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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FoodEx trade show, day 1

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Today was the first day of FoodEx and I must have visited several hundred booths and talked to people at several dozen. The experience was truly dizzying. Some 2,300 companies are exhibiting, catering to manufacturers, restaurant and food service, intermediate companies (which is the category I fall into), and retailers (these booths occasionally have some relevance to what I’m handling).

I wandered around for about 6.5 hours and talked to a whole bunch of people. The highlights for me were some tea-related products, some yuzu ponzu from Ibaragi prefecture that was surprisingly nice for a packaged product, and various green/organic products which are still slightly uncommon in Japan.

Tonight after the show I met a friend and we tried to find vegetarian options at a Korean restaurant, which was interesting because this is far less trouble in Korea than here. There were whole clams in the kimchi tofu jjigae, which the waiter said had no meat in. I just worked around them and my friend at them. There were also bits of meat in a chijimi that was described as meatless.

When eating out I usually try not to concern myself with most kinds of soup stock or other things that are too much trouble to worry about, even in the U.S. where restaurants cater to every dietary whim, but being vegetarian in Japan is always complicated.

Yesterday I was a little too tired to write. I did some research in the morning and met with a couple of friends, but I didn’t really do anything that impressive. I did cook a half-decent penne with a cream sauce, garlic stems, and maitake mushrooms with some coarsely chopped pecorino romano and pine nuts. It took far too long in my weekly apartment’s kitchen, which has one burner, a warped frying pan that only cooks in one spot, and a tiny saucepan that isn’t really big enough to boil any amount of pasta in. I also made a frittata-like thing for dinner using nanohana (the greens from the canola plant) and eringi mushrooms, served with some whole grain bread I found. I got home too late to cook rice.

I realized that some people might see my half-finished web site for Yuzu Trading Co. now that my business cards are in the hands of strangers, so I fixed the layout and altered some text so that the work looks less unfinished, hopefully. I wish I had spent more time on this, but I have some ideas on how to actually make it useful later.

Somehow I’m awake much later than I should be. I should go to sleep. I’ll have time to be more reflective later …

 

Visiting the pottery town, Mashiko

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For a day which I had originally written off as an R&R day, I was incredibly productive.

Somehow Japanese style domestic travel usually means going to be early… Especially if one soaks in a hot springs bath for more than 30 minutes a day. It sort of makes sleep an inevitable event shortly after dinner, unless one has unusual willpower. It also tends to result in early rising… I think I was fully conscious and rested shortly by around 6am this morning. We showered, had breakfast, and packed up, and were on the road by around 9am.

Hiromi had planned a day in Mashiko. For her, it was the first time to visit; I’m kind of a veteran by now, with today being about the fifth or sixth visit for me; ever since my second trip here I’ve led whoever was traveling with me to all my favorite shops.

I managed to abuse my friend as an unpaid interpreter, and did some basic negotiations for ordering pottery under wholesale terms from several of the resellers of pottery in town. I took a ton of photos of things I am interested in buying, and I’ll need to come back here in a week or two so that I can finalize my purchasing decisions, after I’ve arranged for freight forwarding services. I’ll be able to offer some really beautiful pots from some young potters, as well as some impressive but more anonymous pots from the big production studio in town, Yokoyama.

Mashiko ware has incredible variety of styles, mostly because it has a relatively young history as a pottery center; Shoji Hamada basically led the way to the village, encouraging a couple of generations of potters to settle here relatively unconstrained by pervasive traditions common to the legendary kilns (Arita/Imari, Seto, Hagi, Bizen, and so on). There’s a lot more experimentation, influence by foreign potters who found the area more welcoming than most, and the durable legacy of Shoji Hamada’s and Murota Gen’s philosophy of soulfully-created craft ware.

We were encouraged to try Yokoyama’s new café atop the school where they offer wheel-throwing, slab-building and decorating lessons. I had taken a lesson here about a year and a half ago with another friend of mine, and it was the first time to attempt the very humbling wheel-throwing process. I still have evidence of this attempt, and although I still have limited throwing skills after over a year of practice, I’m slightly embarrassed by this “early work.”

I had a mushroom pilaf, which was actually surprisingly tasty, considering how meager my other dining experiences in Mashiko have been up until now. We also shared a sampler of cakes… green tea chiffon cake, chocolate gateau, pumpkin flan (kabocha purin), a maple syrup scone, and pot du crème or panna cotta.

For dinner, we stopped at a rest stop along the highway and I ate two oyaki (pan toasted buns filled with vegetables), and a stick of battered fried small potatoes served with a packet of mayonnaise. Not haute cuisine, but filling enough.

After a long drive back to Tokyo, I settle into the weekly-rental apartment and start to think about how to best make use of a free Monday before the FoodEx show.

Relaxing in Nasu-shiobara at a hot spring

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Daylight suffices to signal my body to wake up. Outside, fresh snow is accumulating on the trees and rooftops.

