True Lacquerware—the tops

One of Hiroyuki's three tier stacking food boxes.  Photo courtesy of Hiroyuki Yoshida
Hiroyuki Yoshida—Topcoat Man
In the past, it was often just one person who was responsible for making the things that were used on a daily basis.  Plates were made by a potter, who sourced the clay, fashioned it and finished it before it was put to use.  The same was true of wooden furniture but gradually the situation changed.  Nowadays the number of individuals involved in making something is often astronomical.  This is especially true if we consider research and development as well as marketing not to mention all those skilled persons involved in manufacturing the merchandise with which we now surround ourselves.

Measuring a block to be cut into disks.
Artists and craftspeople are, however, an exception to this rule even today.  They are quite often responsible for acquiring and processing all the materials needed in order to make something.  If they are not in total control, many are at least responsible for a major part of the work to be done.

In the past true lacquerware could well have been made by one craftsperson.  Today this is highly unlikely.  In fact as many as eight highly skilled individuals might be involved in the making of an item.

Marking out bowl size blanks.
If the work is to have a wooden core, a specialist timber merchant is responsible for cutting disks of wood from a suitable trunk or branch.  Then, if for example a soup bowl is to be made, blanks must be marked out on the disks and roughly cut down to size.  These rough cut blanks are then roughly turned either on a copy lathe or by hand.  Then comes a period of seasoning, which could also involve smoking although that is quite rare.  Then there is a further period of acclimatisation before the blanks are turned and finished ready for the next stage of the work.  So unless a artist/craftsman is willing to do all this work themselves, five individuals 
Rough trimming blocks into round blanks.
will already have been involved.

Next comes the application of a ground and primer, not to mention applications of middle coats before a piece reaches the stage of final top coats and decoration.

In Wajima the division of labour is highly developed and skilled craftspersons at each stage can make a living wage, each individual being paid by the next craftsperson in the chain.  There is a mutual respect and a bond of trust between all those involved and it is this which is the cornerstone of the craft industry in Wajima.

Seasoning rough-cut bowls.
Hiroyuki Yoshida is a specialist topcoat craftsman  He is the fourth generation of true lacquerware craftsmen in his family.  His great grandfather did decorative chasing work on true lacquer, whereas his grandfather and father were both topcoat craftsmen.  And it was from his father that Hiroyuki learned his craft although he also took a course at the local training centre where he learned something about all aspects of true lacquerware craft.

Small food trays when stacked form a checker patter.  Photo courtesy of Hiroyuki Yoshida.
Another of Hiroyuki's stacking boxes.  Photo courtesy of Hiroyuki Yoshida.
Looking at Hiroyuki's peerless work it is impossible not to muse as to whether the skills and mentality of Japanese craftsmen and women over the centuries are at the very foundation of Japan’s success in industrial fields.  The desire to produce something perfect in every way as well as the skills to achieve this goal are still strong and are an enduring work ethic in many fields of endeavour in Japan.  The making of true lacquerware is just one of those areas where trust, reliability, perfection and pride in doing a job well remain uppermost, even for Hiroyuki, a true topcoat man.

Hitomi Yoshida showing off one of Hiroyuki's bowls in their gallery-cum-shop in Wajima.
Unless noted all photos by Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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Noto Architecture 1

On the streets of Wajima
I arrived in Noto on 3rd June this year to begin a month long stay.  The following day I decided to walk some of the streets of Wajima, which would be my base camp for the duration of my stay.

Walking the streets to look at local architecture was not new to me.  Toward the end of 1979 and at the beginning of 1980, I spent a great deal of time walking some of the old highways, especially in the Kanto region centred on Tokyo.  I was looking for traditional timber built shops and business premises in towns that historically had been post towns or castle towns during the Edo period in particular.  At the time I was gathering material for my Masters thesis in Architectural History at Tokyo University of Art and Music.

Although many old buildings had been destroyed by modern urban development and fire as a result of earthquakes and/or bombing during the Second World War, it was surprising to see just how many fine traditional buildings had survived, especially away from the centres of these old settlements.

