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A Visit to Mokuhankan - Part Five

Posted by Dave Bull at 8:15 AM, November 16, 2010 [Permalink]

This thread about Mokuhankan is continued from Part Four, and began here.

Dave gets up from the study desk, and calls a 'thank you' to the clerk, who comes over to pick up the print they had been viewing. They make their way back out to the lobby, and Dave leads the way over to the opposite side from which they had earlier entered. Yet again, everything is light-coloured wood, and greenery. They pass through, into ...

Dave: Well, here we are - the Mokuhankan Café. What's a Gallery/Museum without a pleasant café to sit and think about what you have seen ... And we're right bang in the middle of the lunch time rush!

It's ... a café. Wide windows face the main street, the overall appearance is bright and airy, and the entire space is crowded with tables where people sit eating and chatting.

Dave: I see that they've kept 'my' little table over there open for me, so we're OK. (There are a few little advantages about being the 'top guy', you know!)

As they make their way in, a young lady passes them coming outwards, pushing a low cart.

Dave: That's the lunch cart heading over to the workshop and offices. Everybody put their orders in earlier this morning (online, of course).

The café operates cafeteria-style, and they take their place at the end of the line, each taking a tray. They select their items, and as they approach the register, Dave reaches over and picks up a couple of large cookies, and places them on his guest's tray.

Dave: Here, put these into your bag for later. Some of the people back at your office might like to try them. They are a 'speciality of the house' here. I'll explain when we get to our seats.

At the checkout, David 'pays' for them both with his employee card, which he touches to the sensor, and the guest notices that some other people also have cards, which they produce along with their money.

Guest: The cards those other people are using are Mokuhankan Member Cards, I presume?

Dave: Yes of course. People who are members get discounts here in the café and the print shop, open entrance to the museum, a subscription to our quarterly magazine, and a hand-made New Year card. We used to also include entrance to our PD events, but those have become so popular that entrance is now by lottery among the members. But let's get seated first ...

They move over to a small table partially hidden behind some plantings, where the busboy removes the 'Reserved' sign for them, and they take their seats, and enjoy lunch while continuing their conversation.

Dave: Most of these customers are actually not here because it's Mokuhankan; they are either passers-by, or people who live/work in the area. They mostly come in through the main street doors, not through the museum lobby, and for them, this is just another café.

Our menu is kind of different from other places around here. There are those who don't care for this type of food, but there are plenty who do - enough to make this one of the most profitable parts of our business!

I have to admit right up front that the only reason this is all here is personal selfishness. I got kind of frustrated not having a comfortable place to enjoy the kinds of food that I would like to eat, but I don't much enjoy preparing food, and was getting sick of eating convenience store stuff, so I kept badgering our managers about the idea until they finally gave in and gave me my head. An architect friend of mine from Canada designed the room and decor, and the menu is mostly Canadian too (whatever that means).

Guest: This is Canadian food?

Dave: Well, I don't really think there is any such thing as 'Canadian' food per se. Remember, that's an immigrant country, so you find pretty much anything there. One of the main things I missed through living here in Japan was the ready access to light, healthy, interesting food of many different ethnic origins that I used to have back in Vancouver. Sure Tokyo has ethnic restaurants, but to get to one is a major expedition because it's on the other side of town, and it's going to be expensive, and you have to 'go the whole hog'. I want to have interesting food as part of daily life, and without being capable of preparing it myself, this was the only solution I could see ...

Most of the main items on the menu are based on recipes that I collected from friends back in Canada - you see their names and photos on the menu sheets up there (and yes, they get 'royalties'!) The rest is put together by our staff here, based on photos and descriptions I bring back each time I go over there to see my family. For the most part it's fairly 'light' food, with a lot of seasonal variation to keep things interesting.

And I'm very proud that one of our most popular items are the 'bilingual' muffins, which are based on a recipe our own family used back when my kids were still small.

Guest: I was going to ask about that. 'Bilingual'? They talk?

