Furniture in a Comfort Zone

The floor table is our product, KINA.

The COVID destroyed the bright future of the Japanese tourism industry. The number of foreign tourists to Japan was increasing year by year and exceeded 30 million in 2018, when the nationwide hotel construction rush reached its peak. After the disaster, the rumor said many landlords went bankrupt by changing their apartments to accommodations for Airbnb. In addition to an awful lot of vacant hotel rooms, the COVID created a strange trend at the same time. Nowadays people come to stay at local hotels near their homes. One reason is, as you can imagine, the free-falling hotel charges due to the collapse of the supply-demand balance, but it’s not good enough to explain why local hotels. Guess another one. I think it’s remote work.

Thanks to the COVID, even workaholic Japanese people managed to escape from offices. Some of us started to work at home, but one day they noticed work stress was chasing them to their homes. Finally, they were kicked out of their own homes and found another shelter. It is a room of their local hotels. For your information, this is just my imagination, but it’s true that more and more people come to use local hotels. I’ve been very interested in staying at local hotels because whenever my clients came from overseas to our headquarters, I took them to the local hotels where I had never stayed.

Last year a budget hotel opened right in the front of the central station, 20-minute walk from my home, and I stayed there the other day. There is a large public bath on the top floor. It was interesting to see the familiar street deserted as the evening went on while soaking in the hot water. Even if it’s just a short stay at a hotel close to your home, I think you can find the extraordinary in the ordinary. Another thing that interested me was that I felt like a spy, seeing real situations where the hotel guests used our furniture. It’s very grateful that many local hotels actively and preferentially use local furniture in our home town. As I’ve been writing it sometimes, here is the Japanese mecca of wooden furniture.



Photo Credit: https://uk.hotels.com/ho2270304928/hotel-amanek-asahikawa-asahikawa-japan/?q-rooms=1&locale=en_GB&pos=HCOM_UK&q-room-0-children=0&q-room-0-adults=2


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


The Renewable Energy in the Frozen World


The snow glows white on the mountain tonight, not a footprint to be seen. When you hear this song, you may picture in your mind some beautiful scenes, like Elsa and Anna playing in the snow and ice. Me? It’s more realistic and boring. Snow fields seamlessly spreading to the surrounding mountains (even to the gloomy sky when it snows), a heavy snowfall immediately covering even human figures let alone footprints, fingers numb with cold, etc. Our hometown is the heavy-snow and coldest place in Japan, of which lowest recorded temperature is -41°C. On the other hand, our summers are very hot. The maximum temperature often exceeds 35°C. On a hot summer day, I always wish I could get back the snow treated as a nuisance in winter.

As a matter of fact, snow has already been used as a renewable energy source here. Hokkaido, the northernmost part of Japan, is the largest producer of potato, onion, and rice in Japan, and snow is used to refrigerate those crops during storage. Another famous example is air conditioning. Chitose Airport is the air gateway of Hokkaido, and the air conditioning of the terminal buildings in summer is sourced from the snow cleared from the runways during winter. To be honest, the cold energy utilization is not yet common because it requires a big storage space or facility (big initial costs). In our office and factory, we don’t have air conditioning. It’s eco-friendly but not so much to us. I, dripping with sweat, just long for snow, though hot summer days continue only for a week or two. The management may kindly want us to enjoy the short summer to the fullest.

We don’t have a system for the cold energy utilization yet, but it’s not that we are not engaged in any renewable energy utilization, by the way. We have solar panels on the roof of the factory buildings, and they provide a part of power required to operate machines in our factory. The problem is the output power of the solar panels significantly drops in winter, and we have to frequently brush off the snow lying on the panels. This is the reason why I have different pictures in my mind when listening to the theme song of Frozen.


Photo Credit: CondeHouse


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Oda Collection


As I think I’ve learned the figure somewhere, 70% of kids under 6 years old are collectomania. At the age of around 10, I was devoted to collecting stickers that came with chocolate cookies. The stickers were very popular among boys at that time. One day, I found a girl in a car running next to my mother’s car, and showed her the best one from my sticker collection through the car windows. My mother, seeing me, said “Stop it. It’s embarrassing.” I still don’t know why my mother felt embarrassed, but I clearly remember that was the moment I quitted collecting the stickers. Soon after that, I made big money for a kid by selling all the rare stickers to my classmates, by the way. Sorry, the introduction has become a quite long. Today’s topic is collection.

