Often towns specialise in a certain product because nature makes it easy for them. Take Arita back in sleepy Saga prefecture. It exploded because of an enormous mine which made pottery craft a cinch. Once something becomes easy, it’s only a matter of time and dedication before it transforms into expertise.
On the surface, there’s no reason why the otherwise unremarkable Sabae, Fukui, should have become the Japanese capital of spectacle making. But when faced with the tricky decision of what to do when farming was shut down by long winter, that’s what they went for – in a big way. Now 95 percent of the nation’s glasses output comes from here.
There’s a major qualifier with that: it’s not 95 percent of all glasses in Japan, but rather Japanese-made glasses – the imports of Ray-Bans et al are not included in that figure. Even so, it’s a huge number: we were told there are 700 manufacturers in this town of 70,000 people, all making frames. No matter how many there are, though, there surely aren’t many more open and flat-out fun than Megane.
As well as brilliant selection of specs available to buy on site – a refreshing break from the mass-produced, overpriced junk that’s found in high street opticians – there’s a workshop to learn how a good pair of frames are made. Of course, the best way to learn is to do, and kids can make petite fun frames that would sit comfortably on a stuffed cat. These can be knocked out in an hour or so, but for adults full frames are an option – and you can even have lenses added if you like.
Being spectacularly bespectacled for all of her life, Katy was extremely keen to give it a go, and in Mr Miyamoto and Mr Kobayashi she could hardly have had two better senseis (teachers). There are two ways to make a pair of plastic frames; Katy went for the more difficult, 100% handmade option. The whole thing would have been sped-up if she’d used the machines, but then sticking a chunk of plastic in a machine is a little dull.
Instead there was drilling, filing, polishing, sawing, more polishing and plenty more filing before the things began to take shape. The senseis explained that placing the little nose-bridge scaffolds are the trickiest part, along with ensuring the arms are properly attached: the eye pieces can be as pretty as you like, but if the glasses sit wonky, you’ll still look ridiculous.
While all this was going on, I found myself introduced to one of the most interesting people I’ve met in a long time. Taisuke Fukuno is the implausibly young CEO of Jig.jp, a software developing company that’s part-based in the same building as Megane.
Before coming to Japan, I’d imagined that a sizeable portion of the population walked around testing out prototype devices that would revolutionise Europe ten years in the future. Of course, the whole place is much more normal than that, but thanks to Taisuke, today I was able to indulge my preconception.
Appropriately, given the setting, he handed me another pair of glasses, this time made by Epson. Yet they weren’t so much a pair of specs as a sort of Sword of Omens, offering sight beyond sight. As with most first-releases, this current product is a little too large and too limited to attract anyone beyond hardcore techno-enthusiasts, but they do demonstrate a brilliant idea: glasses that can allow you to check the time/navigate a map/browse the internet/play games, while still walking around functioning as a semi-normal person.
Right now that means gently holding the chunking glasses to your head to watch videos etc while simultaneously having a clear view of the room, but in the future, it could be as simple as wearing ordinary glasses and looking at a live map with contact information, opening hours etc as you walk around. A kind of live Google Street View, the way Robocop or the Terminator sees the world.
Listening to the ambitious young CEO talk, the possibilities seem virtually endless. In the mean time, Katy had to settle with making her own glasses – stylishly looking at the real world is plenty for now.
Our time in Fukui prefecture was made possible by:
The combined efforts of everyone who coordinated with the Tsuruga tourism office, led by the hilariously straight-talking Mish Haddad. This includes: Maruni (where we ate excellent soba and katsudon); the Kehi Jingu (where we managed to fit in one more Basho poem); Komaki Kamaboko (where we learned learned how to make chikuwa, a kind of fish lolly pop); Kanegasakigu (where we learned about the Japanese equivalent of Valentine’s day); and Sekitori Sushi (where we stuffed ourselves silly on raw fish, crab and conversation with an affable group of American ALTs – they were so nice, we won’t even mention their awful, new-world spelling of the English language).
Thank you all!
The Kitaguni Grand Hotel, which offered us one of our last experiences in a great ryokan. We’re only sorry we didn’t find the time to enjoy their onsen – thus the perils of seeing too many interesting things in one day.
Our guide, coordinator and possible gang-land leader, Mickey Honda. Her effort, time and dedication helped us for the third time on the trip, but the story goes far beyond that. Before the travel volunteers were even picked, she was coordinating other guides, hotels and restaurants to help out. That kind of faith with an untried format is the kind of thing that got it all moving in the right direction in the first place. Thank you for all of continued your efforts Mickey.
The Megane Museum and Jig, who share the same creative hub in Sabae. Their support was essential to understanding the philosophy behind the old and new entrepreneurship in Sabae, and to providing us with an unforgettable day, just when we were starting to think we’d seen it all already.