Sunday, July 09, 2006

Japan - after 23 years



My first overseas trip was to Japan in 1983. Since then, I visited this place few times, but this month trip took me to the very places that I had touched in 1983. Akiabara, Shinju Ku – electronic and business district of Tokyo, Narita Airport, Mount Fujii, Lake Hakone, Tokyo Station, Bullet Train etc. In all these years, not much has changed with the exception of the products displayed in shops. Instead of TV sets, Walkman – they have IPODs, Mobiles and Play Stations. Buses now take you right at the top of Mount Fujii instead of a steep climb amidst sulphur induced geysers. Pirate ship at Lake Hakone remains same and so is the precise meticulousness of Japanese people and their criss- cross of metro train system.

In today’s global marketing scenario, taking important customers to foreign jaunts is not so un-common and so is getting intoxicated till wee hours, hoping to reach for that elusive precious thread of business relationship. But what if after walloping in Japanese hospitality if your customer gleefully plunges fully naked in the hot water bath and you join him – naked as well – alongwith host of known and unknown bodies. A unique Japanese ‘onsen’ experience that will bond you forever with your customers. After all, there is no longer any secret between you and your customer!! Traveling to the North of Japan at Odate city in Akita Prefecture and staying at Ryoken – Japanese style hotel –amidst sprawling rice paddies, lush green mountains , being in hot water pool followed by sushi +sashimi dinner with liberal gulps of sake in Japanese settings of tatami mats, white paper window shades with kimono strapped waitresses at your service; revived my initial 23 year old memories doing the same at the sprawling guesthouse at the Mount Fujii. The only thing I didn’t do this time was to sing and burst crackers.

Size of hotel rooms appeared little bigger even though physical dimension remained the same. This is because of flat screen wall mounted TV, foldable automatic ironer and bed with built in alarm clocks. One can still easily stretch arm and reach for TV buttons. Computerized remote touch pad controlled toilet seats are now a defecto standard. But Toyo (manufacturer) is losing its monopoly of the market. Refrigerators with cans loaded horizontally- look more like mini nuclear reactor - have automatic sensor that bills as soon as you take a can out. Pay channel TV no longer works with coins; one can walk in the hotel corridor and buy a pay card. Haneda airport hotel is along the runaway and yet one doesn’t even hear a thing as aircrafts fly across the window. But at US$300 per night it’s probably the most expensive airport hotel I may have stayed.

My rudimentary Japanese language skills made me initiate conversation with fellow Japanese passengers who often are reticent when it comes to interaction with next seat neighbor. They would rather listen to MP3 or chat through SMS or catch up with lost sleep. My first neighbor at Narita Bus limousine was Korea born and Japan bred. He was returning from Germany after watching South Korea group match. His dad owned pachinko – japanese version of Las Vegas Casino in Northern Japan. Having visited Calcutta as a bag packer, India was at his heart. Young lady at Shinkansen (Bullet Train) was a student but had already traveled to many European countries as an exchange student. My co-passenger at Tokyo- Osaka flight was bi-lingual Toyota employee with a passion for culture, history and rustic lifestyle. She had been to Varanasi, Katmandu and was on way to Morocco to experience Sahara adventure. One thing was evident; interest with India is ever-growing despite technological prowess and imitation of American lifestyle. Ashoka – Indian restaurant in Ginza is no longer operational but replaced by host of others all over in major cities. The one in Shinju Ku has many branches and food is excellent. Thali would be Yen 2700 – sample of chicken + vegetable dish with long Nan – can get more sumptuous if one can charge on company account.

Kunikoniya – huge book store is another of my favorite. The other chain of reuse of books at 100,200yen has more Manga comics. I was told about sex store chain at the corner that would have database of all women in the vicinity but I had no interest in them after witnessing Minami Kashiwa clubs 23 years ago that redefined nudity in modern society. Narita airport ride through limousine through scenic greenery was as luxurious but what is remarkable is the passengers eschewing the use of mobile for the benefit of fellow passengers.

Innovation is the spirit of Japan and one has to have sharp eyes to spot it in everyday life. Sun glasses with MP3 player must be rage with bike drivers so is the heater controlled handle on bikes. A look like manual pencil sharpener- is a tiny portable generator that charges mobile phone battery. Five minute of spinning would charge mobile for 20 minutes. I wonder if Chinese - have already forayed power strapped Delhi market with this innovative creation.

Jack Welsh and Richard Branson in their biographies extolled the passion of work that Japanese possess. My customers – for whom this was the first experience completely floored by Japan- its people, discipline, culture and their passion to stretch to an unbelievable limit to make customer satisfied. A sight of Japanese smoking a cigarette in a corner holding his cigarette pack below his chin to gather cigarette ash ; A person at bus depot or air terminal checking the baggage tags to the last digit before he hands over the bags ; Bullet Train stewards hostess turns around and bows as she reaches the end of compartment - make an indelible imprint about their sense of belonging towards their job ,community and customers.

Today, technology is imitated before it even reaches customers. Japan has no longer possess competitive edge in consumer and entertainment industry. Automobile to some extent can sustain but depleting oil reserves and expensive electric cars will be a stumbling block. Where doe Japan go after another 23 years? I asked this question to my colleague. His answer was the same as that of mine. ‘Space Exploration’ would be a way for Japanese Juggernaut built on technological prowess and innovative spirit. But I do hope, by then, Japanese don’t dilute the use of Japanese Language, Cuisine while being overzealous about Hollywood movies. Mac burgers and Christian style weddings.

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