A new fusion of Japan’s great craft skills with the country’s renowned manufacturing technologies is creating products of stunning innovation. See how familiar materials are being transformed by technical know-how, meticulous attention to detail, ingenuity, and passion. As the novel products gain fans, they are opening up new business opportunities for some long-established companies and giving fresh meaning to “made in Japan.”
Polishing performs magic
In a corner of a factory where a forest of 600-ton presses stamps out automobile parts, some magical items are being produced with technology found nowhere else in the world. Results include the gleaming sinuous vessels pictured above, which increase the enjoyment of alcoholic drinks by enhancing flavors and mouthfeel.
More than a third of the factories—and over 80 percent of factory workers—in the city of Toyota, Aichi prefecture, are involved in auto-related manufacturing. Among them is Yokoyama Kogyo Co., Ltd., founded in 1951, where Tetsuya Yokoyama oversees product planning while his elder brother is third-generation president.
Returning home from a stint at his company’s overseas plant some years ago, Yokoyama thought about the fact that today’s increasingly automated manufacturing can be replicated in many parts of the world. Where, he wondered, could he add value? He was pondering ways to use his company’s expertise to create innovative products in Japan’s craft tradition when an idea struck him as he sat at his favorite bar: Why not make cocktail tools? Consulting with top bartenders, he has designed a growing line that includes shakers, bar spoons, and measuring cups—now available in 17 markets and even used at London’s Savoy hotel, whose bar is a mecca for discriminating cocktail sippers.
The “Birdy” decanter debuted in 2018. Normally wine is decanted into glass or crystal so it can “breathe”—often for hours—to allow tannins to oxidize, releasing aromas, eliminating bitterness, and mellowing flavors. This stainless-steel decanter revolutionizes that process. Pour wine into a Birdy decanter, swirl a few times, and you’ll find aeration has already done its job. Modest table wines or any drink will benefit. With whiskey, for instance, a swirl in a Birdy quickly brings to the fore flavors inherent in the grain.
Micro-polishing decanters and tumblers takes industrial tools and just the right touch by hand. The decanters are especially tricky to handle as their curved surface makes it hard to polish evenly. The job calls for considerable experience and skill.
What’s the secret? Micro-polishing the interior surface by hand creates a finish that lets liquid circulate and mix well with oxygen. Rather than completely smoothing the unpolished metal, hand-polishing retains micron-sized bumps with rounded edges. The process calls for supreme finesse. To polish one decanter takes the elite all-female team about an hour, as workers change attachments on rotary polishing machines at each of eight stages.
The playful name Birdy derives from the golf term birdie. Yokoyama says, “I got the idea from its meaning ‘one shot under par.’ The fewer shots you hit, the higher you rank. I saw a parallel with our polishing techniques that eliminate what is not wanted, leaving the minimal tool to do the job.” With this ear-catching concept, he hopes Birdy is a consistent performer as a Japan-made global brand.