We are somewhere over the Pacific, maybe halfway between Tokyo and San Francisco. I like it here. It’s dark, I have a bottle of my favorite [non-alcoholic] drink, Ito-En Oi Ocha green tea. A cinnamon roll beckons at my right. Music is playing. I played math puzzles on my sumaho, then scrolled through the hundreds of photos I took in Japan. There is no Internet [my choice], no toddler, and nobody needing me to write a brief, sign a document, or cut a massive check. As far as I know, there is nobody on this airplane I need to yell at, although I’m quite sure there are people on the ground who have something coming to them. Perhaps best of all, Donald Trump is nowhere to be seen; I am blissfully unaware of which unqualified individual he appointed to lead a federal agency today. In short, life on United 876 is pretty good.
I’ll tell you something: I needed this trip. People tell you not to bite off more than you can chew. That’s good advice, but it’s often hard to know in advance just how much you can fit in your mouth. I tend to assume my mouth is big. It’s not cavernous, but it’s definitely oversized. In 2016, I’ve been exploring the limits of my capacity. I’m working through a massive bite right now, and I think I’m going to make it through, but my jaws are seriously aching. Just as we were coming up for air from opening Shiba Ramen almost exactly a year ago, we signed not just one, but two new leases in August. The first was for our downtown Oakland Shiba Ramen, set to open in roughly January. The second was something of a calculated lark, the kiosk adjoining the original Shiba in Emeryville Public Market, to do an entirely new concept—The Period Table, our taproom and sake bar. These two excellent opportunities came up at the same time. Were we supposed to turn one down?
Unsurprisingly, each project requires a not insubstantial amount of blood and treasure. Also unsurprisingly, the amount of each is quite indeterminate until you’ve traveled well past the point of no return. So I’m out looking for money. Lots and lots of money. I’m learning where money hides, and I’m learning how to flush it out. People keep wanting more of it, so I need to keep finding more of it. That’s the way it goes.
In the meantime, we have to execute the projects. Shiba Oakland has been the big one. It’s been a live design-build scenario since Labor Day. That is, the design is unfolding as the construction happens. We're taking over a café that went out of business, but even though a lot of infrastructure was in place, it’s a huge renovation. Total makeover of dining room and bathroom, all new kitchen equipment and corollary plumbing and electrical work, and significant upgrades to storage. In addition to overseeing the contractors’ execution of the project, we have spent positively inordinate amounts of time choosing all the finishes, fixtures, and furniture. You cannot imagine how many pendant lights we’ve looked at; the Internet is a vast sea of them, and 99.9% are no good for one reason or another. Anyway, there are worse ways to spend your time.
The Periodic Table project, mercifully, is on a staggered timeframe. This is a full buildout from a cold dark shell, not a renovation. The architecture has to be done and permits obtained before anything can be built, and that’s a still-ongoing process. The only bills have been for the architects. Construction will happen this winter-spring. The architects curated most of the finishes and fixtures, but we did go pretty deep ourselves looking for pendant lights. It’s unavoidable.
Would you believe it if I told you we’ve been negotiating even more deals for new Shiba Ramen locations? Of course you would. It’s the natural order of things.
Now here’s the real problem: the monasticism that pulling all this off requires. Recall I’m a practicing lawyer, so I need to bill my hours. My firm (thanks, DWT!) lets me work at home, which is great as a time-saving measure. The downside is that I spend unhealthy amounts of time alone at home in front of a computer, doing one or the other of my jobs, often too tired and stressed to be as efficient as I want to be. When my kid comes home from school at 5:30, I usually just give up until he goes to bed. Then the gravitational pull of the computer kicks in again, and more progress is made in fits and starts. I drink too much sake and stay up way too late. The next day invariably proceeds according to the template set by the last. Things are better or worse depending on how many cooks have called off at Shiba Ramen on a given day—a staggeringly bad problem—and thus how much time Hiroko has to spend at the restaurant cutting onions or peeling eggs.
And let’s not forget the backdrop to this year’s stint in solitary: watching the Great American Trainwreck unfold in slow motion on the Internet, compulsively checking an ever-expanding roster of websites, distraction begetting distraction, escalating through September and October, and reaching critical mass on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. The nauseating palpability of our National catastrophe savaged my productivity in the days that followed. At least in this, I’m certain I was not alone.
But now I have been to Japan, and I feel good. Today I was eating four different kinds of toro at 9:30 a.m., photographing red leaves and white herons in a gorgeous urban park after that. I had amazing tours at three sake factories. I saw a show at the Robot Restaurant. I visited Hiroko’s parents, the original hipsters, in their artisanal/local/sustainable 19th Century world where they make their own charcoal and salt, and grow a substantial percentage of their own food. Twice I ate fugu and survived the threat of tetrodotoxin, and twice I ate the seasonal delicacy—soft roe—a coiled membrane filled with cod sperm. I am outfitted with sake bottles and sake glasses, and the enjoyment of Japan will continue when I land.
For the moment at least, I'm excited to see my dogs and my tyrant 4-year-old. This exceptionally long day started with sushi breakfast, and it's going to end with cheeseburgers and milkshakes. Hello California.
Postscript, 3 Days Later: In the three days between writing this post and its publication today, I've decided I'm pretty much ready to leave again.
Postscript, 4 Days Later: Ben Carson appointed as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The Rapture really may be upon us.