Friday, April 04, 2008
Wednesday, April 02, 2008
One of the nice things about living in Japan is the honesty and integrity people generally possess. A couple weeks ago, some friends and I went to the Park Hyatt in Tokyo to drink in the bar from Lost in Translation, intending to try the whiskey that Bill Murray's character advertised in the film. We accidentally ordered the wrong drink, choosing a $29-per-glass high-end whiskey, but our waiter steered us to the actual drink used in the film, which was only $19 per glass. This impressed me since he could have said nothing and gotten a larger bar tab. When fast hikari fiber (fiber optic) Internet finally came to our part of the city, I was so overjoyed I was ready to sign up for the most expensive dedicated line they had. Instead of selling me the costlier service, the NTT salesman talked me out of it, telling me that the standard shared line would be more than fast enough for us -- and he was right. Then there was the time I was shopping for a Minolta camera, the old kind with the silly pre-programmed cards that enabled certain camera effects. I was ready to buy a bunch of these optional cards with the camera, but the salesman at the store shook his head, telling me that they weren't worth the money, losing an additional sale but certainly gaining my trust.
It's a day for congratulations in Japan. The mega department store chains Mitsukoshi and Isetan are getting married, formally tying the knot in a merger that should see a combined sales of the two store chains reach $15 billion this year. The news appeals to my history-challenged American brain because Mitsukoshi has been around since 1673, when Takatoshi Mitsui opened a kimono shop in Edo (Tokyo). He brought many innovations to the business world back in those days, introducing the first customer-friendly retail shop with pre-made products sold at clearly labeled prices, an improvement over the then-common custom of making products in a customer's home after an order was received. His lowly shop would eventually blossom into the Mitsui zaibatsu (business conglomerate), involved in everything from shipping to to mining and founding Japan's first private bank -- not bad. There's some other happy news in Japan today: in Sapporo a chimpanzee named Gacha has given birth to a baby chimp. The surprising thing is Gacha's advanced age: 41 years old, or over 70 in chimpanzee years. Mother and child are reportedly doing fine.
Monday, March 31, 2008
My wife is having a challenging time right now. Our daughter starts the sixth grade in April, and by unwritten tradition parents are expected to join the school's PTA leadership for a year and do various things for the school and the community at large. These include organizing the kids walking to school into groups (called han) and choosing a group leader (called hancho, where we get the word Head Honcho from) who will be responsible for the group, especially the new crop of first graders who will walk to school with the bigger kids. The PTA also signs up neighborhood parents into "flag waving brigades," who position themselves at street corners along the routes the kids walk to school and make sure the children get to school safely each morning. My wife is in charge of creating materials to be distributed to all parents of elementary school kids in our part of the city, which involves compiling Excel documents with the names of new teachers so parents can have information on the changes for the new school year. She has several assistants, but they're not much help: as a rule, many Japanese are often happy with lower levels of technical skill than you'd generally find in the U.S., and none of the housewives in the group has a computer or knows what Excel is, making a lot of extra work for her.
The Season of the Sakura has come to Japan, and all throughout the country cherry trees are exploding like beautiful fireworks. One of my favorite Japanese traditions is hanami or flower viewing, which usually involves spreading a tarp under the cherry trees and having a party with your friends, drinking lots of beer and sake while the petals fall all around you. Flower viewing has been popular in Japan since the beginning of its written history, with the first hanami recorded in the Nara period (710-784), although the word initially applied to viewing of ume or plum flowers, which are also pretty. (Flower viewing is also mentioned in the Tale of Genji.) Because the window for cherry blossom season is so narrow -- in another week the sakura will have been scattered to the four winds -- it can be difficult for people living outside Japan to plan a visit, as unseasonably colder or warmer weather can move cherry blossom viewing season up or down in the calendar. Fortunately, Japan is oriented quite vertically, so if the cherry blossom season has ended in the Tokyo area, for example, you can travel farther north and catch the flowers at their best in some other part of the country. If you're not lucky enough to be in Japan during this time of year, maybe you can still enjoy Japanese cherry blossoms, as many cities (Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Vancouver) have great spots for viewing sakura, too.