Monday, October 15, 2007

JAPAN: Domo Arigato, especially for the Tacos.

where to start with Japan? not really quite sure, so be warned, this is likely to be a rambling post filled with further random observations. while much of this was actually written on a Shinkansen (bullet train), hurtling towards Tokyo (and away from Kobe), although all things Tokyo were written in the comforts of my Singapore-air flight “home.” of course, this has given me more than enough time to reflect (and edit) on my thoughts.

so what brought me BACK to the land of the Rising Sun? mostly work in Kobe, but we came in the weekend before to check out Kyoto, for which i had heard so many amazing things. coming back to Japan has been an interesting experience, as the last time i was here (August 2002) i was in a much different state of my life, transitioning between what i would consider pretty significant events. being the sentimental sap that i am, the whole time here i could not but help recall the person i once was. while i had a great time visiting friends last time (there’s even irony to the timing of my revisit), i still feel the impact (and regret) for decisions made back then. on this new trip, our last weekend was in fact spent in Tokyo, in a a city i never thought i’d come back to.

all in all though, it’s been a good trip, where i’ve gained much more insight into the people that are of Nippon. but, i digress. onward!

NOTE – if you haven’t already seen the pictures i was posting real-time (well, at least for Kyoto), click each day, or scroll to the previous entries below.

KYOTO, Saturday, 6.Oct.2007:

we caught a 1am flight from Singapore to Osaka. the problem with red-eyes isn’t their timing, per-say (i find them remarkably efficient), it’s the time it takes to taxi, take off, and eventually turn out the lights, is just long enough to screw up a good night’s sleep. i actually had checked out Fax from Sarajevo from the library, which was quite the page-turner (highly recommended). eventually i nodded off, only to have the early morning wake-up/go back to sleep cycle as the always cute Singapore-air flight attendants served us breakfast. we landed ~8am in Japan, and took our time between the customs line + catching our JR-train to Kyoto, since we wouldn’t be able to check in to our weekend accommodations until later that afternoon.

while Kathryn nodded in and out of sleep on the train, i spent the ~1 hour trip getting my crash course on Japan, thanks to my Lonely Planet guide. it’s funny, in school i found the mandatory reading of history to be quite tedious, droning on and on. however, when i travel, i find myself often immersed in the historical + cultural information of the place i am about to see (again thanks to the people at Lonely Planet & Let’s Go, for whom my trophy-like book shelf is expanding quite nicely). but it’s usually the 1 hour or so before i arrive. i guess that says something about me (the importance of relevance and procrastination)

we finally arrived at Kyoto station, which was quite impressive. towering atriums and connections to rail lines going every which way. we quickly found our way to the subway station, and figured out how we’d need to transfer to get to our final destination. our first encounter with the infamous Japanese train crowd was mild, as we queued up to catch our next train.

my biggest fear about returning Japan was language. and while i’ve often traveled into foreign lands where i don’t speak the language, more often than not, there’s been some help (either it was in Europe where I spoke the language and/or knew a local/someone who’d been around long enough to guide me in the right direction). the last time i was in Japan, my friends knew their way around well enough for me to not have to worry. this time we were on our own. but navigating the rail lines was easier than i thought it would be. i’m not sure if it was the ½ english signs, our Lonely Planet book, or the fact that Kathryn planned everything and i just assisted along (teamwork!). regardless, once out of the confusing, but manageable rail system, Japan is an interesting experience in being illiterate. you’re surrounded by a very modern + familiar society, but you can’t read signs or menus, the things that we walk through life taking for granted. at least illiterate people have the spoken word at their disposal. for us, everything was gibberish.

by the time we arrived, it was a short walk several blocks to the Rakucho Ryokan (ryokan is a type of Japanese inn) where we were staying. we arrived and were greeted my a nice old lady. we removed our shoes and put on house sandals, filled out some paperwork, and were taken upstairs to our room, which was 2 small rooms attached by a sliding doorway. in one room lay 2 small comforter/mattresses (though not as thick as the American variety, much more comfortable). in the other room, was a small table on the floor. the entire floor was covered by soft mats. the showers and baths, while private, were shared among all the inn residences. it was a really, nice and quaint place to stay for the weekend.

