Final Thoughts on Japan

Final Dinner in Kyoto:
For our final evening in Kyoto, our organizers were able to invite a Geisha over to our last dinner together. To provide context, foreigners can’t book Geishas for events (such as dinners). This was a big deal for all of us. The Geisha introduced herself, sang us a few songs for us and even taught us how to play a few games that date back eras. We ended the night with our usual photoshoot but, this time, included our new lovely Geisha friend.

Bonding and Nightlife:
With half the people on this trip being form the J-termers and the other representing Fall termers, the evenings presented the perfect opportunity to bond over sake and karaoke. From the clubs of Tokyo to the tiny pubs of Kyoto to the riverside hangouts in Kanazawa, we made the best of our evenings and met with so many locals who were kind enough to get to know us.

Final Thoughts on People and Culture:
Japan was unlike anywhere we had been to before. When I ask my Chazen buddies now about what they miss the most about the country, answers ranged from the clean streets to the kind locals to the exciting baseball games. Personally, I miss the level of respect that is deeply knitted into the Japanese culture. The way an airport worker bows to the bus filled with tourists as its leaving. The way special needs workers would lift themselves off their wheelchairs to bow to us and welcome us to their facility. It’s a different nature of respect. One that is more defined by action than words. And it positively affected us, individually and collectively, on a daily basis during out trip.

Georges Bassous is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Variety in Japan’s Professional Scene

The variety in the industries we were exposed to was a staple of this trip.

Shiseido, for example, is the fifth largest and most succesful luxury and cosmetics company. We visited Shiseido’s Global Innovation Center; which incubates a cosmetics museum as well as develops, tests and demonstrates innovative technology and products in the cosmetics sector. Given that the company’s CEO was supposed to meet with us but had last minute travel obligations, we got a personalized video message from the CEO and the Chief People Officer led the presentation on his behalf. We also received a cute parting gift from Shiseido which included some strong sunscreen; which provided to be quite valuable throughout this trip.

Omron, an industrial and robotics manufacturing conglomerate, was another interesting company visit. We specifically visited one of the company’s subsidiaries, one which only employs people with mental and physical disabilities. It was eye-opening and quite comforting to see how to facility, processes and tools were customized and designed in a manner that caters to the employees’ specialized needs.

We also got exposure to the startup scene in Tokyo; since we got to meet several startups involved in printing, logistics, education and blockchain / cryptocurrencies. Raksul for example, a Harvard Business Review case company, leverages underutilized printers using an online platform. Raksul is a unicorn and is known as the “Uber for Printers”. We were greeted by its founder and CEO, a previous management consultant, who described to us the best practices and pitfalls of launching a startup in Japan. He emphasized how the Japanese market offers Raksul unique advantages, as well as challenges, that would not be easily replicated in foreign markets. Additionally, we got a bonus presentation on the founder’s other venture, a sort-of “Uber for Trucks”, and what he foresees for the future of the startup scene in Japan. Given that a significant portion of one’s identity in Japan is tied to the company he / she is working for, this normally de-incentivizes young individuals from starting their own company. However, this trend is progressively shifting and we can therefore expect more superstar entrepreneurs stemming from Japan in the coming years.

Georges Bassous is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

The Art of Purification and Subtraction

The Japanese believe in the art of purification; whereby an emphasis is placed on physical and mental cleanliness and emptiness. Another one of their core values is the art of subtraction; which constitutes the origins of modern-day minimalism and is quite focused on simple / practical design. The basis behind these values is that cognitive virtues, such as creativity and empathy, can be achieved (to the greatest extent) only in the absence of clutter and distractions. These values can be seen across Japan in practice, from the ultra-clean streets and public bathrooms to the neatly designed buildings and products.

Given that culture made up such an integral part of the Japanese business scene, checking out some of the landmarks in Japan was a must. We decided to visit the famous shrines and temples of Tokyo, Kanazawa and Kyoto. Although there were quite a few tourists and students around these majestic areas, we were still able to get our souvenirs and photoshoots in.

Our most memorable cultural highlight, however, was the mediation session we had at one of the most iconic buddhist temples in Kyoto. Our meditation session was led by an influential monk; who is very well known for his TED talk on meditation and his many lectures on mindfulness at some of the top U.S. schools (such as M.I.T and Stanford). He also showed us around the temple garden and explained to us the monks’ responsibilities as well as the theological bases behind their spiritual practices.

Georges Bassous is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Business & Pleasure in Japan

In Tokyo, one of the founders of the Teamlab design studios took us on a private tour of their HQ office and flagship museum. Every room in that museum was unique and left us in awe. At each stage of the tour, the co-founder explained to us his philosophy behind integrating technology with art as well as the company’s plans going forward. It was interesting for us to meet such an eccentric business person. He was homeless for most of his life and was working across the Middle-East to make ends meet. His views on life and his journey to-date took us off-guard but inspired us.

