Meet Mai: Glass artist, surfer and business owner

We recently caught up with Mai Akechi, owner of glass artwork business, Mai Mai Glass. She first came to Australia in the early 2000s and has been here for most of that time since the first visit in her university years. We were keen to find out why she loves it here, how she came to start her business and have her dream life in Australia. Read on to find out about Mai, a highly skilled and qualified Japanese glass artist with amazing talent.

Where are you originally from and what’s it like? I’m from Shikoku, Ehime, an island down in the south of Japan. It’s really countryside, it’s close to the beach, to the mountains, from my house I can smell the ocean. The beach doesn’t have waves because it’s between islands but I love going to the beach.

What brought you to Australia? The first time was during university – I was doing glass art for 4 years back at university (glass course in Fine Arts) in Japan and I wanted to find a job. I went to so many studios over there but I didn’t find the right one so I spoke to my professor and he said, why don’t you go to Australia? He was in Adelaide teaching glass art. I came to Australia with my friend and I loved it! It was so colourful and people were really friendly – I decided to stay in Australia after university. I came here on a student visa to Adelaide. I was an assistant to the artist but I couldn’t get a job because I couldn’t speak English at all. It was really hard to communicate because I couldn’t speak English at all. So I studied English.

So you went back to Japan and returned to Australia again? Yes, I then went back to Japan for 4 years and worked for a glass studio near Mt Fuji and wanted to save up money. I always wanted to go back to Australia and the next time I came back on a working holiday visa. I wanted to work. I bought a van and I was living in a car and worked on a farm then I started surfing with friends because there wasn’t much to do in the countryside! We lived in a caravan park just in front of the beach, picking blueberries and I started to surf – that’s why I’m still here I think.

Then you were on a student visa? What did you study? I took a business course because I wanted to make it happen with my glass art and being creative, having the business side is completely different and I had no idea how to do it so it was a really great decision to study business. Because I set my business up at school, my presentations were about my business and with accounting the teacher helped me out with how to make invoices. All the teachers helped me out so it gave me the confidence to start my business. It was quite useful. If you have no idea about the business side, you won’t succeed I think. Especially in Australia: it’s a different culture to Japan so I’m really glad I did it.

What other jobs did you do? When I was studying I was doing babysitting and cleaning jobs; and glass art but I wasn’t making money from it then. Then after a year I got commission work from a company. I also worked for glass artists as an assistant of glass blowing.

What has it been like setting up your business? I was at school then so I had lots of support and the teachers and staff helped me, it was a big thing. I had the confidence to try and the teachers gave me ideas how to sell, how to develop it, how to do the marketing, all those things. I also met a glass artist and she helped me out a lot. I lived with her for a while and used her glass studio. I think I talked about my dream a lot and it’s a great idea to talk about it because this is a way to meet great connections through people.

What advice would you give to other students thinking of starting their own business? Australia is more open to people wanting to have a business, it’s still a new country. In Japan, glass art is quite common but in Australia it’s not. If you have the passion for it, you just need to try it and studying is a really great idea to get to know the country and how business works as well.

“Australia is more open to people wanting to have a business, it’s still a new country….If you have the passion…you just need to try it and studying is a really great idea to get to know the country…”

Where did your passion for glass art start? In high school I did pottery and then I learnt glass art from my mum’s friend she was a stained glass artist.

How do you get inspiration for your work? From nature, it’s so beautiful, especially the ocean. The waves are beautiful. Most of my products are connected to the ocean: colours, shapes are inspired by the ocean. For me it’s a more simple process in Australia because it comes more naturally – from everyday life. I love Australian lifestyle, it’s more relaxed than Japan.

Can you tell me about your latest project of producing glass straws? Making glass straws is my passion to reduce all single use plastic. There are so many plastics on the beaches that I can see it my every day life on the Northern Beaches. This is destroying the environment and many marine animals are dying by eating and catching plastics. What I can do as a glass designer and maker is to make glass straws and eliminate plastic straws – this would be one of my steps.  I am hoping that this – my new project – would help to solve this environmental issue and to protect my favourite ocean and animals.

Mai on her surfboard (right)

“My products are connected to the ocean…it’s a more simple process in Australia…I love Australian lifestyle…”

You live on Sydney’s Northern Beaches…what do you like about living there? I love it! Surfing and snorkelling – Shelly Beach (Manly) you can see so many fish there, sometimes you can see sharks, but reef sharks so they’re okay. It’s beautiful, especially first thing in the morning. At sunrise, the water becomes pink, I love it, surfing in the pink warm water. There are lots of people, friends, we see each other in the water every day and we say hi to each other, it’s a nice feeling. My work is quite hot in summer because I use fire so I normally work in the early morning to about 2 o’ clock and then I often go for a swim at Shelly Beach to cool down, see the little fish! The Northern Beaches is great. I feel like I have more opportunity to meet people and more business opportunities. It’s busy there but not too busy.

What’s you ideal weekend like? What are your favourite places? Palm Beach. Normally every Sunday I go there to surf then we have coffee. I drive with my boyfriend. We have a little Japanese surf community there. Weekends can get a bit crowded in the Manly area so we go to Palm Beach. You can see dolphins quite often – its beautiful.

What do you think about Australia and what are your travel highlights? What has surprised you about Australia? I travelled with my van from the Sunshine Coast to the Great Ocean Road (Victoria). My favourite place is always a great surf point – Yamba – it’s beautiful. And Angourie – great surf spot and also Crescent Head, all the surf spots! Those places I like. I quite often go on day trips to the Central Coast – Catherine Hill Bay, Soldiers Beach. And Frazer Beach. It’s so special and such beautiful nature. Most of my travel is about surfing!

“…Australians also talk to other people on the street or on the bus, that was a surprise too…I love the culture.”

What are the strangest rules or habits here in Australia? Never being on time. You get used to it here and quite often I was waiting for people but Japan is really strict about time. I was always ten minutes early like the Japanese way. Now I’m like Australians and I’m never on time here. Australians also drink beer a lot even during the day. And Australians also talk to other people on the street or on the bus, that was a surprise too. They start conversations, like when you’re shopping and they say things like, Oh I like your dress! Those things never happen in Japan, we don’t do that. It’s pretty cool. I love the culture. I was on the bus to get to Manly and the bus driver was so nice, he was smiling to all the passengers. There was a 20 year old guy who said to the bus driver… you are always awesome... because the driver always drove carefully and was smiling at everyone. Wow, it was really nice, that’s Australia, not just drinking beer!

Mai, of MaiMaiGlass, in her studio at La Creme Creative, Brookvale

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