How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Wood Flooring in Japan

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It has been a whirlwind of a summer season for me since early in May. This always happens whenever I mix some actual work into my schedule.

This is not to say that consulting and inspections are not real work. But nothing qualifies as real work like dusting off the tools and machines and spending time on a job site installing, repairing, sanding and finishing. You know the deal when you need the "floorman's special" for breakfast. That's two eggs over easy, sausage, black coffee, and two extra-strength pain relievers. When you get to a certain age, just being able to put in a decent day's work is incredibly satisfying.

But enough about me. The really interesting thing I did in July was a nine-day visit to Japan. I have been back about a week and am still not completely over a severe case of jet lag. There is a 13-hour time difference from the Eastern U.S. When it is 8 a.m. Monday morning in Tokyo, it is 7 p.m. Sunday evening in Boston. The non-stop flight time from the Northeastern U.S. to Tokyo is 13 to 14 hours.  

My sponsor for this adventure was the Maruhon Company located in Hamamatsu, Japan, which is halfway between the larger cities of Tokyo and Osaka. The experience turned my preconceived notions about Japan and the wood flooring business upside-down. Some quick facts about Japan:

  • Land area: 145,902 square miles (California: 155,778 square miles)
  • 73% of terrain is mountainous
  • Population: 128 million (California: 37.7 million)
  • GDP: $5.9 trillion (third-largest world economy)
  • Individual single-family houses are typically replaced rather than renovated.  

Maruhon has a long history in the hardwood and softwood lumber trade, handling a wide variety of wood products from many countries. In the last 15 years, wood flooring has become their largest product category. They import many construction types and species from multiple countries.

My host was Mr. Noriyoshi Ito, president of Maruhon. He and his staff were amazing-not just in their generosity to me, but in their tremendous knowledge of wood, wood flooring, and the international industry. I would like to give a special thanks to Mr. Ken Goh, their primary flooring buyer. I was also fortunate enough to be assisted in my travels by Elizabeth Baldwin, who writes the Green Blog here. Elizabeth worked for Maruhon for over 20 years, with more than 10 of those years being based in Hamamatsu. She moved me through a bewildering country with ease, explaining food, culture and customs, and keeping me well-fortified with green tea.

The reality at Maruhon exceeds the public image. They walk the walk even better than they talk the talk. And they do one heck of job presenting themselves to their customers. But this is not intended as a puff piece about Maruhon. I was given access to the company headquarters and distribution center in Hamamatsu and their Tokyo Designers Showroom. Additionally we visited a factory that precision-cuts new house framing kits and a number of job sites where wood floors were being installed. It is almost 8 a.m., and I must head over to my local job to put in an honest day's work but will resume this narrative about Japan until the topic is thoroughly treated.

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