after settling in and taking an hour or so to rest up, we headed out to explore the city. we were staying in the northern part of the city, so decided to walk over to one of the nearby sites – the Daitokuji Temple, which was one of the oldest Zen temples in Japan (where some say Zen was founded). we entered the temple grounds, for which there were many shrines you could wander in and out of (of course for a price). these temples and shrines, having existed for hundreds of years, were meticulously kept, filled with meditation rooms and rock gardens. truly impressive. Kyoto is probably the most interesting city in Japan (site to more than 17 UNESCO world heritage sites). i personally have a theory about cities - in many of the countries i have visited, there are 2 types of cities, (1) the ultra-modern, cosmopolitan/western-based city (which just happens to be in a certain country, reflecting the base culture, and (2) the city that just exudes the national culture, and is uniquely ____-an. for Japan, Tokyo is that modern city (based on my past experience, and Kyoto is the cultural one. i think it’s obvious that i prefer the latter, more culturally unique city i’ll continue my listing below (country, modern city, cultured city):
  • Australia: Sydney, Melbourne
  • Canada: Toronto, Montreal
  • China: Shanghai, Beijing
  • Germany: Frankfurt/Berlin, Munich
  • India: Mumbai, Delhi (though it’s debatable which is which :)
  • Spain: Madrid, Barcelona
another thing i really admire about Japan, is their progressive spirit. in the past 50 years, they’ve evolved from a their industrial development, taking them to the brink of pollution and waste, to an efficient, modern society. they’ve eeked out much of the waste in their system (to be clear, there is quite a bit more to go, especially when you see the sheer amount of over-packaging and wooden chopsticks) to have a society which seems to be more in harmony with their natural surroundings. the easiest illustration of this is not just their massive use of public transportation, but the fact that on the local level, almost everyone casually rides a bike to get around their town/city, or at a min, to get from their residence to their train station, which takes them the rest of the way. but they eat and cook with a lot of fish, which has a weird fishy taste.

after wandering the Zen temples of Daitokuji, we continued to wander the streets, trying to orient ourselves and find our way back. after having spent more than a month in the never-changing, tropical climate of Singapore, the crisp fall weather was a welcome change (autumn is my favorite season, which i was sorely missing out on in South Asia). we wound up snaking through several neighborhoods before returning to our familiar train station, from which we headed into the city for dinner. once in the city, we set out on a mission to find a specific restaurant featured in our lonely planet book for dinner. we overshot it early on, and spent our time further searching for it in the streets, seeing much more as we went along. we eventually found it closer to our start point, and settled into one of the oldest original soba (Japanese noodle) restaurants in the city. after dinner, we wandered the streets more, through covered arcades and stores. we were pretty worn out though, so we jumped into a nearby train station, made a few transfers, and walked home to pass out, calling it an early night.

KYOTO, Sunday, 7.Oct.2007:
we spent our one full day in Kyoto exploring the most historical part of town, Higashiyama, in the south. we started off at the Eikan-do temple grounds. like the Daitokuji, it was a huge complex where you could enter into different shrines and entrances. we started at the huge gateway, which we were able to take our shoes off and walk up into. from there found several other buildings, many of which did not allow public entrance or pictures inside. we found our way to Nanzenji temple, which was full of rock gardens.

after the temple, we wandered to the edge of the grounds, where came upon a large aqueduct, and followed the trail behind it through a cemetery, and into the hills. we came across a small series of mini-shrines, leading up a trail to a stream-made waterfall. this was considerably more serene than the already calm temples and shrines we had been in, given we were the only two people there. we came back down the hill, and walked along the aqueduct for a bit, into a park, which eventually led us back into the city.

using our guidebook, we found a local restaurant to eat it (english menus are key). we were taken upstairs into a small room, where we removed our shoes, sat on the floor, and ordered our “set lunches” of meat, rice, tea, and assorted fishy vegetables.

