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.
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.
Post-jetlag insomnia has set in over the last few days, but I woke up and started some of the necessary housecleaning I've neglected since returning from Japan.
I managed to get myself to the polling station near my home... it's just a short walk. I was expecting it to be crowded, but there were no lines out the door... it was busy around 3pm, but nobody had to wait.
This afternoon I made a surprising discovery... In one of my carry-on bags, I discovered three yuzu and another deteriorating citrus fruit from Mashiko inside another plastic bag.
The yuzu are still in good shape, but I need to use them fast because there is some hint of deterioration. The other fruit, whose name I forget, was already in bad shape when it came off the tree, but it had a nice aroma.
Mr. Minowa, a ceramic artist I met in Mashiko whose work I have been importing, drove me to the train station after I met him on the last Friday of my Japan trip. Somewhere on the way toward Kasama, he noticed a big yuzu tree in someone's front yard and started reaching over the fence to acquire a few fruit, still mostly green. He wasn't terribly concerned about the owner of the house; he said they wouldn't be missed because there are a lot of yuzu.
I was bummed out because I knew I'd have to leave most of them in Japan, but I did use one of the yuzu to keep some apples from browning when I made a cheese fondue. It turns out that the yuzu found themselves in my luggage after all. I don't know if I unconsciously grabbed them or if Hiromi slipped them into one of the bags, or if something else happened. But it's an excellent excuse to make yudoufu.
Last night I finally bulk-resized photos that I should have posted while still in Japan, but I got a little bit busy. The first few photos shown below are from my visit to Mr. Minowa, who lives in Mashiko, close to Kasama. The last time I was here with Hiromi, it was completely dark. So Minowa-san was happy to give me a tour of his home in daylight, and his wife served really nice apples and English tea.
Minowa-san is showing me the flora in his backyard.
This is a citrus plant called sansho. The seed pods are very aromatic; rubbing the skin reveals hints of citrus with some cinnamon-like base notes. The leaves are also edible and make a nice garnish, although Minowa-san says this variety of sansho has better fruit than leaves.
Mr. Minowa gave me some sansho to take home.
The black seedpods in here can be used in cooking, and will be similar to the Chinese sichuan pepper; they might have a slight numbing effect on the tongue. Minowa-san said this variety's seeds are better when green; fall is a little late for harvesting for culinary purposes.
A few close-in shots of flowers from Minowa's backyard.
I don't know anything about flowers, but this isn't a daisy.
Minowa-san was telling me the Japanese names of each of the flowers, but I promptly forgot because I only caught each name once or twice, and he showed me a lot.
Regardless of the name, this is a really nifty flower.
At one of the galleries I work with, I saw this work. Tanaka Saori does a lot with interesting abstract motifs; they feel a little rustic but have sort of modern appeal.
Another artist I like had a lot of momiji (Japanese maple) motifs.
The gallery where I found Minowa-san's work last time was highlighting a Mashiko artist who does lots of work with Turkish Blue glazes.
OK, it's a little late, but here's the spread from the hot springs resort called Oosawa Onsen in Hanamaki (near Morioka) where I stayed on my second night of this trip. This is the vegetarian meal. I was impressed because rather than just provide fish-less or meatless versions of the same things they served to my friend, they changed a number of side dishes for balance purposes. This was one of the nicest meals on the trip.
Proof that some of the nicest dishes are also the simplest. Some tofu and I believe edamame-yuba is served with shredded vegetables, a little wasabi, shiso, and a dipping sauce (not pictured).
Another one of the side dishes. I'm a pushover for things presented in sweet, crisp hollowed-out persimmons, ever since I had a little ohitashi presented in a persimmon at Yuu-an (Nishi-shinjuku) a few years ago. This is a kind of ae-mono, lightly dressed vegetables.
A warm side dish brought after we started eating, this small sweet squash half is filled with various mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and tiny eggplant. It's a very clean flavor, and the broth poured over is slightly thickened, probably with katakuriko.
Hiromi's (center/top) hobby is cheerleading, so she invited me to watch her team perform at a football game, along with my friend and sometimes assistant Kazue, who returned to Japan during my own business trip.
One of the things I learned in high school German class was never, ever to accept a compliment. The proper response is denial; graciously accepting someone's praise in Germany is hopelessly gauche.
Fortunately, a similar aesthetic regarding compliments prevails in Japan, as this Japan Times article suggests. So even my first time in Japan, around 1998, I was habitually denying the overwrought compliments offered on my truly atrocious Japanese. Anyone I know whose Japanese skills are actually worthy of praise ceases directly hearing even a word of such, unless they are particularly tired and sloppy and making mistakes. Such people are offered praise (or bewilderment) through intermediaries.
Unlike Germany, however, it seems to be far more common for Japanese to lavish praise on people, so the skills in deflecting compliments require somewhat faster reflexes.
It is somewhat news to me, though, that I would need to be cautious about group contexts when offering compliments to people close to me... But since Americans can be insulted by insincere compliments, I suppose the same risk would be present in U.S. situations; offering an insincere compliment to someone you know in a mixed group might be taken particularly badly. I think that the most sincere direct compliment in Japan is when someone is saying that they like something about you (I like your hair when it is longer) or something that you have done (is it ok if I eat more of this?), rather than offering general praise (your Japanese is good, etc.)
