We’ve been back in New York after returning from Japan for a week now, and as the jet lag subsides it’s been hard to distill the whirlwind trip to Japan into a few memories. Here are 15 highlights from the trip that stand out, looking back on our week on Chazen:
1. Meeting a Maiko, a Geisha in training
Our dinner entertainment during our first night was provided by a Maiko, a Geisha in training, who danced to traditional Japanese music and answered our questions about the rigorous training that goes into becoming a Geisha. I hadn’t realized that Geishas were an official position that required training before hearing from the Maiko. She is one of just 100 Maikos apprenticing to become a Geisha. Traditionally, Maikos are between 15 and 20, and study traditional Japanese arts such as music, dance, and flower arranging.
2. Learning to Meditate from a Zen priest
The first jam-packed day of our tour began by slowing down. We visited the Taizo-in Zen Buddhist Temple, built in the 15th century, to learn to meditate. The Zen Buddhist priest condensed a normal hour-long meditation session into just 15 minutes, because, he explained, we wouldn’t be able to last one hour during our first attempt at meditation. After the meditation session, we toured the temple and its gardens, learned about Zen Buddhism, and enjoyed a vegetarian meal.
3. Visiting our tour organizer’s employer, SCREEN
Our first company visit, and sponsor company of our trip organizer Joji, provided us with a warm welcome to Japanese corporate culture. The Kyoto-based company was the perfect introduction to Japan’s business environment, where we learned that despite its 1868 establishment, SCREEN isn’t even considered to be an old company in Japan, home to some of the world’s oldest business. SCREEN has adapted over the years from its roots as Kyoto’s first printing shop to today being a leading producer of of semiconductor manufacturing equipment, flat-panel displays, and printing hardware and software.
4. Seeing robots create cars at the Toyota manufacturing plant
After learning about Toyota’s lean manufacturing in the core, we were all very excited to see the famous supply chain in action. But I don’t think any of us expected to find the plant to be completely removed of people. The first stop on the Toyota assembly line featured robots stamping, welding, painting, assembling, and molding the cars. The supply chain was making a few different types of cars that traveled through the line in a random order, and the robots knew to adjust their process depending on the car type.
5. Singing karaoke in yukatas at the Rayokan
Our night in the traditional Japanese Rayokan stood out from the rest of the week in modern business hotels: we slept on the floor, wore yukata robes (essentially a kimono to the untrained eye), and performed karaoke in Japanese, English, and Chinese. Our Rayokan was situated in a hilltop town beside a lake and above natural hot springs. Taking a dip in the natural spa provided a restful break from a hectic week.
6. Riding the bullet train and seeing Mt. Fuji
It’s hard to say what was more exciting: waiting for the bullet train to arrive at the station as we watched other “express trains” skip our stop and whiz by in a matter of seconds, or squeezing by the windows to catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji emerge through the clouds as we road the bullet train south of the storied mountain. Definitely will take any remaining ounce of thrill out of riding the Amtrak in the states.
7. Asking our most pressing questions from Nobuhide Minorikawa
Four days into our trip our group had come up with a decent list of difficult questions about Japanese culture, business, and politics. Visiting Nobuhide Minorikawa, a member of the House of Representitives and Columbia SIPA alum, provided us with a perfect outlet to ask some of our most difficult questions about Japan’s limited recognition of its wartime atrocities committed against the Chinese during World War II and why we’d met so few female business leaders.
8. Learning about robotic exo-skeletons from the CEO of Cyberdyne
At an alumni event hosted by the Columbia Business School Alumni Club of Japan we heard from Yoshiyuki Sankai, a University of Tsukuba professor who’s also the CEO of robotics company Cyberdyne. Cyberdyne’s main product is a robotic exo-skeleton that uses brain signals to control the movement of people with impaired movement. Watching videos of the product in action truly felt like a scene from a futuristic movie.
9. Walking up close to the planes on the ANA maintenance floor
On Thursday morning we visited ANA, one of Japan’s two premiere airlines, at Haneda Airport. After putting on hard hats, we toured the maintenance floor and were all impressed by how large commercial airplanes seem while standing next to them. Following the floor, we spoke with company reps about the airlines future plans, including its goal to be the main connector between the U.S. and destinations further into East and Southeast Asia.
10. Eating Standing Sushi … and lots of other sushi
From ramen to sushi to tempura, sampling Japanese cuisine was one of the most anticipated parts of the trip. For me, eating at Tokyo’s Standing Sushi was the highlight of the week’s food. At the chain of sushi bars located around Tokyo, you order each piece of fish one by one and watch as the chefs prepare it in front of the standing counter. There was certainly other sushi consumed this week – including for breakfast after the early morning tuna auction and at upscale restaurants – but for me, the casual standing bars were the highlight.
11. Learning about Englishnization at Rakuten
Our final company visit of the trip was to Japan’s largest e-commerce platform, Rakuten. After a week of meetings in business formal environments, Rakuten stood out for its Silicon Valley startup-esque vibe. We met with Kyle Lee, the head of human resources, who discussed the company’s Englishnization program, began four years ago, which mandated all employees achieve fluency in English and that all business is conducted in English.
12. Enjoying the view from the Park Hyatt’s New York Bar from Lost in Translation
As a New Yorker, I don’t often get excited about visiting locations featured in movies. For that reason, I was skeptical of the Park Hyatt’s New York Bar, featured in the movie Lost in Translation. But boy was I wrong about this place. Located on the 52nd floor of a hotel on a hill, New York Bar at night provided an almost other-worldly view of Tokyo’s urban sprawl from above. Though the Tokyo Tower that we visited the following morning has a higher observatory, it really couldn’t compete with New York Bar’s floor to ceiling views of the city lit up at night.
13. Exploring the narrow allies of Golden Gai
Tokyo’s Golden Gai neighborhood boasts then highest density of bars in the world. In the space of a few city block are narrow pedestrian allies packed with closet-sized bars. Each of the tiny drinking spots is distinctly decorated, each with just a half-dozen seats. During our visit to Golden Gai, our group pushed the seating limits at one of the small spots, where we sat in a bar under a stairwell, resembling the fictional bedroom of Harry Potter.
14. Taking in a bizarre show at the Robot Restaurant
Tokyo is renowned around the globe for its wacky-weird entertainment sensibility. Experiencing one of the city’s themed restaurants and cafes makes anyone’s list of must-do activities when visiting. For much of our group, the Robot Restaurant was the café of choice. I’d been looking forward to the café for years, after Anthony Bourdain visited on Parts Unknown, yet I couldn’t have anticipated just how unusual the two-hour variety show filled with unrelated characters and neon lights truly was.
15. Singing karaoke on a dinner cruise in the Tokyo Bay
The trip officially concluded with a dinner boat cruise in the Tokyo Bay. We ate tempura and sashimi, sang karaoke, and enjoyed views of the city’s illuminated skyline from the water. We toasted our organizers, the group of students that the Chazen study tour lottery brought together, and the country we’ve enjoyed getting to know over the past week.
Japan, Spring 2016