after lunch we walked towards Maruyama park, passing by several temples on the way. our goal was the see the ancient Chion-in temple, but on our way there, we opted to stop for ice-cream first (green tea + vanilla swirl). by the time we walked back to the temple, it had closed, so we wandered into Maruyama park, where we walked through the streets, finding, of all things, a country music festival, cowboy boots and all.

down a side street were stairs up towards the Kodaji temple, which had also just closed. rather than pulling a total Raman move, and sneaking in through the exit, we simply wandered the ground and gates, where we saw quite the big Bhudda (we’re talking i-75 to Dayton Jesus-sized) atop the main temple. the sun soon began to sink to the western sky, for which a monk began to forcefully strike quite the large bell, as we watched the sun descent through the clouds into the mountains.

back through the streets, we made our way towards the city, quickly passing through the Kenninji temple grounds, but soon found ourselves back on the street. we walked towards the amo river, passing a number of sweets shops, as people crowded inside at them. there were also a few street vendors selling what looked like cooked rice cakes dipped in syrup. after crossing a bridge over the river, we sat on the banks to rest. it felt as if it were the late evening, but was only 7pm. we walked through the local Takishymaya center department store, checking out the food court in the basement. we wound up back in central Kyoto, where we hunted for dinner, eventually opting to play it safe (given my earlier-mentioned fishy distaste) and enjoy the fine college-student-student filled buffet of Shakey’s pizza. exhausted, we made haste for the trains, arriving back at our Ryoken to watch some tv via the laptop/slingbox, and passed out.

KYOTO, Monday, 8.Oct.2007:
monday happened to be yet another Japanese holiday (they are quite frequent, by government design), so i simply took the day off in Singapore (so we could have the weekend before in Japan). this days was apparently Gymnastics Day (which also happens to fall on the US Columbus day…coincidence?). but as we had to check out of our Ryoken by 10am, we got up, and quickly packed up our bags, riding into the city to Kyoto station, where we searched (in vain) for a locker to drop our bags. we eventually wound up checking it at a counter for a few hours. we decided to check out the station, going to the top deck, overlooking the train station atriums and the city. came back down and saw some kids in a rock band playing.

caught the subway to the Nijo castle. spent an hour or so there, and wandered back into the streets in search of lunch. the restaurant our book guided us to was closed, so we wandered, making a quick stop at the International Manga Museum. we wound up finding some local fast food across the street. random saucy meat over a bowl of rice. we walked further down the streets toward the Kyoto imperial park. wandered the park for a bit, then quickly made our way back to the subway, eager to catch our train to Kobe, since we still had to find our hotel there, and i had a full week of work ahead of me.

it took about 90 mins to get from Kyoto to Kobe, quickly passing through Osaka on our way. once in Kobe, we had to switch trains to a local island express, which took us to Rocco island, where the P&G office was. conveniently enough, the train station was connected to our hotel, which was right across the street from the office. given we were booked on a single occupancy rate (and double occupancy costs twice as much), we had to sneak Kathryn in (which made for some entertaining hotel entrances/exits during our time in Kobe). rather than being adventurous for our dinner, we opted to eat at a nearby Wendy’s, since it was the first one i’d seen during my stay in Asia. nothing beats a spicy chicken sandwich and a frosty (the frosty’s here tasting significantly better than their US counterparts, must be all the cow massaging done for the infamous Kobe beef)!

KOBE, working the week away
[Tuesday – Friday, 9-12.Oct.2007]

i won’t get too much into details of work (otherwise i’d have to kill you). but the gist of my week was meetings w/ brand managers and marketing directors, learning more about the local business (brands like Ariel, Bold, and Lenor for laundry, as well as Joy and Febreze). i’m here to continue a few of our pilots along, as well as build out an i-marketing strategy where there previously was none. japan is an exciting market to work in, given it’s as developed as N.America + W.Europe, and it’s consumers are significantly more digitally savvy.

