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Seven Questions: Meet Yuka Itoh, Communication Student and Baker

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Welcome Yuka, can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m Yuka, 21 years old, from Japan. I came to the Netherlands two and a half years ago, to study Communication at the UvA. 

I’m currently doing an internship at Pakhuis de Zwijger where I work on a program series called “Designing cities for all”. It raises questions on how design can help create an inclusive society. This year’s theme is regenerative design. Jechiam from Baking Lab just participated in a talk I developed called “Seeing the Unseen”.

I joined Baking Lab in March 2022 where I started volunteering in the bakery with Ferdinand. Eventually I became a teacher and taught the Basic Bread workshops as well as the Basic Sourdough Workshops for about a year.

Can you tell us about your education and why you decided to come to Europe?
As a kid I had a very inspiring English teacher. She went to college in the USA, before coming back to Japan to teach. At the time I wanted to become a diplomat, so with her support, I applied to UWC ISAK JAPAN, an international boarding school, and got in!

At school the great majority of courses were in English, and at the time I was far from comfortable in any other language than Japanese. There was a strong focus on diversity, with more than 80 nationalities and many scholarship programs. Both inside and outside the classroom, the focus was very much on project-based learning. That first year was a paradigm shift: being a “typical good student” was not enough anymore. It raised some big questions for me: what do I actually want to do? What matters to me? How would I like to spend my time?

Did you eventually find your way?
In the second year I did. I took advantage of being Japanese to become a mediator between the school and the surrounding local communities. Because we had so many international students, the interaction with the surrounding Japanese residents was not always easy. Through this experience I developed an interest in the media. 

Traditionally this refers to newspapers, tv, radio etc., but I was interested in expanding this definition. I believe the media can translate differences of perception in such a way that we understand each other’s perspectives and come from a place of empathy. And I’m talking about both humans and non-humans. The question is: how do you do that?

By non-humans, would you also include interaction with microbes like we do at Baking Lab?
Indeed. You could say that the way we ferment at Baking Lab is an interesting type of mediation. In Japan there is a media art professor who explores the media through technology. He developed the Nukabot, a robot that ferments cucumbers with some features that facilitate interactions with users. Depending on the fermentation stage, the robot will give a different output and instructions to humans. It attempts to translate what is happening as “fermentation” for humans to understand.

Here at Baking Lab the interface is not a robot, but our senses. When we look at a sourdough starter for example, we learn to pick up on signals that indicate what is “healthy” or “ready”. Sometimes we rely also on machines of course (a thermometer or a pH meter) but most of the “reading” is with our senses. 

Don’t we also try to make sense of fermentation through scientific knowledge?
Of course. There is an interest in both intellectual knowledge and practical applications. You could say that Baking Lab has different layers, but they are interconnected. That is something I like about this place: the back and forth between theoretical knowledge and trying to experiment accordingly.

We really need both. Even at school, though it was project based, there was not always a link between the knowledge taught in class and the projects we had to make.

And I believe looking at the climate crisis, using our senses is extremely important. Of course we need to change the legislation, conduct scientific studies, and take concrete action, but it’s not enough. People’s perception also needs to change. We need to train our senses so we can read the right signals and train our brain to interpret them. If we are not in tune with our senses, we are incapable of feeling what is actually happening at a local and global scale. 

Photos by Susi Bálint

What does Baking Lab represent for you?
To me, Baking Lab is a place to learn safely. I never had a workplace like this, where you are allowed, even encouraged to fail. It is work, but it feels more like a learning environment. I never get bored because of the many things there are to explore. I think learning really drives me, and it seems everyone at Baking Lab is driven by that as well. That vibrancy, the constant curiosity is very exciting. And also the fact that you can bring your own style, your own color to the place.

What is your next step?
There are a bunch of things I still want to explore but I’m happy with where I am today. Being in the Netherlands for a few years, I got to work at Baking Lab, study at University, enter a coding school and do an internship at Pakhuis de Zwijger. I discovered new areas of interest and was able to make something out of it. This experience gives me a bit more confidence to move forward, regardless of the direction I choose.

As of now, I would like to experience working on the business side, in a corporation. That is something I yet have to explore. I do have some doubts and dilemmas about it, but I would like to see for myself. Let’s see where it brings me!

Designing Cities for All: Seeing the Unseen, programmed by Yuka Itoh