Spicy noodles in Tokyo

2007-11-13
Tokyo
This is not the first time in Tokyo, I have been there a few years back at the invitation of the MITI, part of their amazing JETRO “Invest-in-Japan” program, then for NetCentrex and later for Comverse.
All visits were very interesting and revealing of different facets of Japanese culture.

My best souvenir of the JETRO visit was a tea ceremony, where we all shared a bowl of green tea prepared by the monks, taking our sip with extra-care as we were told beforehand that the bowl was very old and extremely precious. Right after it we visited a high-tech company, and to our surprise the CEO, wearing a universal business suit, revealed that he was also the master of the tea ceremony.
The preparation of the JETRO visit was impressive: JETRO knew about my company and its VoIP activities better than the French government did (In fact a year later I met an adviser from a French ministry who told me how impressed he was by Cisco VoIP deployment in Fastweb… which was in fact our deployment. I told him that Japan appeared to be better informed than he was). All meetings prepared by Jetro were well focused, targeted to the right partners, in one word a perfect organization.
My last visit with Comverse was an ‘opportunity’ to learn about the ‘sorry meeting’ tradition, a useful addition to the ‘how to say hello’, ‘how to give business cards’ crash course for the businessman in Japan.
This time I thought I had a bit more time that usual, and try to use the early morning to visit Tokyu Hands in Shinjuku, who has unique wooden crafts… but my agenda appears to not have been sync’ed properly and I need to rush back to the office for appointments with Journalists on themes of VoIP and Second Life. Being late is the one thing you don’t want to do in Japan, and I fear I’ll have to practice “sorry meetings” sooner than expected, but fortunately as a foreigner I appear to be forgiven for ‘getting lost in Tokyo’ (the official version). Each journalist, after the interview, double checks with me all numbers and proper name spelling… a practice we ought to import in Europe!
Having only a half-hour between the two journalists, I ask without much hope about lunch options (last lunch was Air France over Vladivostok). But a colleague explains that this is not a problem, we take the elevator together and walk out of the building. Facing the door are a couple white vans conveniently parked here just for lunch time, each of them with the rear doors open showing a choice of take-away trays. I go for Beef-something & rice and soon I am back in my cube with Lunch and able to process email again. Lunch break was less than 5 minutes, I didn’t need to worry !
Another lesson was the preparation of a Comverse event to take place the following day with a couple hundred customers. I was expecting the usual prep meeting: timing, who is responsible, and basta. In fact the presentation went to excruciating details: exact footpath of visitors presented on the floor plan (for each floor!), number of queues, who does what and when, who needs to greet who, to-the-minute timing of each phase, execution manual (yes, many pages manual) for each one. Wow! Jetro style organization again. Getting ready the Japanese way.
It reminds me of a crash culture course brilliantly delivered by Oded, the head of our office here, during a previous visit. He used a somewhat cynic parable of a hypothetical airplane accident happening in Israel or in Japan: In Israel everyone would rush to the direction of the crash as soon as they see smoke, using any available transportation means and bare footed if needed, to be there and try to help, but then they would just see people dying, awaiting proper medical equipment, and there would be no survivors; in Japan a planning session would be organized, examining all injury possibilities and calling-in the best experts, then mobilizing the appropriate transport and medical facilities, then get to the scene. But everyone would be dead already. I don’t know about airplane accidents, but I do know that in car manufacturing, for one thing, the Japanese way seems to work well.
I hate most big cities, but really like Tokyo. It has all of the skyscrapers of other Asian cities, which I usually find oppressive and inhuman, but when you are on the sidewalk something in the landscaping (many small trees, bushes) makes it quite pleasant. Unlike big US cities, Tokyo is really designed for the pedestrian, and there are always many people walking in every direction, but the large sidewalks, avoid the jamming of other Asian cities. Everything is clean and well maintained, every sidewalk has a specific path for the blind (and all traffic light are also equipped), the subway is extremely modern with flatscreens constantly providing updated information onboard each train, etc…
The office shows no sign of people leaving until 9PM, after which I decide to seek dinner by myself. This is somewhat of an experience, as you have to choose from a non-english menu where pictures do not always help, and order from a non English speaking waiter… the small nuddle & Japanese BBQ shop I picked is full of businessmen just out of the office, and soon I can enjoy my spicy noodles & BBQ in the middle of the unique atmosphere of ordinary Japanese restaurants: you never feel anonymous as someone always shouts something loudly as you get in, you never feel alone as you are sitting in a row next to many other people, and I suspect a combination of Kirin beer and Sake soon makes everyone sound like a bunch of Italian students partying, except I cannot understand a word. By 10PM, the restaurant is empty and starts cleaning… time to head back to the hotel.

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