Monday, August 25, 2008

Off to Japan

I woke up this morning to the sound of heavy equipment being rolled around in the room upstairs. At least that was what I thought it was, until I took a look outside and realized that Shanghai was socked in by the ugliest thunderstorm I’ve had the pleasure to experience on this side of the Pacific.

We had a quick breakfast and grabbed a couple of cabs. It was really pouring and the lightning was pretty constant, not the best conditions when you’re planning to catch a flight. The upside was the traffic which was low and our cabbie made good use of the conditions, using the water on the roads as an effective means of hydroplaning between the trucks in the other lanes. It was pretty scary in a Shanghai taxi sort of way as I sat there in the back waiting for the impact that I was sure was coming.

Halfway to the airport Matt got a text message, one of the guys in the other car had checked his itinerary and it seems we were heading out of Termina1 1 instead of 2 as we had told the doorman to tell the cabbie. I grabbed my dictionary and started practicing the word for “terminal” until I had it down pretty well.

As we approached the airport the cabbie actually saved me the bother and asked in English where we were heading. I told him 1 and he asked a couple of more times. I pasted together my best attempt at China Eastern – our airline – and he pondered that for a second before laughing and nodding. We got to the exit ramp and he asked again, this time inquiring where we were flying to, I responded “Japan” and he said “Ri ben”, the Hanyu version. I said something back to him and he pronounced my Chinese “very good.” I responded in kind about his English.

The plane was delayed as the storm was now parked over the airport and the bolts were hitting out somewhere beyond the cargo terminal. It was loud and the sky was pitch black. We settled in the wait which extended out to about an hour before we were allowed to board.

These gates, sort in the low rent version of the old International Terminal were designed pretty poorly. You walk down two flights of marble stairs and are then presented with an option – Gate 12, Gate 14, the smoking room or the rest rooms. Very strange, and consistent with what I’d heard about this terminal – taken a certain point by the French design team and then dumped on the Chinese who had to complete the more mundane aspects. Things like rest rooms and escalators. Architecture-wise it’s a beauty. Functionally it’s a joke.

There was a bit more of a delay on the ground before we got up in the air about 2 hours late. Didn’t really matter as there was no connection to make and it was only early afternoon. So I settled in to enjoy the stir fried chicken meal passing on the bean curd desert but really savoring the piece of hard candy that tasted like a moth ball and just happened to be the proper size for a fatal aspiration.

The contrast between Japan and China was instantly visible, 10 meters off the plane. Everything was neat and orderly and well laid out and the staff was friendly and much less officious. Plus my cell phone ceased to work as Japan is on some other protocol for cell traffic. Not sure how I am going to make it for a week without my Blackberry, it being too much fun to send those exciting messages off on the spur of the moment.

Immigration was interesting - the announcements on the board were in Spanish and English, apparently for the benefit of our European visitors which surprised me a bit. It was even more surprising that I could understand the Spanish.

Like every other immigration room in the world I inched my way forward in a long serpentine before my turn came up. When it did, I had to provide fingerprints and have my picture taken. The deal on that was pretty clear – no prints and pics and you’re back on the plane to wherever you came from.

Once cleared I headed to an ATM to get some money, and a lot of it I got. 30,000 yen to be precise, as the exchange rate is 100 to 1 USD and so you carry around this giant wad of high denomination bills. We bought tickets for the train into Nagoya and managed to make it with about 2 minutes to spare.

The countryside rolled by reminding me a lot of Oregon - trees, plants, lay of the land et cetera just looked an awful lot like the area up around Astoria and pretty much like the coastal plain anywhere in the Northwest. Pines amidst a tangle of beach plum and other bushes that crowded the near horizon out to the sea shore. The killer vine of the American Southeast – Kudzu – cloaked everything in sight and seemed especially to favor the telephone and power poles. Along the way a very big Buddha sat serenely on a hillside, looking back the way we came, surrounded by tall cedars and hemlocks. I only caught a glimpse for a second as we flew by.

The train as new, clean and very comfortable. We happened to have reserved seats and ended up in the back of the car, pretty much to ourselves.