If you are a whisky lover, you may know his name. Valentino Zagatti, he was the world’s famous collector of whisky. His collection collected all over the world for half a century amounted to more than 3000 bottles. What makes his story more remarkable is he was fully blind at the age of 11, long before starting the collection. He had neither seen nor displayed his collection, which was completely different from the boy having shown off the sticker collection to try to get the attention of a girl. Now, I feel I can understand why my mother was pissed off. Anyway, what do you think motivated him? I feel we can improve our understanding about human mentality to collect things by studying his thought.

As I wrote before, our home town is the mecca of wooden furniture, where we have the world’s famous chair collector, Noritsugu Oda. The number of chairs in Oda Collection amounts to about 1350, including most of the world masterpiece chairs, of course! I’m sure it’s worth visiting here only for the collection. You can see a part of them online on this page, but I highly recommend you to come and see the great collection in person here in Asahikawa.


Photo Credit: https://odacollection.jp/


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Everything Happens for a Reason


This is one of the basics to enjoy a road trip in Japan, especially in Hokkaido: Make the best use of roadside stations. This transport infrastructure was born in around 1990. It’s like rest areas on highways, providing a parking space, restroom, restaurant, and souvenir shop. Different from such highway rest areas, roadside stations are located along local roads. Currently, their number amounts to 1993 in all, and 129 of them are here in the biggest prefecture, Hokkaido. They are useful for a road trip and informative as a source point for each local culture. I always enjoy learning a lot about marketing from the struggles of local municipalities seen in the operation of the roadside stations.

I think locally-made canned juice, bottled jam, and pouched curry are the top three products often seen but not selling well in the roadside stations. They are generally expensive and (I guess) developed for the revitalization of local communities. I didn’t mean to criticize, saying the motive of product development was impure, but I think regional revitalization is too weak to motivate consumers to spend money. The producers of such products would be proud of their local fruits, seafood, etc., but such a self-centered pride is unacceptable in the harsh market. It must not be forgotten that Hokkaido is the most competitive market of agricultural, livestock, and marine products.

Long-selling products have a good reason, necessity, or story to convince consumers. One of the good examples is rice wine in our hometown where there are three breweries with a history of about 100 years. Why did the breweries stand the test by time? That’s because here is everything required for rice wine production: basin area good for rice farming, more than 160 rivers (pure water) flowing from the surrounding mountains, and wood (fuel to cook rice in the past). It’s like our furniture manufacturing, though our case is simpler: we just make furniture using wood from the forest surrounding us. The two of the breweries, the same as us, give a factory tour. If you travel around Hokkaido by car, why don’t you drop by our factories and try to go around as many roadside stations as possible?


Photo Credit: https://www.ana.co.jp/en/us/japan-travel-planner/hokkaido/


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Something More than Manufacturing


Do you know the best zoo in the world? It’s San Diego Zoo. In Asia? It’s Singapore Zoo. In Japan? It’s Asahiyama Zoo in our hometown, according to the world zoo ranking of TripAdvisor. Asahiyama Zoo is not biggest in size and the number of visitors in Japan, and doesn’t have any rare animals like pandas, but it’s very popular. In the early 90’s when I was a kid, the zoo was so boring and a little creepy. It was like a horror movie scene of Stephen King: there were few people; animals were deathly still; old and rusty attractions made a squeak (in the amusement area in the zoo). In 1995, the zoo took the first step to the great comeback by the inauguration of a new director.

The director said “All the staff members were on a high level in the knowledge and skills to keep animals but low in customer awareness.” They started to focus on how to exhibit animals and accordingly changed everything. Today in the zoo, you can see flying penguins from the underwater tunnel of their pool; seals swimming up and down in the transparent cylinder running from the ceiling to the floor; the hairy soles of snow leopards walking on their cage floor overhanging above the walkway of visitors. It’s called “behavioral exhibit” and has been spreading to many other zoos across Japan.

Designers visiting our factory.

Now, we are working on plans to make some changes to our office, factories, organizational structure, etc. to invite more visitors. I know the essence of furniture manufacturers and zoos (or what is required in the two industries) is different, but our new challenge makes good sense because our mission in a broad sense is to contribute to society through furniture manufacturing. What we aim at here is not to show our production and products but to entertain visitors with them. Yes, it’s like the behavioral exhibit. We look forward to the future when our headquarters will be one of the popular sightseeing spots in our hometown, along with Asahiyama Zoo.