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.
Hiromi and I departed to Kyoto Saturday morning... it was a trip full of amazingly close calls. We arrived at the Haneda airport just in time, after missing a connection. We had a few other complications involving catching buses, trains, and even the airplane back... Hiromi went to retrieve some items from a locker in Osaka station, which she had trouble finding because we turned out to be on the wrong side of the station. Already on a tight return schedule, I further messed things up when Hiromi and I were readjusting the two pieces of luggage, camera, and two shopping bags we were carrying back to Tokyo. Somehow, a strap on my backpack or maybe Hiromi's camera bag caught my eyeglass frame as I was removing heavy things from my body inside the train... My eyeglasses popped off my face, slid across the train car floor, and landed in the gap between the train and the platform, essentially unreachable to the most dexterous and skinny of human bodies. The station attendants suggested we wait for the train to depart before retrieving the items, and we lost about 10 minutes between trains, missing a monorail connection, and again arriving just in time for the return flight.
As for the trip itself, it was both pleasant and reasonably productive. We stopped at a yuzen fabric dye and painted fabric decoration workshop, and chatted with the someone who makes pillows, purses, and other fabric-based crafts. Although I suppose these items would be quite expensive if imported in the US, I like the work and would like to try to find a way to make it possible to bring into the US.
The labor involves traditional dying and decoration processes but the look would fit in with contemporary lifestyles. Hiromi bought a purse (pictured here) that has a pretty interesting cut and looks pretty good when worn...
Our first night in Kyoto was a kind of multicourse meal involving fresh yuba, skimmed by hand from the surface of thick soy milk. We had yuba in various preparations, yubadoufu, and other pleasant things. The entire meal was pleasantly sappari, although we decided to tempt fate and order a sort of spring roll made with yuba as the skin and what turned out to be typically Japanese processed cheese inside. This was pleasant, though if I did this back home I think I'd probably be using some camembert or raclette cheeses.
We met up with Sachi, who visited me in Seattle during Golden Week, Sunday afternoon, but not before a breakfast that included a soy milk warabi-mochi. Warabi-mochi are a chewy confection which I think are actually made with kuzu (arrowroot) starch. Hiromi discovered the shop in a guidebook, and when we arrived, we realized it should have been in Fremont, were we in Seattle and if the King County Health Department didn't have an aversion to pets in restaurants. The shop was actually mostly selling dog toys and baked items for dogs, and the cafe was just there as a diversion for their customers. We had two orders of Warabi-mochi, and some Japanese interpretations of the Korean drinks soo jeong-gwa (persimmon punch with cinnamon and ginger) and yuja-cha (yuzu tea). The rest of the short menu was multiethnic and rarely Japanese. The soymilk smoothed out the texture of the warabi mochi and what we had were much creamier than the typical confection by the same name... I suppose that might be meaningless to most folks who don't spend a lot of time eating Japanese sweets, but it's the best I can do to describe it... Our dish was adorned with a maple leaf and dressed with kuromitsu (black sugar honey syrup) and kinako (toasted soybean powder).
With Sachiko, of course, we spent most of our time walking across the Kumo-gawa river toward Gion, eating nibbles at other Japanese confectioners and senbe-makers. We even sampled some usu-jio umeboshi that are typically sold for something approaching JPY 300 each (a shy $3). She had to head off within a couple of hours due to a fairly long train ride back to her home in Wakayama, and, I think, trying to match the schedule of her friends that she had visited Arashi-yama with earlier in the day.
After wandering around in search of an exciting dinner option, we backtracked to Gion and picked a restaurant where we had more tofu and yuba dishes, in addition to some stuffed Kyoto eggplant (almost Italian), grilled mushrooms with butter, salt, pepper and garlic), and some salt-roasted ginnan nuts. We had a nigori-sake (unfiltered) which was slightly effervescent, and some excellent pickled daikon served with a little grated ginger.
Monday, we made a pilgrimage to Del Cook, in Nose, a rustic area in the north end of Osaka. We were perhaps too focused on eating and enjoying the view to take any photos of the food, but it suffices to say that everything was as beautifully presented as the rest of the scenery. We had the fancier of the two available lunch courses, and mine was altered to be suitable for a vegetarian. We started with a small bowl of chopped persimmons served, in my case, with unsweetened yogurt, some black sesame seeds, and, I think, ginnan or similar nuts. A little coarse salt provided a little contrast to the light sweetness.
We had a creamy gobo (burdock root) soup with a little bit of milk foam, served in cute little cups and small spoons, providing a bit of an espresso machiatto deception. Some naturally leavened breads made by Del himself provided a nice accompaniment, which we soon devoured and of which we declined an offer for a second serving. The next course was a baby organic leaf salad, served with some charcoal grilled fish for Hiromi, and some similarly prepared Kyoto-sized eggplant halves in my case. Hiromi also had a course of risotto and grilled hotate (scallops), and mine was a similar risotto and some grilled matsutake mushrooms which had been hand gathered by an older woman who operates a similarly rustic Japanese restaurant next door.
Before dessert we had something of a palate cleanser course of black currant sorbet and finely chopped pears in a light syrup. A rustic apple tart was accompanied by chestnut ice cream.
