Near Yellow Mountain

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Taxis, cold weather, Kobe beef and rabbit head

A busy week traveling around Japan and China. I stayed in a new hotel in Osaka this week - the St Regis which will become my new Osaka home after many years at the Ritz Carlton. Anytime there is a new hotel with an English name in Japan, it is great sport to try to make a cab driver understand where you want to go. The Japanese normally add a vowel to the end of names to make it "Japanese". The question of course becomes what vowel should be used and the intonation.

I was traveling with a Japanese colleague so I let him take on the challenege - making "St Regis" Japanese. Unfortunately for my friend, the driver appeared on the north side of 65 and potentially not the most flexible person we would meet that day. The first attempt "Sainto Regisuu" left the driver with a quizical look and the question if our destination might have a Japanese name. The next attempt lead the driver to question the nationality of my friend. The driver looked over to me to see if maybe "the other foreigner" in the car could help. Of course, questioning my friend's lineage did not win the driver points although it did give me a good laugh. My mirth did not help smooth the tension in the car......

Being somewhat of an expert in these kind of communication issues across Asia, I unleashed what I like to call the "gaijin" solution.  I pulled out my Iphone and showed him the location of the hotel on the GPS app. While the driver's eyes had a bit of trouble finding the St Regis dot on the screen we were in business.

I'll finish this post later......

Two days, two countries and 9,000+ flight miles later. It is 4am US east coast time. After arriving home and getting a few hours sleep - I am in my home office with a cup of Irish breakfast tea uncertain as to whether I will be functional today.

Back to Japan.

Last week Japan was unseasonably cold - my long held policy of not traveling with an overcoat but only a light pair of gloves to steel me against the winter cold did not seem prudent. On the other hand, carrying an overcoat when you travel with just a carry - on and a laptop bag is impractical. As an emergency measure, I often put a gortex golf rainjacket in my carry - on "just in case".

After the devastation at the end of WW II and the post war rebuilding period - the Japanese seem to have a adopted a "never be cold again" policy. In the winter, the trains are too hot, the taxis are too hot and most public places are kept well above my set point for feeling the least bit chilled. From time to time, the chill factor in Tokyo is well below freezing. Faced with a five or ten minute walk from a train station to a meeting or back to the hotel from dinner, I question the wisdom of the no coat policy but the gloves are usually enough. Last week was an exception.

One of the delights of guiding people on a visit to Japan is introducing them to perhaps the greatest Japanese invention - Kobe beef. After a few nights of sashimi, sushi and the general Japanese tendency to serve volumes of food that sate the locals but leave foreigners raiding the hotel mini bar before midnight; the third or fourth night of a trip is the perfect time to plan a visit to a restaurant that serves the special fare from Hyogo Prefecture - the legendary beer drinking and well massaged Kobe beef. Just as the first time visitor is thinking he will have to live through another night of -: never seen before starters, raw fish, white rice and minmalist portions;  a Kobe beef restaurant that will serve "gaijin sized" portions (for a steep upcharge, of course) makes the previous meals a distant memory. Last week I had the good fortune of making such a trip with a co-worker from China. As our schedule would have it, we were in Tokyo and our local contact picked a Kobe beef restaurant in one of the most expensive areas of Tokyo - Ginza. The food was great but the most interesting thing for me was to watch my friend's perplexed look as he converted the Yen prices on the menu to his home currency. He gasped as he did the mental math - he asked me if we really could be paying so many RMB for this meal. Oh no, I assured him.... we are paying more because we need to "size up" - the normal 100 gram serving does not "translate" nearly as well as the 250 gram serving.

After the chef did his work and began to deliver bit size quantities of the mouth watering meat from the hot steel cooking surface in front of us - the currency conversion forgotten. That was Wednesday night.

By Saturday evening, my coworker and I were in his native Sichuan province. Specifically in Chengdu. A city of 10 million people that is generally not well known outside of China except for people who are aware that Chengdu is the "Panda capital of the world". Chengdu is a special place - although it has become prosperous in recent years with companies like Intel investing millions; the core value of Chengdu residents is "chilling out" - drinking tea, talking to friends, playing mahjong, etc. They are proud that they don't work too hard. You have to love a place where getting your ears cleaned for the equivalent of a couple of bucks is a favorite pastime. The ear cleaning professionals are equipped more like someone who is preparing for major surgery. Enough said.....

We were visiting the city to meet with customers that have become old friends. They had decided to fill a gap in my Sichuan culinary experience by taking me to a local "country" restaurant. As we drove out of the city and the glitz of the increasingly wealthy Chengdu was replaced by a more rural atmosphere; we pulled into the driveway of a restaurant that looked like it possibly hadn't served a meal since before the cultural revolution; I knew the evening would be "special". I was taken out to fields behind the restaurant to watch the veggies we would eat being picked - looked a lot like weeds to me but I was game for the experience. Next we went to large tanks so we could select the fish that would be served minutes later. I noted the translucent water in the fish tank but reminded myself that Chinese grill their fish. Fortunately the geese I saw were not menu items and the dog that wagged his tail as I approached was a pet - we were, after all, in southwest China not north China. I was pleased the dog was safe.

We went into a spartan, concrete block building and sat around a large table where tea was served before the meal started. As we arrived, I noticed the restaurant sign had a large paintng of a rabbit but since I hadn't seen any rabbits on our tour of the grounds I didn't think too much more about it. As the meal was served the fish we had selected less than 30 minutes before began to reappear prepared in various ways, the veggies arrived and were quite tasty and then a very large bowl arrived. It was overflowing with small shapes that I  couldn't identify. Finally I was told - this is the specialty of the restaurant - rabbit head. I pretty much eat what I am served and either enjoy it or try to act like I do. This night was no exception. I am the only one in my family with no experience on the stage but apparently that night my "act" of enjoyment was well received. It was also rewarded by calls to "eat more". As we ate; the "bai jiu" appeared - a favorite of my friends - the Chinese equivalent of "white lightening" is 58% alochol (not 58 proof). I figured the antiseptic qualities of bai jiu would serve me well as the meal passed through my system.

I whispered to my friend who had shared the wonders of Kobe beef with me just a few days before: "we sure aren't in Ginza". He smiled and said: "Joe, you know, Japan is a developed country but China is a developing country".  That is the beauty of getting to travel in Asia. The Ginza and the Chengdu meals could not have been more different. I enjoyed them both - but for very different reasons.