Dave: We're just having fun with that. It's a very simple concept, originally created by my kids' mother, actually. We had been having muffins made from some kind of North American mix, but they were just too heavy and dense, yet when we switched to a Japanese mix that we got from our local baker (good friends of ours), the result was too 'cakelike', and way too sweet. Her solution was to use a blend of the two, and they turned out very well. We're not using blended commercial mixes for our muffins here, but that's the origin, so 'bilingual' seems to fit! And how about those 'baren' cookies?! (Dave is proud of these, and is 'disappointed' that his guest hasn't asked about them ...)

Guest: Actually, you didn't give me a chance to explain back there in line, but the people in our office have already tried these, I'm sorry! In fact, that was one of the motivations behind my calling you to ask for the interview. My manager's wife had received a box of them as a chu-gen gift from somebody. He thought they were interesting, read a bit about Mokuhankan in the enclosed pamphlet, and gave me this assignment! Are they your own idea?

Dave: Well, who else? (smiles) Yes, they are something that I thought about for many years. And a long time ago, I actually tried making some myself, even though I have no cooking skills. I tried making a circular chocolate cookie, and that wasn't so difficult, but creating the outer covering - making it look like an actual baren wrapping - was beyond my culinary abilities. But once this café was running, I gave the idea to our cooks here as a challenge, promising them a royalty on any successful design, and they came up with the one you see now. The biscuit portion inside has just the right amount of 'bite', and the wrapper part is firm enough to hang together, yet flexible enough to allow the proper 'folding'. They look just like a real printer's baren, yet are edible! And when you bite into one, you find the coiled 'cord' inside, just like the real thing! We've got them in a few sizes, from bite-size up to 'natural size'.

But it was chaos at first, back when we were still trying to make them in house. They were just taking over. You know how it is in Japan when some kind of food or snack item becomes popular - everybody wants it. For a while. But one of our guys decided that he would take the leap into business for himself, and he offered to split off and open his own bake shop, making these for us under contract. He's actually quite successful now, making all kinds of creations for other places, not just us. The orders for the baren cookies come into our website, and the data is passed to his company, which ships them fresh, directly to our customers.

Dave pauses to eat some of his lunch ...

Guest: You started to tell me something about P ... was it P.D.?

Dave: Yes, we have to talk about that, and today is the day! But that won't be happening until this evening, and I really do have to get back to my own work once we're done with lunch, so what I'll do is give you your pass now (he takes another card from his wallet, and passes it to his guest), and ask you to meet me back here sometime just before six. Do you know anything about these meetings?

Guest: Only that you have some kind of monthly staff meeting, which is sometimes attended by a few people from outside also.

Dave: Well, they're not monthly, but bi-weekly; every second Thursday evening (except around year-end, New Year, etc.). And we refer to them around here as PD meetings, which originally meant Professional Development, but somewhere along the line seemed to morph into Public Day, I'm not quite sure how.

The original idea was simple, and came out of my own experience as an independent craftsman. Our kind of work - in common with many other crafts, I suppose - has a kind of inbuilt paradox: to be able to do it well, you have to be both smart and dumb.

It is a complex and deep craft, and the people who do it best are those who can be analytical, who can figure out why something is going wrong when it does, and who are capable of thinking about how to do it 'better'. You have to be critical of your own work, and - above everything - you have to be 'handy', the kind of person who can solve problems and adapt their methods to situations that arise. You have to be smart!

But it is undeniable that the job of making a stack of 200 woodblock prints also involves a great deal of mind-numbing repetitive work. One colour on one sheet. On another sheet. And another. Then the next colour. And the next colour. And etc. and etc. and etc. And you do this all day every day. To an outside observer it can seem like the most boring work imaginable, and honestly speaking, it sometimes is. To maintain proper focus on the block and paper ... to keep the output at the proper level of quality ... these things can be very difficult. I know this from my own personal experience with all these jobs.