I was mainly looking for timber structures which had a feature not unlike jetting—the extension of an upper floor beyond the line of the floor below.  In Japan this way of increasing the area of an upper floor while also providing some shelter at a low level had, strangely enough, developed about the same time as jetting had come into use in England during the medieval period.  It seems that it may have been a common solution to an increase in urban population.

This example of segai-zukuri is in Ninohe in the north of Japan.  It is particularly unusual as there is a double layer of bracketing, which has been taken over by swallows and wasps.
In Japan, however, it was not only upper floors that were extended.  Eaves along a street frontage in particular were extended for functional reasons—to provide some extra protection from wind, rain and snow.  The bracketing system to support deep eaves, however, was in some cases purely for show.  This practice can be seen in many areas of Japan and the custom continued into the 20th century.  The bracketing system is called segai-tsukuri and may originally have been a device borrowed from maritime practices.

In Noto, however, I have not seen a single example.  Many of the traditional timber built houses and business properties along many streets and side roads do have relatively shallow eaves, which are supported by a simple rail.  If the eaves do not face a street then it is a gable end of the building that presents itself to the thoroughfare and there is no unusual extension of the eaves.

Generally speaking the style of traditional building in Wajima is much more like that of farmhouses in rural areas roughly south of the Noto peninsula.  The gable ends of these farmhouses often display a series of uprights and horizontal elements interspersed with areas of white plaster.  Similar features can be seen on buildings in Wajima but the proximity of the sea, strong winds and rain are often combated by protective weather boarding.  The timber is quite often a type of cedar called Hiba and it is generally untreated and almost never painted.

The weather boarding here is probably protecting a daub rendered wall.  The auxiliary eave is at first floor lever and the roof eave is out of sight above.

Join me on a short excursion around some of the streets of Wajima to see what architectural features can be found.

Delicate lines
Note the delicate detailing and line of the sill below the sliding screens at street level and the windows on the upper floor.  This detail can be found repeated on other buildings in Wajima.  It may mean that the same carpenter was responsible for the work.  Or it is the result of something called “marrying detail”—following or copying for the sake of harmony.  There is a chance, too, that it could easily have been copied or mimicked in homage of its originator.

Hierarchical development?
Can there really be a good reason to have this many roof-ridges and gable ends?  The cladding at least is understandable and is modern.  It may have been the result of repairs made after the 2007 earthquake.  It would be interesting to see the interior spaces below these roofs.  Was it all a bit of fun or more likely was it done with reason and in the hope of creating an aesthetically pleasing result to a difficult problem.

Steadfast and secure
The design of this restaurant borrows from storehouse design and construction.  But the effect is softened by the planting and dull red painted elements.

Protection and pattern
Part of the same restaurant again borrows from storehouse design.  The raised plasterwork around the tiles is often on the diagonal and is call namako-kabe, literally a “sea cucumber wall”.  The more or less random arrangement of the tiles makes it less severe, although the sturdy mullions of the openings above are a feature of castle design.  The creeper?  It has just been allowed to run wild.

Keeping out the weather
The weather boarding here is the main cladding and it is painted.  The style is reminiscent of late 19th or early 20th century style of buildings erected in Japan, when western architectural methods were being adopted by indigenous house carpenters.  Hence there is an element of status attached to the style.  This one houses a medical doctor’s practice.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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Potters in the Wood

Masaka's World
“You have reached your destination.”  “That’s good” I thought.  All I needed to do was to call Masaka Nakayama to get final instruction on how to get to her studio.  I told Masaka I was parked outside the local shrine, so she said she would come and meet me.  I know what you are thinking.  Were we talking about the same shrine?  Evidently not, because after waiting for nearly thirty minutes, Masaka had not appeared.

On the phone again.  Masaka asked, “Which shrine are you parked in front of?”  Well, it was lucky that I could read the shrine name.  Some can be difficult, especially for a foreigner like me.  “It’s the Sugawara Shrine near the coast.”  There was a long silence.  “Oh, you are a long way off.  Why not try getting a bit closer using part of the address”.

Fine, I could do that and I set off with renewed hope of finding my way without causing any more trouble.  I was now heading for Shoinji-machi and the SatNav was doing its job well.

