Japan and Back, Quickly

Early on Monday, April 16, I got a call from a new consulting client.  After a brief conversation about an urgent need for research, we determined that the best way to meet that need was for me to fly to Tokyo and dig out the needed information.  So 24 hours later your scribe was on AA175 bound for Narita Airport.  I travel a lot, but it had been nearly 20 years since something arose that quickly, and it was more than a little exciting.  The client sprang for Business Class, sweet.  My seatmate was a 75-year-old Japanese-American who emigrated to College Station, Texas about 40 years earlier.  It’s a long ride to Japan, just under 13 hours, so I settled in.

It was, I’m sure, the confluence of a couple of Kirin beers, Beethoven in my ears, snow-capped Rocky Mountains out the window, and the joy of flight that propelled me to jot down this passage from the book I brought along, Half Broke Horses, a wonderful memoir of a strong-willed woman in the American West in the first decades of the last century.  Seeing an airplane for the first time while riding home (hundreds of miles) on her horse Patches was a pivotal moment.  Once back with her family, she wrote:

Another thing that airplane made me realize was that there was a whole world out there beyond ranchland that I’d never seen, a place where I might finally get that darned diploma.  And maybe I’d even learn to fly an airplane.

Lily acted on that belief, all through her life.  It’s a remarkable book.

We landed in Tokyo early, before 1:30 p.m.  I stopped to say hello to my old friend Masahiro Arimizu, American Airlines’ general manager at Narita.  Arimizu-san is a great fellow, easily the “dean” of airline people at that busy airport.  Hopped on the Narita Express train and rode into the city, past the main station to the busy district of Shinjuku, a few miles west of downtown.  Walked about a mile to my digs (which I booked the night before on Expedia, at a totally great price for a hyper-expensive city), the E Hotel on Meiji-Dori Avenue.  The place was quite new, the room was compact but spotless (the bathroom was like you find on cruise ships), and the wi-fi was fast and free – though only in the lobby, which was where I ended up spending a lot of my time.  It became my Tokyo office, and I got quite friendly with the young check-in staff.

A civil and orderly society: small queue, Tokyo Metro, 9:30 on a Wednesday night

Showered and got to work with some research preparations.  About seven I headed out for a walk and onto the Tokyo Metro, south and east to Omotesando and the wonderfully designed and upscale urban shopping mall called Omote-Sando Hills.  Walked the place a bit, then headed into Ramen Zero, a simple noodle shop last visited with son Jack in 2007.  I had some dumplings and a big bowl of steaming noodles (no relation to the 6 for $1.00 stuff that sustains thousands of college students).  Prior to the meal I donned a black bib, to enable relatively free slurping.

Fancy handbags at Omote-Sando Hills

Wednesday dinner, Ramen Zero, Omote-Sando Hills

Despite my best efforts to manage the 10 time zones across the Pacific, I slept poorly, only about four hours.  Was up at first light, about five in Tokyo in the spring, dressed, down to the lobby to work e-mail, then out the door at seven in search of Japanese breakfast.  I found it two blocks down Meiji-Dori, at Yayoiken, a low-priced but very comfy chain restaurant.  You order and pay on touchscreen terminals by the front door, 490 yen (about $6.50) for a nice variety.

Automated meal-ordering. Unlike the Tokyo Metro, no English screen option, so it took awhile to get the sequence (cash, choice, change)!

Yes, that’s a raw egg.  You’d be concerned in the U.S., but Japan takes food purity and quality very seriously.  Dried seaweed, yum.  And free refills on rice.  What could be better.  Hopped the Metro into downtown, had a couple of cups of strong (and pricey) coffee, attended a meeting at 9:15, then headed back to the hotel, setting up appointments for the rest of that day (Thursday already) and Friday.   Getting off the Metro downtown, I was reminded of how well signposted Tokyo public transport is; it wasn’t always that way – on my first trip in 1993 almost every sign was only in Japanese.  The level of detail today, in Roman characters, is outstanding.  It makes getting around a breeze.

Detail, ceiling of main building, Hanazono Shrine

At 11:45 I set out for lunch with another former AA colleague, Wesley Stockstill, their marketing director for Japan.  American has moved its offices from the center to the Shinagawa district and a high-rise office complex.  They’re now in the same building as their joint-venture partner Japan Airlines.  Wesley showed me the new digs with some pride, introduced me to lots of people.  He, a manager named Robert Hayashi, and I then repaired to a tempura place for lunch and a long conversation about the business.  Wesley and Arimizu-san were very helpful in my research quest.

Play ball! This was lunchtime Thursday, a baseball diamond in the canyons of the Tennozu Isle office complex, adjacent to Japan Airlines' corporate headquarters

Japan is a conserving society, nicely illustrated by this bike delivery cart of Yamato, a local delivery service

Was back in Shinjuku by 3, on a mission to find a shop to replace my watch battery, which died on the flight west.  Ordinary errands typically take a lot longer overseas, but this was a relatively zippy affair – up to the 5th floor of Bic, a big electronics store, hand the watch to a technician, and in 10 minutes my timepiece is ticking again.  Nice!

