these photos… we were distracted). I made a mushroom and cashew curry, and after dinner, a matcha martini.

Sunday's spreadAvocado gratin
Nasu (eggplant) raitaMushroom cashew curry

Last days

jason

I ended up scheduling a little more time for this trip than necessary. I had anticipated seeing a more public venue in Japan where the dragon beard candy company was planning to sell their product, so that I could witness, and hopefully learn from, a Japanese-style product launch. Their retail partner apparently recently rescheduled the event, so unfortunately I won’t get a chance to see it.

However, changing my return flight would have been more expensive than taking advantage of the remaining time. My original plan was to go to Shiga prefecture to do some ceramics hunting, as it’s one of the major ceramics centers I still haven’t visited and a substantial influence on Mashiko ware. Shigaraki ware tends to be fairly rustic, like Mashiko-yaki, so I had hoped to see more. Unfortunately, scheduling the trip turned out to be more complicated than I had hoped, so Hiromi arranged for a quick trip to the western coast of Shizuoka prefecture’s Dogashima, a small island in Izu.

This area produces a lot of wasabi products, and some citrus fruits like dekopon and a local variety of mikan (mandarin orange); I would guess that daidai could be found somewhere nearby in the right time of year.

We stayed in a hot springs inn with an oceanfront rotenburo (outdoor bath). Because of the structural design all of the rooms also featured ocean views… essentially the hotel was built against a cliff.

On the way from Yokohama, initially clear skies gave way to clouds and unexpected stretches of heavy snow, and clear skies returned as we approached our destination. Izu was chillier than Tokyo had been in the morning, and gusty winds limited our outdoor adventures. As we reached the hotel, the winds rose to a level that made opening the car doors a fair challenge.

We tried to brave the weather and enjoy the rotenburo before sunset. The men’s hot springs baths were set roughly 15 meters from the water, but as the waves crashed against the walls below, a salty spray would occasionally reach my lips as I looked out into the water. Just as sunset approached, one of the kashi-kiri onsen rooms became available, which was just above the women’s rotenburo. Hiromi had reported that one of the women’s baths was constantly besieged by cold ocean water and remained mostly unused. As some of the stronger waves launched columns of seaweed onto the roof below us, I could imagine it wouldn’t have been very comfortable to be in the way of some of the heavier spray.

Dinner was the usual ryokan style extravagant presentation, though the house seemed a little heavy-handed with their katsuo-dashi, enough that even Hiromi took notice, though she gleefully consumed the various crustacea and bivalves she was presented.

I hadn’t met Hiromi’s parents before this trip, and my awkward Japanese made conversation a bit challenging, but everything was pleasant enough. We stopped at her home on the way to and from Izu, as she needed to handle arrangements with the car.

Monday night Hiromi and I found a pleasant little Korean restaurant located atop a small Korean deli/grocery. Though it probably cost about twice as much as it would in Korea, we ate a perfectly suitable meal of kimchi dubu jjigae, pa chijimi, and chap chae, accompanied by a small bottle of low-alcohol Korean-style nigori-zake (unfiltered sake), a plate of small vegetable side dishes, and followed by some yuja-cha and soo jeong gwa. It was roughly 6000 yen, which is quite modest for Japan, along the lines of an okonomiyaki restaurant.

Juggling my luggage on the return turned out to be a bigger problem than I had hoped. In spite of asking most companies I met with at FoodEx to send me samples by post, I still ended up with a few bottles of yuzu juice, sudachi juice, and various other samples, as well as a couple of items for personal consumption I bought at Izu. Worse, the pamphlets I accumulated took up an obscene amount of space, most of which I actually wanted to keep.

I don’t think I’ll get enough sleep on the airplane, so returning to Seattle time is likely to be as painful as usual, alas.

Tokyo FoodEx 2005, Day 4

jason

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hoteres 2005, Day 3

jason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FoodEx 2005, Day 1

jason

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just before FoodEx

jason

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

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

Cake 017-150w Chocolate from Gerard Mulot

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

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

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

A short hop to Hong Kong

jason

I experienced some laptop trouble as I was hitting Hong Kong and I wasn’t able to get the machine to boot. I finally got it to successfully pass the initial POST tonight, just as I’ve arrived in Tokyo. I may have limited connectivity should my machine go down again, but below I’ve posted the entry I was writing as I was approaching Hong Kong March 2/3.

Last year around this time I was sitting aboard an aircraft bound to Tokyo for FoodEx, just starting out my journey as a struggling entrepreneur.

Once more I am headed to Asia, this time with slightly more carefully defined goals, a tighter schedule, and a much more cautious budget.

I spent the last few days trying to cram in a never-ending list of essential errands, some of which I had been neglecting for far too long. The night before my trip I didn’t get a wink of sleep, as I worked solidly until about 4:30 am, just enough time to get out of the shower as the airport shuttle was arriving.

My financial resources are tight this trip, owing to huge amounts of accounts receivable not yet arrived, a little oversupply of inventory in a lull between holidays, and a few accounts payable.

It’s a really nerve-wracking period. I hope to get some more support from my supplier, and then I intend to establish a couple of new relationships when I get to FoodEx that will let me launch a couple of my own signature products. I’ve been keeping a couple of ideas on the back burner for a long time due to cost concerns, but I’ve been examining the business models more carefully recently, and I think they are more achievable than I previously gave them credit for.

I plan to finalize an order for some less financially risky products as well, including some fruit teas from Korea, which I should resolve next week if all goes well. Long shelf life and pricing that is less scary for retailers should make it easier to build up my revenue streams.

On the more trivial side, I’ve learned that the best way to get an edible vegetarian meal on United Airlines is to request a Hindu meal. It’s not exactly haute cuisine, but about as good as you could expect from microwaveable trays; the dishes turned out more flavorful than is usual for airplane food, since they used at least some hint of spices. The rather amusingly misrepresented silver dollar sized “naan bread” was pretty pitiful: stale and refrigerated, as is customary for airline bread; the heavily preservative-treated conditioner-filled bread was essentially the same as supermarket bread. One of my major annoyances with the “lacto ovo vegetarian” meals on airlines is that for some reason they seem to think that a dairy-and-egg consuming vegetarian would much rather have hydrogenated-fat-laden margarine than butter. This leads to including things like inedible packaged vegan cookies and, well, inedible margarine, in the mealservice. Paneer cheese made an appearance in the first and last meals of the flight, and one of the vaguely south Asian sweets had the good sense to be made with butter.

 

My home is chaos

jason

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.

No more distractions, unfortunately

jason

I spent a couple of days in Vancouver with Hiromi and came back late last night. In Vancouver, I took a look at a couple of Asian markets and along Robson Street to try to get a feel for what might be possible in the Vancouver market, and Hiromi and I visited with a couple of her friends from the time when she was on her working holiday program in Canada.

Today I fillled a couple of orders for Chinese New Year that cleared a whole lot of inventory, but I found out I have some more stock than I previously thought when I itemized my inventory more carefully. I will try to get some of that sold this weekend by doing some in-store promotions, most likely in the Seattle store.

I need to figure out how to get my candy in Los Angeles as well, so I think I'll focus on researching good venues for that. This week I also have to finalize my order for the next batch of candy as well, and I need to do an obscene amount of catchup work on bookkeeping.