How are we doing? Part two ...
Posted by Dave Bull at 1:16 PM, April 30, 2016 [Permalink]
Today's post is more difficult than yesterday's. We've got some problems here at Mokuhankan, and one of them in particular is pretty serious. At the moment that I sit here and write this, I can't see a way clear, and whether or not we will find one is still an open question.
So let's get to it! Let's start with lesser issues ... the ones I know we can deal with.
Ever since I sent my first print out into the world - back in 1989 - I have made a living based on a subscription model. Making prints - especially the complex and detailed kind that I love - is a very time-consuming and intensive process, and it is just not possible to spend one day carving, interrupt that for exhibiting, then back to printing, etc etc. So I separated the making from the distribution. For over 20 years, I held an exhibition once a year to collect subscribers for the coming 12-month period. The remaining 11 1/2 months were devoted to intensive printmaking work. Sticking to this system turned out to be a very good idea, and I was able to raise my family, keep food on the table, and even purchase a home, all by woodblock printmaking.
So when I 'opened up' a few years ago, and initiated this Mokuhankan venture, I was determined to make subscriptions an important part of our affairs. We began with a set of 'Chibi Heroes' designs from Jed Henry, as part of the Ukiyoe Heroes prints he and I make in collaboration, and have continued since then with other designs.
Here's a graph (at the same scale as yesterday's graph) of our revenue from the Mokuhankan subscriptions:
The Chibi Heroes did well - as a kind of trial balloon - and then when we began the Portraits set the following year, things just took off. This is what gave us the revenue to get the Asakusa project under way (which we 'topped off' later with the Great Wave Kickstarter campaign.)
But as you can see from the graph, we haven't been able to sustain that level of subscription income. The current Portraits series (the 2nd set) are coming out very nicely, and the set has well over 100 subscribers, but we're not even at 1/2 the level of popularity that the 1st set reached.
This is quite a big problem for me as the owner of this place, because having a good strong 'base' of subscription income lets me cover the payroll at the end of each month. As you saw from the previous graph yesterday, other income can be wildly variable, and it is very difficult to find cash to pay the staff sometimes. A healthy subscription base makes it possible for me to do that.
With this in mind, we've now begun to add some more arrows to our quiver. Beginning next week, the series of prints that I created a few years ago, but which has been out of print for some time - the Mystique of the Japanese Print - will be available in a brand new Mokuhankan edition, printed using my original blocks by our most senior staff printer Mr. Kenichi Kubota.
We've got the first four prints done and on the shelf, and are now in the final stages of getting the packaging ready. We expect to be ready to begin sending out the first print (and paulownia case) once our two shipping ladies return from the Golden Week holiday period next week.
Kubota-san is going to work using my original version as a reference, and the prints should be visually identical. These new ones will be distinguished from my older version by the new 'Mokuhankan Baren' seal impressed on each one:
There is more information on the web page here, for anybody interested.
I'm quite hopeful that this 'new' series will help us close the gap in our revenues; there have been dozens of people asking me for it in recent years, and I'm very proud of the set. It provides a wonderful survey of the traditional Japanese print over the years, and I'm very happy to have it come back to life like this.
As many of our followers of course know, just at the end of last year we took a lease on the 3rd floor of the Asakusa building, and began building a new workroom for our printers up there. Staffer Lee-san worked hard on this through December, and got it ready for action just as everybody was off for the year-end break.
The two main benches near the window were prepared for our two full time 'in-house' young printers - Kanai Chiharu and Ayumi Miyashita - and the other two spaces were available for other staff members to use when and as they had time.
It hasn't turned out that way. Kanai-san came to me on the morning of the first day back after the break with the news that she was expecting a baby. A half hour later she was gone, something I should emphasise right up front was not my idea, but hers. We haven't lost her completely, as she will be doing work from home when she is able, (and we saw her here recently for a one-day 'drop in' to do some proofing work) but as far as intensive daily work on stacks of prints go, it's game over. It has been very frustrating to have this happen just at the same time that we took on the project of reprinting many of the old Doi Hanga Company blocks.
And it gets worse. (Although I have to apologize to Ayumi-san for putting it that way.) Just a couple of weeks after that, Ayumi-san came to me with her news. Not a baby ... at least I don't think that's happening just yet. She's at the first step ... she'll be getting married in June. She says she intends to stay and work for the immediate future; but she can't promise how long. Her new husband is a junior policeman, and is likely to be posted here and there over the coming years ...