The CEO of SEGA greeted us at their HQ and involved a thoughtful discussion on the trends in the gaming industry as well as the challenges associated with launching the SONIC movie in partnership with Paramount. Following the event, we got to visit and try out the company’s Virtual Reality games alongside Berkeley Haas MBA students.

That evening, we gathered on a boat to have dinner and sing some karaoke. The captain had grown up in Hawaii and had an amazing voice. He kicked off the karaoke until we eventually decided to join him and, of course, take over the stage.

The next day in Tokyo, the CFO of the SoftBank group greeted us at their HQ offices. The discussion mostly focused on the group’s $100 Billion Vision Fund; which is larger than all of the VC funds in the U.S. combined. The CFO went over the most interesting and impactful startups in their fund portfolio, across a variety of industries, such as Uber and OYO.

The CBS alumni event took place at Japan’s most prestigious business school and one of our organizers’ alma mater. The event involved a presentation on Japanese culture and norms. This was followed by an alumni panel moderated by a Mckinsey & Co. partner and involving several CBS alumni who founded their own startups and VC funds. To finish off the evening on a high note, the CBS Japan alumni kindly took some time out of their busy schedules to get to know each and every one of us.

Georges Bassous is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Off we go to Tokyo

Between the formal pre-trip meetings, the sushi socials and the offline planning sessions, I’ve come to notice that all 40 Chazen participants have one thing in common: This is everyone’s first visit ever to Japan.

Avec son rouge éclatant et son allure de tour Eiffel, la tour de Tokyo est l'un des symboles de la capitale nippone

At this point, we don’t know what to expect. We’re aiming to cover three major regions – Tokyo, Kanazawa and Kyoto – in under 10 days. There are some amazing company visits lined up, such as a meeting with the CFO of the largest fund in the world “The SoftBank Vision Fund”. Additionally, this marks the Japan Chazen Trip’s 30th anniversary and the organizers are putting together some exceptional events to solidify this milestone, such as a private tour of Japan’s famous Virtual Reality studio “The Tokyo Teamlab”.

Quite a few of us are so impatient that we’re planning to be in Tokyo four days before the trip officially starts. We’ve already organized a dinner at the iconic “Robot Restaurant” and have six learning teams assigned to research each of the lined-up companies. It’s not everyday that MBA candidates get to personally meet the leadership teams of some of the most influential organizations in Japan and globally. As such, the purpose of the learning teams is to come up with questions that would drive the discussion forward and provide us with industry insights we would not normally get in the classroom.

On a final note, I authentically believe that this trip will foster new lifelong friendships. The 40 participants represent both first and second year, Fall and J-term, students and it seems that people are really excited to get to know each other going forward.

Georges Bassous is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

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.




– 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

Japan 2017 – An Epilogue

It’s now been over two weeks since our trip to Japan as part of the Spring Chazen Tour. It seems as if it were a whirlwind of a dream. Yet I am surrounded by reminders of the awesome experience as I sip the macha tea that I had purchased from Kyoto, looking at the cute light up miniature car from the Toyota factory, and treating myself to a sake face mask from Tokyo.

As a second year, my time at CBS is sadly coming to an end. I reflect not only on my time in Japan but my time in general in this crazy thing call business school. I’ve been fortunate enough to have gotten to do a lot of things that I would never dream of during my time here. But at the very top of my list of business school experiences would be Chazen (both participating as well as planning a study tour) as well as orientation week as a Peer Advisor. For the first years out there, I highly recommending doing both at least once during their time here. Though completely different, doing a Chazen Study Tour as well as being a PA are similar in that both are completely immersive, at times intense, dynamic, and extremely rewarding experiences. You not only get to know a lot of your classmates on a deeper level, but you also learn a lot about yourself. Being in a totally new country and culture on a Chazen study tour can reveal a lot about who you are; your preferences, tastebuds, lifestyle, and friendship dynamics in a foreign setting. Being a PA puts your leadership style to the test and helps you discover what kind of group dynamics and culture to build from scratch. And if you’re lucky enough to plan a Chazen study tour, it’s like being a PA in a totally different country for a whole week. I highly recommend it!

Thus I conclude my blog series with a big smile on this great adventure that I was able to book end with my experience at CBS. Big thanks for the organizers of Japan Section B, Shohei, Yu, Asumi, Yohei, Tomo, and Masu for making us feel so welcome in their country. As a lifelong member of the CBS community, this is the practice of inclusion and the global network applied. Personally, I know I will be back in Japan soon, and I will never forget this amazing trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.

– Katherine Li F’17