Near Yellow Mountain

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The laws of travel

I have come across more than one immutable travel law over the years:

1)  Never be the first person to board a flight from Japan to the US on an American carrier - you simply ensure yourself an extra inspection of your bags and your person that renders you the 50th person to board and no overhead space for your  luggage anywhere near your seat. I guess all those people flying on JAL to JFK are a much safer lot that do not require added security

2) Never look inside the kitchen in a restaurant in China (perhaps anywhere but I am sure about China). Like a moth attracted to the flame, I am always tempted to see what goes on beyond the often dirty plastic sheeting that for some reason not clear to me serves as a doorway to many restaurant kitchens in China. Do I really mind that the person preparing my hot peppered chicken is both smoking over and sweating into my food?  Perhaps not, because I keep going back to the same place and have never gotten sick there. Do I mind when I see a small rodent scurry across the kitchen floor? Yes, I do and I do not return to those restaurants. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

3) Always hit the “do not disturb” button in your hotel room before getting in the shower or going to the toilet. Anytime I forget this law travel, results in some well intentioned  service person (the exception to this rule is 99% of US hotels) delivering laundry, wanting to check the mini-bar or arriving with a “welcome drink”. 

4) If you are not sure what a button means on a Japanese toilet - DO NOT push it. I think every member of my family learned this lesson the hard way. My memorable moment was before teeing off at a Japanese golf course many years ago. I pressed a button and knew it was a bad idea when I heard a hydraulic noise and then remembered that I had been warned to “beware of high tech toilets in Japan”. Before I could manage to get up and out of my stall (I was enjoying the warmth of the toilet seat on a cool fall morning); I was soaked by the spray that was supposed to clean my private area rather than soak my golf attire. I had to endure the walk of shame past several people who saw the “gaijin” come out of the locker room area dripping on his way to the first tee.

More later........

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Discovery Channel

Over the years I have done a lot of commuting between Japan and China. When I lived in Kobe, I went to China about once a month. When I lived in Shanghai, I went to Japan more than once a month. On almost every trip, I flew on All Nippon Airlines (ANA or “Zen Niku”).  ANA is a top level airline with a modern fleet and great service but I flew ANA for a different reason – the selection of Japanese movies with English subtitles.  Of course, ANA has an up to date selection of American movies but I use my flight time to try to get a better handle on the language and the culture through Japanese movies.

Yesterday I flew from Tokyo to Shanghai – I watched a wonderful movie about a couple that runs an Inn/bakery in Hokkaido and their adventures dealing with a cross section of customers.I like the way the films are shot – much simpler than most American movies with less “action” and much less violence.  

As the years have gone by I find less need to rely on the subtitles but the main benefit of the movies is seeing how Japanese view various relationships.  Unlike the US, the Japanese seem comfortable with sad endings – the guy doesn’t always get the girl, good doesn’t always triumph over evil, etc. Despite being a country that provides the world with very violent and insensitive Manga comics and video games, much of Japanese cinema seems to come from a different culture than the one that drives the authors of the thick, violent comic books contained in the briefcases of so many salarymen. I guess this is consistent with Japan being “an enigma wrapped in a riddle” to paraphrase Churchill speaking on a completely different topic.I got a surprising amount of insight into how Japanese companies work and how workers relate to each other through a series of movies about a “salary man slacker” that constantly avoided work to sneak off and fish often cleverly involving the CEO to support his sloth  – a completely improbable premise that worked for 20 movies. On the surface, the series was simple minded but I watched each of these movies multiple times and found it helped me understand the structure and behavior of big Japanese companies much better than most of the books I have read on the subject. When it was announced that “Tsuri Baka 20” would be the last of the series – I felt like I was losing an old friend.

Nishida Toshiyuki in Tsuri Baka
My Japanese customers are normally surprised when I mention Japanese movies and actors.  A nice change from talking about weather and golf.  For me, the “Discovery Channel” is not on cable TV, it is on the in flight video system of ANA.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A tale of two cities