So our two main in-house printers - both of them after years of training finally able to do top-level complex work - dropping out of the game is a huge blow for us. I suppose I should have been ready for this; when hiring young women this is the sort of thing that comes with the territory, but I simply didn't expect it to happen this way, and so soon. (Kanai-san is in her late thirties, and Ayumi-san only 22.)
It gets worse. For the past few years, we have been using the services of three professional printers who work in their own homes: Kenichi Kubota, Shinkichi Numabe, and young Hirokazu Tetsui. Kubota-san is still around, standing by waiting for work (more about this below). Tetsui-san has told me he will be unavailable to us for the foreseeable future, and the reason behind this is particularly painful for me.
Many of you have perhaps seen publicity about various new 'Ukiyoe Pop Culture' work now on the market. Not quite sure where they could have got the idea from, but a number of enterprising publishers have jumped into the field to put out hand-made woodblock prints based on popular culture themes: famous rock bands (Kiss, Iron Maiden), manga/anime (Lupin, Naruto, Doraemon), manga/movie (Ghost in the Shell), and iconic movies (Star Wars). The field has exploded, and carvers and printers all over town are working overtime. Tetsui-san ... is busy.
As for Numabe-san, he is also 'off' our work for a while. This is not because of the pop culture boom. Numabe-san's main work (other than what he has been doing for us) is for two publishers: Shobisha (who own a dozen or so Hasui block sets), and the Yoshida family (reprinting Toshi Yoshida's designs). Both of these sources have now put so much work on his desk, that he is booked through January next year. Why are they suddenly ordering so many prints from him? Because over the past year a certain little shop in Asakusa :-) has sold so many of their prints that inventory of their most popular designs has run out, far sooner than they had expected and prepared for.
Here's a shot of Numabe-san working on the Hasui print 'Shiba Benten Pond' from the Shobisha catalogue (we've sold dozens of these over the past year ...):
We'll be happy to have all those prints back in stock once they are available, but having Numabe-san unavailable for our own work is a tough blow ...
OK, that's enough for now. I'm not finished with this 'State of the Union' update, and there is yet some much more difficult news to bring you, but let's save that until tomorrow ... Right now, I have to get upstairs for some more dosa (paper sizing) testing ...
How are we doing? Part one ...
Posted by Dave Bull at 12:05 PM, April 30, 2016 [Permalink]
Time for a catchup. The past few months have been ‘extreme’ for us here at Mokuhankan, and I use that word as a noun, not an adjective. We’ve posted a bit now and then over on our Facebook page, but it’s difficult to talk more deeply about any given topic on that platform. Facebook is for the quick update, not for anything approaching ‘analysis’. So it’s time for me to try and bring our fans/community up-to-date with some very important things happening here.
I have so much to include that I’m going to break the content up into more than one post here on the Conversations blog, and I’ll divide it by ‘thumb direction’ :-) Let’s begin with the ‘Thumb Up’ side … the positive news. Tomorrow (or when I can), I’ll look at the other side. Just which will be longer I can’t say just yet … :~)
Might be best to start with a little chart:
This shows the monthly volume of business in the Asakusa shop since opening day (October 31st 2014). And right there - in the rightmost two columns - you can see why we haven’t been posting much recently. We’ve been run off our feet this spring.
When you look at the pattern over the course of a calendar year, you can see that our shop is going to have a very clear seasonal pattern. Spring and Fall - cherries and maple leaves! - are going to be our peak times.
March 2016 was more than 5x March 2015, so as we moved into April we were terrified of what might be about to hit us. ‘Luckily’ things settled down a bit and the pattern this year was a bit different … April was only 1.5x the previous year.
What is coming up over the next few months is completely unknown to us, but it’s looking pretty good we think. We're getting huge benefit from the Lonely Planet coverage and from our ‘perfect’ rating on Trip Advisor, and with a general organic growth on top of that, we’re going to be steadily busy it seems.
Seen as an independent ‘line item’ in our overall financial structure, the Asakusa shop is still in the red, as employee costs and construction expenses are still substantial, but with this kind of growth, profitability is just a matter of time.
I mentioned Lonely Planet, but it’s not just overseas guidebooks that have paid attention to our venture. We’ve been picked up by various local guidebook publishers as well. “The Tokyo unknown by the Japanese” was one such book, and it features locations well-known to foreigners, but less so to the locals … which perfectly describes us!
All through 2015, we had very few domestic customers. The shop is up on the 2nd floor of the building, with a very small entrance, and although this street is extremely busy almost every day of the year, we get very little walk-by traffic in the shop. We’ve tried various combinations of signs down at the entrance, but those stairs are a huge barrier to potential visitors.
