[From October Issue 2014]
“Sake comes in a one ‘shou’ bottle.” “Boil two ‘gou’ of rice.” ‘Shou’ and ‘gou’ are both units for measuring volume. These units are measured in a special container made from Japanese cypress called a “masu.” Japan used to use shou and gou for measuring units, but nowadays liters and kilograms are mostly used. Masu are used more often as cups for drinking sake, rather than as measuring utensils. And even this (way of using them) isn’t very common.
OHASHI Hiroyuki, the third generation director of Ohashi Ryoki (Ogaki City, Gifu Prefecture), is trying to find new uses for his masu. Masu have been familiar objects to Ohashi since childhood, but upon graduating from college, he joined IBM and his life took a completely different course. However, when he went home at the age of 27 to announce his engagement to his parents, they asked him to take over the family business. Two years later he quit his job and took over the business, initially with little enthusiasm.
He changed his mind when he took a look at their accounts. “The sales figures were about half of what I’d heard from my parents when I was in junior high school. I was so alarmed that I made the round of our customers across Japan.” In four years, sales rose back up to 80% of what they once were. Yet, around the same time, he started feeling that his sales efforts weren’t making much difference anymore. “I began to understand that if we continued to sell cheap we couldn’t expand.” That was the second time warning bells went off.
So he began to wonder if he could create something new by improving his masu. At the same time, he tried to satisfy all of his customer’s requests. He soon secured a large order. It was a huge opportunity, but the quantity was such that he failed to handle it properly and ended up delivering a large amount of defective products. “That was a huge failure. Since then, I’ve decided never to take on any work we can’t deal with.” Adopting a policy of selling only quality handmade products, he managed to create different models of masu by producing a variety of prototypes.
To sell these items, in 2005 he opened the factory store “Masukoubou Masuya” on his factory site. By offering unusual products – storage cases for knickknacks with synthetic marble lids, triangular sake cups, different-sized masu for easily measuring ingredients for bagels or buns with a bean-jam filling – more people took an interest in masu itself and the sales of traditional masu also increased.
Ohashi is enthusiastic about overseas marketing. In order to do this, rather than advocate that they are used in the same way as they are in Japan, he intends to suggest different uses of masu to suit different lifestyles. “Should we market masu with additional features or create something entirely new? It’s hard work to come up with ideas, but I wouldn’t be happy if our products were only used for a short time.” At a trade fair in New York, he showcased them as containers for seasonings, including sugar, and also as utensils for measuring ounces.
Masu have been used for 1,300 years since the Nara era (8th century). Ohashi describes the appeal: “Its story has been cultivated by its long history. It’s possible to sense the smell and warmth of Japanese cypress. It also has a complete, simple beauty.” His newly purposed masu have inherited those characteristics.
Text: ICHIMURA Masayo