Tokyo has banned smoking on the streets, indicated by the sign above these pedestrians. Nor surprisingly, compliance is high.

Japanese contemporary architecture has made enormous strides in the last 30 years, and new stuff is really interesting, as in this brand-new apartment building a block from my hotel.

Back to the hotel for some work and a short nap.  Out the door at 6:30, south and east to the Azabujuban district, and a rendezvous at the top of the escalator for exit 4 of the Metro station with business-school chum John Vanderbrink and his wife Donna, who I try to see when I visit Japan.  They’ve lived in Tokyo since 1984, and have lots of insights.  We had a great dinner and a good yak, hopped back on the subway, and off to sleep after a long day.  John was also very helpful in my research quest, and brought along some helpful reports as well as a link to a trove of online data.  I could not have gotten the job done without all these locals; I was so grateful.

Another endearing aspect of a civil society: free and spotless public toilets; have you seen anything like this in a subway or railway station anywhere else in the world?

The second night was more restful, but hardly my usual eight hours.  Was up again at dawn, down to the lobby to work my e-mail and the internet, back to Yayoiken for breakfast, and then to work.  The data was starting to come together.  Worked in the lobby all morning.  Headed out to lunch, then onto the Metro and to the offices of the Ministry of Justice.  There were a few remaining chunks of data that I knew were inside the building.  The trick was to get inside.

Ministry of Justice

I had seen and admired the building on many previous visits.  Designed in the 1880s by two German architects in a late-baroque style, it perfectly symbolized the opening of Japan to new ways and new ideas during the Meiji period.  The contract security man at the front gate stopped me.  To my amazement, an English-speaking guard appeared a minute later, and I began my charm offensive, speaking slowly, smiling (that I had on coat and tie was helpful, too).  I showed him a document (in Japanese; I was beginning to understand some basic characters) similar to one that I sought.  I suggested perhaps he could call the library.  He did, and after a few minutes asked me to call a number inside.  I was making progress!

A few minutes after that, a young man from the library appeared.  He spoke no English, but invited me to follow him.  Hooray.  Once inside the library, there were friendly librarians, but still no one speaking English, so with charade, pantomime, and showing the Japanese document I used with the guard they understood what I needed, and efficiently produced four bound reports from the 1990s.  Eureka!  I was so elated that I immediately snapped their picture.  In ten minutes, not including fist pumping, I had what I needed.  Headed back to the hotel, took a quick nap, and was able to finish and send the report to the client by 6:00.  Done.

Librarians, Ministry of Justice; it's a little blurry, but you get the picture!

It was time to celebrate, just a bit, so I jumped on the subway and rode east and north to the Asakusa neighborhood and the Kamiya Bar, which opened in 1880.  I had tippled there in December 2003, and remembered its location, almost directly above the Asakusa Metro station.  Since the earlier visit they had instituted a pay-in-advance system, so I lined up to buy tickets for two dark beers, and sat down at a table, opposite two fellows, friendly but a bit in their cups, with fluency in my language roughly equal to mine in theirs.  I got well caught up with The New York Times on my iPhone.

About an hour later, Toshita Masuyama sat down next to me.  He spoke great English, and thus began a wonderful Talking-to-Strangers encounter that lasted well over an hour.  Masuyama-san was 75, a mechanical engineer by training, fan of photography, opera, and the visual arts (he had visited New York in 2011).  I ordered another beer and some fried octopus for dinner.  Two ladies, both 64, sat opposite.  They had recently retired from long careers with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.  The T-t-S string continued when they left and were replaced by a young plastics engineer, from Saitama west of the city.  It’s not far, but this was his first time in Tokyo – we laughed when I told him I had been there at least 10 times.  Toshita and I rode back toward Shinjuku together; I peeled off and he headed for the Shinjuku railway station and his suburban train home.  On the way to the hotel, I thought about something he told me: when he was seven, he came home from school one day and his house was gone, burned.  He didn’t say any more, for I knew that in 1944 U.S. bombers were pounding Tokyo.  And it reminded me of something I wonder about each time I visit the Japanese: how to reconcile their current pacific nature with the belligerence and uncivil behavior that characterized them in the first four decades of the last century.  A couple of scenes from the Kamiya:

Toshito Masuyama

Your scribbler with a Japanese friend (Photo courtesy of Matsuyama-san)

I slept really hard, but woke up early again – my mobile rang twice a little after five.  Caller ID said “Blocked,” so I ignored it.  But I was awake by then, so I showered, dressed, and headed to my lobby office.  “Blocked” called again just before six, and that time I answered.  It was the NYPD calling, specifically Officer Fitzsimmons’ supervisor.  Who?  Readers may recall my account of the policeman using really coarse language outside Penn Station on March 14, and my sending in a complaint on an online form.  I received a couple of e-mail acknowledgments in the week following submittal, but thought that was the end.  Not so.  I was pretty impressed that my online grousing actually made its way to the offender’s boss, and even more so that he called me to apologize.