We knew that this would be the case when we started; indeed it’s the main reason why the rent is manageable (as compared to the 1st floor). But this is now beginning to change, and the main reason is that over the past months, we’ve had a very nice run of domestic TV coverage. We had been sending out letters and flyers to a lot of media outlets ever since we opened, and it only takes one or two of these to hit the target to start a steady ‘run’ of results. Once one TV program covers us, other channels see that and approach us in turn. We had seven programs cover us in 2015, and already this year there have been three or four, with more asking …
This has made a tremendous difference in our domestic traffic, with far more people now ‘venturing’ up the staircase than before. There is also another effect, in that when I sometimes go downstairs and stand on the sidewalk outside our front door, just to watch the flow go by, I frequently get recognised by passers-by, many of whom approach me … “We saw the program the other day … gambatte kudasai!” Fun!
So that’s an overview of how things are going in Asakusa these days … But there are a number of other parts to our business: subscriptions and online sales, not to mention the actual printmaking itself. Let’s talk about those tomorrow … :~)
Doi Hanga collaboration video - Part 4
Posted by Dave Bull at 11:51 PM, February 23, 2016 [Permalink]
Kamisuki proofing ...
Posted by Dave Bull at 3:37 PM, February 21, 2016 [Permalink]
What are these three people so intently interested in?
This! It's proofing time for the 'new' set of blocks for the 'mashup' Hashiguchi Goyo / Hatsune Miku design!
Carver Chung-san, his partner and printer Rei-chan, and our staff printer Kanai-san (on the left) spent most of the day today going over the block set and testing different colour combinations, etc.
I said 'new' blocks, but what is that about? Didn't that couple bring a finished set of blocks a few weeks ago?
Well, yes they did, but those blocks had a huge problem. They are magnolia wood, not cherry, also very thin, and also carved on both sides. This 'triple punch' put us out of business. When I started to do a test session with the couple a while back, the key block started to 'dance' within a few seconds of being moistened for printing. This total lack of stability simply makes the block set useless.
But we had a way forward. Two of the blocks had nothing carved on the back, so I proposed that we get out some glue and laminate these to a sturdy piece of plywood. As for the two blocks that were carved on both sides, we could sacrifice one side each, and bond them to plywood in the same manner. Chung-san could get to work and re-carve the two sacrificed sides.
So we did ...
Because Kanai-san can't do a full day's work at present (we'll explain later) the proofing wasn't completed today. They'll be back at it sometime soon, and I'll update you then!
And just because it came out so nicely, here's a shot of Kanai-san during the work ...
Glimpse of the future?
Posted by Dave Bull at 8:57 PM, February 20, 2016 [Permalink]
An update on the 3rd floor renovations ...
Updates coming from Mokuhankan recently have been somewhat scattered in terms of the 'venue'; we've been putting posts on Facebook, videos on YouTube, and have somewhat neglected this quiet little blog.
That's not such a good policy actually, as some other social media platforms - Facebook in particular - are extremely ephemeral. Something I post on Facebook gets a ton of attention on the day, but will never be seen again ... ever. It is next to useless for 'documenting' what we are doing.
But the undeniable fact is that something I post here gets a couple of dozen viewers at most, and a Facebook post will flash round the world in minutes, gathering hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of views. It's difficult to balance these things.
Anyway, as I posted an update on our new printer's room on Facebook a short time ago, let's redress the unbalance, and do this one - an update on the 'kitchen' area of the new workroom - here on the blog ...
Here's where we left off ... a photo of the area shortly after we moved in a couple of months ago:
That's a 'modular' shower unit at the left, totally mold-ridden and infested. The flooring is sagging between the joists, and the sink units are ancient and decayed. The first step for Lee-san was simply to rip it all out:
The plan is simple - a new bathroom at left, a long table for sizing paper next to it, and a small 'kitchenette' at the far right. Lee-san now has the second and third parts of that starting to fall basically into place:
So, time to get sizing? Well ... yes, but maybe tomorrow! Before that, it's time to test out that little oven that is tucked away under the range. And what better way to do that, than with some of our patented 'nichi-bei' muffins!
In they go ...
And 25 minutes later, out they come, the first muffins ever from the Mokuhankan Kitchens!
The first Print Party today was scheduled at 1:00pm, so there was time for me to have lunch down there before the guests arrived ...