speaking of consumers, let’s talk about how they look. now while you might assume i’m going to go off on a wildly demeaning, stereotypical tangent, fear not. i’m going to talk about how good-looking Japanese people are (which is probably just as bad, but i figure i’m complementing them – well the good-looking ones, so it’s ok). Japanese men tend to have very pronounced features. on a whole, Kathryn + i have seen a higher incidence level attractive men to females. but when the women are good-looking, they are quite beautiful (re-affirming my hetero-sexuality). i can confidently say, that 2 of the most attractive Japanese people i have seen (one male, one female) actually work at our offices in Kobe. to be clear, while they are nice to look at, more importantly, they also kick ass at work. oh, and our office building looks like the headquarters for a super hero team (like the justice league, avengers, or fantastic four) - so naturally everyone must be good-looking & fashionable (well as good-looking and fashionable as wearing tights can make you)

while i was out working (doing my i-marketing song and dance), Kathryn was able to get out and explore a bit of the area (hopefully not checking out the hot guys, and even if she was, i should be ok, since as nations, China + Japan tend not to get along). she spent her first day riding out to Himejima, where one of the larger castles in the Kansai region was. another day was spent in the surrounding mountains, and the remaining days resting and wandering around Kobe + Rocco Island. during my days of work, as i looked out the windows at the surrounding mountains, oceans, and city, i would continuously be jealous of Kathryn, out and about wandering.

beyond the general surroundings inside and outside of the office, there was one other thing i noticed. sitting at many people’s desks were these round, colored, coconut shaped spirit figures. having also seen them in the office of my general manager in the us (who had recently relocated from Japan), i asked my local manager about this, and he told me they were dahrumas. as i suspected, they represented spirits. basically you make a wish (setting a goal), and you draw one eye on the spirit, keeping the other one unfilled (such that it looks like it is winking). when the wish comes true, you fill in the other eye, and keep it as a trophy of your accomplishment, honoring the spirit. i have plans to get one in Tokyo, to mark the progress of my work in not just Japan, but all of Asia.

all in all, it was a very productive work week, making some strong connections, while also enjoying some low-key, relaxing dinners w/ my colleagues ...though the attractive, but rare, female sushi-chef featured on the right was from another dinner we had one our own (though proving one of my above points). by week's end, i was able to get firm alignment (how’s that for P&G lingo?) with senior management over the strategies i was ready to put in place for Japan. now comes the hard part: actually getting it done.

TOKYO, Friday, 12.Oct.2007
by the end of my work week, i was exhausted and mentally drained, and ready to focus on my energies on something that was not work. so friday evening, we hopped on the Shinkansen (bullet-train), and made our way towards Tokyo. the bullet-train wasn’t as impressive as i hoped it would be, but that probably had to do with us traveling by night, barely able to see much of the country racing by at 300 km/hr. but it was fast, and my time here has me extremely impressed (and intimidated) by the Japanese rail system. i could only wish that the states was linked in such a comprehensive (and frequently-traveled web of rail.

we arrived in Tokyo late, and zig-zagged our way through multiple rail lines towards the older part of the city, Asakusa, where we’d be staying. fortunately, we had already spent much of our time navigating Japanese rails in other, simpler cities, because i would hate to have been even less prepared for the onslaught of confusion that presented itself. we managed though, and soon found ourselves checking in the less-than-modern Asakusa view hotel, a relic of the grand hotel it must have once been. we checked in, and chose to wander the streets, which felt like the remnants of an old carnival. we were tired, and called it an early night.

TOKYO, Saturday, 13.Oct.2007:
slept in, a luxury i hadn’t been allowed the week before. we decided to give our older part of town, Asakusa, another try in the daylight. we made our day down the streets from the night before, beyond the neon, down the streets that were boarded up and abandoned, and now teeming with activity. we pushed own the streets towards the local shrine. before we could get there though, we had to brave the open market tourist-thronged gauntlet. it was easy to get distracted by all of the wares being sold on the street market, and it took us some time to make it to yet another shrine (after having been to Kyoto, we would be hard to impress).