At 6:15 I headed across the street to McDonald’s for a cup of good (and inexpensive) coffee, then back for a third Japanese breakfast at Yayoiken.  I was becoming a regular.  Back to the hotel for some last work, packed up, checked out, and headed across town to Ueno Park, a green lung north of downtown, and adjacent to the station for the Keisei Railway to Narita Airport. Put my suitcase in a locker and headed into the park.  There were still quite a few cherry blossoms, gorgeous.  One tree had nearly-white blooms on one side and pink on the other.  It was 9:00, and the park was fairly quiet.  A baseball team was warming up on a diamond.  School groups, kids in uniform, were arriving.

Thick cherry blossoms, Ueno Park

Morning practice, Ueno Park

I was headed to the Tokyo National Museum at the north end of the park, to a special exhibition of masterpieces of  Japanese art from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  I spotted a poster for the show on a platform at Shinjuku station and immediately decided that would be a good way to spend Saturday morning, before heading to the airport.

The show was colossal, stupendous, eye-popping.  You may know that after Japan “opened up” in the middle of the 19th Century, Boston and New England more broadly became a significant trading partner, clipper ships plying the long route across three oceans.  Yankees began to buy art.  And to my delight, about 100 works had temporarily made their way back.  The show consisted of paintings, ink drawings, a few sculptures, robes, and swords.  A panel for the latter two noted that “swordmaking and textile arts were born out of the same exceptional technical proficiency cultivated by the Japanese . . .”  It’s a proficiency that endures, of course, as a signal quality.  All of it was eye popping, but I gave “best in show” to about ten remarkable robes from the Edo period (17th and 18th C.) and Meiji period (19th).  A brilliantly-finished small sword from about 1300 was dramatic proof of their advanced ability relative to Europe.  Just amazing technological prowess in a preindustrial time.  And I’d be delinquent if I didn’t call out the amazing works of Soga Shohaku (1730-81), full of energy and often whimsy, as in this piece entitled Dragon and Clouds:

I did not break the rules! This photo is of a postcard reproduction.

Some of the Japanese exhibit visitors were amused at my expressiveness, but it was hard to contain my delight at the show.  And, certainly, my pride in a cultural exchange between our two nations.

Photography was not permitted in the exhibit, and no one was sneaking a snap, so this rendering of one of the stunning robes, taken from a catalog page, was the best I could do.

I bought Dylan and Carson some postcards; normally I buy a modern scene, but I carefully chose cards with three works from the show, and I look forward to explaining the art when I next see them.

By the time I left the museum, just past 11, the park was hopping, teeming with families, young couples, school groups, people walking dogs.  There was something for everyone.  It was a place of wonder.  I paused to watch a street performer, Koji Koji Moheji, whose talents were diabolo, a yo-yo like spool that spins and is tossed on a string connected to two sticks, and bagpipe.  He was amazing (I captured video of this feats on my iPhone and sent them to Dylan and Carson).  The whole park scene hearkened to a simpler time in the past, before video games, when a lot of entertainment was in the public sphere.

Koji's audience

Koji Koji Moheji, a consummate entertainer

At noon I hopped on the Keisei “Skyliner” train, through the city and suburbs and past flooded rice paddies to Narita.  Relaxed in the Admirals Club, bringing this journal up to date, and stepped onto the Silver Bird in mid-afternoon.  Booking just five days earlier, the DFW nonstop was pricey, so I bought a seat to Los Angeles and a quick connection home.  Business Class was way too high, and even though the client was paying, I just couldn’t pay $3800 when Economy was $890.  So back I ambled, to seat 36B.  To my delight, a great fellow joined me in 36A, Lee Gamlin, a MBA student at Thunderbird, the small, internationally-focused B-school in Phoenix.  We hit it off immediately, and the ride home was really like T-t-S on steroids.  The son of a German mother and an African-American father (he described them as “a really funny couple,” the adjective meaning different, not humorous!), he grew up in Germany, went to high school in suburban Denver, and undergrad at the University of Chicago.  Yep, a smart young man.  We yakked until we took off, then I finished Half Broke Horses, and slept pretty well, five hours at least.

Lee Gamlin

We were eating breakfast off Monterey on the central California coast when we banked left and the flight attendants hurriedly collected trays.  There was a medical emergency, and we were diverting to San Francisco.  It was a reasonably quick stop, but the zippy connection in L.A. was lost.  On the plus side, Lee and I yakked a bunch more.  Landed at 11:45, through Customs quickly, over to the AA terminal, to the Admirals Club for a needed shower, and onto the 1:35 rocket to DFW.

As I have often written, a ride above the American West is always a treat, and it was clear almost the entire way.  The Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico was a green band running through an arid brown landscape.  It reminded me of a line from Half Broke Horses, which took place entirely in desert land; Lily’s husband, Jim Smith, said, “Never take water for granted.  Always cherish it. Always beware of it.”

The Rio Grande Valley, New Mexico

We landed at 6:40 p.m., and I was home by 8:00.  A long ride, but Japan is always a fascinating to visit.

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