My friend’s hopes of driving to Nikko are dashed by reports of poor road conditions, so she makes inquiries about things one can do in sleepy Nasu-shiobara. We snap a few photos around a pedestrian bridge that crosses a river bordered by snow-covered rocks. We visit a museum and mostly see various artifacts chosen to demonstrate that famous poets have stopped in town here before. I pick up some udon which have bits of yuzu zest embedded in the noodles, which I’ll cook while staying in a weekly apartment in Tokyo.

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We drive to a soba/udon shop recommended by the tourist information center and have handmade soba in soup, served with freshly made yuba, and rustically cut udon in soup, served with mountain vegetable tempura. We also order some soba-gakki, after I describe it to my friend based on the one time I tasted a not-very-similar version of it in Saru-ga-kyou.

Afterward we drive around somewhat aimlessly, and stop in a gift shop and find ourselves attracted to some kuromame daifuku with zunda filling (black beans mixed with mochi, and filled with sweetened paste of mung beans, and some black bean cocoa, which we buy and take along with us. I am nearly convinced that the dried niga-uri (goya, or bitter melon) chips are worth trying by the salesperson, who says they are easy to eat, but I don’t buy.

My friend convinces me to order “cream soda,” an ice cream float made with an aggressively green-colored soda which is flavored similarly to the vanilla soda known as cream soda in the US but apparently with extra esther of wood rosin. At least the vanilla ice cream was nice…

We go back to the hotel and my jetlag catches up with me… I sleep, though I have no idea if my friend does the same or not, for about an hour. We decide to head to the outdoor hot springs pools again after learning we just missed by a few minutes the chance to use one of the private ones… but nobody else is down there, as it’s the start of the dinner hour. The view of the snow-covered rocks in the river is probably more compelling anyway.

Dinner is a typically elaborate spread of mostly simple foods that you would expect to find in a Japanese ryokan, and I get some special treatment to accommodate my vegetarian habit. Dengaku nasu, and some unusual cross between yuba and tofu that the woman serving us couldn’t quite explain, and some nice jelly covering crisp fresh shredded vegetables, and a pot of yu-doufu are all nice; there’s also chawan-mushi (savory egg custard), and some dried persimmon stuffed with candied yuzu peel.

I end up eating so much I barely touch the rice. The half hour in the hot spring makes it hard to concentrate on anything, and sleep seems inevitable…  

Arrival and collapse

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I arrived at Narita airport and cruised through passport control, baggage claim and customs unusually quickly. After getting a small amount of cash at the Citibank ATM, I made a stop at the KDDI/au booth on the fourth floor of the airport to inquire about and obtain a prepaid telephone.

The last time I was in Tokyo I rented a cell phone here, which incredibly simplified the often daunting task of meeting friends in various public places… the pervasiveness of cell phones has greatly diminished the importance Japanese once placed on punctuality. Beyond that, picking a well-known landmark at a particular train station as a meeting place always sounds simple, but usually at least 500 other folks had the same landmark in mind, and seeing through the crowds isn’t always easy without additional lines of communication. The rental cell phone made my life much easier; however, with a 25 day stay in mind, the 600 yen/day rental fee plus outbound talk time makes the prepaid option a financially more attractive option, and I’ll be able to use it on subsequent trips.

After wandering around Tokyo station in search of food, I finally settle on a couple of onigiri: one stuffed with natto and seasoned with soy sauce, and, apparently, butter; the other, made with “wasabi-zuke”, pickles seasoned with cheap wasabi mix that consists of more mustard than anything else. I also picked up a burdock (gobo) side dish and some CC Lemon. The gobo side dish promptly disappeared out of the little plastic bag; I must have held it with only one handle without realizing my mistake until I looked for it.

I wandered around the a little bit while waiting for my friend to fight traffic on the way from Kawasaki. After her arrival, we climbed in the car and spent about an hour trying to get out of the city, and another couple of hours heading toward an onsen ryokan in Nasu-Shiobara, “Myouga-ya Honkan”. I managed to doze off in the last hour of the trip.

Upon arrival, just shy of 11pm, we settled in, and then decided to take a late night dip in the roten-buro, an outdoor hot springs pool out back of the hotel which was actually built 300 years ago. This is actually an increasingly unusual venue; it features konyoku (mixed bathing), unclothed; very few hot springs have mixed bathing anymore.

As we walked through the old wooden structure that leads down to the outdoor pools, we could see snow slowly sublimating on rooftops. We were alone, as it’s not particularly common to be out in the onsen after 11. We tried a couple of the pools, overlooking the concrete-banked river, for maybe 30 minutes. There was a light breeze extending the influence of near-freezing temperatures, but the warm pools of highly mineralized water covered us up to our shoulders, and the baths removed all of the economy-class aches and pains in my body.