“You have reached your destination.”  This time I was certainly near buildings that could house a potter, so I felt more confident of locating Masaka.  However, although there were five or six houses clustered into a hamlet where I had stopped, there was nobody to be seen.  At least, that’s what I thought at first.  Then I could hear the sound of a radio and it was then that I saw a lady tending her garden.

“Excuse me.  I’m looking for the potter Masaka Nakayama.  Could you give me some directions, please.”

The lady began giving me directions as it seemed I was still some way off my intended “destination”.  She stopped giving directions in mid-sentence and said, “Just a moment.  I’ll take you there.  It will be easier”.  This visit was becoming much more of an adventure than I had anticipated.

Full of apologies for taking her away from her gardening, I followed her light pick-up truck and we sped off down narrow roads between newly planted paddies, making right-angled turns at the corners of the paddies until we came to a dirt track, which dropped steeply away from the road, and was shaded by bamboo and vines hanging from trees and lush vegetation of all kinds.  The narrow rutted track made me more than a little concerned for the safety of my low slung and small wheeled Honda N One.

Thankfully, however, soon after crossing a narrow timber bridge, a collection of sheds came into view.  This time I really had arrived at my destination.

Having thanked and bad farewell to my helpful navigator, it was time to introduce myself to Masaka Nakayama and to apologise for causing so much trouble.

“Oh, don’t worry.  It happens all the time.”  That made me feel a little less ashamed for not being able to find my own way to this veritable hideout in the woods.  It was Masaka’s father, Tatsuma who built his kiln here well away from any other habitation, so that the smoke from the kiln would not cause any problems.

This woodland hideout has always been home to Masaka, who was born in 1981.  It was perhaps inevitable that she too should become a potter.  Right from an early age she was watching her father work and was soon trying her hand at making things of her own.  Nevertheless, she did do some formal training and graduated in 2000.  By 2003, however, she was doing her own work and started to exhibit.

She tries to exhibit about four times a year and now has a considerable following of admirers, most of whom are female.  So, what it her work like?  Getting to Masaka’s had already been an adventure but I was not really prepared for the kind of “adventure” I was about to be taken on next.

I knew I was going to meet Masaka and her father even before I left the UK but despite my well laid plans, I had not done any research on either of these two potters.  Mind you, this is often how I have worked in the past.  I prefer for a meeting to be as spontaneous as possible rather than going to interview someone with preconceived ideas about them or their work.  Do you think I’m lazy?  Perhaps I am, but whatever I say now will seem like an excuse.

After talking about her background and training it was now time to look at Masaka’s work.  “Whoa!  Is this your work?”  It was a complete surprise.  As you can see, it is nothing like the kind of work for which Japanese potters are usually known, especially in the West.  I have never been more surprised and my honest reaction would seem to vindicate not having done any research before meeting this extremely talented young potter.

Although many of the forms Masaka uses are true to the creature, whether its domain is the sea, land or air, the colouring and patterns she uses are more like spontaneous doodles than anything preconceived.  And all the better for it, I think.  Take this Sea Slug, for example.  In Japanese they are called Umi-ushi, literally Sea Cow, and can be quite colourful in real life but Masaka’s imagination has taken it to an entirely different plane.  Masaka’s work is fun, intriguing, stimulating, thought provoking, colourful, elevating and so many other things besides.

Sadly when I visited her she had not got much work for me to photograph.  I would point you to an internet search in English but very few images of her work appear.  If you are willing and would like to see more of her work, please either click on the Japanese below or copy and paste it.  Her name in Japanese along with the location is enough to bring up a number of images.

Masaka’s work could not be more different from that of her father’s.  He was one of the pioneering potters who was involved in resurrecting Suzu ware.  It was during the 1960s that Tatsuma and others such as Takashi Shinohara (see post 18th August 2015 Takashi Shinohara—Suzu Ware) worked to bring back this lost ware, which had thrived in the area in the past.

Some of Tatsuma’s crocks and pots stand in the garden outside the kiln.  The simple decorative effects are simple and reminiscent of ancient pottery not only from Japan but from other parts of the World too.

So, while Tatsuma’s work reaches back to go forward, Masaka’s work is reaching out to a bright and colourful future.  May they both continue to work and strive for what they do best.

