When I was in Japan a few years ago, I went to a place called Tokyu Hands. It blew me away: floor after floor of stuff, so much of it incredibly specific. A container to hold sliced tomatoes so they wouldn’t sit in their own juice. Teapot brushes. 15 different types of scissors for ikebana. A knife specially designed for cutting chestnuts. An those were just the things whose use I could fathom.
I found it fascinating but perplexing: even if some of the products were clearly genius (I loathe soggy tomatoes) why oh why would you want all this stuff in a country where houses were so minuscule? Would you even use it? Wasn’t it all a bit silly? Was it just another example of Japanese nit-picky obsessiveness? This was, after all the land of obsessive ritual, of Zen Buddhism, of blessings and ceremonies for all kinds of things, not the least of which is the vaunted tea ceremony (which quite honestly, I’d never been able to really embrace.)
Nowadays, and in particular, in America, we typically don’t go in for this kind of specificity. Ironically, in this land of sprawling homes and walk-in closets the size of Lichtenstein, we embrace the all-in-one, the multi-functional younameit. It’s more efficient. It’s just so much more modern. It’s all about smartphones, the all-in-one printer, the Cuisinart, the sofa bed, the murphy bed, the all-in-one remote, the spork, and so on.
And when that doesn’t work, we just make do – we don’t sweat the details, we don’t want to try too hard, and we don’t want to fuss and be fussy. So maybe we just use a little Yankee ingenuity and improvise. We use something designed for one thing in another. We put up with things that aren’t quite perfect. But it’s all good.
And yet, I’ve been won over to the side of ultra-specificity, drawn in by a little bamboo brush.
A few years after the Tokyu Hands experience, I found myself organizing a Japanese home goods pop up store and ended up buying a little bamboo brush for those flat Japanese ginger graters, the ones with double rows of tiny razor-sharp teeth. As it was pretty inexpensive, I picked up this ridiculous little object, mostly as a novelty item, something to poke fun at. One day, after I’d spent about five minutes, a newly serrated fingernail, and gallons of precious running water trying to clean out those little grater teeth, I decided to break out that little bamboo brush.
Of course, it worked a charm. A few sweeps and the ginger was gone. This was a revelation. Out went that pre-grated jarred ginger that I’d been using, mea culpa, and I’m now free to let my love of ginger run wild: I have my little bamboo brush.
While I’m certainly a fan of less stuff, I’ve become a major convert to the idea of having and using the right stuff.
It means I’m not just making do, but making it right. Why not fuss and be fussy and be seen as fussy? As every craftsman and chef and DIY enthusiast knows, the right tool makes all the difference between abject failure / injury / death and toast-worthy success. The right tool is beautifully designed for a very specific use. It is not wasteful. Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact.
It shows that I actually care about what I’m doing, that I care about that most precious resource-my time and the quality. That is the opposite of wasteful. Having the right stuff makes me feel oddly grown up and serious.
All those all-in-one / multi-functional things? Look at that list: most of them don’t work that well, at best doing one thing moderately well. The spork? Really?
So now being a convert to the allure of the specific, here’s my list of favorite ultra-specific stuff that makes my life easier, gives me rather pleasure every time I use it, and just makes me smile, smile, smile.
And just in case you find yourself needing a little bit of ultra-specific products, there’s a list of links at the end for some places that make my geeky little heart beat faster.)
That ginger grater brush, of course. But following on to that, maybe my Jonathan’s Spoons pasta drainer, or even my newest find: a hand-hewn spreader that manages to render flat brownie batter without becoming a stuck on mess. (Something about friction, the butteriness of the finish?)
A hot water bottle. It does one thing (heats the bed on a cold night) and it does it brilliantly. Just make sure you close the cap properly and you change it out every couple of years.
Electrical stripper. This is not my favorite device, but that of my partners. It’s not just that it helps us do things like replace switches but that it’s given him greater confidence in DIY land, a source of joy.
Bodkin. A clever little item for retrieving errant drawstrings. Looks like a roach clip. Utterly life changing.
Barbour Jacket. Not terribly stylish, and too clearly raincoat to be just another coverup, but it’s kept me bone dry for over a decade now. The Brits know a thing or two about rain.
And my favorite: a book. A real one. Not something that sends email too and requires charging at inopportune moments. A quote from Umberto Eco sums it up: “The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved. You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon… The book has been thoroughly tested, and it’s very hard to see how it could be improved on for its current purposes.”
One last thought: as I look at these, I realize that I’ve had most of these in my life for a long, long time, forming a good long relationship with each. And that’s the other thing about the idea of specificity: the pieces don’t outlive their usefulness: the need for them lasts, along with the product. Would that all things were that way.
Here are my six go-to stores for the ultra-specific needs of our lives. Unfortunately Tokyu Hands doesn’t sell online.
Korin: knives, kitchenware, and more from Japan
Tortoise General Store: beautiful, functional mostly Japanese wares for the home
Maido: anything, everything you might want for your desk.
And just in case you think it’s only the Japanese who are good at this, the Scandies and the Brits are a pretty dab hand at it too:
Iris Hantverk: fabulous brushes for cleaning from Sweden.
Labour and Wait: London’s famed housekeeping store.