Borders Closed, Stuck in Port
Hey, I’m Casey. Welcome to our newsletter, sharing the startup journey of Kamui Whisky K.K. We’ve been busy, but when we aren’t overwhelmed, we’ll share a story as we craft up a whisky distillery on a remote, volcanic island in the most northern part of Japan.
This week Japan announced borders would close:
For residents, and those wanting to enter Japan, there were plenty of scary headlines to get the anxiety up. Japan focused English twitter was quick with the references to the Sakoku period, when Japan was a “locked country” under the Shoguns.
A few days later the government reversed its policy. While there are a lot of tight restrictions to enter Japan (no new comers), it’s not to “sakoku” levels.
The underlined point here is it is very hard time to get (anything) into Japan.
Barrels from Douro
For more than a month our team has been trying to get some special Portuguese wine barrels into Japan.
Part of our vision is to experiment with various barrels. These beauts come from a winery in the Douro Superior, the upper Douro Valley. It’s the hottest and driest subregion in the Douro. We’ll likely use these barrels for finishing on special bottlings, as the flavor will likely be quite strong.
But first, we have to get the barrels out of customs. From Tomakomai up to Rishiri.
We’ve had dozens of phone calls and even more emails with port officials trying to get all the paperwork in order. We’ve had dozens and dozens of emails and messages back and forth with the Portuguese winery (they must hate us by now, as the total price for 6 barrels was not much, but the communication cost from all our requests for more documentation has been huge). And, still, 1 month later we haven’t been able to get the barrels out of bondage.
The storage costs at Tomakomai are now approaching the cost of shipping the barrels from Portugal, which was surprisingly cheap, and even more surprisingly quick, given the global supply chain issues.
But it’s been the communication cost that has been prohibitive. It is difficult to communicate with a supplier halfway around the world, in a different timezone, working to a different rhythm.
Coming into this startup project we had believed one of our unique advantages would be our ability to source unique materials, at a reasonable cost, anywhere in the world.
That part of our hypothesis has been true.
What has started to prove that assumption wrong is the difficulty getting stuff into Japan, especially beverage and organic items. Sure, we were certainly naive, and not ready for all the documentation for this Douro barrels case, but two things make me hesitate to do our own importing, especially on a small scale, again.
First is the communication cost. It’s been a few times now we’ve struggled with overseas (outside of Japan) vendors. Everyone’s nice before and during the sale, but it’s our later requests that tend to send our suppliers into hiding. Usually when we ask our counterparts the first time for some documentation, or pictures, or whatever the random request the Japanese bureaucracy needs to do its job, they are usually helpful. But by the second one, let alone the seventh request, they have gotten annoyed, or worse, disappeared.
Having to spend so much energy on communication for what feel like minor things feels quite wasteful.
Secondly, the domestic shipping costs inside Japan are expeeeensive! Tomakomai to Rishiri doesn’t seem that far, after all they are just on opposite sides of Hokkaido.
But we’ve found out that the shipping from Tomakomai to Rishiri is more than it was from Porto to Tomakomai, halfway across the world.
In fact, the shipping costs inside Japan are more than the whole cost of the 6 Douro barrels + shipping halfway around the world.
Using Local Japanese Suppliers
As we are about to make our big orders, in tonnage of volume, we’ll very likely be using local Japanese vendors that can take some of the hassle out of the customs process for us. We are too small, too lean, to handle all of the communication and administrative costs of sourcing too many unique materials into Japan ourselves.
As we grow, get our operations running smoothly we will likely open up to more international suppliers again when have spare mindshare to spend.
For now let’s hope our last round of requests, probably our 30th, to Paulo in the Douro are enough for customs in Tomakomai, and that we’ll get these special casks released.
And more importantly, we hope that Japan doesn’t get nostalgic again for the Sakoku period, and new visa holders will be able to enter Japan soon. Javier, our head distiller, has been patiently waiting for Japan to open, and now that everything is nearing completion - construction, our stills, material prep - we hope to get him inside the kimino distilling soon.