Fresh Thinking

LARGE FRESH clothesline photo

Clean linen snapping in a summer breeze.

Brisk breeze off an emerald-green sea.

Sweet, earthy loam during planting.

Ice-cold beer at a sweltering baseball game.

CRISP Korean salad

Crunchy, colorful salad from a chilled, pristine plate.

What does “fresh” mean to you?

How about a Louis Vuitton handbag?

For the Japanese, “fresh” signifies more than you might think.

Fresh as high-quality

At one point in recent history, 60 percent of Japanese women owned a Louis Vuitton bag. When I asked why, I heard the story of how bags survived the sinking of the Titanic, bobbing to the surface completely intact. I heard about the timelessly elegant chocolate and gold design of the “Speedy” bag. Indeed, the Louis Vuitton “Speedy” bag has the reputation of durability, timelessness, practicality and elegance around the world. No creative director of Louis Vuitton ever lets a significant collection go by without re-imagining the Speedy. The Speedy may arguably be this wildly successful global brands’ most visible and durable bag.

Louis Vuitton Speedy bag

“The whole point of the Louis Vuitton canvas was a waterproof, scuff proof, tear proof material for travel bags. As a handbag, there is absolutely nothing (short of dropping it in the furnace) that you can do to seriously damage a Speedy. Combine that with the fact that it’s shape, size and simple design make it unbelievably functional for everyday use, and you really don’t need to care about the iconic image of the bag to see why it’s a must have.” ~thehandbagconcept.com

And the iconic image or fashion statement isn’t what draws Japanese women to this bag—or indeed solely to any purchase. Here quality trumps trendy. And the Japanese will pay top dollar for items considered the best quality they can afford. Indeed, I’ve heard discreet mention of what seems as astronomical price paid for a durable, high-quality item, rather than what I’m used to (and practice occasionally): bragging about how cheaply I obtained something.

U.S. beef enjoys a distinct advantage here over our main competitor—Australian product–and that advantage is quality. Our ability to continue to stress our systems of production that result in a quality eating experience will be key to growing success. (This isn’t a novel idea—USMEF markets U.S. beef quality regularly, and has been for while here. Unfortunately, BSE really burst our quality balloon as consumers linked quality and safety, and now we’re working to regain trust we enjoyed pre-2004.)

Fresh as ripe and seasonal

In Japan, seasonality plays an important role in everyday life. I’ve mentioned here before that diet, spirituality, decor and traditional involve natural representations of seasons. In April, here in Kyoto, I see late-blooming cherry trees slowly fade. The ever-changing flower art in shops, hotels and restaurant features fresh cherry branches and, now, as the blooms change, azaleas.  I’ve had sushi and rice wrapped in cherry leaves. Yesterday, I visited the Kyoto vegetable auction and a bamboo farm, where workers used a tool like half of a T-square to harvest tender young bamboo shoots found in nearly every meal since arriving here.

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Fresh bamboo shoots receive a quality grade. The white color of these makes them go for top-dollar at the Kyoto vegetable auction. During my visit, the bidding got quite lively over some of these shoots, and price may top $200 per shoot.

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A lower grade of shoot. You easily see the difference in color.

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Bidding at the Kyoto vegetable auction.

 

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Harvesting bamboo shoots by hand.

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A tender, young bamboo shoot appears.

I visited a farm raising tender green onions, also nearly ubiquitous in many dishes now. When I ask, I’m told: it’s best to eat these items now, because they are in season and taste best. I’m not describing the longer season of spring, I’m describing the immediate, two-week season that green onions taste best.

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The farmer told me these green onions will be harvested in about two weeks, at the peak of readiness, and sold at the Kyoto vegetable market. Kyoto has a reputation for producing some of the best vegetables in Japan, and the Ministry of Agriculture hopes to begin exporting more of these high-quality fresh products.

I’ve been wondering if it is possible for the U.S. beef industry to mold a reputation for freshness—which may be an obstacle to building our beef brand. When faced with two options in the meat case, the cherry-red domestic Waygu option, or the option marked clearly as originating halfway around the world, our U.S. industry has a challenge to prove our fresh, seasonal, or “right time” image. However, I mused, the wine industry managed to convey an “in season” concept for a product that relies on barrel time for quality (We will sell no wine before its time). Indeed, we are using the word “mature” to market U.S. beef as fully ripe and ready to eat. Perhaps there is further merit around the concept of aged beef, a slow ripening process or turning the harvest and ship time into a product maturation that consumers may come to see as necessary to enjoying U.S. beef at the height of tenderness and flavor. Perhaps we also may consider the concept of seasonality of U.S. beef—the story of how producers tend lush grass and clean water carefully to produce a seasonal crop. These concepts may merit further exploration.

For information on the third meaning of “fresh” — Fresh as Innovative see information on 7-11 in Pedigree of Power Shopping.

 Random photos of the day:

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Poor Randy has trouble finding a chair big enough for him, and has endured comments on his big feet. He’s a size 11, so they really aren’t that big, everyone! But his shoes do look like gunboats when lined up next to all the Japanese shoes outside a restaurant or temple.

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A bridge at Ryoanji Zen temple. The temple is a UNESCO site. Kyoto maintains many national heritage sites, because it was one of the few places spared from bombing in WWII.

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A view of the Golden Pavilion at Rokuon-ji in Kyoto.

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Ippodo Tea Company shop. Established in 1717, the brand is one of the best known in Japan–and now has a shop in New York as well, taking it global. We enjoyed a tea tasting here, sipping both Matcha powder tea and Gyokuro. Japanese green teas have three main taste components: sweetness, bitterness and sharpness. Matcha has a sweet aroma and a brilliant green color, and is the tea used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies.

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Did you really think you’d get through an entire post without seeing something I ate? Ha! Sukiyaki, or hot pot. Notice the fresh green onions and bamboo shoots in the pot. The server drops the meat into a raw egg bath before serving (see the left side of the photo).

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Thinly sliced A-5 Waygu ready for the hot pot. This was the most heavily marbled beef I’ve had since coming to Japan. It is an acquired taste (that I’m not sure I’ve acquired yet).

 

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3 thoughts on “Fresh Thinking

  1. Pingback: Dewa Mata | pencilplow

  2. Polly, I see you continue to keep your busy schedule going daily!!
    Just like location in real estate … The market in Japan for beef is all about Quality.

    • So true! I see the emergence of a story, perhaps based on place, too. I think, just like in the US, we will be challenged to tell our story to Japanese consumers. Branding may be the best way to individualize and differentiate our stories.

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