After our lunch, we were able to stop in Del's kitchen and chat a bit. There was no dinner meal planned for the evening, so he was able to talk with more leisure than otherwise, although it was clear he was exhausted. He also gave us a sample of some very nice yuzu mascarpone sorbet which went out on the dessert plates of those in the second seating.
Hiromi and I took a little walk with Del and his dogs, meeting the neighboring restaurant's ducks and walking past a backyard garden. We had a beautiful view of the Nose valley facing down the hill. One of the dogs jumped into a reservoir and swam a bit, then delighted in shaking off the water as close to his human companions as possible. As we returned to the restaurant to gather our things and settle our bill, we saw the obaasan (granny, respectfully) who runs the neighboring restaurant ride up on a motorcycle after apparently running some errands. Del says that she's been known to dive for abalone herself and share the bounty with his restaurant.
Over the holiday weekend I had the good fortune to be nearly unreachable, except via my prepaid Japanese cell phone, as I attempted to recover from jetlag in the hot springs of Hanamaki in Iwate prefecture, not far from Morioka. Monday was also a national holiday in Japan, so this was something of an international three day weekend... not completely work free, as I was always on the lookout for something interesting to import, and found lots of nifty stuff, but it was relaxing enough and helped me get enough sleep to be reasonably productive for the rest of the trip.
Alas, it meant also that I was blissfully unaware of some problems with some logistics issues with a few things that are being moved around right now, and I also discovered another couple of minor and major fire drills unrelated to products, but almost all of those were resolved in a few hours last night after I arrived in my weekly rental apartment in Shinjuku.
I need to take off to meet with a supplier... When I return, I'll talk about what I ate the last few days...
I am getting out of town in about 12 hours, headed to Japan.
I've been trying to finalize a shipment of ceramics to a customer in San Francisco, take care of a few related and unrelated errands, and so on... the last few days have been maddening. Fortunately, I got the shipment off, and I even gave someone who was trying to sell me some services a few minutes, and the only thing I've got left is preparing some gift wrappers to go to a few customers and some checks that need to be mailed out for outstanding bills. I think I'll just try to do those things in the morning. Sleep is good. All I am absolutely concerned about now is that I know where my passport and my wallet are. (Bad things have happened before.)
Yesterday after taking care of some other things I realized I had almost no fall clothing that is free of damage, and this is one of those things that is somewhat embarrassing when I find myself in Japan. Everyone else is hipper than me. I won't be wearing suits when meeting with businesses in Japan, but I should at least be moderately stylish, and I don't want to be wearing short sleeved summer clothing in the middle of October. So I made a financially frustrating decision to add some items to my wardrobe before my departure. I'm not Mr. Trendy, but being decently dressed in Japan is a generally good idea. This is a perennial problem associated with international travel for me... the expectations are so much lower in Seattle. On the other hand, it may have more to do with the fact that I don't travel constantly and I don't usually buy clothing unless I absolutely have to... The time between trips is probably longer than the time between shopping trips that most people make.
I'm increasingly incoherent. I think sleep would be a good thing right now, so I'll indulge myself...
I just returned home from the long return drive about an hour ago... The weather today was beautiful... I apparently was just a few hours too late to witness the results of the minor Mt. Saint Helens eruption today... still somewhere in Oregon when I heard about it.
The trip was mostly productive. I sold a fair amount of ceramics to a suitable spot, and got agreement for a chain of several other stores to carry the candy. The direct sales from this trip probably covered most of the expenses from this trip, and I established a couple of relationships that will probably have future benefits.
I'd write more, but I'm exhausted. I didn't consume any measurable amount of caffeine today, either.
Sunday morning, dark and early, I extracted myself from bed around 5:30 am, finished packing some ceramics samples, almost finished packing clothing, and carried everything down to my car after a quick shower. I think I actually left home around 7:30 if I take into account the quick stop at Lighthouse Cafe for a necessary dose of caffeine... I had to stop at Seatac airport for about 30 minutes to pick up frequent flyer tickets I redeemed for part of my upcoming trip to Japan. Somehow, 8:30, I got myself on the road, nearly nonstop to the Bay Area As I recall, I made one stop for gas and greasy food somewhere in southern Oregon, one secondary and another stop for gas and windshield insect removal just about 30 minutes shy of the big box hell known as Emeryville, California, where I had booked a week at Extended Stay America. I think I was all checked in by about 9:25 pm. I think 13-14 hours including stops is pretty good for 800-some miles.
The night before, I had been volunteered to take advantage of a cache of mushrooms scored by my graphic designer, Jennifer, who has previously done some work for a Portland-based fancy mushroom distributor. I cooked for Jennifer and three other friends various little treats, including porcini korokke or croquettes (which were pleasant tasting though I faced some texture issues that I haven't had before), a potato-dough based pizza featuring more porcini and some good buffalo mozzarella, a side dish of portabellas sliced and cooked with garlic and rosemary, and another side dish of golden chanterelles which were seasoned with sage brown butter and adorned with crispy sage leaves. We had sumibi-yaki of white matsutake and all the other available mushrooms, served with dipping sauce choice of yuzu-ponzu I had tossed together or ginger and soy sauce. I also made a little salad with my signature yuzu honey vinaigrette, which had some pine nuts and a little bit of browned bits of mushrooms, as well as some nice tomatoes. Leftovers mostly went home with guests, as I was leaving town for the week. Everyone went home by around 11:30 and I put myself in bed a little after midnight, where I tossed and turned and briefly woke to turn on the heat and put on more clothing after an unknown period of time, so I was impressed with myself for waking up early and mostly successfully getting on the road without panicking and without forgetting anything more than a pair of pants.
