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.

Pottery class week 2, sort of

Today I actually attended my pottery class on time... last Monday, the day of my return to Seattle, I was so jetlagged that I slept through the hour of class and showed up in time only to make an appearance and look at some things that recently came out of the kiln, all of which I had been working on last quarter.

I still haven't decided what I should do this quarter... on Sunday I came in and glazed some of the pieces that I had done last quarter, but today I was just playing around with different shapes and deforming them. I should probably come up with some kind of objective.

Jetlagged but jogging

Somehow my body decided 5 am was the best time to get out of bed. I made some breakfast and then went jogging for a while at Greenlake around 6:30 in the morning. This is not a normal time of day for me to exercise… jogging I consider perfectly reasonable, but rarely is my body convinced to budge early enough to do any exercise that early in the morning. The big surprise was that I met a MSN colleague jogging in the opposite direction a couple of times.

I started the work to get a bank transfer out to my ceramics suppliers in Japan. It’s a little more frustrating than I was hoping, but I think I have everything in place for it to be completed by morning. Some of the bank information that makes transfers work more smoothly wasn’t provided by the suppliers, so I had to arrange some more complicated strategy to get it to them. Anyway, everything should be fine.

As for my other job, in the morning I filed my formal resignation notice. After that, I hurried through my performance document and I think I also did something useful, perhaps. I’m hoping I can maintain a little motivation.

A very clean and busy final day

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 arrive.

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.

Ceramics buying trip in Mashiko, and meeting the potters

Today was my first purchase of note. I picked ceramic wares from three different artists at two different dealers. My original intent was to buy from four separate dealers, but time was getting tight.

I ended up buying a substantial amount of work from a Mr. Minowa, who is a 60-something potter who does beautiful gas-fired work using the classic Mashiko kaki-yu (persimmon glaze), but which depending on oxidation or reduction factors can take on a temmoku-like appearance, a red rainbow striated pattern, or sometimes a luster-like metallic appearance. Kaki-yu is an iron-based glaze but is very versatile in gas-fired work. I bought about 12 guinomi for drinking sake, a few sakazuki, which are lower, wider forms also for sake, various meoto-jawan (husband-wife sets for tea), and a good number of vases. Mr. Minowa came to the gallery to meet us and show us some additional work. He invited us to come and see his workshop after we finished our other business today.

At another gallery, I bought out probably 75% of a show from a young potter name Mr. Akutsu, who was doing his first solo exhibition. He previously co-presented most of his work with his family. His work has about three or four motifs but tends toward earthy textures… sometimes a wood-like appearance, sometimes lighter colors, and sometimes a strong green glaze. A lot of his work is slab built, but of course his cups and bowl-like forms are wheel thrown. We talked to him a little bit and then made a lot of work for him and the staff by selecting more than a hundred pieces from the collection.

Hiromi and I were getting tremendously hungry by around 4:30, so while they were doing some initial packing and drawing up the long invoice, we walked across the street to get a bite to eat at a nearby Mashiko café. Everything at that café is served on Mashiko ware… almost everything is Wafuu (Japanese style) western food… we had a Japanese-style pasta dish with mushrooms and nori, a cheese-heavy “pizza” with little chunks of potato on top, and some salad in a beautifully rustic Mashiko plate with braided handles. Afterword we leapt for the yuzu-flavored desserts, a yuzu poundcake and yuzu cheesecake, served with lemon tea.

When we came back I made some additional selections for work from Mr. Yoshiaki Senda, which are pricy but very desirable pots made by combining multiple colored clays into floral or geometric patterns. The technical complexity of this work is truly amazing. In most cases, the pattern is visible on both the inside and outside of the form. I bought a relatively small amount of these pots because of budget constraints, but I think it will be easy to sell them.

We made some final logistics arrangements with the gallery owners and tried to find Mr. Minowa’s workshop, which is about 20 minutes from the center of Mashiko by car if you know where you’re going, or 40 minutes if you have never been there before. He comes to meet us at a nearby landmark after we call him, then leads us toward his home.

A windy dirt and gravel road leads off the main street to his home and workshop. He greets us and shows us around the outdoor parts of his workshop… He points us toward his mostly dormant noborigama (climbing kiln), his huge gas kiln, and his stash of clay. When we come inside he shows us his kickwheels and some unfired, bisqued and recently produced work. His wife, who had been representing him at the gallery, served us some black tea in English-style cups.

