Been There, Done That… Tokyo, Japan

I have had the good fortune to travel all over the world—for both business and pleasure, not that those are mutually exclusive. This blog is about my unique experiences around the globe. It is not intended as a paean to the wonders of the locales themselves, as there already exist volumes that more than do justice to the magnificence of virtually every corner of this earth.  Here, I simply recount small, personal moments of surprise, embarrassment, stupidity, excitement, fear, heroics, and other stuff like that.

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Tokyo, Japan…July 1995. Stepping out through the Rosetta marble columns of Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, I found myself thinking of Oddjob, James Bond’s Oriental nemesis in Goldfinger. The hotel’s entrance columns had that same look of squared-off immovability as the squat muscleman with the steel-rimmed bowler…not terribly elegant but damn solid. I was heading out for a late afternoon jog to clear my head and get my bearings.

This was my first time in Tokyo and I had just finished an intense meeting with a Japanese businessman and an interpreter. For all the traveling I had done in recent years, this was only the second time that I had required an interpreter, the other being in Barcelona at a meeting with the head of a small Spanish agency whose Gothic offices overlooked Las Ramblas, the city’s eclectic pedestrian promenade. The Barcelona meeting had been a delightful introduction to the world of language intervention, thanks to the interpreter being an exceptionally pretty young woman who seemed to find everything I said fascinating. In contrast, my translator in Tokyo was an older gentleman, with a kamikaze-like focus on the job at hand. It was a trait I would find repeatedly in my dealings with the Japanese over the next few years.

I had arrived in the land of the rising sun to intermittent bursts of pouring rain that whipped up an impressive level of humidity reminiscent of the Baltimore summers of my youth. I was, however, reasonably acclimatized, thanks to Tokyo being my final stop on a two-week excursion that had already taken me to Kuala Lumpur, Brunei, and Jakarta.

Tokyo is a fascinating city—huge, dynamic, expensive, exciting and, at least in my experience, quite insular. There is a definite sense of “Japanese only” throughout. I say this not just in the context of language. The Japanese are not easy to communicate or interact with, but they do at least make it relatively easy for a foreigner to get around.

The “bullet train” is beyond smooth; the taxi cabs, with their seatback doilies (I hadn’t seen those since the ‘50s) and driver-controlled automatic door openers, are a trip in their own right; and the subways, literally stuffed to their spotless gills with passengers by white-gloved attendants, had destination maps that even I could understand…at least, once the hotel concierge gave me a bit of a heads up about Tokyo’s diverse neighborhoods, four of which were of particular interest to me.

To keep the four somewhat straight in my head, I did a little translating of my own, compartmentalizing each in “New York terms:” the Ginza was Fifth Avenue—expensive shopping, really expensive shopping; the Shibuya was Times Square, albeit with what seemed even larger neon billboards creating a man-made aurora borealis; the Harajuku, considered a “fashion and fun” area where every young person I saw seemed to be on or slightly beyond the cutting edge of style (multiple NYC neighborhoods could vie for this one), and the area where one of my franchise restaurant clients (on whose behalf I was in Tokyo) was located; and, finally, the Roppongi, broadly distinctive for its Tokyo Tower, but personally interesting as it transported me back to the aimless Greenwich Village wanderings of my ‘60s college days.

Indeed, it was in the Roppongi that I felt some connection to the Japanese locals. At one point, I walked into a small 7-Eleven type store in search of a candy bar (I’m a notorious chocoholic, especially when aimlessly wandering late into the night) and was approached by a young couple who spoke no English and whose charades-like communication seemed to suggest their desire to have a picture with me. Or did they want me to be in a picture? I realize that this is going to sound odd to anyone other than my wife, who knows that I reduce many personal experiences to scenes and dialogue from the movies, but so be it.

I found myself flashing back to a scene from Midnight Cowboy, the great Dustin Hoffman/Jon Voight film from the late ‘60s. In this particular scene, the lead characters are approached by two avant-garde artist-types randomly handing out invitations to a Warhol-esque party that night. (My wife, Sande, says I really have to get over this movie thing, but I can’t help myself.) Anyway, back in Tokyo’s Roppongi, I did not receive an invitation to a party, but I did feel just a tinge of Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame (Japanese 7-Eleven style), thanks to the intense interest of this rather bohemian, heavily pierced, and most likely stoned young couple.

Over the coming years, I would return to Tokyo in the company of the Japanese head of marketing for my Luxembourg-based Japanese client, TDK Europe. We would have business meetings in TDK’s Tokyo headquarters office, followed by a business lunch or dinner, before my client would excuse himself to depart for the Tokyo outskirts to see his ailing mother, leaving me free to do other agency business, further explore a great city, and wonder what the hell was actually said and agreed at my meetings.

Notwithstanding its cultural challenges, I’m glad for my Tokyo experiences…from my first flight in to my last train ride out.

That first flight in was via the infamous approach to Narita International Airport that all but sideswiped surrounding apartment blocks. “Pay careful attention, ladies and gentlemen,” the pilot advised, “ and you might just be able to make out what television programs are being watched inside.” He was not exaggerating.

And the last train ride out? Well, it wasn’t “the bullet.” For reasons I’ve long since forgotten, I ended up on a local…and I’m glad. It not only gave me the opportunity to peak over the back fences of Tokyo’s heavily congested outskirt neighborhoods but sat me across from a couple of young Japanese children who giggled merrily at our mutual attempts to bridge the language gap. Sweet!

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