Friday night was Jennifer's birthday party, which I attended after trying my best to finalize last-minute arrangements for my little trip. Alas, many things suffered due to biting off a little too much for the last two days of the week.
The first day here was only moderately productive, but I met with one lead and made a few other calls, set up an appointment to show off ceramics to someone, and so on. I am now stopping in a Palo-Alto based cafe to feed my information needs, as the Extended Stay America has no meaningful internet access in the room and I don't have a dial-up provider. I had intended to do this in the morning but the spot I found in the Oakland area had pretty unreliable connectivity so I had only about 15 minutes of usable access. I thought about some sort of dial-up plan, but I think I am happier to spend the $3-5 in a coffee shop for internet access with a nice cup of coffee than I would be to sign up for another subscription service for something I don't really want anyway.
I'm a little nervous about all the stuff I have to cram in to the next two weeks in the United States... I'll try not to think about it too much; it'll only make things worse.
I returned from San Francisco late last night. I took the Metro bus from the airport, which is a bit of an adventure after 10pm; this time it featured wannabe tough guy antisocial kids. The downtown transfer involved listening to a verbose guy conduct a mostly one-sided conversation with me, waxing proud about his well-behaved pitbull puppy, as his dog sniffed my luggage curiously.
When I arrived in downtown San Francisco on Friday, I checked in at my hotel, the Serrano, dropped my luggage off, then walked toward the ferry terminal to meet an old friend from college. I grabbed some food I could eat on the way, and about 25 minutes later met Jen out front of the Ferry Building. We obtained our preferred caffeine sources from the Pete's inside, and sat on a bench outside facing the bay, chatting about all sorts of things that have happened in the years since we've last seen each other, facing a stellar view.
My plane had been delayed almost two hours due to fog but it finally burned off by the time I made it this far. I had run into Greg, a colleague I had previously worked with on ad-related things at Microsoft, in the waiting area at the gate in the airport; he was headed to the Bay Area for some meetings. I learned about a job that had opened up related to a bunch of work they are having done in Shanghai.
Friday night I met my friend Sally, who works in apparel import, for dinner. We ate at a Catalan restaurant in an alley full of restaurants trying simultaneously to be large and cozy. We had some nice salad with olives and caperberries, a baked eggplant dish, an unseasonable butternut squash soup, a vegetable paella with pine nuts and currants, and a plate of cheeses with a quince-lemon paste. It was pretty decent, though I'd skip the squash soup for sure.
On Saturday, Sally took me to Japantown and Chinatown and I noted what kinds of weekly/monthly type papers were circulating targeting Japanese and Chinese immigrants and for Asian Americans. We also took a look at all kinds of stores and thought about which kinds of places might be best to approach for my Hong Kong sweet.
We had lunch at a place that serves Japanese-style western food, yet again modified to suit locally available ingredients. I had a doria, which is a rice casserole, with spinach and mushrooms and tofu. The scale was a little more American... it was too much food, and eventually a little monotonous. I just had this strange craving for doria after seeing the menu outside.
In Chinatown we looked through dozens of stores and chatted with a few shopkeepers. After a few hours we stopped at a dingy Hong Kong style cafe and bakery; my friend had some warm soy milk and I drank some strong milk tea. We ate a simple late dinner at Millenium, a pretty decent vegetarian restaurant closer to my hotel. We shared some salad and a quinoa croquette over lentils, which was adorned with a surprisingly refreshing green pea puree with lemon.
I splurged on some La Maison du Chocolat filled chocolates which I found at Nieman Marcus's food section. Apparently that's the only location of Nieman Marcus allowed to sell the chocolates; the only other places to buy are in New York, Paris, or Tokyo stores run by La Maison itself. I really wanted to see what people are paying for, since I will be selling a premium confection myself. The quality is really nice; it's very sparing with the sugar and is based on really good, carefully treated chocolate. My friend plowed through a number of them as well.
Sunday I met Sally again at Berkeley. Before she arrived by car, I wandered around and discovered that the town basically shuts down on Sunday. I did find a little soap shop called Body Time, which according to the employee working when I visited was created by a family that later sold their company name to the company now known as Body Shop.
Sally showed me another area along Fourth Street which has a stretch of gift shops and chain store concepts, and a yuppie food store. Actually the specialty food store looked like it might be an appropriate place for my Hong Kong sweet, so I'm going to try to set up an appointment with them the next time I'm in town.
We ate lunch at an inexpensive but nice taqueria; they had freshly pressed corn tortillas. I got a decent vegetarian chile relleno with fresh asparagus, and a nice fresh corn tostada. My friend had an omelette with nopales (cactus paddles). Thankfully they eschewed cheddar; they sparingly used a few types of Mexican cheese and some jack, depending on the dish; the only flaw I'd complain about is that their condiment bar didn't offer any fresh salsa, just stuff in bottles.
After I took BART back to downtown San Francisco, I met Jen, originally for a coffee, but due to a change in her evening plans we went to eat dinner at some Thai place instead. We stopped for coffee afterward. We parted around 9pm and I went back to my hotel, incredibly sleepy but I stayed up a little longer and chatted with a friend in Japan.