As we got closer to Nagoya, the density increased dramatically. The residential architecture was interesting, and about what I expected. Wood paneling comprised the outside walls of the houses, rolling wood doors covering the windows. Blocks of houses with those typically Asian tile roofs. Little gardens dotted the empty spaces between the homes. The occasional rice paddy presented a green like nothing I had ever seen and created a vivid back drop for a Chinese Egret that flitted between ponds. If you have a mind’s eye picture of Japan, this was pretty much it.

We entered an industrial zone with refineries and wind turbines along the coast. The city grew closer and closer.

Nagoya is a city of about 2.5 million located in Aichi Prefecture about midway between Tokyo and Osaka. It is known as the “Detroit of Japan” not so much due to urban decay, but because it is home to so many automotive manufacturers including Toyota. It’s a big, shiny, clean city, and from my room the lights extend far, far out of view. Quite a contrast to Shanghai where the vista from my hotel room is always limited by the air quality.

Our hotel, the local Marriott is very ornate and well appointed; I feel right at home. Here though you cannot buy yourself into the penthouse, it comes with status and because I mine I got the pass.

I unloaded my stuff and went upstairs for a Coke and a snack. This lounge is like no other that I frequent. It’s fancy, quiet and imparts a very urbane air. Not a place where I would want to sit with my work friends drinking beer and raising a ruckus.

Since I had come without a map, we decided to try and find one out on the street. It turns out that the lower part of the hotel tower is a shopping center; the lobby in fact is on the 15th floor. So we went down to the bottom and went back up on the escalator one floor at a time to a bookstore promised on the 11th.

I found a customer service rep and asked for help. She didn’t have much English but I was able to pretty much get my point across. She took me to the Japan section of the store, which had great guide books but no maps. So I asked for the map section and we went over there. Maps of everywhere in the world, except Japan. No problem with Mumbai, not problem with Columbus, Ohio and Dusseldorf. Just nothing local. She was quite embarrassed at her inability to help me so she ran off for a few more minutes and came back with a big smile. She’d found the Japan map section right next to where we were and lo and behold there were two good options for me.

I paid and did the odd little thing they do at the counters with these little trays that they put your money in and went back to find the rest of the crew whom we were meeting for dinner.
The concierge had recommended a chicken place nearby with a guarantee of English and good food so we headed out for a walk. We got turned around a bit and finally found the place with the help of a kind gentleman who took it as a personal duty to get us there.

We entered and followed the hostess up the stairs but were told instead to go back down – we had a private room. We removed our shoes and were shown the way to a 3x3 foot sliding panel in the wall which was the entrance to our dining area. We crawled in one after another and took our places at a low table. American Jazz was piped in and there was a remote control for the air conditioner which I set to “frigid.”

The waitress came and it was clear no English was available. After stumbling and doing pantomime and speaking in Chinese we managed to order some beers and glasses of water. She left and sent back a young man who had about 25 more words than she did, but we had better luck with him, ordering a few dishes and some specific pieces of chicken that were determined by him waving his arms (wings) and patting his legs (thighs.)

While waiting we ate the freebie cups of pickled octopus and smoked salmon.

Dinner arrived in shifts, each time the waiter would knock on our little door and we’d ask him to push the food through. First course was a cold salad consisting of greens, avocado, smoked salmon and a mayonnaise sauce. It was outstanding. Second course was saucy chicken thighs on a stick, third was wings with a dry rub and fourth was skewers of chicken pieces. All really, really tasty.

Dinner done, we decided to go and buy the train tickets for tomorrow’s ride out to the provinces where we will be working the next 3 days.

Japan is very different than China. The young people are addicted to American style and have adapted it in their own, unique and at the same time sort of sinister way. Young women with bleached blond hair and incredibly tall spiked heel shoes. Boys with Emo haircuts and oddly patterned clothes. Big knit ski caps seem to be very popular despite the 80 degree heat. It’s an odd feast for the eyes. All this mixed in with hundreds of young professionals in the “uniform” – black suit, white shirt, no tie.

While walking we passed a McDonalds and checked the prices – not too far off from the US. What was different though was their signature sandwich, the Mega Mac. Three buns and six patties. Wow.

We made our way into the train station which is conveniently located in the basement of the hotel. This place seems to be the center of the universe, at least for Nagoya. We bought tickets for the 8:10 tomorrow, $25 for a trip out to the country.

And so that’s it, my first day in another country and what few observations I can recall well enough to share. More to come as things develop.




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