Two of Tatsuma's pots sit shyly outside waiting for a good home to go to.  Suzu ware at its best.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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Craft, Art, Design

Takanori Waso
Artist Farmer
Some of the traditional crafts in Japan became established when farmers sought to supplement their income during slack periods of the farming calendar.

Historically a craft kept farmers busy when work outside was difficult.  Nowadays things are not that much different.  Some farmers find it necessary to leave their family and move to Tokyo or one of the other big urban conurbations for a period of time to earn some much needed cash, mainly from building work.

It was, however, not only the farming community which contributed so much to the establishment and continuance of Japan’s traditional crafts.  Social conditions, too, helped to foster crafts.  Essentially speaking peace reigned throughout the feudal period, which was strictly administered by the Tokugawa Shogunate for a little over 250 years up until 1869.  It was during these times that local clan lords put their bands of more or less redundant samurai to work, in some cases by creating a “closed shop”, under which to make items for daily use.  Samurai became “craftsmen” who closely guarded skills and technical secrets and thus protected their own livelihood as well as fostered the well-being of the clan.

Some of the time honoured crafts, however, become so specialised that a strict division of labour took over.  The production of Wajima true lacquerware is a prime example.  The greater proportion of items made under the Wajima banner are produced by perhaps as many as five or six dedicated individuals.  And they only have the one job.  There is no moonlighting or part-time employment.  They are out and out professionals all contributing to the completion of a piece of true lacquerware.  It might be a piece of studio craft or a repeated item of household goods.  In whichever case, each specialist depends on the quality of work of the others involved.  There is mutual admiration amongst them all and individual skills are highly respected.  The aim is to ensure the completion of a perfect piece of work in what is a truly Japanese manner.

Takanori Waso is, however, something of an exception.  Make no mistake—he is a highly skilled makie craftsman/artist but a shiitake mushroom farmer, too.

Makie is one of several decorative techniques employed to embellish true lacquerware.  Designs are rendered in gold and silver powders, gold leaf, chips of precious metals and even in shallow relief.  It is time consuming and painstaking work.  In some ways it is not unlike the work of a miniaturist, who paints a loved-one’s portrait in minute detail for a locket.

Takanori makes one-off items to order or pieces of speculatively work for sale at exhibition.  He needs to be a craftsman and an artist.  Some small commemorative dishes he produced recently bear this out.  They show floats at the Okunchi Festival in Nagasaki, and convincingly demonstrate his painterly touch.  His tea caddies for the powdered tea used at Tea Ceremony, on the other hand, display his ability as a designer and express an intriguing side to his character—one in particular is unusual, ingenious, beautiful and highly individual.

But then, his life style is somewhat out of the ordinary—he is, after all, a farmer too.  Family owned land in the densely forested mountains backing on to his workshop is an ideal location for the cultivation of shiitake mushrooms.  Nowadays they are available in many supermarkets in the UK, although not produced in Japan.

Balancing the needs of the mushrooms with his true lacquer work, makes his life very structured and disciplined—never a bad thing for an artist/designer.

Takanori mostly uses billets of konara—a member of the beech family, Quercus serrata—as well as some chestnut and wild cherry.  The seasoned wood is inoculated with spawn and the bacteria literally feeds off the wood.  Preparation of the billets begins in November.  He usually inoculates 800 billets but next year hopes to have 1,500 ready for treatment in March.  Harvesting begins in December and peeks between January and March.  Drying can take two to three weeks.  Cut shiitake are sun-dried for about three hours and then artificially dried for 24 hours.  The drying is critical as it will determine both the flavour and colour of the finished product.

To produce a good piece of makie work requires patience and dedication.  Growing shiitake is just as demanding.  So, neither can be hurried.  But Takanori is fortunate.  His lacquer work is just as “delicious” as his shiitake mushrooms.

If you would like to know more about the growing of shiitake mushrooms go to http://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/growing-shiitake-mushrooms-zmaz86jfzglo.aspx

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

Do feel free to pass on the address of this blog to anyone you think will be interested.  Or post it on a social media site.  Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.   If you have found this blog interesting, why not become a follower.