Monday morning I met with a soap supplier in the lobby of Courtyard Marriott in Oakland. We talked about different positioning strategies, and about which products I thought would be the most interesting. We also talked about packaging options to make the products look more compelling.
I had a little trouble getting there because I relied on my mapping software to find the place where she was staying in Oakland, and the mapping software was oblivious to the newer location of Courtyard by Marriott. I ended up having to spend money on a taxi fee to get back downtown after having changed trains to go to toward the other Oakland location of the chain.
Afterward I walked around downtown again and trekked on foot up to North Beach via Telegraph Hill; I wondered what kind of retail shops were in the historically Italian neighborhood. After wandering around fruitlessly in the area South of Market, I ate a late dinner at an Indonesian restaurant near my hotel on my own... vegetable martabak and gado-gado.
Tuesday I followed up on a couple of things I wanted to do in Japantown and Chinatown, but I was able to stop and meet Sally for lunch. She took me to the Gap corporate cafeteria and we ate typical corporate cafeteria fare facing the Golden Gate Bridge.
I also made a few media contacts when I was in town, mostly to get rate sheets and demographic information.
I basically met my objectives for this trip, but it was a fairly humble set of goals. Since I mostly wanted to get a feel for the market and see what kinds of venues might be best to approach, and my primary objective was to meet with the supplier, it didn't take much. Before I my next trip, I'll schedule some meetings to talk with potential customers.
Sunday I had hunted around Chicago's Chinatown looking for shops that might be the right kind of venue to carry my specialty sweets from Hong Kong and went away not very thrilled at the prospects. There aren't many shops there that do a very good job of displaying merchandise in a way that suggests quality. The two exceptions I found didn't really carry any food type gifts; I think they might be potential customers but I got the impression I'd be better off at mainstream tea shops in other parts of town, and maybe a few upscale gift shops that aren't necessarily focused on Asian products.
On Monday I visited the area around the red line stops Argyle and Berwyn to see if things were any different up there, but that area was overall more depressing. A few of the supermarket type places had better merchandising of sweets and snack items so next time I'm in town I will probably approach some of them. These shops tend to be owned more by Thai and Vietnamese immigrants than the ones in Chinatown but the selection tended to be more or less international. I overheard one Thai shopkeeper requesting green tea mousse Pocky, a Japanese product, from a salesperson for one of the big distributors of Asian imported stuff.
Around dinnertime, I met a friend of mine from college, Grace, for dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant with another friend of mine, Lucia. I've been to Ras Dashen, which is located a little south of the red line Thorndale stop along Broadway, before, so there weren't many surprises with the food, but it was good, humble food. We had an okra and lentil dish, some dish made with small chickpea dumplings, some fresh cheese curds called "ib" which are sort of ricotta-like in texture and cream-cheese like in acidity, a cabbage dish, a spinach dish, some kale and bitter greens, and some split lentils. We plowed through as much as we could but were bested...
Lucia wanted to get some cake afterward, so the three of us tried to ignore the drug addict ogling Lucia and Grace on the train who was blabbering incomprehensibly, and made our way to Julius Meinl near the Southport stop on the brown line. Julius Meinl is apparently the only US location of an Austrian coffee shop, and they have impressive-looking cakes that Lucia can vouch for. Grace and I stuck with coffee. I had an espresso with a little bit of cream. Were I not completely stuffed at the time, I probably would have grabbed a Topfenstrudel made with sweetened quark, or a cute little tulip-shaped chocolate filled with white chocolate mousse. Lucia had some sort of banana cake with what appeared to be a caramel topping.
We finished the evening by going to the regular Monday night performance of the Patricia Barber quartet at the Green Mill. Open since prohibition, the Green Mill is reputed to have been a hangout of Al Capone and his crew. Patricia Barber is a clever pianist and vocalist, and has assembled a band which does great reinterpretations of standards, some nifty originals, and genre-bending improvisations. I'm not that well educated when it comes to jazz... Almost everything I know I learned from listening to KPLU and some small shows in Seattle mostly by local performers. But it's really cool to listen to someone as ingenious as Patricia Barber for a mere $7.
I arrived in Chicago exhausted Thursday afternoon... I was able to sleep a bit on the airplane but it didn't quite make up for the inadequacy of the three hours of sleep I got Wednesday night.
Though I didn't eat dinner until late, a friend of mine and I went to Emilio's Tapas on Clark and ordered five “small” plates which turned out to be larger than I expected. We had an oversized salad, a oversized serving of patatas bravas, little eggplant roulades (which were in fact tapas-sized), some stuffed mushrooms, and some forgettable chickpea spread. I liked the egggplant roulades and the stuffed mushrooms were nice enough.
Today I was in Lincoln Park for a little walk, and then ate mediocre Chicago-style pizza at some regional chain that my friend wanted to try, and then recovered with some nice pastries at Bittersweet, a cute little pastry shop that serves modest portions of good quality tarts. Every time I've been in Chicago since stumbling onto that place, I've felt the urge to go there.
I went to a Korean movie, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, which was playing on the smaller screen in Music Box. Actually I missed the first few minutes because I walked into the wrong place. Overall, I was pretty pleased with the film; it had a simple, sparse aesthetic and explored innocence and human weakness in both mundane and jarring ways.