Photo Credit: https://www.ana-cooljapan.com/destinations/hokkaido/asahiyamazoo


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Mutual Consideration for Sustainability


Somewhere in countryside in early morning, a boy on a bicycle is throwing a newspaper to a front porch house-to-house. I’m sure you’ve watched such a scene in some Hollywood movies. It was so surprising when I watched it for the first time, but now I think it might be a good solution to the problem of a shortage of delivery workers. It would be done not by people but by drones in the near future. By increasing demand for e-commerce and the rapid economic recovery from the COVID crisis, the world logistics is still overwhelmed. According to Bloomberg, container ships have to wait for an average of 16.9 days to enter the port of Los Angeles. Our containers take twice as long to get to our branch office in the US.

The situation is the same in Japan. The jobs-to-applicants ratio in the transportation industry is said to be about three times. Transport companies always suffer from a shortage of delivery workers. The year end and new year season is the peak season for delivery demand. Every time I see them work in heavy snow and extremely cold weather around here in this season, I pay my sincere respect. One day, I happened to see a delivery worker carefully beat the snow from his shoes before entering a front porch. His consideration was impressive, but if such is instructed by the company, I think it’s too much. More importantly, I want to reduce their burden to keep logistics service as a social infrastructure.

Factory quietly waiting for a fresh start in 2022.

Our dining tables are packaged separately: legs and a tabletop, but all of them are assembled and checked in the final product inspection before packaging. The assembly inspection sometimes leaves a small and slight mark on the bottom (sole) of a table leg. It’s very rarely, but there have been some complaints from customers. Of course, we want to please all of them with our products, but I think it’s a matter of degree. In everyday life, we take turns to serve as service providers and receivers. The burden of service providers would be finally passed on service receivers as a price increase and damages on social and ecological sustainability. As the proverb says, a contented mind is a perpetual feast.


Photo Credit: https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2016/01/06/boston-globe-delivery-woes-christopher-b-daly


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Challenges Help Us Grow


“The Matrix Ressurections” was just released in Japan on 17th December, first in the world. Dodge this? No way! I will go to a theater this Sunday, the very first day of my year-end vacation. Due to its complex storyline, it has many different interpretations. Spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen any of the series! Since I knew that Neo (or a savior story) was also a part of the Matrix for AI to learn human thought processes and update its system, almost all the events in the movies came to easily make sense to me with one exception. Was Trinity’s kiss required to revive Neo, though he himself is the almighty Matrix?

It seems many people have the same doubt as me. You can find many different interpretations on this matter if you make a search on Google. Anyway, though beaten up to death by the Agent Smith, Neo was revived by her kiss and got much stronger. I think this kind of thing very often happens especially in super hero movies, and that always reminds me of “super-compensation.” Muscle fibers arguably become stronger after being damaged by weight training. Mind you: what is important here is to “mildly” damage muscle fibers and to take a rest. Super-compensation is generally said to need more than 24 hours rest at least. Don’t overdo it.

Luckily enough, we have had a flood of orders for the last few months. Apparently, it exceeds the capacity of our production ability. Our factories are running at full capacity, overtime every day, sometimes opening even on the weekends, in order to ship out the orders within the year. The current situation is tough for us, staff in the internal divisions as well, because we can see both: customer demands and the tired look on the faces of craft people in the factories. I’m sincerely hoping they will get over this tough time, take a good rest during the year-end vacation, and come back stronger by super-compensation.


Photo Credit: https://www.cbr.com/matrix-wachowskis-original-script-switch-trans-woman/


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Japanese Year-end Tradition


Almost all the cities are filled with Christmas decorations in this season, though the percentage of the Christian population is only 1% in Japan. As I wrote before, we are good at cream-skimming other cultures but may be wrong a little about Christmas. Guess what the Japanese Christmas specialty food. It’s KFC! You can’t get it without a reservation in Christmas time in Japan. This is said to have started from a lie by a shop manager of KFC in 1970. He spread it around “Everyone eats fried chicken in Western countries in Christmas time!” He must have been a genius marketer, and KFC Holdings Japan, Ltd. owes a fortune to him.

You can see the distinctive feature of our cream-skimming skills right after Christmas day: all the decorations are removed; people don’t even look at KFC; unsold cakes and sweets are sold cheap. The whole country is soon filled with Japanese traditional atmosphere. I know it may look embarrassingly inconsistent, but in the Japanese traditional year-end events, there’s one thing I can be proud of. It’s year-end cleaning. The year end in Japan is the middle of winter and not a suitable season for cleaning, but we are supposed to clean every corner of our houses with a prayer for happiness in the coming year.

