I have only been to the Japanese coastal prefecture of Fukui once when I was still a university student. Having plenty of time but not much money, I remember being excited discovering a cheap pop-up soup shop in a fish market where they served isaza, the small, clear fish that turns white when they are cooked whole in miso soup and served piping hot. That spring was the last time I got to taste the delicious isaza soup because like many regional dishes in Japan, you must be at the right place at the right time to enjoy them.
Fukui is most well known for its nature and dramatic coastal scenery, a nuclear power plant, the high-quality eyeglasses of Sabae City where the titanium type was first produced, and for the chopsticks of Obama City; the kind that are coated with urushi, with patterns created from eggshells and seashells. You may faintly remember that Obama City appeared in the international news in 2008 when the then senator and later 44th U.S. President found support and connections in unexpected faraway places.
You may also wonder why I brought simple cedar chopsticks from the region famous for urushi. It is because I find coated chopsticks slippery and difficult to pick up food, and I also prefer being able to feel the texture of wood that gets obscured by coating.
I was therefore very excited when I discovered Style of Japan (SOJ), a Japanese company that produces chopsticks in Obama, a region where 80% of coated chopsticks in Japan are produced. The local chopsticks are known as Wakasa Nuribashi, but almost none of them are completely made in Fukui. Wood milled abroad but processed in Japan can bare the label “made in Japan” and little is disclosed about where the imported wood comes from.
“We’ve been shifting to source local wood from Fukui for our most popular product lines, mainly by incorporating wood harvested from local forests through conservational thinning and management”, said Omori Kaz, the President and CEO of SOJ. Their popular “OEDO” line of coated chopsticks use wood certified by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), an international organization that promotes sustainable forest management.
This past summer, SOJ introduced the “Yu” line of cedar chopsticks through Makuake, a Japanese crowd funding website like gofundme. The project was fully funded and the chopsticks went into production. “Yu” chopsticks are made using traceable local cedar that are PEFC certified, and they also go further by providing certificates with information such as the age and size of the tree, the region and timing they were harvested, and the woodworker and nushi, the crafts specialist who applies the coating to the wood. “We want to make chopsticks with more transparency in the process, by utilizing local wood and by providing the names of woodworkers and nushi, and also the wood source and the coating material,” Omori san explained.
For me, Yu’s design and finish are its most profound and appealing aspects. The end of a Yu chopstick is square so that it sits comfortably between the index finger and the thumb. The section held with the fingers is octagonal, providing a comfortable grip. The tip is tapered to a circle making it easy to pick up the tiniest pieces of food. They are also coated with beeswax, which I think is the best type of protective coating for any wood used around the table that retains its texture, the most exquisite and often overlooked property of wood.
Omori san observed that, “as Japanese people now regularly use knives and forks [in addition to chopsticks], I believe that families that mainly use knives and forks will also start to regularly use chopsticks in the future. When that time comes, I hope that people will choose our chopsticks that are sourced responsibly and produces less carbon emissions.”
In Japan, people often use new chopsticks for their new year’s feast so I’m looking forward to opening a new pair of Yu on New Year’s Day that is just a few weeks away. And dream about Fukui’s isaza soup that I hope to taste once more when we can again travel freely. I wish you all a healthy and happy 2022!