Now back in the old days, nobody thought about things like 'job satisfaction'. You had a job - you did it. But in more modern times, young people want to have work that is personally satisfying, not just 'a job' to get money. I feel, as manager here, that it is my responsibility to create an environment where there is enough of a balance between the different parts of our work that our people are challenged enough to keep themselves 'sharp' and interested, but neither stressed by the intensity of the quality control, nor numbed by the repetition.

So the overall design of our workshop, the 'vibe' in the building, and the workflow itself - how the kids are assigned jobs, and how they progress up through the craft - are all designed to help keep them in good 'intellectual' shape, and to mitigate the more boring aspects of the job. We had one young girl join us a while back who had already done some training with another print publisher. Once she saw our system she thought she had died and gone to heaven; back in the other place they worked in a scruffy dirty room, in silence - 'no talking', they had no say in the work they were assigned, the deadlines meant lots of overtime, and they had to speak to their 'superiors' in the 'appropriate' way. Here, we are ... I know this might sound a bit 'corny', but it's true ... here we are much more of a team, working together. It's a fun place to be, and these kids are eager to get here in the mornings!

But to tie this back to the PD thing; having 'fun' at work is all very well, but there is more to the job than that, as I mentioned. I want these kids to be - or to become - interesting people! And you don't get to be an interesting person by keeping your nose on a woodblock eight hours a day, just working away like a robot. Now keeping that in mind as our first point for a moment, let me toss a few other things into the mix. (Dave tabulates these 'points' on his fingers ...)

- in the years after coming to Japan, the more that I met traditional carvers and printers, the more I was surprised to find how little they knew of the history and traditions of the work they were doing. They knew the overall outlines of Japanese print history, and of course could recognize the big name stuff, but that's about the extent of it. Time and again I would mention some kind of work that I respected, but would be met with nothing more than a blank stare. These guys were just not interested. They saw themselves as being inheritors of this tradition, but were actually very short-sighted. And one side effect of this was that because their only knowledge came from what they learned in the workshop where they had been trained, each succeeding generation lost a little bit, as the older guys passed away. Over the course of the 20th century, the overall skill level, and the level of knowledge about this art/craft, dropped in a steady line, down and down and down. And when you combine this with the always-present pressure from the publishers to try and keep costs down (in a misguided effort to keep prices down, thinking that this would help them survive), the inevitable result was that by the end of the century, the general level of work on the market was nothing short of embarrassing. I've got a folder of prints back in my office that we sometimes take out and study - stuff I bought in shops that should never have seen the light of day ... work that we study to remind ourselves how not to make prints! Anyway, long story short, the kids working here need teaching and guidance on this 'big picture' aspect of their job.

- OK, another thing to toss in, and this one is admittedly completely selfish, is related to another part of my daily life that changed after coming to Japan (other than the food thing I mentioned.) When I lived in Canada and had a job in a small company, it would be very common to get together with friends or co-workers a few times each week. Maybe I would just bring somebody home for dinner, or we would arrange to meet people in a restaurant, or sometimes on occasion we might be part of a kind of 'dinner party'. Now I'm not much of a socialite at all, and this wasn't shmoozing or networking, this was just friends getting together for food, and - usually - interesting conversation. Now that sort of thing utterly disappeared from my life after coming to Tokyo. As you know, 'entertaining' at home is simply not a part of life here. The original reason for this is supposedly due to the uncomfortable and cramped nature of the housing, but it's not just that; it goes deeper into general cultural traditions and relationships between people. But the funny thing is that when you talk to Japanese who have some experience of living overseas - in Europe or North America - they frequently speak of this same thing, of how 'easy' social life was over there, and of how cumbersome it is here in Japan.

OK, do you see where these threads are going, and how we are going to tie them together?

Guest: You decided to start inviting the young craftsmen for dinner, and things expanded from there?