what did catch our eye was the hawkers selling their street meat. we resisted temptation, and decided to get the shrine out of the way before pausing for a bite, and heading back down the streets in search of commerce, gaudy souvenirs (magnets + patches!), and a few cans of iced coffee from the vending machines lining the surrounding streets.

in the afternoon we had plans to meet my friend Marie, a former coworker of mine now living in Tokyo, who reached out to me when she found out i’d be working in asia. marie + her husband, toru (who works at the Japanese Space Agency on the International Space Station – how frakkin’ cool is that?) would be our hosts for the night. we hopped on a JR-train to Akihabara, which is the “tech district” part of town. while this was one of the many places in Tokyo i would wind up re-visiting on this trip, it definitely was something worth showing Kathryn. in the five years since i had last been in Tokyo though, an interesting thing had happened in Akihabara – while it remains the technology town of the city, it has been overrun by anime + mange (Japanese cartoons + comics, a mainstay of the pop-literary culture here). as soon as we walked out of the station, there were girls in full costume (mostly maids, apparently popular this season), handing out flyers for this store and that (mostly tech stuff).

we quickly got off the main streets and snaked through the smaller side streets, outside, for a small fee, there was a service for men to lay their head in a woman’s lap (dressed in costume of course), and have their ears cleaned. as intriguing as this was, Marie was intent to show us one of the more interesting stores off the beaten path. we eventually found ourselves in a 5-story shop that had anything and everything, from imported packaged goods, to the trendiest counter-culture fashion, to home goods. on the top level, was a restaurant where you could pick your character, and have your dinner served to you by them. satisfied with the utter zaniness of it all, we got back on the trains, and made our way to the Tokyo center (basically the business district), where we’d pause for a drink, and wait for a few more of Marie’s friends to get in town (visiting from Kobe). Marie + i caught up on the more interesting pieces of work (people), and Toru enlightened the inner nerds in Kathryn + me to his work at the Japanese Space Agency.

we walked from Tokyo-center towards Ginza, which is basically the ritzier, 5th Avenue part of Tokyo. the lights lit up the sky, but were more intentional than the chaos of the Akihabara. on our way to dinner, we walked by the most famous kabuki theatre in Tokyo. the restaurant Marie + Toru had in mind was closed, so we wandered until we eventually found a dive of a Izakaya, in the basement of a building. in the able-hands of the locals, Kathryn + i allowed our hosts to order everything, which was eaten (like all meals in Japan), family style. there were drinks all around, and many a fishy dish, literally and figuratively. but we ate anyways and had a good time. this was probably one of the more expensive dinners we had in Japan (the others also having been w/ fellow P&G-ers in Kobe – big surprise), but why not? i probably can’t play back half of the things we dined on, but i took lots of pictures for future reference:

after dinner we made our way out for tea and dessert. on the streets though was a throng of body guards and reporters following what seemed to be a few local celebrities, decked out in traditional attire. we joined in the fun and played paparazzi, if only for the cultural significance of it all. dessert was a lazy, shared one, and Kathryn + i soon said our goodbyes to Marie, and the rest of our new friends, riding to the end of the Ginza line and calling it a night.

TOKYO, Sunday, 14.Oct.2007:
up earlier than i would have liked, but we had plans to meet w/ one of Kat’s brother’s friends, Adriene (and believe me, i never grew tired of yelling “hey Adriennnnnne!” all day) in Harijuku, which was pretty much the other side of town from us. as soon as we stepped out of the station, i knew exactly where i was, as nostalgia washed over me from years before. Adriene soon arrived. Adriene, from Malaysia, is studying international business in Tokyo, and had clearly taken many a visiting friend around this part of town. we wandered into the Meiji Shrine, a large, tree-canopied park near the city center, and home to one of the more sacred shrines in the region. while Adriene gave Kat the guided tour, i hung behind and spent time reminiscing, capturing my surroundings in my camera lens. we came across the many barrels of saki and french wine, left as an offering to the spirits.