Long-time readers of this blog, and others who have followed our activities over the past few years, know that there is a 'back story' to this muffin episode. This is all part of our Master Plan ...
If you have time for it, there is an extended description of the concept in this blog post ...
The Henry Manga comes to life!
Posted by Dave Bull at 11:34 PM, February 17, 2016 [Permalink]
First photos of the new Henry Manga book ...
Here we go! We're finally getting to the end of the long process of getting the Henry Manga books out the door!
Here's a little 'photo story' showing the first copy done ...
I chose a vermillion washi for the thick covers; I think it sets off the inner white pages very nicely:
We carved and hand-printed - in pearl powder - a small floral pattern on one corner of the cover:
The characters are a phonetic rendering of 'Henry Manga':
All the body of the book was carved by our young carver Ms. Noriko Kawasaki, but we wanted the frontispiece - featuring her - to be a surprise, so Dave carved this part of the book:
There are six inner spreads ... with the 'action' moving from page to page ...
... crossing the borders from image to image ...
The final page is a kind of 'colophon', with information on the three people who created the book ... Designer: Jed Henry ... Carver: Kawasaki Noriko ... Printer: Chiharu Kanai.
The publisher's address and the copyright information are there, and inside the back cover is a printed label with other information on the project:
But those previous photos didn't really give much of a sense of the 'woodblockiness' of this book, so let's have a few more, with the book held under raking light (don't miss the enlargements!):
(If you noticed a couple of mis-registrations in those closeups, don't panic; the volume I had available for photographing today is the first one back from the binder, and this was made with proof sheets, not prints from the actual production run.)
Now that everything has finally got to this stage, the rest will be easy; we expect to start shipping in a week or so. Thank you to all the collectors for their long patient wait!
(The volume isn't completely sold out; we have printed 140 volumes, and so far about 120 of them have been spoken for (last year's subscribers). If you are interested, please visit this information page for details.)
Doi Hanga collaboration - Part 3
Posted by Dave Bull at 11:10 PM, February 10, 2016 [Permalink]
Posted by Dave Bull at 9:10 PM, January 31, 2016 [Permalink]
A very interesting new 'shin-hanga' development!
I put 'mashup' as a title for this post, but I really had no idea what term to use ... Let me show you something that has happened here over the past couple of days, and you can then perhaps suggest something to me ...
First, here's a (bad) photo, snapped by one of our staffers this morning. Ayumi-san is in the background, doing you know what (!), and I was having an impromptu proofing session with a couple of guests from Hong Kong.
The session was pre-arranged. The couple had been here last week for a Print Party and after we had spent an hour or so together making that simple print, they let me know that they had brought some of their own prints with them.
Now I had known that they (a young couple from Hong Kong) were interested in woodblock printmaking, and knew that they were currently working with my friend Mr. Motoharu Asaka at his Takumi workshop. (He runs classes and teaches traditional printmaking, and we have sent quite a number of people over there over the past year or so ...)
But I wasn't prepared to see a comprehensive portfolio of prints that they had made together. They both work on each design, and once it's finalised, he carves a block set, and she then prints.
Most of the prints they showed me that day were quite nicely executed, but didn't really 'do' anything for me design-wise. But one item in their little stack of prints made me sit up and take notice ... and brought a huge smile to my face. I immediately started a conversation about getting this print into our shop, because I was sure that there would be other people interested in it too.
It turned out that they had only made one or two copies, and had then left the blocks back in Hong Kong, so there seemed no way to move forward, but I was really interested in this one, so pushed them to have the blocks sent here. "Let me know when they arrive, and let's have a proofing session together, to see how we might move this forward ..."
The blocks arrived the other day, so here we were this morning, having a go at it.
Here is the young couple - Chung and Rei - inspecting one of the sheets ...
... and here is a glimpse of the print ...
Any shin-hanga fans out there? Recognise the image?
OK, enough teasing. Here is the key block (before printing):
After printing ...
And the print itself (this is the copy from their portfolio that they showed me the other day ...)
Now the longer I look at this, the more I'm jumping up and down in my seat with excitement. I think this is so wonderfully executed. They have studied the original Hashiguchi Goyo print line by line, but haven't copied it mindlessly; they have drawn their own print in recognition of the original and adding - of course - the mashing up with the modern character. And Chung-san's carved lines are so beautifully done! Do you know the lady portrayed here? She actually doesn't exist (although she has given plenty of live concerts ...) It's the young 'lady' known as Hatsune Miku, 'born' in 2007.