Upon returning to the room, jetlag and relaxation synergized and I easily collapsed into bed.

Flying away from my old life

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Under something close to the least favorable economic conditions of my short life, facing the prospect of casting aside a mostly respectable seven-year career at the largest software company on the planet should be terrifying.

Instead, I am strangely calm. During the past two weeks, I have probably felt more relaxed than I ever did while shackled by the constraints of stability; fear of my uncertain future has, so far, been fleeting, if present at all.

Today, I am crossing the Pacific Ocean aboard United Flight 875 to Tokyo-Narita International Airport, carrying freshly minted business cards that bear no reference to my prior professional identity. Although I’ve often heard other Microsoft employees express the feeling that they make up their role in the company as they go along (and I've probably even said that myself) the constraints and freedoms inherent in subsuming your persona to a corporate entity are nothing like starting from nowhere, as I am doing now. Corporate tradition, colliding egos, and layers of mutable but established hierarchy trump all but the most skilled balancing act of ambition and creativity.

Ten years ago, I had no aspiration to become part of a massive corporate machine; in fact, my politics rapidly assumed the opposite direction, inspired by revolutionary ideologies and assisted by frustration with the careerist impulses of students who chose what to study based not on what they were curious or passionate about, but by what they thought would be most financially rewarding. Ironically for all of us, it was my own idiosyncratic curiosity that led directly to the job I found shortly after university.

I fell into majoring in East Asian studies via a gateway course, “Modern Japanese Novels,” chosen purely out of curiosity. Soon I found myself in Japanese classes, Buddhist studies, and so on. At the same time, I was continuing to learn German, and I headed off to Germany as an exchange student, oddly situated as probably the only late addition to the East Asian Studies program ever to have planned a European exchange program. Evenings and sometimes whole days I spent hacking around Bitnet and later the Internet, and by the time I graduated from university I was a well-rounded humanities major with geek tendencies. If it weren’t for all of that, I wouldn’t have found a nice cushy job at the big cozy corporation that that all of the economics majors around me fantasized about. Who could know that, 4.5 years after beginning university, Microsoft would be interested in hiring computer-savvy folks with Japanese or German language skills who had an ability to write at least some haphazard web code and could think about problems analytically?

When I first arrived at Microsoft, like most recent college graduates of that era, I felt it was my duty to say yes to nearly everything asked of me and, perhaps more importantly, to fit in to the company culture and even to believe in as much of the company dogma as I could cognitively reconcile. I eventually developed a little more personality and actually became more productive when a legendary manager took me under his wing and taught me how to say “no.” Of course, my experience working for a manager of his caliber was limited to about 7% of my time at the company due to a combination of corporate and management reshufflings, my own decisions about how to react to various job frustrations, and the relatively low percentage of people who actually have that kind of skill in a company dominated in management by geeks who got rewarded for their technical skills with team leadership responsibilities on the one hand, and those skilled at political manipulation on the other. It’s rare to find managers who are smart, ambitious, involved, and fiercely loyal to their staff; in my time at Microsoft, only that one manager would stake his career in defense of his team.

I spent the last year and a half or so actively disliking my job, and disenchanted enough not to want to seek out other opportunities within the company. I was coming to work every day driven only by momentum, not by intent. I spent that time thinking about my exit strategy—how I would move on after leaving the company, what kind of timeline, and so on—and I set conscious boundaries between the sufferable and the intolerable. When circumstances moved beyond the merely unfortunate, I had already decided how to handle the situation long in advance. I decided I would be going on “vacation.”

So here I am, technically on vacation, but with no plans to return. I’ve spent the last two weeks doing most of the essentials associated with starting my own small business, including registering a LLC with the state government, hurriedly establishing phone and fax services, buying a new laptop to replace the one previously supplied by my employer, and getting an annual medical checkup I’ve only delayed by about five or six years. I’ve been jogging daily, and just making the psychological transformation that is required when one decides to separate from something that has been such a tremendous portion of one’s life.

This relaxed feeling is some sort of delusion, but it just means is that I’m at peace with myself. I have almost never been at peace with myself while at Microsoft. I have occasionally liked my job, and I was even passionate about some aspects of my work, but I have almost always had trouble sleeping at night and almost always dreaded waking up in the morning. I rest easily now, and wake up earlier than I usually did when I was expected to be at the office.

Over the next few weeks, I must reinvent myself. I am scouting suppliers of things that I consider interesting—things that have stories, things that I can talk about to complete strangers and infect them with some of the same enthusiasm I feel. In the Tokyo area, after a brief weekend of R&R, I’m attending a trade show related to food products; after that, I’ll spend a little more time researching logistical requirements, and I intend to go to some rural villages where I can find potters and craft technicians. When I come back, the hard work of finding buyers will begin, and the brutal realities of generating income based on work that I just happen to like doing may start to hit home. In the meantime, I’m just getting started. Every step I take now is full of intent.