after several minutes along the graveled path, we made it the main shrine, and washed our hands before entering. immediately to our right was a woman being prepared by many attendants, for what appeared to be her formal wedding ceremony. soon many other visitors to the shrine were surrounding here, capturing the moment of something more authentically, and personally Japanese. i stopped for a few minutes to wonder if she was prepared to be photographed by so many strangers, foreign and local, but then figured she was getting married at so public a shrine, it had to have been expected.

further into the shrine, were many local families dressed in their sunday best, with their children in either formal or traditional attire for blessings and pictures. we found some of this to be amusingly cute. there were wooden sheets individuals and families wrote their wish down and for a few, had tied to a wall for an official blessing (for a fee, of course, after all, religion is oft profitable venture in Japan).

probably the most conspicuous thing we noticed at the shrine were lines of people carrying old dolls. we soon discovered that we had the fortune of being there for "Japanese Shrine Doll Thanksgiving Day," an annual practice since the late 80s. to the Japanese, dolls of all types (traditional and modern) can be seen as sacred, and they often find it difficult to just throw or give them away. so instead they can bring them to the shrine, and for a fee (of course), have the dolls spirits blessed before they are taken away (to be incinerated the next day, an event that i can only imagine involves a huge doll bonfire, something which the nonexistent cruel parent in myself envisions taking my kids to one day). there were thousands of dolls, old and new arranged about, and people writing their blessings for their doll and standing in line to partake in the Shinto ceremony, beyond those that were their for the more traditional Shinto prayers. perhaps one day i’ll bring all of my action figures to Japan.

from the forest, we made a brief stop on the Meiji Bridge, where many teenagers were dressed in goth attire at their usual attire. their motivation for doing so (other than to protest the happiness of life, of course), is mostly friendly and innocent, that of self-expression and attention-getting. and while most are quite disturbingly attired, they’re actually all quite friendly, and love taking pictures with the tourists. there are many other street performers as well, some boy-band wannabes, some legitimate street musicians, and then of course, the obligatory guy pretending to be bono and dancing to his portable stereo.

back in Harijuku proper, we descended down the infamous Takeshita Street, home to the alternative counter-culture of Japanese youth. from stores selling the latest in goth attire, to the hippest western gear, anything a cool kid could want was here. and as if that wasn’t enough, there was a guy in a dragon costume standing on a ladder yelling into a megaphone. what more could you want?

we turned onto another familiar main street, where we visited one of my favorite sites, kiddy land, 5 stories (and one basement) of all the latest kids toys. while most of it was cutesy Japanese stuff (something that they honestly never grow out of, as seen by the sheer number of cartoons in official signage and advertisements that permeate the local culture), i got my fill of killer manga robots. from kiddy land we visited some more familiar sites, the last of which was Omotesando hills, a multi-story mall built into a hill. in the basement of said mall, we came across a Toyota concept exhibit for a personal people-mover, which was half-segway, half-Jetsons. only in Japan. we soon bid our good-bye to our afternoon guide Adrienne, and Kat + i excitedly found both a taco and a kebab stand.

we hopped down one station to Shibuya, which aside from having a really cool name, is another crowded shopping district of distraction. we faced the crowds, popped in and out of a few cool shops, and of course took pictures of the surrounding craziness. we were exhausted from an early day though, and had a long train ride back to our hotel, so we took the top-most loop to see the rest of the surrounding city from the train windows.

for dinner we had actually made plans to meet Reiko, the cousin of a friend (of a friend, Rajiv’s good buddy Josh, who i’ve hung out w/ a few times). they were kind enough to meet us in a nearby neighborhood of ours, so we jumped in our first Japanese cab (which are known for being horrifically expensive).

DEPARTING, Monday, 15.Oct.2007:

Monday is (was) Hari-raya, a holiday in Singapore, but much of our day was spent in transit. first a 45 min train ride to the local airport, where we caught our local connection from Tokyo to Osaka, and then a few hours wandering the Kansei international airport before boarding our return flight Singapore, where much of this post was cleaned up and finished off. our arrival was late, and i find myself posting this even later. a full week of work lays ahead, and the coming week (and weekend) has it’s own set of adventures ahead. a preview: meine mutter, and Thailand.

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