Dave: Well, close. I didn't actually have to experiment with this, because I had been thinking about it for years before I got the chance to try it. Right from the beginning of our workshop, when I decided to turn Mokuhankan into an actual 'going concern' and hired the first two young trainees, we started having these meetings - just the three of us at first. We started simply, with me sitting down together with them, showing some prints from my little collection, and learning together. But I didn't want it to be a teacher/student relationship, so I made it a rule that we would take turns being the 'presenter'. One week I would pick a theme, select some prints to illustrate it, and make my presentation. For the next meeting, somebody else would have to do the same thing. To anybody who grew up in the kind of school I went to, this will be very familiar - we called it 'Show & Tell'. Maybe Japanese kids do it in school too, I don't know.

We didn't make any of this into a big production, just had our little presentation/discussion, and had some coffee and a snack. As new people joined Mokuhankan, they of course took part in these meetings, and things started to change a bit. The main 'agenda' was the initial presentation and follow-up discussion, but it became clear that the group had wider interests than just things related to our printmaking work. So I began to stretch it out - we would have our presentation, take a little break, and I would then bring up a topic from current affairs, toss it out to the group, and we would go at it. Some of them had never been in an environment where they were expected to 'have opinions', so this was difficult for them, but we kept it all low key and without any kind of stress to 'perform'.

And we found that without even trying to push it that way - the thing began to expand. People would start to bring boyfriends/partners along, and I would occasionally invite some guest or other. And then one day, I did something that would have major consequences: I wrote a story in the members' newsletter about our meetings. Well, you can guess what happened. We got a ton of requests from people who wanted to join in. We weren't sure whether or not to let this happen, because I was really worried about putting extra stress on the younger craftsmen who were making presentations - but after talking it over at one of the meetings (it 'ate' the entire evening's discussion, as you may imagine) we decided to give it a try.

Now at first, we thought we had made a mistake by allowing this, because these 'new members' didn't understand our format, and kind of just sat there watching, rather than participating, but we learned how to 'pull them in', and bit by bit we arrived at our current format. We've learned that we need a good representation of 'regular' attendees present, and only one or two 'newbies' at any given time, to give them a chance to learn how things work. We usually follow the original pattern of a print-related presentation first, then a break, then a general discussion, but sometimes the girl who manages the meetings (that's the young lady you saw plucking orders back in the shop this morning) sets up an agenda with something different, to keep things interesting. We use the Library over there in the museum for the meetings, and it's of course very convenient having the collection so handy, and the café people handle the drinks and stuff.

I for one, very much look forward to these affairs, and they are one of the highlights of my life here at Mokuhankan. And I think I'm not alone in that feeling!

Guest: Well I must say, the more I hear about this place, the more it sounds attractive. I wonder if my own boss would consider something like that?

Dave: Don't wait for him to 'allow' it ... just get some people together, and start it up yourself!

But I must say now, although I have enjoyed talking with you today, and showing you around, I really do have a lot of things waiting on my bench, and I should be getting back to it. You're welcome to 'hang around' as long as you wish; everybody knows why you are here, and you can talk to any of them for material for your story, although please be reasonable in the amount of time you take with anybody.

Guest: Oh, I won't be bothering them; I have everything I need to put together an interesting story - you've made sure of that! Thank you very much for being so generous with your time. This has been very much appreciated.

Dave: Not at all. It's kind of my 'job' here to handle this kind of thing. And honestly speaking, I think the rest of them here would be happiest if I did this every day, and just kept out of their way. We have such an enthusiastic and skilled crew here now, that there is very little that I can contribute to the mix.

They walk out back into the shop, where Dave takes his leave and heads for one of the workbenches, where he will spend the remainder of the afternoon carving - something that he _can_ indeed still contribute. His guest will wander a bit longer, taking some photos to accompany his story, and will then head back to his own office. But he will be back for the evening meeting, to round out his overview of this interesting place. And in the morning, he will sit at his desk to write his own story of ... a Day at Mokuhankan.

(Thank you for following along with this 'fantasy'. Comments for any of the five parts may be left back on the page for Part One. I hope you will leave your impressions ... and advice!)

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