Snapshot 13: Sea Rough, Sea Calm

The Japan Sea coastline has hazards of all kinds.
Sea Rough, Sea Calm
The sea is never far away on the Noto Peninsula.  Inland, of course, the steep tree covered mountains divided by narrow valleys and wider areas of flat farmland are the dominant components of the natural identity of the peninsula.  The character of the sea on either side, however, has a significant influence on the overall demeanour of the peninsula, too.

Along the Japan Sea coastline there are often rocky shallows, which extend out some twenty to fifty meters from the shore.  Seen at low tide these rough, jagged obstacles reveal themselves as the reason for the angry waves, which seem to be constantly breaking along the shore when the tide comes in.  In places there are narrow channels in this barrier of submerged rock.  Historically small boats used them to ferry goods ashore from larger sailing ships, which would anchor in deep water, for fear of the hull-ripping rock close to the shore.  The wind, too, contributes to the rough unpredictable character of the Sotoura coast of the Japan Sea, especially during the winter, when the sea takes on a most violent and threatening countenance.

Dwellings too find some shelter in one of the coves of Nanao Bay.

The sea along the eastern shore is, on the other hand, mostly calm and benign, especially that part of the coast around Nanao Bay.  It is divided into three expanses of water—North Bay, West Bay and South Bay with the large island of Notojima situated roughly in the middle.  The broader areas of Toyama Bay along the coast here, however, can be rough.  The northern reaches of the Uchiura part of the coast of the peninsula facing Toyama Bay are, nevertheless, lucky to have a number of sheltered bays.  There is no denying the fact that the impression of the sea here manifests tranquility and calm.  There are oyster beds and in some places no deep water shoreline to speak of, so the relationship of the people with the sea here is very different.  The sea is respected but its placid nature seems to bear no malice.

The environment of the peninsula is simple in construction but rich in content.  The character of the sea on either side of the Noto Peninsula introduces a component of contrast to the overall impression.  Male and female, rough and smooth, violent and peaceful—how do such attributes affect the people living there?  I would have to be living there for much more than a month to be able to answer that question with any authority.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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Change in Time

On the Bench
I arranged to meet Kiyomi Tsurusawa on 10th June this year on one of the longest benches in the World.  Yes, really.  It is 460.9 meters long and is located in Shika, facing the Japan Sea.  On that day we had a wonderful panoramic view over the glistening waters of a sea that can really be very rough especially in winter.

As Kiyomi and I were talking about the Noto Peninsula, we both found ourselves remembering how Japan used to be and how different it is now.

I was reminded just how much it has changed when I was there in 2014.  I was walking down a street in Kyoto when I suddenly realised that I had walked down the same street forty years before!

In 1974 it was extremely rare to meet another foreign national, so rare that it was customary to say hello and even to exchange stories about a country that was still pretty much off the regular route for travellers.  After all, many people in the UK back then still did not really know where Japan was on the map of the world.

Lou and I in 1974.  My how we have
Travelling around Japan by train that summer, Lou and I would often be the only foreign nationals on a train and could even be the only foreigners visiting temples or other interesting spots.  At the time those among the Japanese population ready and willing to speak English were very few.

Some train station names were not in Roman script either.  Despite this there was no sense of bewilderment or even anxiety.  The locals were always ready to help.  It was an adventure and therefore something to be excited about.  Using a Japanese rail map and matching the characters on the station signs with those on the map made it possible to know where we were on the extensive railway system and only added to the sense of adventure.

Steam locomotives were still running in Kyushu in 1974, ten years after the Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Osaka was opened.
Kashiwajima located in the south-west corner of Shikoku.
We tried to stay in Youth Hostels, simply because they were cheap.  Those with a short telephone number were rural and the best.  At Kashiwajima on the island of Shikoku we were the first foreigners to ever stay there.  At another on Kyushu we arrived at a brand new hostel to find that we were the only guests.  The manager apologised for the fact that we would have to bunk-down on different floors—separation of the sexes.  We said we did not mind.  “But aren’t you on your Honey Moon?”  No, we had already been married for five years, a fact that really seemed to surprise the hostel keeper.  We must have looked like newly weds.

So at the time Japan was still “exotic” and mostly uncharted territory ready to be discovered.  But what about now?