For dinner I had stuffed chiles with huitlacoche (corn fungus) at Salpicon in Old Town, as well as some nice corn soup and mini-tamales. It's a great place for upscale Mexican food; the flavors are a little more restrained than one might find at a more working-class kind of place, but I like the kind of sappari approach to Mexican cuisine; this way of thinking about food is not even close to imaginable at the low-end places that pile loads of yellow Irish cheese on everything. It was a little extravagantly priced, but I left happy.
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.
After years of working a well-paid, challenging, and ostensibly prestigious job which was often interesting, occasionally satisfying, but rarely fulfilling, I’ve decided to move on.
I have three obsessions that I’ve indulged outside of work for the last 7 years or so. One is an uncompromising passion for cooking and eating good food. Another is a love of travel. And third is a wallet-thinning habit of collecting Japanese and Korean ceramics and craftwork. Beyond that, I have a long-neglected impulse to write and create, which, most likely due to excessive comfort over these 7 years, rather than inadequate time, I have mostly failed to pursue and develop.
My goal over the next few years is to explore each of these passions with an eye for making a reasonable living doing the things I love the most.
This is a life-altering transformation. My job at Microsoft, working as a test lead in software internationalization, has allowed me to live comfortably while I regularly invested at least 20% of my income. Now, for the first time in years, I expect many months during which I’ll be slowly eating away at my reserves.
My plan for the next year is to take advantage of my safety net while taking a lot of personal risks. I've established a small business entity focused on importing foods, gifts, and other things that I am excited about.
I’ll travel, but with the objective of generating some kind of return from each trip, either in a financial sense or in the sense of personal growth. I'll be exploiting my ceramics obsession by buying ceramics and craftwork, but with the intent of using my eye to bring back items that could be introduced to the U.S. market for resale. I’ll also at least occasionally be working in restaurants as a cook and waiter and whatever else will teach me what it will take to make a successful business serving food. I expect that I’ll create some opportunities to write and to create again. Within a few years I intend to have established enough of a network to be ready to start a small café/restaurant, and on the way, I will focus on building up my import/export business.
This journal is the document of my transformation.
At least once a week, I’ll be telling part of my story. I intend to be pathologically honest, but I promise to do my best to avoid sentimentality, wistfulness, or excessive self-indulgence. I don’t promise to be authoritative, profound, or even important. But I do promise, more than anything else, to live.
Hectic, but productive… my last day
in Tokyo involved checking out of an Ōmori hotel and rushing to a 10:30 am
meeting with at the Shimbashi-area office of a Japanese soap company. Their most
distinctive product is made with white cedar extract (also known as Japanese
cypress) and Japanese charcoal. I also got to look at some of their other
stuff, including a thick, soft soap that is made with soy milk, sesame or
almond “tofu” and packaged in cute little containers that look like “oborodōfu”
(soft tofu) and covered with a “wata” style paper top. They are still hand
packaged, so production capacity is so limited that I probably can’t get any
for 6 months.
After a couple of hours of conversation,
I came away with wholesale rates and reasonable terms for modest orders. Mostly
I’m happy with the terms, though I’ll probably revisit some requests for
additional concessions when I have meaningful volume for them. On the airplane
I ran some numbers so I can start thinking about some sales scenarios and maybe
an initial order.
Before heading off to the airport I
wanted to grab a little lunch, and a very aggressive staff at a Chinese
restaurant near the JR Shimbashi station came outside to encourage me to eat at
the restaurant whose menu I was eyeing. When I told them I don’t eat meat or
fish in Japanese, they said “oh, ok, we can do a special order for you” in
English. I went inside. I ended up with ma pao toufu made with meat after all…
when they asked if it tasted ok, I said “actually, I don’t eat meat” and they
said “oh, you should have told me you’re vegetarian.” Go figure. Anyway, they
promptly replaced it and I had a nice side dish with chingensai (bok
choy) and garlic.
Apparently this restaurant has
recently changed ownership. I watched the woman who handled most of the
order-taking chat with every customer and aggressively solicit feedback on the
food… Many complained that the food was too sweet or “usui” (literally
thin or more naturally translated as weak or bland). If they had the slightest of
complaints she whisked away their food and arranged for a replacement. In my
case, I specified at the beginning that I didn’t want sweet, and I ended up
with pleasant, very simple food. I got the feeling, though, that the
aggressive, overly accommodating customer interaction was more bewildering for
their Japanese customers than it was satisfying… as
I arrived at Narita a little later
than I had hoped, but that was because I wandered around slightly confused at
Ōmori in search of the hotel and then, when I returned, I had some trouble
finding the reservation window to buy a Narita Express ticket. Anyway, the day
starts all over again when I arrive at home… It’ll be Monday morning when I
One of the natural consequences of
the end of my trip was a slightly increased level of anxiety… Over the last few
days, I have had tinges of worry: not doubts, exactly; just nervous energy and
the predictable consequences of more carefully analyzing the risks and possible
outcomes of decisions I have to make very soon… I still have confidence that I
can carry everything out but I know there’s an awful lot of work ahead of me.
When I return home today, I’ll get
some rest, but tomorrow I also have to make some final arrangements for my new
life, and I have a lot of logistics trouble to worry about. I’m looking forward
to figuring everything out.