He then proceeds to show us some of his other pieces and tell us about the happy accidents and intentional manipulations that make up his work. My friend understands only a little of the Japanese terminology for ceramic materials and techniques, but occasionally when I volunteer an English technical term for the same thing Mr. Minowa seems to recognize when I get it right. Occasionally all of us are at a loss to communicate in a way that is meaningful to more than one of us, so we aren’t always sure what we understand…

We are forced by time constraints to depart his studio at about 8:45 pm, even then uncertain if we’ll get back to Tokyo in time for Hiromi to return her car to Yokohama and for me to get to the hotel near Shimbashi. Today was an incredible experience, though, as I had a chance to meet two of the potters whose work I had planned to buy since my last trip. I look forward to coming back here a few months from now and making another buy… This small purchase is more of a test to see what it takes to market handmade ceramics to an American audience… if it goes well, I’ll need to be buying on a larger scale than I could on this trip. If not so well, then I’ll need to be very good at acting as an import agent on the other stuff I’ve been investigating.

I’ve been an avid collector of Japanese ceramics for quite a long time, though, and this is really a labor of love for me. So even if it takes some time to develop an audience for these ceramics, I’ll keep investing in it. These things are too special to go unnoticed by US customers.

Jack's Cafe and cassis sorbet

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.

Charcoal man sober, dinner in Yokohama

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Michiko and I had made arrangements to speak with Takeshi-san again today to arrange for some product samples that he had promised while slightly intoxicated. In the morning he was pleasant but a little different in demeanor than the previous day, and so we weren’t sure what kind of quantities would be acceptable to ask for.

Actually, he did get in touch with a couple of his colleagues, one representative of the company that does the actual manufacturing for the charcoal pellets for growing plants, and one from the soap company. So he was attempting to be helpful, but we started to feel a little uncomfortable with him for various reasons that are hard to articulate.

We spend the afternoon chasing down the Japan office of the freight company that I had opened an account with in Seattle. They were raising all sorts of issues that I had been assured would not be a problem by the Seattle office, and a sales representative came to meet us in the afternoon in Ginza. He was worried because we have multiple suppliers for ceramics all inexperienced in export, and none of them wanted the slight complication of preparing export documentation. I got a quote for an approximate quantity of ceramics that I expect to ship, and an agreement for the carrier to act as the exporter of record for the relatively small initial order. I was trying to avoid export agents for the ceramics products because they always get a substantial percentage of the transaction for relatively little work; in this case, I was tracking down the suppliers by myself, so they would be doing little more than document preparation… in fact, just document assembly. Anyway, I was relieved that something which sounded like it could have become extremely complicated was resolved quickly and inexpensively.

Lunch was at an Indian set-meal type place and was decent… fresh-tasting, pleasant, inexpensive.

I met Hiromi for dinner and we ate close to her home at Torafuku, a well-funded three-unit restaurant in some recently remodeled building near the station. The food was good enough that very few people were smoking, even at 9pm. We had a fresh tofu dish with three “flavors” of tofu including one with yuzu and one which was actually gomadofu (sesame tofu). We had some freshly-skimmed yuba. We had yasai no sumibi-yaki, charcoal grilled vegetables. We also had some takenoko (bamboo shoot) rice. We drank tea and I had a glass of yuzu-infused sake (for me) and Hiromi had a kabosu drink with sprite (kabosu is a citrus fruit which, like lime, is typically used unripe) and presumably some Japanese shochu (a neutral spirit). The meal was all very sappari… no flavors were very strong, but the natural flavors of each of the ingredients were highlighted. I’ve probably had more impressively sappari dishes, but overall it was fairly pleasant food.

Tomorrow I have little on my calendar, so I’ll just take care of sending some email and doing a little research.

Reunions

I didn't make much use of the end of last week. I like to think that it was necessary recuperation, but that might be self-delusional.

Saturday I woke up very early on not much sleep and drove to Beaverton, Oregon to do sampling. I didn't give away as much as usual, and the conversion ratio wasn't horrible... I was trying to finish up a little earlier than 4pm today so I could return in time for a little dinner party in North Bend, featuring various members of my little pottery circle. A small distraction made it harder to accomplish that goal... Somehow, for reasons unknown, my car battery was dead when I was preparing to leave Beaverton. I don't know if my car alarm went off, or if maybe I unintentionally hit the remote starter buttons on my keychain while in the store, but regardless of the cause, I was unable to depart without the benefit of assistance from Sheena from the gift department. On the bright side, the only horrible traffic was on route 26 heading toward Portland.