On the river at Arashiyama this scene has not changed for hundreds of years. Most tourists seldom venture this far from the shops and temples.
When I arrived in Kyoto in 2014 I went straight to Arashiyama on the western outskirts of the city as the cherry was in full bloom.  And so were the people!  Compared to 1974, when most of the tourists in Kyoto were Japanese, last year Asian tourists predominated.  This was a great surprise, especially as I was one of only a few Caucasians.

1974 at Nikko Toshogu Shrine.  Even on a large screen I can only see one non-Japanese.  I would like to bet that everyone else in the picture is Japanese.
Somethings of course have not changed—the friendliness of the people, the quality of food in restaurants, the quality of service, the punctuality of the transport system as a whole and so much more.

Crowded trains—in 1974 and even now its still the same.
Sharing such thoughts with Kiyomi, she too was able to add to this catalogue of change from her own experience as a licensed tour guide and interpreter.

Kiyomi too confirmed that in the last few years the number of Asian tourists has increased enormously, many of whom come from China.  Of course in April last year many had come to see the cherry blossom as well as the famous temples and historic sites in Kyoto and elsewhere.  And they were not going home empty handed.

“Many Chinese visitors take home rice cookers, washlet toilet seats and cosmetics by the boxful” Kiyomi told me.

It seems the cosmetics are often for resale back in China.  Most readers will be familiar with the automatic rice cooker but some may not know what a washlet toilet is.  Simply speaking it is a heated seat with washing functions to do away with having to use toilet paper and it also functions as a bidet.  If you would like to know more do a search with “Toto washlet toilet and bidet” to be enlightened.

A Western style loo in a new house, 1974.
Yes, forty years is a long time in which things can change.  But these changes need to be seen in the context of how things were back in the 1970s or even more recently.  Kiyomi remembered one instance when she met a tour group at Haneda Airport, Tokyo’s only international airport at the time.  She was really embarrassed by the pungent smell wafting from the toilets.  These days the cleanliness of toilets both public and private is exemplary and can hardly if ever be faulted.

It should also be remembered that in 1974 Western style, sit-on-toilets were still something of a rarity for the Japanese.  So much so that many had little illustrated signs and explanations in Japanese on how to use them.  These days when using a toilet in Japan we are expected to realise how a washlet toilet functions or at least be able to rely on a minimum of helpful lables in English to safely get the job done.

For the benefit of the Japanese.  How gentlemen should use a Western style toilet to the left, and how a lady should use one to the right.

The urinal above and the squat-toilet
both date from the late 19th or early
20th century.  Civilised!
Kiyomi has often been puzzled about one thing—a complaint that showers in Japan are not usually set up to supply water from directly overhead.  This is true in hotels, guesthouses, at public bath spas and in private homes, too.  For many overseas tourists this is apparently a problem.

We discussed the possibility of opening more home-stay venues, or even some self-catering facilities on the Noto Peninsula to accommodate long-stay foreign tourists, who could then better savour the delights of Noto and its wonderful natural environment.

For so many people travelling is an adventure and even a short-term tourist would, I hope, be excited to be somewhere where things are done differently.

There is no need for Japan to be too accommodating, however.  Signs in at least English and announcements on trains and buses in other languages not withstanding, surely in the end people visit Japan to experience JAPAN and not some slightly watered down exotic Asian variant of what they have in their own country.

Inevitably the problem is how to strike a perfect balance.  Some people visiting Japan are not adventurous and only want to do touristic things.  That’s fine.  Others really do want to experience the country as it is and to eat what the locals eat, for instance.  Just for a short time they want to be someone different.  I must admit that all kinds of settlements in Japan from the biggest cities to the smallest hamlets can be engaging, exciting and stimulating for many different reasons.  But if you don’t have a fixation on modern rampant urbanism, which is slowly consuming so much of Japan, then the Noto peninsula is just the place to visit.

A sight now almost never seen on the streets of Japan.  Back in 1974 is was a surprise to see ice being delivered to bars and restaurants.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

Do feel free to pass on the address of this blog to anyone you think will be interested.  Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.   If you have found this blog interesting, why not become a follower.