The Exploration Has Only Just Begun. Thoughts on Japan from Over the Pacific.

Sadly, this will be my last blog post from this trip to Japan. I’ve greatly enjoyed writing these posts, which have helped me take stock of this 10 day extravaganza. Hopefully they’ll also serve as a collective memory for all the trip participants and as entertainment for those that stumble across it on the web. Amusingly, I’m also writing it from an ANA flight bound for NYC—something that is much more meaningful after meeting with the company’s head of strategy in Tokyo.

I think I speak for all of my fellow travelers when I say that we have only barely scratched the surface of what Japan has to offer. In a whirlwind 10 days we met with 5 companies, visited 4 cities (Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya and Tokyo), spent 1 night in a Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), and sang karaoke more times than I can count. We couldn’t have done any of this without our fantastic trip organizers Ryota-san, Yoshi-san, Mari-san and Ken-san. For those that aren’t familiar with how CBS Chazen trips work, 1st and 2nd year students from Japan (and other countries, respectively) actually organize and lead each of the trips for the benefit of their classmates. The effort our peers spent on this is a labor of love that all of us will remember for years to come.

Learning about Japanese business was one of the principle goals of this trip, and I think we got a great view of Japan, Inc.—from storied companies like Toyota to rapidly growing global behemoths like Fast Retailing. The message I took away from this is that Japanese companies are adapting to the aging of Japan by looking abroad for new markets and, on occasion, ideas. Going “global” is a process that many Western companies started a while ago, and some Japanese companies have done with great success (Toyota, Sony, etc.). But every company we spoke with wanted to aggressively ramp up its efforts on this front (including Toyota). Further, I think our visits with Rakuten and Fast Retailing demonstrated a profound desire to change the “norm” of how business is done in Japan by moving quickly and focusing on being a global—rather than strictly a Japanese—company.
The cultural insights were important as well. We saw old Japan in Kyoto and modern Japan in Tokyo, although the distinctions aren’t so clear cut—the traditional and modern often co-exist right next to each other, with modern buildings located adjacent to Shinto Shrines. Beyond the historical monuments, however, it was the little things that stuck out. In most countries nowadays, many people speak English (or at least a derivation of English) as it is the basis for much of global commerce and culture. This is simply not the case in Japan; many people spoke a few words here and there, but it is not widespread. Despite this language gap, our large group saw nothing but friendly faces and a profound willingness to help us make the most of our trip. This ranged from help as we stared, befuddled, at maps written entirely in Japanese or at restaurants where we resorted to pointing and body language to order.

I think my experience the last day of the trip epitomized the Japan I came to know over the past week. A few of stayed an extra day in Tokyo to wander around the city a bit more. Separately, we spent the day exploring exquisitely sculpted public gardens and the hustle and bustle of Shibuya and Shinjuku neighborhoods. It is a bit cliché, but in the evening we started with a drink at the New York Bar in the Park Hyatt Hotel. Sound familiar? It should; this was where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson met in Lost in Translation. Regardless of it being a tried and true tourist spot, it was magical. Fabulous views of Tokyo’s sprawl in a swanky setting as we sipped on Japanese whiskey and listened to a jazz band play in the background. From there, it was off to the Golden Gai area. This tiny area, only a few blocks wide, is indicative of what Tokyo was like before the boom of the 50s and 60s—narrow alleyways housing dozens and dozens of bars in an incredibly compact space. Each of these bars only holds 4-5 people, an intimate setting for conversation. We chose one strictly on a whim (they had a good oldies playlist) and sat in front of our server, Mai. She spoke a bit of English, and we chatted for a few hours over drinks as she cooked gnocchi and told us her life story. Before parting ways, we took a series of photos together and received an impeccably hand-drawn map of where to eat. It was a small restaurant, buried in the back of a nearby building that clearly had not seen many tourists. The food was great, and when we told them Mai had send us the staff lit up. We had to leave fairly quickly at the end of the meal to catch the last train home, and were shocked to discover we had left too early—the staff had brought dessert (green tea ice cream and green tea Kit Kats) on the house. As we parted ways for the last time before heading back to New York, I looked up to see the bright lights of Tokyo (think Times Square, but for many blocks) and realized that I’d be back again. After this trip, I think the vast majority of Chazen Japan 2014 participants feel the same.

Thanks again to our fantastic trip organizers and my fellow students for making this trip a blast. It simply would not have been the same, or as great of an experience, without each and every one of you. And thanks to all of you in cyberspace who have followed along.

Sayonara, for now.

Jonathan Robins
Class of 2015

 

 

 

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