Somehow I made it to the dinner party only about an hour late... Fashionable, perhaps... Fortunately, everything seemed to be just getting started when I arrived, though I imagine some people were there much earlier than I. Because of my lack of access to any meaningful kitchen in the interim, I only brought a box of candy and the fixings for a simple salad dressing Carol, one of the most productive students at the BCC studio, showed off photos of a recent trip to Africa, and everyone nibbled on various things. I haven't seen most folks in over 2 months... It was a pleasant little reunion.

Speaking of reunions, today I went to a farewell party for Susan, a former editor at the Northwest Asian Weekly, under whom I served as an intern in my January 1994 “Winter term” program at DePauw University. I may have run into her once or twice since then at some event, but I basically haven't seen her in about 10 years. Monica, the long-time office manager at the paper, is also leaving Seattle to return to Hong Kong soon. So this was a day of partings, and a weekend of reunions. Some folks were grilling various animal parts, corn, and so on, and there were some plates of fruit and side dishes. I brought a little salad, which is what I was planning to bring yesterday, when I was lacking time and ingredients.

I realize I have a busy week ahead of me. All of the things I neglected at the end of last week are now coming due...

Almost severe fatigue meets me head-on

Playing the role of a manufacturer representative for a food product that relatively few people in the gift industry have ever heard of is kind of a surreal experience, especially for someone like me with no particular background or innate talent for sales. My goal during the show was basically to leave people with a positive impression of the product, regardless of whether it fit into their retail store or not.

For the most part I think I succeeded, but it would have been a bigger ego boost if there had been a few more orders. There were a couple of good surprises, like an order from Nampa, Idaho, a town which I probably wouldn't have visited for the purpose of making a sales call otherwise. There were a few leads which have some potential of working out in the future. If my broker has the skills and relationships to get this product into a bigger range of stores, I'll be happy.

Meeting the other manufacturer representatives also taught me a bit. I think my head was spinning with names that were being tossed about, so I'm not sure how much of that will stick with me, but it was good to hear the war stories of people who have been selling fancy foods for a while. The product line that I was most impressed by in the showroom were from a company called Hand To Mouth, which has a nicely sappari artichoke spread and a pleasantly fresh-tasting roasted red pepper tapenade, as well as a subtly anise-seasoned olive tapenade they call “Greek caviar.”

I did some sampling at Uwajimaya on Saturday, and I'm starting to feel better about the conversion ratio. It's still not really a comfortable ratio, but it seems to be an improvement over the last couple of events. Yesterday I got a report of how many units have been sold at the Seattle store and I can now say that the sampling is pretty much paying for itself. If I could just start paying for the advertising I'm doing, I'd be a little more comfortable. I'll have to check out how sales have been doing at Bellevue and Beaverton... I expect the volume is a little lower in those locations, even though the visibility is better.

On Sunday I simply walked around the temporary exhibits at the Convention Center in downtown Seattle. It was surprisingly exhausting, but I think that came from being on my feet most of the last three or four days. I met a couple of companies that may be useful in one way or another, and I actually made a sale of one box of candy to a woman who works at a local Chinese antique dealer and had trouble finding the candy in our retail outlets. She wanted to give it to her sister.

I'm getting close to needing to reorder from Hong Kong, but I hesitate to do that unless I have a good idea what sales volume will be like in September...

My objective today is to do as little work as possible. I had a little inspiration to work on my web project today, but it hasn't been a sustained motivation. I'll hack around a little bit and then I'll try to relax for the rest of the day. Tomorrow I have some outstanding errands, but I might take it kind of slow tomorrow also. I'm just really beat after a few weeks of almost nonstop movement.

I'm in the gift show!

On Monday I met with a sales broker who focuses on specialty food items, a woman who was recommended by the leasing agent at the Seattle Gift Center. I didn't quite know what to expect, but I wasn't surprised that Cheryl, the broker, was frantic and faced multiple distractions as she was preparing for this week's Seattle Gift Show.

