By Bob Hueston on Jan 08, 2008
Flying to JapanIt's not that I had anything against Japan, or travel in general. But Boston to Japan is a long flight! I hated just having to fly six hours to the West Coast. Depending on the aircraft and the stops, Japan can mean 18 hours on an airplane. The "best" arrangement I've found is flying down to New York (less than an hour), then taking a Boeing 777 direct to Narita International Airport (just outside Tokyo). Fourteen and a half hours in your seat, inside a thin metal tube, above the clouds. You leave Boston on Saturday morning, and with the time difference you're lucky to be in Tokyo for dinner Sunday night.
I did discover that, remarkably, my iPod battery could last almost the entire flight. I also learned that sharing your playlists can be a way to break the ice with the person next to you on a plane. You can see right away that they have an iPod, and no one seems to mind if you say, "Nice iPod! What kind of music do you listen to?" My iPod has a fair mix of oldies like Simon and Garfunkle (is Billy Joel an "oldie" yet?) through current bands like Guster and Barenaked Ladies (are they still "current"?). I was actually surprised that a 13-year-old girl sitting next to me on one flight had many of the same artists on her iPod.
Hotel New Otani and AkasakaOnce at Narita, it's an hour-long train ride into Tokyo on the Narita Express. We'd normally stay at the Hotel New Otani, near the Akasaka district with its many restaurantes and easy access to rail. Whenever a large group from Sun was arriving on different flights from different cities, we'd arrange to meet for dinner on the first night at a Korean barbeque. Since you cook the food yourself right at the table, and this particular restaurant had large tables with several barbeque pits, it could handle a large crowd of wearly travelers, and it didn't matter if you wanted to eat a little or a lot, or came late, or left early to get a good night's sleep. And I think everyone gets a good night's sleep the first night.
The New Otani severed an "American" breakfast buffet. While they serve normal fare like fruit, muffins, and cereal, the two most interesting items at the buffet are french fries, and salad. Thinking about it more, french fries are really nothing but home fries cut the other way. But salad? Of course, after a few days in Japan you realize that most Japanese restaurants don't serve a tossed salad with dinner. Usually by the third day or so, I'd find myself craving lettuce and was more than willing to eat it for breakfast.
The CommuteThe main Fujitsu facility we were usually visiting is in Kawasaki, although occasionally we would meet in Kamata. We all traveled around using Japan Rail (JR) or the Tokyo Metro. The rail stations are fairly close to the New Otani, an easy walk in the morning, and a welcome walk after a long day of meetings. Traveling with the rest of the Tokyo commuters was a great (if a bit scary) experience. On my first trip to Tokyo, I momentarily got separated from the group during a transfer. I was quite lucky that I found them again quickly, since I didn't have a clue which train to transfer to, or even what my next stop was. To this day, that common recurring nightmare -- the one where you're back at high school, it's final exams, you failed to attend any of the classes or read the book, you don't have a pencil, and you forgot your pants -- has been replaced by the nightmare where I'm in an unfamiliar JR Rail station, alone, and I can't figure out which train to take back to the hotel.
Of course, getting around Tokyo isn't as bad as my nightmare. Almost all the signs have English subtitles, and most people speak at least a little English. Those that don't speak English are usually friendly and try hard to communicate with hand gestures and charades. I suppose the one thing that bothered me most about the train system was that I didn't have a complete map of the system; I couldn't figure out how to get from point A to point B if it involved changing lines. But unlike Boston with its four T lines (Red, Orange, Blue and Green lines), there are more than a dozen subway and JR Rail lines around Tokyo, and far more stations. I can't imagine the size of a map large enough to encompass the entire system.
On the Metro I was introduced to "pushers". These were very different from the pushers I knew from the New York City subway. These pushers dressed in uniforms, almost like police, and wore white gloves. At the platform, everyone lined up according to marks on the floor, in double file, one line on either side of the subway car door. When the subway train arrived, it stopped exactly on its mark, the doors opened, and a stream of people poured out between the two lines of awaiting travelers. Once the car had expunged its passengers, the two lines of people would stream into the car. As the car became full, the pushers went to work. They would gently, and very politely, push you further into the car, and push the next person in behind you. When the car was nearly fully to overflowing, the pushers would push the next person in, keeping their hand firmly on the back of the last passenger until the doors started to close. Just as the door was about to close on their arm, the pusher would pull their arm out. Not unlike the way my wife packs a suitcase.
As you can imagine, the Metro trains are crammed with people. At one point, two of us missed a stop because we were pushed to the middle of the car, pinned in the crowd, and unable to make our way to the doors for our stop. Of course, I never felt claustrophobic in the subway cars; most of my American coworkers were over 6 feet (1.8m) tall and their heads poked up above the crowd.
I very much appreciated the daily commute. I've done a lot of traveling, and for some cities the only places I've been are the airport, the hotel, and the meeting room. You never get to know a city or its people doing that. But going from the hotel to the meeting room by subway and train, with all of the other commuters, really made me feel like I was in Tokyo, seeing the sides of Tokyo even most tourists don't see.
Meetings with FujitsuMeetings were like meetings are. Long days. Small conference rooms. Presentations. Whiteboards. But in this case, they were far more productive because of the time shifting. Normally, Kawasaki is 13 or 14 hours ahead of Boston (depending on daylight savings time). I could send an email today, Fujitsu would read it tonight, and I wouldn't see the response until tomorrow. But when we were all there, in the same room, at the same time, we could discuss things, interactively. We could ask a question, discuss the answer, and come to agreement in a matter of minutes, instead of days.
When you're traveling 10 (from the West Coast) or 18 (from the East Coast) hours to get to Japan, you try to arrange as many meeting topics as you can, to get the most out of the travel time. We'd usually have at least three very long days of meetings on various topics. All in all, trips to Japan were packed with as much work as we could physically accomplish.
EveningsAfter a long day of meetings, it was back to the subway station to head back in to Tokyo. If we were tired, we'd get off the train near the hotel, and eat dinner in the Akasaka district, past the many pachinko parlors to a shabu-shabu or tampura restaurant. Other nights we'd head down to the Ginza. If things were going well, typically on the last night we'd treat ourselves to Kobe beef at a little hole-in-the-wall a couple of blocks off the Ginza called Gyu An (my coworker Roman Zajcew always ate at Gyu An when he was in Tokyo, and traveled to Japan so much that the hostess there thought he lived in Tokyo).
One night our Fujitsu hosts took us to a local dining district in Kamata, and we ate at a small Korean barbeque restraurant with only three tables, and one person who was the hostess, waitress and "chef". A very nice, and authentically Japanese place -- they didn't even have menus in English or with pictures you could point at. It was quite humorous at the end of the meal when both Sun and Fujitsu people pulled out their credit cards and started a friendly argument over who should pay, when the hostess came over and explained they didn't take credit cards; embarassed, we had to pass the hat around the table and collect cash from everyone to cover the check.
After dinner it was usually late and time to head back to the hotel room. Unfortunately, the New Otani had high-speed internet service in the rooms, I always had my laptop, and people in the US were just starting their day. On more than one occasion I was online well past 2am reading and writing emails with my colleages back home, catching up on the issues of the day, and letting them know about the progress we were making. This arrangement also meant that I could email my action items from todays meetings, people back home could work on the tasks while I slept, and I could attend the next day of meetings with several action items already resolved.