Everything seemed to move in slow
motion today, except my watch.
I got out of my hotel around 10:30,
about 30 minutes after the official checkout time. Today the plan was to go
meet some of Hiromi’s friends for a slightly premature hanami (cherry
blossom viewing) in a park at Nakayama (Yokohama). I think we arrived about an
hour and a half after our intended time, and we started preparing sandwiches to
take with us to the park.
My contribution was roasting some
red peppers and eggplant, then making roasted pepper, cheese and lettuce
sandwiches, and some sandwiches made with briefly marinated eggplant and
cheese. We arrived at the park around 2pm and snacked on various things, drank
some aged 1988 Japanese sake (18% alcohol, caramel-like color, brandy-like flavor).
Some drank “off time” beer, a recently introduced brand which has had its
alcohol reduced by 40% compared to typical Japanese beer, or “happo-shu” which
is a cheap beer-like drink produced in such a way that it once evaded various
The cherry blossoms in this park
were probably at about 30% of their peak, but the weather was pleasant, and, as
I experienced, the flowers are only an incidental aspect of the hanami
After a couple of hours we cleaned
up, and I gave a piggy-back ride to Sanae’s little girl Kyouka on the walk back
to their home. We moved rather slowly, but Hiromi did some research to find
hotel accommodations for tonight and tomorrow night; I’m going to Mashiko on a
buying trip tomorrow and planned to stay overnight either in Utsunomiya or
Mashiko. I also needed something for Sunday night close to Shimbashi or
Toranomon, so that complicated things too. I should have figured all this stuff
out on my own, but I really appreciate receiving help.
Actually we had planned to head off
to Utsunomiya by car around 6 pm today, but we didn’t even get to the car until
10pm, so it’s going to be a long night, especially for Hiromi, who’s driving.
After exchanging a dozen or so email messages with my shipping vendor, a company that I’m meeting with on Monday, and a Taiwanese tea company, and a few others, I was able to contact a friend in San Francisco via MSN Messenger who may help me with sales and logistics a little bit. We talked a little bit about the Hong Kong confection I’m interested in.
There’s nothing in Japan untouched by foreign influence. This is perhaps even more true of Yokohama, as I was reminded today during the times that I was not focused on work.
Around lunchtime I walked over to World Porters near the Akarenga area in Yokohama, and I ended up eating at a sort of Indian-fusion type place. One of the Indian managers of the place came over and greeted me in English and took my order after the hostess up front seated me… Either my Japanese seemed hopeless when the hostess greeted me or they have a very involved manager. The food was elegantly presented and tasted good enough, but not terribly special; I think it suffered a little from being produced with a sort of factory/corporate restaurant mentality.
Afterward, I finally got around to buying a business card holder. My temporary solution of using an envelope was a little embarrassing. The one I picked up was black and gray leather and, in the realm of Japanese department stores, sold for a reasonable price.
At “Cake Mania” I had a nice yuzu cheesecake with a green tea flavored bundt-shaped cake around the filling. It was even decorated with broken green tea leaves and a little gold leaf. I drank a “maccha float”, which was maccha tea with cream (or possibly ice cream) blended like a shake.
I had a little snack after going back to the hotel to do some more work. Hiromi was planning to meet me around 10pm tonight, so I didn’t actually leave the hotel until almost that time, and we met in Sakuragicho.
We walked around in search of a late dinner, but all of the corporate owned options near Sakuragicho were already past their last order time, if open at all. After a long walk in fairly cold winds, we ended up at a place near the Oosanbashi pier named “Jack’s Café”, which was still open at 10pm and seemed to have a few potentially vegetarian items.
Entering Jack’s Café is a completely surreal experience. The interior transports you to Chicago to some 1930s Bohemian old-school café, apparently run by a middle aged woman who bought a better stereo system and decorated with some dried flowers. Lounge-style jazz standards are playing at a comfortable volume. A few cheesecakes, puddings, and cakes are shown in a small rectangular display case near the entrance. The menu could be found in a place run by Seattle or Chicago hipsters: a vaguely Indian spicy potato dish, cold tofu dish with lots of strip cut nori and a soy-based dressing, a semi-Japanese spaghetti dish with various mushrooms and asparagus, and a tomato-based spaghetti dish similarly adorned. I worked around the unexpected pieces of bacon. Although we didn’t have anything to drink, the menu offers coffee with sambuca, a negroni cocktail, and other interesting concoctions.
After dinner I had a cold crepe served over whipped cream and adorned with ribbons of cassis sorbet. Hiromi had a pumpkin pudding with a caramelized sugar sauce, possibly with a hint of Japanese black sugar. The food was all surprisingly decent for a late night haunt, and reasonably priced. I doubt the evening could have ended on a more satisfying note.
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
Tomorrow I have little on my
calendar, so I’ll just take care of sending some email and doing a little
The last time I saw my friend
Sakurako, who was an exchange student while I attended my first year of school
at DePauw University, was just before Christmas in 1998 when I visited Japan for the first time. I have been in touch with her occasionally by email, but she had
been hard to reach recently. She actually lives in Hyogo prefecture near Osaka, and I had the good fortune to get an email message from her on Monday. She said it
would be a little hard to meet in Osaka on Tuesday because she was preparing
for a business trip to Tokyo, but since I happened to be going back to Tokyo anyway, we made arrangements for lunch today.