She seemed pretty pleased with the dragon beard candy, and she told me she would need a couple of days to talk with her sales team to see if they would agree to take on the project. In fact, I already got a reply on Tuesday afternoon, and was asked to bring the product and a display in on Wednesday morning to set up a display. I tried to throw together an 11”x17” poster without the benefit of my graphic designer's time, skill, or tools, and I prepared a flyer under the same constraints, and headed over to the showroom.

We realized that the poster didn't have enough support to stand up on the display, so I started to head off to Kinkos. Coincidentally, though not surprisingly considering how close the gift show is, the manager of the Georgetown Kinkos was in the elevator as I was headed out, and he offered to take the posters off for lamination and application of a cardboard easel. I never had to leave the gift center and the items were delivered about a half hour later.

After setting up, I tried in vain to print out a few copies of the flyer on the broker's printer, so I moved on. I got a quick sandwich at a Vietnamese spot just across from the corporate office of Starbucks, called Cyclo... it was already about 3:30 or so. I made another couple of stops, including a brief stop at Azuma Gallery, before moving on to take care of getting some color laser printing done at a shop in Capitol Hill.

I was somehow bewildered that all of this was happening so fast. A couple of months ago I was thinking it would be a good idea to attend the Seattle Gift Show so I can decide if I want to do a booth there in the future, and now I'm actually in the permanent showrooms. The broker's commission will take out most of my profit in the region, but I think they can get the volume up to a respectable level faster than I can, and I can start focusing on California and British Columbia, and hopefully some other products.

Today I spent the day at the showroom after taking care of some errands in the morning. It was kind of a surreal experience. I don't know how aggressive I should be about showing off the product or about approaching visitors to the showroom. It's not really my space, so I have to find my bearings, which is particularly awkward under such frenzied circumstances.

Earlier in the week, I stopped at Uwajimaya Seattle and learned that their inventory for the small gift boxes of dragon beard candy was getting pretty low, so I also made a delivery on Tuesday... I also met with an American Express financial planner at Chinoise in the same building... somehow my business card had been placed into a fishbowl at the Uwajimaya customer service center in the last week or so... I don't remember doing it, so maybe one of my cards someone picked up when I did an in-store demo or one that I left behind with some brochures may have been placed there by someone else. I had a nice lunch and received a short, respectful, sales pitch for AmEx Financial Services.

I'm trying to decide whether to go to Vancouver or head toward San Francisco for a few days after the gift show ends. I guess it's not the best time to make up my mind... I have a long day on Friday at the gift show, and Saturday I'll be doing sampling at Uwajimaya Seattle. I'll try to attend the temporary exhibits at the Convention Center for an hour or so on Saturday and whatever I can take on Sunday, then I'll go back to the showroom at the gift center on Monday and Tuesday.

I remember vaguely that I had a few other plans for this week... I haven't had a chance to even think about what those plans were...

International District Street Fair is on

I registered for the street fair that takes place in the International District July 10/11. I plan to show off the Dragon Beard candy and the ceramics from Japan. Hopefully they will do well, but more importantly, it's a good venue to get some attention.

Before dropping off my check and space application, I made a stop at the office of the newspaper where I once worked, and chatted with my former publisher a bit about what I'm up to. I also talked about some rates for an ad campaign with their ad sales manager.

The last pottery class of the quarter is actually a potluck, with some cleanup, and, for those with some glazing or decoration to do, the last chance to finish that up. The only thing I had unfinished was a little ceramic train which still needs to be bisque fired before I can glaze it, so mostly I was chatting.

Before running off to pottery class, I prepared my contribution to the potluck, which is a slight variation of something I brought to a party a month or so ago. I basically put shredded filo dough, coated with butter, into a mini-muffin pan; in this case I filled the centers with chopped asparagus, orange bell peppers, caramelized onions, a little bit of sweet pepadew peppers, and some cave-aged gruyere and pine nuts. It sounds more elaborate than it is; I put everything together fairly quickly, especially compared to last time I made them. Actually this time I also made a non-dairy version using olive oil instead of butter and hummus instead of cheese, since one or two people in class have some dairy issues.

I also showed off a few pieces of work from the potters that I bought from in Mashiko... Minowa Yasuo, Akutsu Masato, and Senda Yoshiaki. Most items went over pretty well... I guess the next question is how well they will go over with audiences less familiar with the value of handmade pottery.

On Sunday we had a raku firing, and I had three pieces in the load. Nothing terribly exciting, but they did turn out pretty nicely. I also picked up a couple of plates and a tea bowl I had recently glazed.

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