Arigatou gozaimasu

Looking back on the last week in Japan, I’m most surprised by just how much we were able to do there. We visited –

  • 3 cities: Kyoto, Nagoya, and Tokyo
  • 6 companies: Omron, Suntory, Toyota, Shiseido, Mitsubishi Estate Corporation, 500 Startups
  • 1 school: Hitotsubashi Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy
  • 5 temples and shrines: Shunko-in, Fushimi-inari, Kinkaku-ji, Senso-ji, Meiji Shrine

We sampled ramen, sushi, yakitori, donburi, syabu-syabu, izakaya, tempura, monjayaki, and takoyaki. And we got pretty close as a group through many nights of sake and karaoke—not to mention trying the ryokan together. We learned how to drink tea, meditate, say “thank you” and “excuse me” in Japanese, and navigate the Tokyo subway system.

We wouldn’t have been able to do so much if not for the extensive planning and thoughtfulness of our student organizers but also the amazing variety of Japan itself. So I leave Japan feeling very grateful. Fortunately, “thank you” is one of the few things I can now say in Japanese: arigatou gozaimasu.

Japan collage


A few other surprises we encountered along the way in Japan:

  1. Though you always drive on the left in Japan, pedestrians should keep to the left in Tokyo, but keep to the right in Osaka.
  2. There is no tipping in Japan, and offering a tip can be considered an insult.
  3. There are women-only cars on Japanese subways. The rule only applies during rush hour, but you will be escorted off the train if you attempt to violate it.
  4. Toto seems to have a monopoly on toilets in Japan, and Americans may be surprised by the running water sound effects, heated seats, and multitude of other buttons.
  5. Sleeping on a tatami mat is surprisingly comfortable. Sitting through dinner on a tatami mat, however, requires a bit of flexibility.
  6. Wear nice socks. You will take off your shoes a lot in Japan: before sitting down a for meal, before entering a fitting room, before entering a shrine.
  7. Smoking is allowed in most restaurants. (There are, however, non-smoking rooms or floors in hotels.)
  8. Trashcans are hard to find in Japan. Streets are not lined with trashcans, and you won’t find trashcans in most public places or in lobbies. (Hint: look for recycling bins near vending machines.)
  9. Most people do not speak English. Most restaurants, though, have an English version of their menu and/or use a lot of pictures—pointing came in handy on this trip.

 

– Lauren

Will the real Tokyo please stand up

Tokyo doesn’t just feel like a different world compared to New York, but within Tokyo it feels like there are as many different worlds as there are people.

Today, we visited Meiji shrine, situated directly between Tokyo’s busiest area, Shibuya, and the bustling neighborhood Shinjuku. But walking to Meiji shrine, you find yourself deep in a forest, with centuries-old trees to either side, no road noise, no skyscrapers in sight.

We immediately compared that peaceful and zen-like world to Takeshita Street, home of the Harajuku girls, where teenagers and tourists pack the narrow alley. The shops, hawkers, and sweets are all directly across from Meiji shrine but they feel a world away.

 

That experience of shifting from one version of Tokyo to another so quickly and so absolutely occurs again and again here. We’ve seen the “old Tokyo” neighborhood of Asakusa and the traditional Tsujike fish market but also the high fashion, modern Ginza area. We’ve crossed at Shibuya crossing, the busiest intersection in the world, and then found our inner zen at Happo-en gardens and tea ceremony.

Usually you travel in order to know a place better, but if you think you know Tokyo, I think you just haven’t seen enough of it yet.

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– Lauren

 

The fable of the three blind men, as applied to a factory

In a Buddhist temple, we talked about reality. We learned it’s etymology as we sat on round cushions on the floor with windows to our left looking out onto a garden of raked stones and wet leaves. We heard the fable of the three blind men touching the elephant: the one who touches its tail and believes an elephant is like a snake, the one who touches its leg and thinks it’s like a tree trunk, and the one who touches its ear and thinks it’s like a fan. We define our realities based on limited information, and as we practiced zen meditation we were told to seek out new information through different methods of perceiving, to listen to our bodies and to the ways our minds wander as we control our breathing. We were told to do this without judgment, without judgment for ourselves or based on preconceived notions, and to be flexible, open to the new realities we experience.

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Normally, I can slurp down ramen like the best of them

When school lets out for any break, you’ll find that every chat is filled with people asking about rides to the airport: “I’m leaving at x o’clock for JFK, if anyone wants to split an Uber.” It’s a mad dash to faraway lands, and with Chazen travel, it’s often not a question of what city you’ll fly into or when, but are you going to stop at any other countries first. I debated long and hard about adding a stop in Hong Kong or Seoul before coming to Japan for the upcoming Chazen Study Tour. Eventually, though, I decided against it. I decided that the worst of all worlds would be if I go all this way to Japan and decide the trip was too short, that my list of want-to-do’s in Japan is still too long and I can’t check Japan off on my want-to-visit list. So I decided to shake off the jetlag in Tokyo about 4 days early. So while I’m waiting for the official Chazen activities to begin, I’m writing to you from Japan already, from my small but adorable (and even luxurious feeling) hotel in Chiyoda.

I arrived yesterday afternoon, at about 2 pm local time, which is about 1 am in New York. I was excited to have arrived, so the feeling of tired hadn’t hit me yet (I am not good at sleeping on planes). I had flown into Haneda airport, where I also purchased a SIM card (tip from the Chazen student organizers) and took the easy train rides into Tokyo. And then I realized how nervous I was. This is my first time in Japan, and I wasn’t nervous about not being able to speak the language or get around (I had already experienced the genuine niceness of people helping me purchase the right SIM card and the right train ticket). I was nervous that in a country known for such respectfulness, I would inadvertently misstep. But in a new country, you will misstep, so better to do it fast and early. . . .

After checking in to my hotel, my plan was to try to stay up as late as I could, so I headed out to see the area and find some dinner despite feeling like it was 3 am. Chiyoda isn’t the hectic Shibuya crossing area of Tokyo, which we’ll be visiting later in the trip, but while it’s relatively quiet, there’s an exciting strip of shops, restaurants, and bars. While I’m usually one to try to get off the beaten path when traveling but given my current nervousness, I went into a ramen shop with a piece of paper taped to the door that said “English okay.”

Ramen shop

The server talked to me about all the different options, the spicy chili oil on the counter, the other toppings I could add, and that I should try mixing in sour cream to make it creamier (the ramen came with a piece of bread with a sour cream spread). Everything was delicious, but as soon as he set it down I knew I was never going to finish the steaming bowl (3 am not exactly being a big meal time for me usually). I tried my hardest, but I hit my limit, and eventually he said, “I guess you didn’t much care for it.” I was mortified, and I assured him I did, that it was delicious (it was!), and I told him how I had just landed. We ended up talking more about where I’m from, his prior visits to New York, and the years he lived in LA before moving back to Tokyo. He even offered, if I have any troubles, for me to stop back for help with anything. I hope that means I recovered somewhat from my misstep. But I got my mistake out of the way early, and if more come (especially before the Chazen student organizers arrive), I’ll try to recover just the same.

So today, I explored Tokyo a bit more and took a day trip to Nikko (if all else fails, repent at a shrine—see below). I’ll have one more day in Tokyo before meeting up with the group for a pre-Chazen exploration of Osaka (one of our organizers’ hometowns), and I’ll keep you updated as the official Chazen Study Tour starts Sunday in Kyoto. We have an exciting agenda that spans Kyoto, Nagoya, and Tokyo, with 8 company visits, lots of sightseeing, and plenty of sushi, yakitori, and sake.

 

 

– Lauren