The tradition is applied to business occasions as well. Usually, the last working day before the year-end holiday is spent on deep cleaning workplaces, like offices, factories warehouses, etc. Do you think we are bothered? No, not really. It’s not as bad as you imagine. While sorting out papers scattered on my desk and data piled up in my PC, I can look back on the work I’ve done for the year, which provides a good opportunity to reflect. In addition, I can feel like turning over a new leaf on the first working day of the following year. Next week is our last working week for the year. Just before the time of reflection, what I feel now is gratitude. Thank you very much for reading my articles. Have a happy new year!


Photo Credit: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/multimedia/2019/12/20/news/cleaning-time/


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Rebound to the Era of Magic


Once upon a time, fortune-tellers, exorcists, or shaman offered prayers to forecast the weather, cure diseases, etc. That would look primitive, idyllic, and non-scientific to people today including me. Do you think we are progressing? I don’t know how Amazon knows my tastes, though I very often bought books as it recommends. I spend much time in using a PC and smartphone every day, but if they go weird even a little, the least I can do is just to curse and ask for help from a tech. What is the difference between the past and the present? As some sociologists have claimed for the couple of years, it seems the world is back to the era of magic.

Most of the major restaurant chains employ a system called a “central kitchen.” It’s like a cooking factory. Main foods have been cooked, frozen, and delivered from their central kitchens. In their restaurants, staff just heats, dishes up, and serves them. Considering the wide variety of their food menus served at reasonable prices, I think it’s natural, but a new trend seems to be emerging. One noodle restaurant chain makes it a rule to make everything from scratch in open kitchens centered in each of the restaurants. As the restaurant chain declares, wheat flour bags are piled up at the entrance, and we can see all the processes: how the noodle-making machine works; soup blending; tempura frying. The restaurant chain is gaining popularity, and the number of outlets has exceeded 1000 in and outside Japan.

I just think it may be a fundamental human desire to know the context of things. The popularity of the above restaurant chain may be an expression of our human desires, or a rebound to the era of magic where many things are black-boxed. As is the case with the noodle restaurant, you can see the whole process of our furniture production through our factory tour. If you’re interested, please contact us to make a reservation in advance!


Photo Credit: https://www.theguardian.com/food/2021/sep/10/marugame-udon-london-e1-restaurant-review-grace-dent


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


Values Unable to Be Quantified


Once, it was said that 11 years were required to become a full-fledged sushi chef. Young people had to bear up long working hours, which was taken for granted in the Japanese artisan industries. The pros and cons have been discussed for several years, and many people now come to think it’s just useless. They claim even high school kids can reach the level of a full-fledged sushi chef if they have good and fresh ingredients and a perfect recipe quantified in detail. As the metaphor of high school kids may be exaggerating, I think their claim would be logically correct.

Kiyomi Mikuni is the most famous Japanese chef born in Hokkaido. He grew up in extreme poverty. Soon after graduating from junior high school, he started to work for a rice dealer for free meals and the opportunity for attending a night cooking school. When visiting Sapporo Grand Hotel by the field trip of the cooking school, he appealed directly to the chief of the kitchen, saying “I’ll do anything!” As he said, he washed all the dishes of the hotel after work, though it was outside the scope of his job responsibilities. Only in three years, when he was 18 years old, he was promoted to the sous-chef of the hotel. His story doesn’t end here. He left the hotel for greater heights and started to work at Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. He decided to polish all the pots in the 18 restaurants of the hotel. In the end of his second year, the master chef of the hotel recommended Mikuni for the chef of the Japanese embassy in Geneva. It was when he was only 20 years old.

He has regularly posted cooking videos on YouTube. I don’t really cook but often enjoy the videos. What attracts me is his casual personality and elegant behavior that, I imagine, would be created through his eventful life. In Hokkaido, there are some restaurants supervised by him. Fratello Di Mikuni is one of them. Now that you have known his story, you will taste the food in the restaurant even better. I think it may be some emotional reasons rather than logics that decide our preference especially in cooking. For your information, the above restaurant is equipped with our dining chairs, which, I hope, would add grace to his cooking.


Photo Credit: https://fratello-di-mikuni.com/english/chef


Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.