So, what's our plan here? We're not exactly sure yet, because where we go on this depends on a few things:
- it turns out that their block set is unusable as it stands. Chung-san carved on very soft magnolia, on very thin wood, and as I tried to proof this morning, the key block warped out of control before I had pulled more than a few sheets. We've decided that I'm going to laminate them onto a plywood base, in the hope that we can stabilise them.
- but he has carved the colour blocks on both sides of the thin planks, so we're going to sacrifice one side of each, laminate them down to use the other side, and then re-cut the sacrificed sides on new wood.
- who will print? Chung and Rei are getting quite skilled, but they have no experience (or ability) to pull larger editions. So our thinking at present is that under our direction and advice, the two of them will (once the block set is stabilised and ready) pull a fairly small batch (a dozen or so) as a trial. They'll sign them together, and we'll put them into the Mokuhankan catalogue (and shop) as part of our 'Guest Corner'. If the reaction from our fans is as positive as I expect, those ten prints will fly away, and we'll then turn the blocks over to our staff printers for a 'regular' Mokuhankan edition (unsigned, etc., and less expensive).
In the meantime, I've asked them to get started on another one. They are now studying the famous Goyo image of a woman applying makeup, to see what they might do with it.
And there is yet another aspect to this that is really keeping me wiggling in my chair today. Look at these closeups of his carving!
... and ...
Woot! And he wants work! He has come this far being self taught, and is now working with Asaka-san to really hone his techniques, something I never had the patience to do. This is such great news!
So please hang on for a while ... it's perhaps going to take us a bit of time to get this print into production, because we've kind of got a 'few' things cooking all at once here, but please stay tuned!
Doi Hanga collaboration - Episode #2 video ...
Posted by Dave Bull at 1:06 PM, January 28, 2016 [Permalink]
Next YouTube is up!
Posted by Dave Bull at 12:09 AM, January 22, 2016 [Permalink]
Ukiyoe Heroes Portraits - update video
Posted by Dave Bull at 4:37 PM, December 21, 2015 [Permalink]
A video bringing an update on the upcoming Ukiyoe Heroes Portraits series ...
Posted by Dave Bull at 7:38 PM, December 12, 2015 [Permalink]
A quick peek into our printers' room ...
Back in the summer of 2012 when we started the Ukiyoe Heroes Kickstarter campaign, our Mokuhankan venture was just at the very beginning. The two women who were here training as printers at the time were only capable of doing very simple work. Long-time blog readers might remember that we were even printing such simple things as packaging for cookies!
I started the Kickstarter campaign knowing full well that all the carving and printing work would be falling on my shoulders alone. I was ready to take that on, and organized the schedule - a new Heroes print every two months or so - around that plan. It didn't take long though before it became very obvious that the project was going to explode. Ukiyoe Heroes was clearly not a 'one man' job, and yet my 'immature' staff was simply incapable of doing that level of work. So I began to use a few outside craftsmen, and over the next three years, Shinkichi Numabe, Hirokazu Tetsui, and then Kenichi Kubota all came on board to produce beautiful editions of the prints for us (and are still doing so).
So why make a post about this now? Because look at this set of photographs, taken in the printers' room of our Asakusa shop! Two of the most difficult designs in the Heroes series, now being done right here 'in-house', by two young ladies, neither of whom has yet reached four years of experience. And the work is being done at a 'no compromises' level of quality ...
This is Ayumi Miyashita, who we have seen many times on this blog. She's doing the 'Hero Rests' design ...
Rich and deep colours; perfectly smooth grainless gradations ... Jed-san, are you watching?
Straight out of high school four years ago ... to this level ...
She has about 60 sheets in the batch, and I suspect we'll be sending around 59 of them to Jed for signing ... Here she is putting them out to shed most of their moisture before she puts them into the heavy drying boards.
On the other printing bench is Chiharu Kanai, who also has four years experience, although not starting here. She worked at another workshop first, then after leaving there was away from printing for a couple of years before we enticed her back.
She's working on the design Jed calls 'Flight of Fantasy' ...
In this next photo we can see the 'model' sample at the left, and her (still incomplete) version ... again, good rich deep colouring and wonderfully smooth gradations!
Here's her finished version ...
Ain't we got fun!
I posted the other day about the expansion into the 3rd floor of our building, and these two were 'bothered' all week by the banging and crashing from above as work got going. But they're not complaining, because the new workroom is coming along well.
And it has room for four printers ... We'll keep you posted!
For more entries, please make a selection from the 'Table of Contents' section of the SideBar on the right ...