I’ve spent the week in Tokyo, where I represented Cloof at the Foodex trade fair. It’s been an amazing experience, not diminished in any way by it being a repeat of last year’s visit.
I kicked off on Monday morning with a visit to the Tsukiji market, which is within walking distance of my hotel. My aim was the fish market, but I took a detour through the fresh produce section. The perfection and array of produce, on a grand scale, needs to be seen to be believed. The same is true of the fish market, where a yellow tail (hamachi) had gills so red it appeared to have been yanked from the ocean minutes previously.
I saw the two-metre long over-sized sushi knives they use for filleting tuna, and discovered the secret of firm, red-tinctured defrosted tuna; as the fish is defrosting, and during storage thereafter, it is wrapped in moisture-absorbing paper. At home I always avoid defrosted (i.e. not fresh) tuna, because it tends to be grey, watery and spongy. One forgets that the majority of tuna in Japan has been frozen, and yet it generally presents well at sushi counters.
Thanks to presenting Cloof wines at Foodex I learnt a new Japanese word, oi-shi. I’m not going to attempt a definition, rather the context in which it is used. I’m told that Japanese will say ‘oi-shi’ even when they think something is just so-so, but my skill at reading body language confirmed that when they said ‘oi-shi’ about Cloof wines they absolutely loved them! So, there you have it, oi-shi is used to describe a delicious taste experience.
The hit of the show was unquestionably The Very Sexy Shiraz, with Crucible Shiraz a close second. Several people asked how we could call it sexy if it is so elegant. Ah, I said, but sexiness can be defined in many ways. One lass suggested that the wine was called thus because of my own sexiness, and then rapidly vanished when I asked her what she was doing later.
One could (and would probably need to) write lengthy strategy documents about selling South African wines in Japan. Let’s just say that the reputation-driven Japanese are in love with the French. Apart from the highly desirable French luxury brands, at the top end French wines remain the world’s benchmarks. All things French have immediate cachet and saleability. Our challenge – as South Africans – is to develop our own message of desirability. On a very cursory examination I would suggest that golf (Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and others), golfing (stacks of affordable golfing possibilities in South Africa), wide open spaces, relaxed South African hospitality, sunshine and wildlife could be good starting points, to name just a few possibilities.
I was alarmed to discover that South African wines are not even in the sommeliers’ syllabus. So here’s a crazy idea – as an industry we should be sponsoring a module on South Africa, complete with a selection of wines for tasting. When those graduates go out into the industry they will be much more receptive to the sales people coming around to sell them South African wines. It’s undoubtedly a long term approach, but if we are to succeed in this very affluent market we need to lay the right foundations.
Sadly I didn’t get much opportunity to stroll around the fair, but I did see a phenomenon I’ll call ‘spontaneous queue formation’. I happened to walk past the stand of a Mexican tuna farm three minutes before they were due to start handing out tasting plates of sashimi, rice and avo. Good timing. I thought I was in pole position, until I saw the queue of patiently waiting Japanese snaking around the corner.
In such a densely populated city crowd management is critical to the smooth running of just about everything. Every day 2.6 million people go through the Ikebukuro station! At every station people queue in neat rows to board the train, but only once passengers have disembarked. Japanese orderliness in action is one of the cultural wonders of the modern world.
Japan is largely a monoculture, and is possibly the better for it. However, walking through Roppongi I encountered what looked like Nigerians loitering (with apparent intent) on the pavements. I didn’t stick around to have a conversation, and so never ascertained whether it was drugs or girls they were pimping. These are not the kinds of Africans we want preceding our business development exercises, especially in a country like Japan.
The most interesting African I met at the fair was Brian Sathekge, who relocated (on a whim) to Tokyo in January after an unspecified business disappointment back home. In a short time he appears to have learnt apparently good conversational Japanese, and is determined to put big deals together for the benefit of his countrymen (well, for his own benefit, too, but you get the picture). Brian has no shortage of courage, ambition or dynamic energy. I’ll be watching his progress with interest.
I also met a Spanish-speaking Japanese man, who was afflicted with the combined pronunciation problems of the two languages (in Spanish Vs become Bs, and in Japanese Ls become Rs). It was hard to keep a straight face when he started telling me about his visit to ‘Napa Barrey’.
Given a choice of what to peddle in Japan, I think I would have to switch to hair products for men. Women’s styles are relatively conventional – generally not colour treated, shoulder-length, and apparently professionally cut. Young men on the other hand, all begin with straight dark hair, and end up on the streets with a wide variety of styles – many carefully dishevelled – involving bleach, blow drying, waxes and gels. That’s a market worth having a piece of.
It all comes down to identity and (perceived) sex appeal. Perhaps that’s why The Very Sexy Shiraz is so very oi-shi.