OCTOBER / Good Company With YOKA Founder, Sachiyo Itabashi

Posted by Emma Tsuchida on

Home is where we start, and for Sachiyo Itabashi, the 13-hour flight home to Kumamoto city a year and a half ago was the start of a deeply personal, professional journey. The seeds for YOKA were planted early on in Sachi’s childhood: from playing with hand-turned wooden tops by her grandfather's side, to drinking tea from her grandmother's ceramic cup fired in a Shodai-yaki kiln dating back to the Heian period. Now, Sachi travels alone on the road, clocking long distances visiting artisans she's known her whole life through objects. Local artisans meeting Sachi for the first time recognized their craft in her memories, trusting her to share their wares half a world away under the umbrella of YOKA. 'Yoka' is a colloquial term grounded in Kumamoto's friendly local dialect meaning simply: "good".  The phrase 'yokane' can be heard several times in a conversation as a way of trading good feelings back and forth, a way to positively describe what's right in front of us with a shared understanding.  This is, after all, what Sachi hopes to achieve with YOKA–a shared understanding of the goodness between us; the good ties that bind us together. 

 

TGS:  At Tortoise, we've known you for many years.  Many of our customers still ask to see you!  What made you want to start YOKA?

SACHI: I was hoping to start my own business back when I was working at Tortoise over 10 years ago.  Sometimes I’d bring local crafts from my hometown to Tortoise after visiting home for vacation, and Taku-san, the owner, would kindly let me sell them at the store.  I didn't want to intrude, so there were just a few things here and there.  I grew up playing with a puzzle-like wooden raccoon top called a Tanuki Koma in my grandfather’s room as a child.  I never knew it was special, it was just a toy to me.  I’d enjoy green tea with my grandmother in a Shodai-yaki teacupwhich has a very rich history behind it, but I had no idea.  All the Shimenawa wreaths hanging in my house were made by hand from local craftsmen, but I didn’t know who they were. It was only when I left my hometown that I realized how special all of these objects were.  People ask me often, how do I know these local craftspeople.  I feel like I’ve known them always because they were a natural part of my landscape growing up. 

 


TGS:  Was it challenging to start this journey?  How do you find the artisans you work with?

SACHI: Many of these elderly craftsmen don't have email.  You have to call them, so I cold called them and told them I grew up with their crafts.  That my grandmother displayed their plates, and that I played with their toys with my grandfather.  From these conversations I'd learn my grandmother had their grandfather's work, and I was speaking to the next generation. When I saw them face to face, they felt my passion.  They trusted me right away.  I didn't even have a website at the time, I didn't even have a business email account.  The younger generation of craftsmen said to me, “At least you need a business card.”  In Japan, a business card is so important.  This past spring I visited again and I came back with a business card and they were all so happy (laughs).  They congratulated me.  After my first pop-up at Tortoise, I wrote a letter to one of the craftsmen and told them how successful the event was, and they were happy with how their work was received.  They said, "I wish I could go to America, but at least my products are traveling the world."  It's an honor to know I am the first person selling their works outside of Japan.  Some of them still remember me from 10 years ago when I saw them briefly as a customer, and they ask, "You're the girl from America right?"  
 


TGS: Why do these craftspeople do what they do?  You wonder how they're able to keep going–the stamina!  

SACHI: They don't retire!  Partly because there's nobody else to take over, but mostly because that's their life's passion.  Raizo Nagata, the 7th generation craftsman of the Konohazaru monkey dolls is turning 83 years old this year, and he told me simply, "I want to touch the clay."  Why do these families craft?  Because it's a traditional craft, but also because it's a family's tradition.  And ultimately, the city needs that clay doll Raizo is making.  It's part of that city's identity, the city's soul.  It's part of the city's identity in the same way that it's part of my identity.  By sharing this part of my identity and sharing these craftsmen's history, their memories and personalities, I'm hoping it touches the hearts of the people who purchase them, and they're able to learn about Kumamoto and feel connected to my hometown.  I'm hoping to connect the people living here to Japan and make a good circle; a yoka circle, that brings us together.


TGS: The word 'yoka' is a regional dialect, and the products you carry are tied to a specific place.  What's different about sharing goods from Kumamoto and its surrounding area versus the rest of Japan?

SACHI: April 2016, Kumamoto was hit by a large earthquake.  Not many fatalities in the quake fortunately, but that meant it wasn't covered widely in the news even though Kumamoto was destroyed.  I organized an outdoor market at Tortoise to raise funds to support Kumamoto and I asked my friends back home to donate their work for the market.  I was able to hand carry the money we raised back to Kumamoto city and give it to them directly.  I look back and loved the action we took at that event, but the experience also made me realize that many people who knew about Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka didn't know about Kumamoto until my event.  In Kumamoto, we have beautiful nature–active volcanic mountains, but also the sea.  We're known for sea farming, seaweed and sake.  You've heard of Kumamoto oysters, I'm sure (laughs).


TGS: Why is YOKA important, and what do you hope for its future?

SACHI: When I visit a craftsman it's common for them to tell me about their friend, another fellow craftsman.  Itaru Moriyama, a young ceramic artist who uses calcium powder in his glaze to achieve a rough texture on his pottery once shared with me that he gets his calcium powder from a friend who went to his junior high school, who is a sea salt craftsman.  Ryota Fukuda boils sea water until it evaporates–leaving just the sea salt in large vats and a calcium powder coating on the surface of the boiler.  He rakes up the calcium powder and brings it to his friend, the potter.  It's these types of stories that show me again and again how connection is at the core of what makes our work feel worthwhile and meaningful.  Meeting craftspeople through YOKA gives me insight as to why we do what we do–we're deeply committed to things we feel connected to, whether it's a connection to our identity as a maker or connection to a particular place like myself.  I often think about that fundraiser for Kumamoto after the earthquake, and realize that even back then, I was trying to build connections so we'd be instilled with a desire to support one another during challenging times.  I feel that's a good purpose for my business, that's yoka.  


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We're excited to have Sachi present for all five days of this extended pop-up, beginning next Friday, October 21st and lasting until the following Wednesday, October 26th.  We hope you come by and learn more about YOKA and meet Sachi in person!
goodcompany2022

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