My friend Michiko and I already had
a plan to go to some wholesale markets today, so actually I just adjusted the
plan so that the three of us would meet for lunch. Anyway, I was happy to see
Sakurako after so many years.
The wholesale area Michiko and I
went to afterward seemed to be focused on apparel, and it was too late to get
much out of going to the area in Tokyo famous for restaurant supply shops, so
we abandoned the effort and went to Ginza.
And then, the most unexpected chain
of events happened. After looking around at some ceramics and house wares at
Mitsukoshi department store, we ran into someone with a display area on the
same floor selling all sorts of Japanese charcoal (sumi or bincho) products. Michiko
started asking him some questions and told him about my trading company. He’s
actually the owner of the small company that has various charcoal products on
display at the department store, and he sort of tours different Mitsukoshi
locations to show off his products. (I’ll call him Takeshi-san for convenience
here, but it’s not his real name). Takeshi-san invited us to join him for a
coffee break, and we actually got some wholesale prices after I showed him my
cost structures and estimated retail customer requirements.
We did some back-of-the-envelope
calculations and then he said that we should meet for dinner to talk about
things a little more. I have very little time before I leave Japan and I had plans for tomorrow, so he cleared his calendar for tonight and I made a
last-minute cancellation with Hiromi. (Hiromi wasn’t very happy, but she told
me I should have the meeting). We arranged to meet about an hour and a half
He took us to a sushi place nearby where
he has apparently enough of a regular that he has a reserved bottle of
imo-shochu (sweet potato vodka) on hand. He arranged for some vegetarian
options for sushi, which were all very sappari and very different from
vegetarian attempts at sushi I’ve seen at US Japanese restaurants… the rice was
seasoned substantially more subtly and even with simple pickle maki zushi the
flavor was very carefully considered.
We talked a lot about prices, product
details, and so on, after a reasonable amount of small talk. Michiko actually
did most of the talking, as I had a difficult time following Takeshi’s
Japanese. I’m sure it was very standard, but somehow I couldn’t keep up… maybe
the presence of another Japanese who seemed to have sufficient translation
skills made him avoid dumbing-down what he wanted to say, and made me a little
more brain-dead. Anyway, he said he would work with me as long as Michiko gets
some percentage; he said that he felt she was very trustworthy.
Actually after dinner he extended
the discussion to a little more drinking at a somewhat exclusive-looking jazz
bar (Michiko and I had simple iced oolong tea and he continued drinking); most
of the clients are salary men and are entertained by a single waitress sitting
between them. I think we’re the only table without such entertainment (not
appropriate in mixed company) and also the one table where the bar’s owner came
and spent a substantial amount of time talking to Takeshi and occasionally to
us. He spoke in a very familiar way to the staff of both places we visited.
He was generous to what for me are
unusual extremes… he even paid for our train tickets home and he accompanied me
as far as we were continuing in the same direction. Anyway, tomorrow we’re
expected to go and meet him at the department store again to arrange for
delivery of some product samples.
Sachi and I planned to meet briefly
after work today, so I checked out and left my baggage with the hotel. I went
to Osaka during the daytime, mostly wandering around Umeda without much of a
real objective, even as a tourist. A Korean import/export company
representative whom I had hoped to meet in Osaka still hasn’t responded to a
mail I sent last week, so I didn’t have much of a business agenda anyway.
I ended up eating at an Italian
place for lunch where they had a conspicuous sign in Japanese saying they could
cater to customers with allergies, which I took as a sign that my vegetarian
habit could be indulged. It turns out that the Japanese mushroom pizza that I
ordered doesn’t have anything non-vegetarian in it anyway, and the salad and
bread weren’t anything to worry about either. The food was simple and pleasant,
though basically unmemorable.
My favorite thing to do when in
shopping districts is observing the foods being hawked in department store
basements (depa-chika). This proved the most interesting part of the
day. I can’t say there were many differences from department stores anywhere
else in Japan, but one stand specialized entirely in “curry bread”, in this
case a slightly fancier, fresher version of a long-lived staple of Japanese
bakeries. The department store experience is somehow a little more welcoming
than in Tokyo… somehow the heavy Kansai accents and gravelly voices of the men
and warmer, less formal sound of the women hawking various wares makes the
energy of the place seem more sincere. Or maybe I’m imagining all of that.
Somewhere I stopped for a
maccha-white chocolate cake and maccha ole.
Unfortunately, my friend Sachi got
stuck with some overtime work today so our hopes to meet for an hour or so
before I ran off to the airport were dashed. After finding the cafe where she
suggested we could meet if she was able to escape, I searched for something
more substantial, and finally found an Indian/Pakistani restaurant near the
station which I hadn’t noticed in previous wandering. The place was completely
devoid of customers, but I had one of the nicest palak paneer (or saag paneer)
dishes I’ve yet tasted in Japan.
I arrived just about midnight at my
dodgy hotel in Yokohama. The room is incredibly small… I think there are never
more than 12 inches of space to put my feet. It’s noisy, my cell phone doesn’t
seem to stay connected longer than 45 seconds, so completing plans with a
friend I’m meeting tomorrow has become complicated… and I am incredibly sleepy
and now a little irritable, but I guess it’s just a place to sleep.