"Andy Grove and Peter Qvortrup of Audio Note (UK) traveled to Japan in January to meet the teams from Rubicon and HDK. Andy shares some thoughts and pictures from the trip: - Peter and I made our 8th annual pilgrimage to Japan in January, battling flu and jetlag, but, it was a successful trip nonetheless!"

Contrary to our usual routine, due to various timings, we visited Rubycon first, traveling up from Tokyo by train with Katagiri-san (of Rubycon) accompanying us. We stopped for lunch at our usual place, high above Lake Suwa and had Japanese style curry for lunch.

You can see Katagiri-san doing something behind a kiosk...I didn't ask...

A couple of years ago Peter and I stayed at a ryokan, down at the lakeside, just visible from the restaurant. The food was fantastic, and they had a couple of the best beers we've ever tasted, made locally with mountain-spring water.

Rubycon is the situation a little way from Ina, in a valley between two mountain ranges, but, still pretty high up at over 2200ft. It's a shame it was a bit misty up there after the snow, as, behind the Rubycon sign in the photo, is an incredible view of the mountains. You can get an idea from the view out of my hotel window!

On our arrival, we were greeted by Yokazawa-san and his engineers from the R&D and production teams, to discuss current and future co-operation and business. High on our agenda is the research going into Black Gate production. 

We have samples, but, it's proving extremely difficult to produce them ion a sensible scale, the main issue being the stringent requirements placed upon capacitor manufacturers by the auto-industry. Contamination by carbon particles is simply not allowed.

Tonouchi-san, founder of RUBYCON... 1917 - 2017!

We now have samples of the 10,000uF 63V, which is going to be very handy for builders of transistor-based projects, either in the PSU or as an output capacitor in designs like the JLH Class A, and maybe for upgrading vintage Leak and Armstrong amps etc. - although it is a whopper (and surprisingly dense) so fit may be a problem. We are planning to expand that range a little, to include a 68,000uF 16V for filaments, a 22,000uF 63V and so on.

Another thing we discussed was a capacitor which is a little easier and quicker to manufacture than the Kaisei which has a long lead time and is limited in quantities due to manufacturing difficulties. This was to create a capacitor which is useful to OEM manufacturers, but, who knows, maybe Peter will offer it for sale to the DIY market ;-).

Just before we left for Japan, we managed to set our relationship in stone as regards sole distributorship of these special components which we've invested so much time and money in - now that's in place we're ready to rock!

We stayed over at Ina, and went out for a meal with the Rubycon guys at an Italian restaurant, which was lovely - especially the wine, as you can see from the 'Level System' wine list.

So, I would like to say a thank-you to Yokozawa-san, for his eternal patience with us, as well as everyone else in the engineering and sales teams. Particularly to Irifune-san, who helped mastermind our current business plan and got it approved in Japan.

Honda-San and Shima-san from HDK

The following day we got up early and made our way to the trains station for a long journey to Toyama to visit Honda-san, Shima-san and our friends at HDK who produce special resistors for us on their vintage machinery (more about that later).

We went for a beer and food the evening before, in a traditional restaurant in Toyama, which, of course, means trying to get through doorways which are only 4ft6 high and then struggling to get my legs into the leg-pit under the table, which inevitably means some kind of clumsy accident occurs. At least I didn't send the table flying this time.

Shortly before we left the UK we received samples of the 1W silver resistor, and, whilst there, they presented us with the 1/2W silver and 2W resistor with a silver-plated brass end cap. The cap has to fit the end of the alumina rod very tightly, and it has to grip to make contact with the film. Normally silver is soft; if it's too hard, it cracks. We had to expend a huge amount of money to develop a silver alloy and processing to create a kind of silver that will work for this application, and it's expensive, even compared to silver.

After a few more iterations, we're hoping to have a resistor which sits between the non-magnetic and the silver types, both in terms of price as well as sound.

So to get a few photos of the factory resistor line, I asked for another tour, even though we've been around twice, or thrice, before. We were met with an enthusiastic response, even to taking photos in the plant.

As is common in Japanese factories, outside shoes are not allowed, and, in manufacturing areas, a lab coat must be worn. You can see the extent of the problem for Peter and myself - that is my shoe next to one of the slippers we were offered to wear on our tour. It looks like Sasquatch's shoe. The lab coat was so tight across my shoulders I would have burst out of it like The Hulk if I'd have brought my arms forward.

Anyway, enough about Hibagon people (Japanese Sasquatch).

The photo with the green cast, with 'air shower' in the background is a shot of the room where the film deposition takes place, which is done by a sputtering process. We use two types of film: Tantalum and Nichrome (you can imagine how quickly our resistor range grows out of control and costs a fortune to maintain when we have 3 (now 4) resistor wattages, 4 types of end-cap, two films and another on the way, and E96 values plus a few custom). We weren't allowed inside as it's a clean environment.

Our resistors are produced on a traditional line which HDK built for themselves some years ago, it's these processes, and of course, our special materials, which make these resistors sound like they do. Although they are able to make quite a few resistors per month, it's a tiny amount compared to the likes of Vishay Beyschlag, as you can see in the photos and videos, it's almost a one-by-one process. It is a production line, but not like today's computer-controlled plants. This is hands-on.

Our custom silver end caps...

I captured a nice video of the spiral being cut (posted separately), you have to watch closely, but you can see it, there are also videos of the caps being feed into the machine, and resistors being tested on various machines.

The next day we took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo. Even though I've ridden it, and other express trains in Japan, many times before it's still an amazing sight to see it pull into the station. And, it's even more amazing to travel at 180 - 200 mph and hardly feel a bump or hear a noise. Maybe the most amazing thing is it's a feasible mode of transport, rail in the UK frankly isn't.

So, apart from killer jetlag, working at strange hours so to synchronize that jetlag with the UK, Taiwanese and Japanese working hours, it was an excellent and very productive trip!

Once again, I would like to thanks, Ike-san, Honda-san and Shima-san, all our friends at HDK for taking time to speak to and entertain us.

Andy Grove