For the past 15 years I have spent more time in Japan than I have in the US. I have not spent eight weeks in a row out of Japan since the mid 90s. Despite all the time here I am still amazed at how much I don’t know about the “Dai Nippon” and how much I enjoy learning.
While much conventional western “wisdom” paints the country as one where almost everyone thinks and behaves in lock-step, my experience would indicate that is view of Japan is one based on vast oversimplification.
Generally speaking societies influenced by Confucian thought are more group centered than individualistic in outlook than western societies – particularly the US. This is neither good nor bad, it simply is but it certainly can cause misunderstanding when Americans arrive in Japan.
A classic example of confusion is the first time American businessman coming to Japan and being told “hai” means “yes”. During a week of meetings when he hears his Japanese hosts say “hai, hai hai” to almost all his utterings, there is a tendency for the self confident American to think he has bridged the cross cultural gap via his natural ability. It is only when the first timer returns home to report his great success to HQ and finds out later none of his “agreements” resulted in any concrete results or new business that he wonders why all those friendly Japanese “turned” on him after he left the country. Of course, in the age of Google, anyone with ten minutes and a few key words can find the classic cultural differences BEFORE going to Japan but still very few American business seem to do that. On my first few visits I had the good fortune to meet an older Japanese man who explained in detail the classic difficulties in communicating with American. As I began to learn the basics of the language, it was easy to see that the fundamentals of language and thinking in Japan were in many ways opposite of American thought and language.
After becoming interested in Japan and making frequent trips, I read many things about the country that in most cases were written by Americans who had never lived in Japan, I found it interesting that, despite what I read, Japanese rarely seemed to “think alike”; they simply paid more respect to other’s opinions. While it seemed that the Japanese cared more about their group than Americans did; the people I interacted with seemed just as different from one another as Americans.
On most visits to Japan, I visited both Osaka and Tokyo. Each time I arrived in Tokyo after taking the Shinkansen from Osaka, I felt like I was in a different country but it was a feeling I had a hard time articulating. After several trips I finally noticed the fact that on escalators in Tokyo the behavior was opposite of Osaka. In Osaka, like the US, if you are going to stand, you stand on the right side of the escalator; if you want to walk you walk on the left. Not so in Tokyo which is the oposite. A simple thing that became a metaphor for me of the differences between the two major regions of Japan.
I also found I like the food in Kansai (Osaka area) better than Kanto (Tokyo area). Gradually I noticed simple things like the fact Tokyo soy sauce was thicker and saltier. Later I was to learn that the power in Osaka is different than Tokyo 60 Hz vs 50 Hz. This became a major issue after last year’s Tsunami when the power difference greatly limited the ability of western Japan to share power with eastern Japan.
When my family moved to Japan we lived in Kansai. It became more and more apparent that I felt more comfortable in the Osaka area than Tokyo because the people in Kansai seemed more outgoing and friendly to foreigners even when they couldn’t speak the English.  I had previous experience with this, on one of my first trips I was given a map and told the taxi driver would have no trouble getting me from the hotel to the restaurant where I was supposed to meet a group for dinner. Try as he might, my driver could not find the place so I motioned for him to stop and took the map into a convenience store and showed it to the man behind the counter. He didn’t speak English but it was obvious I needed help. The man grabbed his coat, locked his store and escorted me to the place. I could not imagine that happening in Tokyo or NY.
I am back living in the US but still visit Japan every six weeks or so. Most of my visits to Japan now center on Tokyo because most of my customers are headquartered there. Now that I speak the language well enough to get around without a “handler”; I appreciate Tokyo much more than I used to but I still have a soft spot for Kansai – when I got off the Shinkansen a couple hours ago in Shin Osaka station; I smiled as I stood with my luggage on the down escalator – on the “right” hand side.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

That's the Ticket

I am in the process of taking the “long way around” from the US to Tokyo – through Europe.  As I wait to board a Singapore Airlines A380 in Zurich, I am looking at the snow capped mountains of Switzerland.  I decided a long time ago to try to enjoy getting from point A to point B as much as possible. Despite declining service on airlines, particularly US based carriers, and the impact of 9/11 on air travel I still try to smell the proverbial roses as much as possible on long trips.
Anyone who has traveled internationally or has any sense of geography probably knows that the fastest way to Japan from the US is across the Pacific.  So why, make a long trip longer?  Actually there are a lot of reasons but the main one is the flexibility and cost of the “Around the World” ticket.  I have been using RTWs as they called since 1995. RTWs are easy to change with minimal fees and if you learn the detailed rules and are creative - you can get thousands of extra dollars in flights before closing out the ticket..
Back in the good old days, I convinced our division controller that it made more sense for me to spend $5,500 for a first class RTW than spend $6,500 for a round trip business class ticket to Tokyo.  I had to ask for permission because most companies limit first class travel to a very small number of people and at that time I was pretty far down the corporate food chain but a frequent traveler to Japan. “Don’t they have a business class RTW” asked the controller? “Yes they do I responded but don’t be greedy, you are saving money and first class is my compensation for spending the extra time in the air”.  He bought it but the soul less cost cutters we have now insist on business class. Fortunately the RTW is upgradable but getting upgraded is dependent with your “relationship” with each carrier. I use Star Alliance now and maintain top level status on United and Singapore Airlines.  These two airlines can get me most places I want to go and high level status is critical to getting upgrades.
Although it does take more time to go through Europe, I prefer leaving the US in the late afternoon or evening (easier to sleep) and arriving in Japan in the morning (two days later due to the time change). I always seem to have less jet lag when I arrive in the morning, go for a run and have some meetings. By night time, it is easy to sleep.
I started using RTWs before Star Alliance and One World existed. The first combination of airlines I used was Singapore Airlines, SwissAir and Delta. Singapore and SwissAir had great seats and entertainment, excellent in-flight service and the food was pretty good too. Delta was, well, Delta and I only used them for domestic connections. Getting off a Hong Kong to San Francisco Singapore Airlines flight and transferring to San Francisco to Atlanta on Delta was the ultimate in contrasts – from an airline that couldn’t do enough for you to the “cattle car” environment of Delta.
Of course you can do a RTW in the opposite direction, fly over the Pacific to Japan but that means flying against the wind adding hours to an entire RTW journey. It is also much more difficult to fly from Asia to Europe and make a connection to the US without a long layover. I have done trips in this direction but usually wonder why when I spent several hours in a lounge between two flights of more than 10 hours each.
As I finish writing this I am on the train from Narita airport in Tokyo to Tokyo station staring out at cherry blossoms just past full bloom. Over 30 hours of travel but I feel fine because I was able to get in first class and have a seat you can really sleep in. I watched 5 movies – including the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which I only watched because I had seen most of the other new releases. Pleasant surprise – I really enjoyed it as I did “Seven Days in Utopia”. In keeping with my long standing tradition, I only worked on layovers – preferring to enjoy the time when I can’t be reached by email or phone. Yes, I am aware that my airlines have Wi-Fi now but I won’t be using it. Not because I am a Luddite but because certain traditions should be left alone.